by Robert Wrubel
(Swans - December 19, 2005) Twelve months ago (I began this essay in October, 2005) an unnamed "senior advisor" (with strong resemblances to Karl Rove) said to journalist Ron Suskind "we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you (the 'reality-based community') study that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other realities. . . We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." (1) Two weeks ago, Karl Rove said "Cindy Sheehan's a clown. There is no anti-war movement."
With these two bookends, which have more than a grain of truth to them, we can call the year just ending a truly lamentable one. We can also reasonably question whether democracy in America is a meaningful phrase.
Rove's first comment above was duly noted for its arrogance and generally understood to refer to the technique of lies followed by actions followed by new lies that has characterized the administration's management of events during the Iraq war. Certainly thousands of pages have been wasted by members of the "reality-based community" on understanding the events in Iraq, while administration "actors" forge ahead with their inscrutable plan. There is a more serious meaning in Rove's remarks, though, which can be paraphrased thus: "We're an empire now. We act and create reality. We don't deliberate and we don't ask for consent. That's the old style of governing and we're too big for that now."
Empires imply emperors, some kind of concentrated power at the top. Empires aren't run democratically, any more than General Motors is. Empires can have senates, or parliaments, but they're mainly ceremonial, useful for raising money and letting the people think they have a voice. Rove is claiming not that he invented empire, but that he and his cabal are the first to recognize and use it as it was meant to be. In Bush's second election, carefully engineered using all the powers of money and state, and in the illegal, undemocratic involvement of the nation in war, we have witnessed the change of American government from republic to tyranny. (2)
Of course, none of us knows the future. Much of the coloring of the present, the arrogance, the secrecy, the lies, the twisting of laws, the manipulation of news, the paranoia, the fundamentalism, the reckless assertion of military power, could change with a new administration, or be tempered before then if the Democrats recapture the house in 2006. This is apparently their strategy -- not to undermine the chance of regaining control of the House by forcing some unwinnable fight in the present.
The Bush administration, for all its excesses, could eventually be seen as an aberration in American history, a swerve toward anti-democratic government, corrected by the underlying health of our laws and institutions and the wisdom of the people. Or, it could be seen as the beginning of the end of our democracy. Many of the practices of the Bush administration are merely more glaring, cynical examples of the same practices of prior administrations, and their long-term strategic goals of controlling Middle East oil, and dominating the rest of the world by military neo-liberalism, have yet to be disavowed by the Democrats.
In any case, the Democrats' strategy is a questionable one, because it relies on public opinion remaining negative on Bush and the war. Public opinion is a weak reed to rely on when someone like Rove is around. More than that, though, it may be too late by 2006, depending on how packed the Supreme Court is by then, what further Patriot Act-style legislation may have been passed, what new war or terrorist threat the administration has conjured up. The Democrats are playing it safe, and playing by the rules, against an opponent who thinks the rules are out of date.
Even if the Democrats' strategy is correct, and they are able to retake the House and eventually unseat Bush, what will that get us? Judging from their public comments: ongoing occupation of Iraq, ongoing support of Israel, ongoing national security state, ongoing support of global business. Replacing Bush with a new Clinton is going from empire Red (in tooth and claw) to empire Blue (with gloves on.) As long as we have empire abroad, democracy at home is a charade.
Aside from the Democratic Party, what are the agents or factors that might change the course we're on? Cindy Sheehan obviously sparked great interest for awhile. Can she continue to mobilize wider circles of public opinion, or was the public response to her mostly a fad? Was Cindy a scream of reality against a regime of illusion, or was she herself a moment of spectacle? There's no doubt that she had an instinct for the theatrical, and struck at Bush where his public image was vulnerable. But Rove's boorish comment above ("Cindy's a clown. . ."), though possibly a bluff, seems to indicate they don't think she's much of a threat. In Rove's world, where face time on the evening news is everything, Cindy has already disappeared.
Furthermore, what does it say about us, the anti-war movement, that this is the most affective protest we could produce in the past three years? The anti-war movement seems to have the fatal flaw of all middle-class or consumer movements -- more moral outrage than action. Though heartfelt and comforting at times, the anti-war movement is too much about appearances, the ugly surface of empire, rather than the underlying realities. If it were more than that, it would have appeared earlier, during the destruction of Yugoslavia and the eight year bombing and embargo of Iraq under Clinton.
Then there's Katrina, the blustery messenger of Nature that blew through New Orleans and shredded the president's veil of competence. My favorite headline of the year was the Washington Post's "As Rita Approaches Bush Struggles to Regain Pre-Katrina Swagger." Since swagger is Bush's primary style of presentation, the headline meant "the emperor can't find his clothes!"
However, while critics delighted in the amount of crude reality revealed by the hurricane, the administration was already awarding contracts, bringing in the military, changing employment laws, and pitilessly pushing around the victims of the disaster, as if they had planned it all ahead of time! As the "senior advisor" remarked above, "while you (in the reality-based community) study reality, we'll act again and create new realities. . ." Katrina revealed an open-pit mine of reality, of neglect, indifference and incompetence, but the Cinerama of public awareness (recreated each day by the evening news) just keeps rolling forward, and yesterday's outrage is quickly forgotten.
The question may be phrased: can any reality shatter the plate glass of illusion surrounding the government so decisively that it can't recreate itself? Is any reality strong enough to break through the manipulated realities of Karl Rove?
Admittedly, at the time of publication, public approval of Bush has dropped to historic lows; the press is finally playing a critical role; and after initially disavowing any support of Representative Murtha's demand for immediate withdrawal, Democrats are now tentatively backing him. Is this a trend, a snowball effect, that will finally even influence Republicans in Congress? When, and if, Patrick Fitzgerald brings in his next indictment, will the edifice of illusion finally collapse?
As observed above, public opinion is a slender reed on which to count. It works in mysterious ways, like the stock market, and no one can really predict it. Gas prices have suddenly softened. Bush's new plan, to draw down troops in 2006 and replace them with air power, along with a somewhat legitimate appearing election in Iraq, may earn back some of that missing public approval.
But events could just as easily go the other way. The elections could be revealed to be fraudulent. A major casualty-producing attack on an American base could be successful (Iran could call such an attack "preventive"). The stock market might dive, gas prices might go through the roof, Cheney could be indicted for lying the nation into war, and Rumsfeld could be replaced by Joseph Lieberman! Suppose the Democrats then regain the House in 2006, and Bush fills out his term under threat of impeachment. What would we have? Where would we be, as a democracy?
Here are my predictions for what will not be done, or changed, with a change of administration:
a) criminal prosecutions for all involved in leading us to war
b) criminal prosecutions for those responsible for torture
c) criminal prosecution for the awarding of no-bid construction contracts, and for unperformed work under same
d) cancellation of all provisions of the Patriot Acts
e) removal of all military bases in Iraq
f) cancellation of Provisional Occupational Authority laws privatizing Iraq's economy and resources
g) restitution to Iraqi citizens for lives lost and homes and infrastructure destroyed
h) re-examination of the "War on Terror" and development of a more sophisticated approach to it
i) end of support for Israel's occupation of Palestine.
There are more, of course. We are not likely to see any efforts to deal with the great income disparity and social inequity revealed by Katrina. We are not likely to reign in the influence of the military and military-related industries in our economy and foreign policy. We are not likely to change the tax code or pass laws to favor industries that keep jobs at home, and penalize those who export them. We are very unlikely to embark on a national renewable energy campaign that does not reward the already existing energy companies. And none of these measures will at all change the dangerous resentment of the sinking middle-class exploited by Republicans in the past two decades. If there is a danger of fascism in this country, it is as much in the alienation of the bottom as it is in a coup from the top.
Whatever changes of programs or rhetoric the Democrats are able to bring about, it is all too likely they will be massaged and packaged by politicians and press into some new self-congratulating image of our goodness as a nation, leaving most of the basic realities unchanged.
1. "Without a Doubt," New York Times Magazine (October 17, 2004). Suskind had written an earlier article in which he had harsh words for communications advisor Karen Hughes. Subsequently he was summoned by the "senior advisor" to express the "White House's displeasure" with the article. This is not proof that Rove was that advisor, but has the hallmark of his bullying personal style. (back)