Thursday, January 01, 2004

What's the difference? Ask a cowboy.

In the run-up to the 2000 election the big media spin was that there wasn't that much difference between the two candidates. It was the mantra of the rabid Ralph Nader when he positively chanted that Gore=Bush. While at the time, I was sympathetic to the potential for a third party in American national politics it didn't make much sense then. It was a ridiculous reactionary response to the Clinton years, where centrist Democrats had tried to move their party to political moderation from the wilderness of being prisoner to corrupt special interests. The story that the media missed of course was that the Republican party had been moving progressively to the right and using divisive social "wedge" issues to develop the politics of bigotry and greed to a new perfection. It was not a subtle point, but one blared out loud with the big-mouthed nonsense shouted by the defenders of the so-called modern conservative movement. It has come so far that Newt Gringrich, a man once reviled as obstructionist and radical in his politics has become the voice of sanity and reason itself labeling US policy in Iraq as having "gone off a cliff."

This struggle for the soul of the Democratic party would be amusing except that it is being replayed again three and some years later, with the stakes being the fundamental integrity of the United States of America. As a Republican let me be clear about two things. First there is allot of difference between G.W. Bush and Howard Dean, just as there was between Bush and Gore. Whatever illusions that Bush might have been a temperate President mindful of his lack of electoral mandate disappeared as soon as he was sworn into office. In the run-up to 911 it was clear to anyone who had eyes that Bush wasn't even making a pretense that his campaign promises were anything other than verbal honey meant to camouflage a determined uncompromising agenda. This was a radical agenda cloaked in the soothing false clothing of moderation. It was the tragedy of the nation, that allowed Americans in our wishful thinking that we could rise above our differences. It takes two to tango, and two to make a murder or a con job also. There was a very great difference indeed.

The second illusion is that Bush's victory might somehow be preferable to a Dean victory. I have no love for the Vermont ex-governor. Some of his antics might generously be called impishly humorous, and while one may speculate that such boyish charm was what captivated Mrs. Dean it is hardly a strong recommendation to the highest office in the land. At best regarding various issues Dean can be described as diffident on issues most Americans take for granted, and on others he is disingenuously advantage seeking as so many of his political ilk are wont to be. An anti-war big government liberal with a capital 'L' however is vastly preferable to a contemptible tyrant whose greatest mental association that he provokes to my mind is that of Caligula. It is not a choice between one dishonest politician and another, it is a choice between a President that I would dislike and a President who is engaged upon a campaign to weaken the very basis of the Constitution itself in his personal power grab. To call George W Bush a Republican is to spit on the grave of Abraham Lincoln, and it is a slur upon every person who dares call themselves a Republican in the land. It is not that GW Bush is a person who has my hate, he is too low and despicable a character to regard with any but the most passing derision.

These are strong words and I do not offer them without the strongest possible reason. The most recent outrage, merely one among many, to illustrate the disrepute of said base tyrant is the assertion to Diane Sawyer's question of whether there were WMD in Iraq or not, is his answer of "What's the difference." First let us be clear. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was an outrage as well as the War Powers act blatantly unConstitutional. Wars are often built on lies, because there is hardly a sane reason to ordinarily convince large numbers of otherwise rational people to brutally kill other people on whose wellbeing the health of national economies are often interdepedent upon. War is first and foremost a crime upon the people whose nation is being an aggressor, often launched for sordid reasons of personal gain at the expense of the public weal. Where they are waged for ideological reasons, they almost surely quickly degenerate into oppression and violation of the most basic standards of human decency. However, this America of ours has survived such wars. It has survived the Spanish-American war and the lies that was built upon. It has survived the obvious provocation of Japanese military response in order to justify aiding Britain in WWII. It has survived the adventures in Mexico, and the genocide of the innocent indigenous peoples of this land conducted in the name of civilization and manifest destiny. Andrew Jackson was an asshole, Polk was a walking sore on the conscience of humanity, and George Washington did not scruple at the slaughter of natives.

The collective identity of a people however is built upon certain notions, which anthropologists call myths and psychologists call fictional memories of self-identity. We don't remember things the way they were, we remember them the way we need them to be for us today. History whether individual or aggregate is always a revisionist affair, with not only the victor writing the record for tomorrow but the monday-morning quarter backs of tomorrow second guessing the less than black-and-white choices of today. In retrospect, slavery was an unconscienceable human agony and the last gasp of an antiquated agrarian pre-industrial lifestyle attempting to maintain its identity when almost all other civilized nations had outlawed the practice. At the time, with most Southerners not owning slaves but key constituencies within their economy dependent upon slave labor most Southerners choose to go to war rather than have their way of life threatened with being dismantled by what they perceived as outside aggression.

Fundamental to the psyche of being an American is what can be called the credo of the cowboy. It has its roots more in fiction like 'The Virginian' than any extended historical basis. It is these iconic examples however that people draw upon for guidance in their life in general, however and perhaps precisely because how untypical they are. We do not need the ordinary to inspire us, we require the extraordinary to steel us to deal with the ordinary instead.

The myth of the cowboy can be summarized as follows. A cowboy defends against rustlers and greedy cattle-barons. A cowboy does an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, and he keeps his word. When violence is necessary, a cowboy is slow to draw and indeed it is a point of honor to let the other fellow draw first for it is by their willingness to shoot first and ask questions later that one identifies the truly unscrupulous. In the wild west, there was little law and what little there was favored the politically connected and monetarily powerful. The common person was often caught between brutal predation by criminals and ruthless exploitation by men not unwilling to bully people with hired guns. The ideal of a person who was willing to stand up against theft, could be trusted to conduct themselves properly without supervision, and was willing to speak up and take action against powerful interests was important to sustain the hopes of ordinary people in the middle of an environment that often betrayed their hopes.

Much can be written about the mythos of the cowboy. Most of what has been written recently has been less than flattering, casting it unfairly in the light of a justification for colonization and genocide. The reasons for the importance of such a myth are more complex however. It is not for nothing that 'Gunsmoke' was the longest running US TV serial by a long-shot. The last point, that the cowboy does not draw first is the most important one here. It is also a particularly cogent critic given that GW Bush has willingly taken upon himself the mantle of the Westerner, the Texan, and not undeliberately the cowboy itself.

In the myth, the good guys don't draw first. They always calmly wait until they draw out the dastardly villians lose their cool and attempt to gun down the unoffending good guys. It is at that moment, that the good guys then draw their guns and in the clear sureness of their moral superiority gun down the villian proving not only their righteousness but their superiority of force as well. Good guys don't need to pull leather first is the clear implication. It is an ethic that has informed TV depictions of violence however unrealistic through the years, and is often the dramatic highlight of the climatic showdown of many an action movie arranging in one fell stroke the downfall of the wicked and the vindication of the guys wearing white. Moral clarity has been a supposed virtue this Administration has aspired to, making its hypocrisy all the more objectionable after the fact.

However unrealistic, this myth which is another word for code of honor or defining truth is one that is deeply enshrined into the American psyche. Actual history departs from this code of honor quite considerably, but enough truth to it remains to resonate in the American memories of Pearl Harbor, 911, the Declaration of Independence, and all other American historical accounts of how they as a generous but stern people have been reluctantly drawn into armed conflict by the unjust provocation of others. Whether or not it is always true in detail, it is a truth that Americans have always been proud to both aspire to and be known by. It is at the heart of what often goes unsaid but is nonetheless essential to American character. As defining truths go, it is one that does more good than harm.

The problem is that this ethic has been violated egregiously by the man pretending to be President of the United States of America. His indifference to this issue can be summed up to his response of "What's the difference?" to the issue of whether or not Iraq actually had WMD before its invasion. It is the difference between a cop gunning down a fleeing perpretrator after being threatened with a weapon, and after gunning down that fleeing person and discovering that they had no weapon at all. If this were to occur in a community, it would be the occasion of an investigation or in the face of official indifference perhaps riots. Whatever the actual case, the important aspect is the intrinsic and perhaps universal human recognition that such instances fairly stink of unfairness and perhaps even blatant abuse of authority.

The supposed 43rd President of the USA has cast himself as a swaggering gunslinger. Indeed, his aides when he attained his office supposedly put out deliberately these words: "There's a new sheriff in town," The implication of these words being that there was a new authority in power, and one that would not tolerate the abuses of the past. This whole romantic notion of the gunslinger included as we now know the doctrine of gloriously facing down evil dictators who oppressed their peoples and cast a long shadow over neighboring countries all in the name of truth, justice, and the American way.

The only problem is that this gunslinger is wears black, and not white. By inviting comparison to the cowboy, he has highlighted his greatest weakness. He has gunned down not a man, but a whole people. Whatever justice in deposing a dictator, he has tainted it with the image of America as a lying bully. He has chosen to clear leather when the other man not only was not going to draw, but had no metal in his belt at all. This was not as some have excused mere befuddlement or wishful thinking combined with cherry-picking information that fit preconceived biases. There was some of that involved, there is little doubt. However, despite years of fevered accusations by spy agencies there was simply no credible evidence that outside observers could use to judge any significant WMD programmes. This lack of evidence was emphasized as how excited conclusion jumped to one after another unraveled in the cold light of day as not a single accusation of weapons programmes materialized to justify wild speculation.

The fate of one mean-souled third world dictator is without significance in the grand annals of American history. It is a mere bagatele without great import. The idea of Saddam Hussein defying America was a fevered dream crushed underneath the treads of the 3rd ID rolling into Baghdad. A grevious injury to the hopes and dreams of America has been dealt however, a wound made infected by the lies of the Administration that has compounded such an injury by using it to deny justice to the victims of the outrage of September 11. Every moment that the deception is perpetuated upon the American people that somehow invading Iraq was justified by the events in the twin towers, it is another moment that the outrage of the American people is falsely comforted by a substitute for justice that is no justice at all.

Not only has this injustice upon Americans been perpetuated, but it is an outrage in and of itself. No man should have the power to make America any less than its true greatness. Yet this bluff answer, this contemptible inability to distinguish between having a weapon and not having a weapon as a justification for going to war has diminished the grand tradition of what it means to be an American. The good guys don't shoot first. They certainly don't make up tall tales about people to justify shooting them down in cold blood, and then try to pretend it doesn't make a difference that those they shot never had a weapon at all. The very ease of American victory on the Tigris and Euphrates is a mocking taunt and rebuke that Iraq never posed a real threat to America at all. The very might with which we smashed that nation whispered testimony to the cowardice of the men who led us against not our real enemies, but against scape-goats in order to placate a people troubled by a true crime.

It is easy to talk big, and to shout down questions while sniggering about claims of secret and immaculate revealed knowledge. It is hard in the light of day to stand up for what one has done, to justify one's self without neglecting responsibility, and it is hard to wait for the bad guys to pull steel first. It is however what makes not only a cowboy a cowboy, but an American an American and more than that a man a real man. If GW Bush wants to be a cowboy, he's got a long way to go before he can walk that talk. That's the difference.


At June 17, 2008 at 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said. I am not a US citizen, but the loss of American moral high ground has troubled me. For all its flaws, its surprisingly radical religiosity, it keeps the ideal of freedom alive by openly declaring it.

Here's hope that come November, a new administration will return to the continuing task of improving it.


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