We Americans are like recovering addicts after a four-year bender
Bush made his white constituency feel good about themselves, but no longer. Citizens are rediscovering democracy.
Monday November 7, 2005
In the US comic strip, Peanuts, there is a little boy who is always followed by a cloud of dust. Wherever he goes, his cloud follows him. George Bush can’t shake his personal cloud. The until recently eerily untouchable president has now lost his mojo. The man to whom the entire US press corps has been on its knees for four years is finally in the doghouse.
It is almost a cartoon of karma. First, hurricane Katrina hit – and the sight of black and brown bodies floating in what had been the streets of a US city, of babies crying for water, of old people shrouded in their wheelchairs seemed to rip right through the collective fantasy of US goodness and infallibility constructed by Dick Cheney and his cabal and hyped by a crotch-strapped Bush in a flight suit.
How did he get away with so many lies for so long? After 9/11, Bush, Cheney and Karl Rove successfully used the fear of more terrorist attacks and the intoxicant of ruthless jingoism to sedate the country and make it compliant.
They could not have had more fortunate timing. During an era when US prestige abroad had already been declining, when US schools were turning out subliterates, when the US economy was being crippled by competition from harder-working south-east Asians and Chinese, Americans – and especially American men – were feeling the sinking self-regard characteristic of those losing prestige in once-great empires in decline.
Bush, Cheney and Rove changed all that with their myth making post-9/11. Suddenly those feminists were no longer so threatening: we still needed tough men in firefighter suits to protect the less powerful. Suddenly American men could feel potent at the sight of a statue of a tyrant toppling in a public square, could vicariously inhale the discourse about "liberating the Middle East" and "spreading democracy", could put a yellow "Support the Troops" sticker on their SUVs and forget the spiking mortgage, the downsizing of good-paying white-collar jobs, the increasing obstreperousness of their women. Bush managed to be golden for so long because he made Americans – and especially white American men, his core constituency – feel good about their identity again.
Well, Katrina was like the end of the Wizard of Oz: the tiny, fibbing man was revealed behind the great big voice and the inflated ideals. Scene after scene of the failure of the US to act like the US held a mirror up to our faces. It was like an intervention for a drug addict: suddenly the lies, the hype, the intoxicants, the bad company, looked as destructive to our true selves as Americans as they really had been all along. "This is not who we are," we realised inwardly, in revulsion at our own long bender.
So now Bush can get no slack. The Miers fiasco showed him up as arrogant – no news, but we are sick of it now. The Valerie Plame leak suddenly feels serious, now that Bush has lost the monopoly on the word "treachery". The press is refusing to go away in the face of threats and platitudes. We hit the 2,000 mark for dead young American men and women in Iraq, and no one thought that was inspiring any more. The man can do nothing right.
It’s true that, in spite of Bush’s current implosion, some rightwing structures will remain well past this lame-duck presidency. The right has a firm grasp on such powerful institutions as Fox News, the network of thinktanks, and soon, probably, the supreme court as well.
But here is the thing about democracy: when it is really working, it is not deferential to institutions. Real citizen action upends the best-laid plans of the best-financed oligarchs. Alabama was locked up politically in 1955 by segregationist old boys – but a bus boycott, sparked by a seamstress, Rosa Parks, who did not want to give up her seat, led the Jim Crow henchmen at the top into irrelevance. Because of an outburst of second-wave feminist activism, Roe v Wade was passed in spite of a number of conservative justices during a conservative Nixon presidency. Before Katrina, when the mass hypnosis of US jingoism still prevailed, there was widespread judicial support for curtailing the rights of war prisoners. Now, because of a changed national mood, judges seem far less eager to hand over authoritarian executive privilege to Bush. Justices, in other words, are people who live in and cannot help but respond to the bigger cultural shifts of their time. I believe in the power of this cultural shift around us to move even the judiciary: Institutions are made up of human beings, and no one likes being looked at with contempt at dinner parties.
But will this shift in the wind affect US relations with the larger world community? I think it could, but not, again, because our role at the UN will change or because we will have an awakening about our pathetic behaviour in relation to Kyoto. The shift in foreign relations will be an outcome of ordinary human shame. We were willing to be held in contempt by those effeminate Frogs – by "old Europe" – when we were intoxicated with ourselves: our isolationism made that easy. But now we are actually ashamed of ourselves at home, we can’t bear international contempt in the same way. Now it hurts.
I don’t see Cheney being shamed into dropping his Halliburton cronies now carving up Iraq. But I do see a renewed citizen interest in wind power, in driving petrol-electric hybrid cars, in reading about the short lives of the war dead – who, only six months ago, were spirited home away from the cameras in their body bags, when protest was considered unseemly. Today on the AOL homepage there is a headline about Bush being jeered by a foreign leader: that story would never have made it out of the land of blogs six months ago.
Like recovering addicts who have taken a step into a 12-step programme, we are ready at last to hear how we have harmed others – and to try to make amends. Star, the supermarket gossip tabloid, has put Angelina Jolie’s work with Ethiopian Aids orphans on the cover, with a bigger photo than that of Paris Hilton’s latest outfit. We used not to think black children in trouble overseas had anything to do with us – until we saw what happened to other black children, on our watch, here at home.
I do feel hopeful: everywhere I go, I hear disgust at our long drunken lurch through recent history give way to a renewed interest among ordinary people in activism, in justice, in what we used to understand as citizenship. I am less concerned about whether this results in a Democratic or Republican victory at mid-term elections than I am in whether we get to be a democracy again.
I am seeing Americans across party lines look again at what made us for so long, a moral force in the world – our judiciary, our until recently free press, our almost-retired belief in the equality of all – and think, yes, that is who we are. That is what makes us able to face ourselves in the mirror of news events. That is what made the US great, when it was great – not armies, not penal colonies, not a license to terrify the world.
Bush will never recover his swagger in our eyes: he was our dealer. What remains to be seen is whether we will turn again to the next good drug to come along, with the next charismatic pusher – or whether Katrina’s real legacy will lead us to do the hard work of reclaiming a civil society rooted in reality. My bet is on the latter.
Naomi Wolf is the author of The Treehouse, Fire With Fire, and The Beauty Myth