This story was written by Ted Hamilton, Cornell Daily Sun
Theres been a great deal of self-congratulation going around since Barack Obama was elected president a month ago today. As the story goes, his election was a triumph for America and a sign that our country had turned over a new leaf, and we all deserve credit for this history-defying event (my own column on Nov. 6 said as much). The sentiment is, to some extent, justified: Obama didnt win without us, and his ascension is surely a sign of a more open and fair society.
But theres a caveat here: if we slap ourselves on the back for Obama, we have to take responsibility for the anti-Obama as well George Bush. As the sun sets on his most disastrous administration, the excitement of what happened a month ago has to be tempered with the reality of whats been happening for the past eight years.
The crimes and foibles of the Bush years are well-documented and frequently recited, and we will no doubt hear plenty more about this most disastrous epoch of American history as it comes to a close in January. But every indictment of Bush is also an indictment of ourselves, and we have to remember that the Decider-in-Chief is a consequence, not the cause, of some of the most despicable trends in American society. Until we recognize our complicity in his misrule well be at danger of repeating the same mistakes.
The soon-to-be former president of the United States was, in a sense, the quintessential leader for post-millennial America. An MBA and one-time CEO, he embodied the values of the boardroom like no president before him. Ethical principles were sacrificed for the sake of personal gain, dissension was punished and the truth was relentlessly spun. Policy was replaced by politics, and appearance was judged more important than substance.
Such notions, while totally unsuited for government, flowed quite naturally from the profit-obsessed, free market-worshipping culture of the nineties and the early 2000s. We had in Bush the personification of the plutocrat class and a living ideal of American success, with diplomas from Harvard and Yale and a family hailing from Greenwich. But despite his decidedly patrician background, George II played the everyman with his affected Texan accent and anti-intellectual demeanor. He described issues in a cursory manner that suited a public interested only in sound-bites, and he walked with a swagger and a smile that reassured the easily assuaged.
Never particularly interested in the welfare of the country, Bush and his cronies spent a great part of their time devising schemes to enrich their friends from the corporate world. The war in Iraq became a convenient way to bill taxpayers for outsize contracts that were often never honored, federal agencies became piggy banks for private companies and high-level positions became prizes with which to reward loyalists. For a gang that hated the very idea of government, governing became a tool to take of their own.
But what does all this say about us? What general trends do the actions of the Bush administration reveal? Some might argue that Bush is just the product of one half of a divided America, that a few hundred votes in Florida and a rigged election in Ohio, not the broad culpability of Americans, explain his rise to power.
But such rationalization is both dishonest and self-serving. No matter Bushs lack of popularity in certain quarters, his disastrous reign would have been impossible without a generally acquiescent society. First, we exhibited during his two terms a decided lack of seriousness. We twice elected (and at times heaped with historical popularity) a man unversed in the nuances of basic grammar and lacking any real command of domestic or foreign issues. We were fine with a puppet who said all the right things and it took us two wars, a drowned city an some tortured inmates before we finally woke up.
Second, we demonstrated a striking intolerance for argument or thoughtfulness over the past eight years. The blizzard of new bureaucracies and new laws unleashed after 9/11 were met with scant scrutiny, and the lead-up to the Iraq War was marked by more chest-pounding than chin-scratching. Shoot from the gut became the national motto.
Finally, we revealed to the world a crassly confrontational and violently ultranationalistic pattern of behavior. In the name of democracy and freedom we tortured innocents, broke treaties, invaded sovereign nations and spied on our citizens, and those unwilling to follow our lead were mocked as cowards and dandies. Such things, while often done in secrecy, were only possible thanks to a largely silent and incurious public.
So as relieved as we are that Bushs Reign of Terror is over, we have to resist the temptation to heap guilt on a few evil men. The blame here is shared. We may not see too much of Dubya in ourselves, but especially here, at an Ivy League university filled with privileged types the affinitys greater than we might like to believe.