Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Morality and the presidency

As I watched No Country for Old Men last night, I became aware of the pervasiveness of a variation of morality that most closely approximates the ‘fun house mirror’ version of it. Javier Bardem’s character in the film is an incredible cold-blooded killer that causes everyone he meets to call him crazy. The very notion that everyone calls him crazy doesn’t necessitate that he is crazy, but we all think it. When a person goes on a killing spree, we can only think that s/he is crazy. But the film itself suggests that he isn’t crazy, and that he is operating with a different moral compass than ours. He is bound by honor (“I gave my word”) and justice, which supersede his other senses, including that so-called ‘sanctity of human life’.

But in the same way Bardem’s character is neither a hero or anti-hero, but a true villain, it is hard to consider the current president as anything resembling a hero. His condescending and patronizing approach to reporters (and therefore the entire American people) when they question his motives or his decisions is by no means heroic. His approach to policy, which almost universally runs opposite to the necessary course, is not infantile or stupid or ignorant, but what we might classify as immoral or amoral. It seems as if his moral compass runs just as differently.

I thought of Mr. Bush because Keith Olbermann announced on Monday that Oliver Stone is planning to make a movie about him. Perhaps the movie that most truly captures the spirit of the Bush presidency is actually The Godfather. Bush is a mob boss. He is well insulated. He neither deals with the day to day issues, nor does he let any of them affect his plans (this is where he differs from Bardem’s character, who not only does all of the work himself, but he makes himself the sole authority). The mob boss extends his authority to his minions.

Like a mob boss, Bush is heavily reliant on cleaners and apologists. The cleaners deal with whatever messes arise and either ‘clean up’ the mess or otherwise make it so it cannot be traced to the Boss [missing White House e-mails and convenient memory loss]. The apologists may be in no way affiliated to the Boss, but reap benefits for the assisting him. Some are tangible payoffs [the journalists that received government money for producing propaganda pieces for the administration], some receive increased contact [Bob Woodward and the Washington Press Corps that were worried that Bush would shut them out], and some do it for the political ascendency of their shared ideology [Fox News, and so called pundits and hack journalists like Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge].

The effect of the insulation created by the administration and its apologists is therefore extended to their actions. Like a good Mafioso, the actions of the administration must be defended with the same vigilance as the individuals. Bush’s two signature programs, No Child Left Behind and the Iraq Invasion, have not only failed to do what they were intended to do, but severely cripple their respective agencies from doing their jobs. Both programs have been increasingly unpopular for going on four years, and the vast majority of Americans oppose their continuation: this is more than “a few people don’t like it”, but it is in fact directly opposed by a significant majority, which makes the minority made up of all of the rest: those that are for it, those that don’t like it but deal, and those that don’t know about it. Something has to be incredibly unpopular to get these numbers.

The sad fact, however, is that the insulation of these programs has prevented their repeal. Perhaps it is the filibuster (Republicans have shattered the filibuster record already this session—which is only halfway over). Perhaps it is spinelessness on the part of both Democrats and the American people. But I think it is mostly the apologists that get an unrepresentative share of the air time, which makes it impossible to criticize the Boss’s actions, let alone the Boss.

Like a Mafioso, Bush has run the government with fear and intimidation. This is a natural component of insulation. You protect the Boss by making people afraid to criticize the Boss. You make them afraid to criticize his policies and actions. You make them afraid to go to the feds. This is the real trouble with prosecuting a Mafioso—no witnesses to testify.

For many of us, it would be so easy to call Bush an idiot or a moron; to isolate both a clear learning disability that he still possesses and his ineptitude at his position and call him unfit for the job. Many of us did just that and he managed to get re-elected. But his stupidity (justified a description or not) is the least of his sins and character flaws. His skewed morality, that wraps himself in a flag to make people think he loves his country, wraps himself in a flight suit to prove that he is both a soldier and a fighter, and wraps himself in a cross to prove that he is morally straight and compassionate to others should be seen as the morally repugnant character trait of dishonesty. We criticized his predecessor, President Clinton for stretching the truth, but show little moral outrage for Bush’s tendency to not only stretch, but obfuscate, manipulate, break and reshape, and blatantly disregard the truth. Bush has lied without remorse and with a seeming lack of conscience for his entire presidency, from the moment he called himself a compassionate conservative and was backed up by the least compassionate weasel in Washington, Karl Rove and then hired a cadre of neo-conservatives to fill his administration. Over the next seven years, he proceeded to fire (or whack, if you will) those that showed the slightest remorse for the administration’s goals.

The fear I have a Mafioso president is not the criminal activities themselves, but the ease with which the justice system is able to look the other way. That Bush will likely survive* to be a former president proves that there is no justice in Washington, and no will to serve it.

*I am referring to political survival—no NSA, I am not calling for an assassination, so don’t you dare read it that way.