Friday, November 7, 2008

Barack Obama's Victory and the Bush Legacy

Maybe the worst isn't what George W. Bush took from us. The worst is what he gave us. All the farewells from him, from Washington, from America are nothing but losses of our illusions, helplessly postponed. And the losses themselves are an illusion. For we won't be able to free ourselves from the core of things he leaves us. Conceptually, Bush has put democracies into slavery by using its constitutional vocabulary, be it “freedom” or “dignity of man“, as an instrument of his exercise of power. Farewells from the loyalty to the United States, from its apotheosis of the good life and its might, as we can read in all newspapers? Instead, we have received something we cannot say farewell to: the shameful experience of a deep unfaithfulness towards ourselves, the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, a dislocation of identity unknown in the annals of free societies.

--Frank Schirrmacher

Frankfurter Allgemeine, October 6, 2008

Barack Obama’s victory on November 4 is very real and very beautiful. It goes a long way toward helping to restore our faith in the American electoral system and in our democracy itself. It was a faith sorely tested in the last two presidential elections and especially during eight years of what may arguably have been the worst presidency in American history.

While many will feel relief that we will soon have a new president, who will hopefully restore a social contract badly tattered by the Bush administration, and that the Democratically led Congress may have the opportunity finally to do the right thing by the American people, the social, economic and psychological wounds of these past eight years will not heal so quickly or so easily.

We have been a badly abused and misguided multitude, as John Milton once described the English people under King Charles. Both as individuals and as a people we have found ourselves greatly diminished during the Bush presidency, our civil liberties, our self-esteem and our once great reputation abroad equally eroded. While the joy we may feel over our new president elect, whose intelligence, articulateness and authentic spirituality we can embrace and rejoice in, we will be compelled to confront the aftermath of the Bush years. Not since the presidency of Richard Nixon has an administration treated the American people with such contempt or exploited our good will for its own purposes, marginalizing its critics, while attempting to demonize them or destroy their reputations, and always impugning their patriotism.

The legacy of George W. Bush includes two horrific and inconclusive wars; rendition of captives to secret prisons; torture carried on and lied about in violation of the Geneva Accords and American law; invasion and occupation under false premises of a country (Iraq) that was no threat to us (WMDs never found); the prison scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; mishandling of hurricane Katrina and its aftermath; reckless fiscal policies that caused the collapse of our economy; an anti-science, anti-intellectual bias with regard to social, scientific and educational policy; denial of the threat of climate change and environmental degradation; refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming initiatives; refusal to participate in the World Court; a Justice Department that protected the Administration and worked against the interests of the American people; lack of transparency in government dealings with Congress and the public; assertion of presidential power and privilege as never before practiced, leading to an imperial presidency; withholding of documents from Congress; an unprecedented policy of preemptive wars; alienation of friends and allies all over the world; instilling fear and terror in our own people; using the tragic attacks of 9/11 to create and sustain an atmosphere of fear in the nation to enable the passing of laws that undermined individual and civil rights; rule of fear; elections based on the generation of fear; massive government spending in the face of fiscal crisis; cuts to education and human services; greatest increase in poverty levels since the 1960s; an attempt to privatize Social Security that would have created a disaster given the current market collapse; a Medicare Prescription bill that provided millions of dollars in subsidies for drug companies while offering only limited coverage to elders in need.

These are just a few of the initiatives, actions and biases that have come to define the Bush administration, as arrogant in its attitudes as it has been punitive in its behavior. Their effects have left us traumatized, not to speak of the impact upon the lives of thousands of men and women, who have served honorably, fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, sent back on tour after tour of duty without proper equipment, returning home disabled or mentally ill, only to be mistreated in government hospitals and by federal agencies. In fact, the treatment of our veterans and their families under this administration is a scandal unprecedented in our nation’s history.

How do we go about healing ourselves after such trauma? How can a deeply divided country come together again? More especially, how can we allow the perpetrators of this trauma and violence—these crimes—against their own people and others, leave office without suffering any consequences or being brought to justice? These are questions of tragic proportion and their effects will not diminish or disappear merely because we have a new president and there has been a sizable power shift in Congress. The political consequences of the past eight years are, of course, enormous, but the less obvious psychological effects are and will be more subtle and therefore all the more difficult to confront. But confront them we must if we are to heal as a people.

Melanie Wallace, whose mesmerizing post-Civil War novel, Blue Horse Dreaming, was published in 2003, during some of the worst conflicts in Iraq, has written that “postwar periods reveal the ravages of what came before in extraordinary ways, for in them the changes wrought by the experience of war—individual, collective—become apparent.”

Wallace contends that “The Civil War’s most violent aftermath was played out on the western American frontier; it was the ultimate reach of nation-building, which was overseen and directed by a government whose military, whose officers had, by and large, fought in the Civil War on the side of the victors.” She says that she was drawn to this particular period “because of its haunting complexity—it was a time of violent, imperial confrontation—and because the parallels with today are subtly transparent.”

When I speak of war here or allude to it in describing the Bush years, I do not only mean the actual wars we have fought and are continuing to fight in the Middle East, I refer also to the state of war we have lived under during the entire administration of George W. Bush. For Bush and his advisers have not only taken us to war, they have governed under an atmosphere of war, which they themselves have created, a war against both perceived enemies and the American people themselves. This has been an adversarial presidency, perhaps the most contentious one in our history, and we, the American people, have been both the target and the victims of an often take-no-prisoner approach to governing.

“All wars,” Melanie Wallace writes, “leave in their wake a form of devastation that is immeasurable, for those who fight them—victors and vanquished, both—and those caught up in them are always diminished, in some way, by the experience.” I can only hope that the healing begun by the election of Barack Obama will continue, for we Americans are deeply in need of it.

1 comment:

David said...

2) Letter from Roland Leighton to Vera Brittain (August, 1915)

Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country's Glory or another's Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shine bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.