"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be..."
With those words Thomas Jefferson cautioned a newly independent United States of America against the perils of, well… ignorance. Jefferson knew that for any people to govern themselves successfully, they must first become and then remain wise enough to do so. That’s a very grown up responsibility. It requires a willingness to acknowledge transgressions among those in whom we’ve placed sacred trust. It requires accepting that our leaders, whether chosen or presumed, might harbor and respond to political and ideological motivations of a kind we’d perhaps prefer to ignore or otherwise rationalize. But failing or refusing to recognize official deceit is to abdicate ones intellectual liberty and swear blind obedience to authority. That is not very grown up behavior. Neither is it behavior worthy of those who would be free. But even Jefferson’s fecund imagination couldn’t have dreamed that the high office his tenure so brilliantly served would one day become the very instrument of exploitation and peril against which he warned.
Yet such is the present. Rather than the enlightened germ of human equality he envisioned, Jefferson’s land of the free would today appear to a him a nightmare utopia, a place overrun by the blissfully ignorant, obedient populace his words so eloquently disdained. The home of the brave he loved with such passion is at once a frightened and frightening behemoth crowding out a world made small by the behemoth’s influence and reach. Democracy’s birthplace has grown to belie the very thing it spawned. The America of our founders is now a land divided against both itself and the world, driven there by the divisive manifestation of its people’s dissonance, George W. Bush.
After standing as a beacon of hope for four centuries, the brash human experiment that became America entered this new century shining brighter than ever and illuminating a world of never-before possibilities. America’s successes were to a great degree seen as humanity’s successes. We’d built a big rep for a young nation. The Mayflower Compact. The Declaration of Independence. The Federalist Papers. The Constitution. The Bill Of Rights. The Emancipation Proclamation. The Marshal Plan. The Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act. Each of these declarations was a promise made to ourselves. Each was a world-altering, yet humane act of reformation. Each was a correct and considered response to self-inflicted injustice. Each followed the cognitive recognition of that injustice. Each acknowledged and denounced an affront to humankind before the world. Each was a triumph of the human spirit, and slowly – ever-so-slowly – came to be seen by all of rational humanity as such. Our actions demonstrated to the world that America was before all else, humanitarian.
When viewed on balance, of course it’s not been all good. How could it have? Many of America’s mistakes rank among humankind’s most vile atrocities: Manifest Destiny, Native Genocide, The Trail of Tears, Slavery, Child Labor, Japanese Interment, Racial Segregation. Let’s face it, America was – and is - just a young country. It had been abused by its parents, rebelled, broke away from home, grew to gigantic stature and strength and promise all before learning quite how to behave on its own. Americans have always been left to learn their humanity with little frame of reference save the abuses heaped upon them by the overlords they’d left behind. But learn we did. Each segregated immigrant brought his or her unique experience to America. Many attempted to impose the same injustices they’d come here to escape. Some succeeded. But America alone has both admitted, and corrected the mistakes of its people and its government more willingly than any society before, and we’ve done so on the world stage. We do not hide our transgressions, or deny them, or even lament them very much. We correct them. America’s failings were not European, or African, or Asian failings. Neither were they native failings. They were human failings. American triumphs, too, should be shared in credit by all of its people, whatever their shade of pale.
So here we stand at the start of a new age, a country founded and populated far, far more by the descendants of atrocity’s victims than by those of its perpetrators. One more time, in what Jefferson called the course of human events our land of the free home of the brave is remaking itself. And it’s doing so a mere instant after what the world named The American Century.
How have we conducted our reformation so far?
Not very well.
With the American Century’s end, came the unexpected, unnecessary, and hopefully temporary end of so many things American: the year 2000 saw the end of our functional democracy; 2001 the end of our perceived security; 2002 the end of our rationality; 2003 the end of our global fraternity; 2004 will see the end of our privacy; and unless we change direction 2005 will see the end of our intellectual liberty; 2006 the end of our prosperity; 2007…
The possibilities arrayed before us on the Millenial threshold were many. We had, as President Clinton said, "..an opportunity to lead the world." We grabbed, instead, an opportunity to run it.
Contrary to popular opinion, America’s myriad possibilities were not co-opted by the horrors of nine-eleven, but were in fact multiplied by them, multiplied exponentially. Because, for the first time in its history, America found the entire world standing with her. Despite the vigilante-like inferences and Ox Bow Incident approach to vindication characteristic of our cowpoke president, there was no nation responsible for the horror. There were no nations spared its grief. To a greater degree than ever before humanity transcended politics on a global scale. Even in America herself, the people united behind their then-foundering president. For the first time in memory, a misguided act intending to isolate and punish a specific people, was instead seen as an act of unfathomable hatred committed by idiots against all people. No atrocity, wherever or whenever it might have occurred, had so galvanized the squabbling world the way nine-eleven galvanized all of rational humanity. Every people saw and felt their own kind crushed beneath the towers’ terrible weight. Every skin was ripped by the mangling iron. Every color but red faded in the mud of Ground Zero.
Yet somehow, from the ashes and tears, the American founders’ experiment in liberty and human dignity emerged valid, strong, unified and whole. For a very short time - but a time unique in all of time - the entire world felt one people’s shock, awe, grief, anger...
"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad" … Euripides
But then, in a flash all the rational pursuit of innocence and guilt and right and wrong and mercy and vengeance and justice was gone. All of the proselytizing over punishment for the guilty turned to an exploitative witch hunt intent on punishing those superficially similar to the guilty, while the guilty themselves run free. The very towers whose own similarity their immigrant architect proclaimed "A living symbol of mankind’s dedication to peace in the world" became instead a symbol invoked and invoked again to instigate renewed polarization and rage and anything but peace in the world.
If that rage happened to be turned against anyone unfortunate enough to culturally or physically or geographically identify with the murderers, so be it. Jefferson’s admonitions have been made manifest, mutated into a vulgar self-fulfilled prophecy by the abject stupidity of his impossible successor and those who would blindly follow him.
Of course it’s heresy to compare Thomas Jefferson with George W. Bush in any context, contrast included, but I doubt that any president since Jefferson has better represented the bleak future Jefferson’s words portended. Because simply put, never has an American administration more thoroughly capitalized on its countrymen’s ignorance than has this one. Never has a president had so powerful a tiller as today’s mass media, or so fertile a field of public credulity in which to sow the seeds of exploitation. Neither has any gaggle of fanatical advisors ever had a landscape so completely cleared of the obstacles of preconception, so empty a tract into which they in turn can sow their personal ideologies as is the wholly commonplace mind of George W. Bush. Nowhere in this president’s head is one likely to find the cluttered forest of ideas which characterize the great leaders. No. To a man, America’s great presidents have been men of their own ideas. The great ones have been men who turned to their advisors seeking refinement of those ideas, but never for the ideas themselves, never for direction, never this completely.
So while we indulge ourselves in speculation on how few Americans actually voted for George W. Bush or his snarling understudy, I submit that no Americans voted for Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Ken Lay, William Bennett, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Perle, Billy Graham, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, John Ashcroft, or Don Quixote Rumsfeld. Yet it is this gaggle of ideologues whose ideas are leading our country. Our president is but their ventriloquist’s dummy. And while I doubt that George W. Bush has ever considered or even encountered Thomas Jefferson’s words of warning – nor would he much comprehend them if someday he should – his cadre of handlers most certainly has, and they comprehend them just fine.
They regale us with references to the "Bush Doctrine" and its plan for a new American century. Who among you believes that this sneering martinet - a man incapable of speaking in sentences on those rare occasions when the words are his own - is smart enough to have intuited a doctrine?! How supremely insulting such a presumption is to the genius and principles of our nation’s founders, if apparently not to most of its people.
If there is a doctrine to be found amid the rudderless lunacy of this presidency, it is a doctrine of deceit.
"You can fool some of the people all the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time." …Abraham Lincoln.
Whether Honest Abe actually penned those words or not (there is conjecture), he would today agree that the observation stands incomplete. For today we have polls. They show to an accuracy of plus-or-minus 3% just who can and cannot be fooled at any given time. But they also show yet another possibility, a permutation not considered when those Lincolnesque words were writ. What the polls show is that you can also fool most of the people most of the time. And today, beneath the rubble of Jefferson’s democracy, that’s all it takes.
There’s your Bush doctrine.