Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Re: Baghdad And New Orleans; Dishonesty And Honesty; Incompetence And Competence: It’s All Interlinked

September 7, 2005


Re: Baghdad And New Orleans; Dishonesty And Honesty; Incompetence And Competence: It’s All Interlinked, It’s All The Result Of Where This Country Has Been Going For The Last 45 Years, and It’s A Massive Long-Coming Systemic Failure.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago, relatively shortly after returning from Oxford, this writer was quite surprised when the media and the larger populace did not give George Bush a pass over the fact that he was taking a very long vacation, a five week vacation I think it was supposed to be. The lack of a free pass had a lot to do with the Cindy Sheehan matter, one thinks. Even people who might support Bush and his war could not quite understand why he would not take time out from his vacation to meet with a woman who had lost her son in Iraq. His refusal to meet with her seemed too uncaring, too hardhearted, too unfeeling.The free pass was the more surprising because, when you consider the matter in the abstract, when you consider it purely on principle, his explanation made some sense. He had to live a life too, he said. He too needed a vacation, just like other people do. One might add that getting away from the hothouse atmosphere of Washington in order to clear the mind -- by chopping wood, swimming, hiking, or whatever one chooses to do -- is a very good idea for a President -- or for anyone. Presidents really should do it more often.

One could also add the impossibility of any President meeting with all the mothers who lose sons and daughters in war, so that meeting with Sheehan would not be a good precedent.

But Bush’s explanation did not wash. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps people realized that the Bushian political spin machine never stopped, so that the claim of a vacation is in part Bush-wa. Perhaps people were put off by the sheer length of the vacation: five weeks is longer than executives in far less important positions (like me) would dare to be away at one time, even though they too can remain in hourly touch if they want by Internet, fax, cellphone, handhelds and so on. Five weeks also is longer by far than your average American working stiff gets, I imagine. Perhaps people also recognize that Bush does meet with families of slain soldiers -- so long as the families are supporters of his war. And possibly there also is yet another reason or, sometimes, linked pair of reasons. Maybe lots of people began to realize that Bush is not a nice man, is a man of no empathy despite all his Bush-wa hugging of victims like those of the New Orleans disaster and his hugging of pols like those incompetents from Louisiana after the disaster. The truth is that, rather than being a nice man, Bush is a son of a bitch who is mean as hell to those who do not support him or who oppose him. He is also an evil man, who will do anything to injure opponents, and will countenance the killing of thousands of innocents if he thinks it unavoidable in pursuit of his purposes. There are politicians who have learned that he will evilly do anything to win, opponents like Anne Richards and John McCain. There are tens of thousands of children and other innocent civilians dead of our bombs and shells in Iraq -- the so-called collateral damage -- who learned that Bush will do whatever he can get away with.

Lots of Americans have been fooled by the good old boy personality, by the southern back slapping Kenny-boy and Brownie crapola (for Ken Lay and Michael Brown) that regularly gets laid on thick, by the portrayal of simple sincerity and fellow feeling. But you shouldn’t be fooled for a second. Bush is a guy who has much in common with the coal magnate who, when stridently opposing miners’ demands in, I think, the first decade of the last century, said something to the effect that the (impoverished) miners will be provided for by the good Christian gentleman whom God in his wisdom has put in charge of America. In other words, let them eat cake. So too with Bush. Those who are not oil magnates, or who are poor, or who are black, or who are working stiffs can all eat cake. Thus it is, I note yet again on this blog, that one does not see Bush’s daughters going off to fight the war that he claims is so vital to this country. One sees the poor, the lower middle class, the people who joined the service as a springboard to getting an education, or a few extra bucks a month, going off to fight it.

But Bush is more than unempathetic, mean, evil. He is also, I fear, stupid. He is a fool. He is incompetent. One would judge his acumen to probably be near the bottom of that of any President of the last 100 years except perhaps (based on what I’ve read) Warren Harding. Think of it: In the 20th century we had men with the intelligence of T.R., Taft, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Clinton. Some of these guys were immoral. Some were duplicitous. Some were unlucky. Some had horridly swollen egos. But were any of them as lacking in acumen as Bush? Were even the ones I haven’t named so lacking in acumen? Ford? Reagan? Coolidge? I don’t think so. And are we really supposed to think Bush is smart because he got whatever grades he did get at Yale or the Harvard Business School, or because his grades apparently were better than those of John Kerry, himself no great brain if you ask me? I don’t think so.

Before New Orleans, there were precious few media people who would say Bush was incompetent. Bob Herbert, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, Derrick Jackson, Eugene Robinson -- I’ve run out of names. After New Orleans it seems like everyone and his brother is saying it, and almost daily too. Even media conservatives like David Brooks are saying the Administration is incompetent. And media types are saying Bush lacked empathy because so many of the people who were suffering were black. (A few years ago one of Bush’s professors was horrified that he could be president; the professor, if I recollect rightly, remembered him as a small-minded punk whose vociferously expressed view was that being poor was entirely the fault of the impoverished (who of course had not had the great good sense to be born a Bush). It is said the boy is father to the man. So too the attitude of the boy seems father to leaving the poor to drown in New Orleans. Not for nothing has Frank Rich recently spoken of "the heartlessness beneath the surface of his actions.")

The media is also saying that Bush’s appointees were incompetent regarding New Orleans. Appointees like Michael Brown (Brownie), whose preparation for heading FEMA was ten years of running an Arabian horse association -- a job he apparently got booted from, yet -- and being the assistant to his predecessor, Joe Albaugh, whose own credentials for running FEMA were that he was Bush’s college roommate and a political advisor. Or like Michael Chertoff, who, like a guy named Bybee, was nominated to be a federal judge despite his role in approval of torture, or maybe because of his role in it, and who then was made head of Homeland Security, and who, as with Bybee and Gonzalez too, was approved by a gutless and immoral Congress despite his role in approval of torture.

Permit me a brag now that, after New Orleans, everyone and his brother in the media is saying that Bush and the Administration are incompetent, now that it is being said even by the generally spineless bastards on television and, beyond that, even by conservatives. As indicated, there were precious few media people who said it earlier despite the fiasco in Iraq (a fiasco initially praised, The Times has now publicly admitted, because the embedded media became cheerleaders for the war -- as one would have to expect in the circumstances, including the circumstance that a reporter’s life depended on the troops he or she was embedded with). But this blogger said early-on in the life of this blog that Bush and his buddies were incompetent and kept repeating it and repeating it. That is the brag.

Yet one did not have to be a genius to see the incompetence. You only had to watch -- as Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

Before telling you what could be observed here if you watched, let me first set the stage by telling a related story about Viet Nam.

People sometimes ask this writer why he turned against the Viet Nam War in 1965; they ask what tipped me off pretty much early-on that the war was an unwinnable disaster. The answer was, and is, simple. I read the newspapers. And every week or even every day one read that we were dropping more bombs than ever on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, we were dropping staggering totals on it. But the North Viet Namese, one also read, were infiltrating large and ever increasing numbers of men and amounts of materiel down the trail despite the bombing. When the Government was asked how the Viet Namese could be doing this in spite of the bombing, the only answer it could give, and the one it regularly gave, was that we were making it harder for them. Well, this didn’t translate to victory. It didn’t compute. The North Viet Namese were constantly infiltrating more and more men and materiel despite a bombing campaign of unprecedented ferocity, and all our government could say was that we were making it harder for them? From this it was crystal clear that we were in a disaster. As Yogi said, etc.

To come back to Iraq, before the war Saddam said he had some surprises for us, and then -- very oddly -- his conventional army more or less melted away. What did this mean? Then, on May 1, 2003 I think it was, the fool announced on the Abraham Lincoln that major combat operations were over -- at a time when we probably had suffered only 10 or 20 percent of the combat deaths and injuries we have now suffered. A guerrilla war had started and it grew and grew. We learned that, before we even invaded, Saddam had trained hundreds, maybe thousands, of officers in guerrilla warfare and had stored caches of weapons all over the country. (The media didn’t and still doesn’t talk about the training or the caches. It makes the Administration look too inept. So the media avoids it.) This all made it pretty clear what the melting away of Saddam’s conventional army had meant. And since you can observe a lot if you watch, it became equally clear that Bush -- and his pals Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, etc. -- had gotten us into one hell of a mess.

And then you were able to observe yet more that verified this judgment: the still continuing Humvee foul-up regarding lack of armor, the foul up with reservists and National Guardsmen, the torture. And, as now with New Orleans too, there was also the constant Bushian technique of smooth, optimistic, disingenuous statements that we are winning and will win, that we will obtain "victory" and must not "retreat,"statements just like the ones we used to get about Nam but far more smooth, and cleverly mixed now and again, when Bush thought public opinion demanded it, with platitudinous statements that some bad thing (like torture or "down armored" Humvees) is unacceptable, or we must do better at one thing or another, or we will prevail despite the difficulties. Oh yes: there were, as now with New Orleans, lots of smooth statements, mixed, when public opinion required it, with platitudinous pledges of improvements, while things went to hell in a handbasket. As Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." And one thing you can observe if you watch, as a liberal like Frank Rich and a conservative like David Brooks have both recognized, is sheer ineptitude in both Iraq and New Orleans. Incompetence, like death, does not take a holiday. Nor can political spin make the dead come alive or the incompetent competent.

* * * * *
In his life of John Adams, David McCullough wrote that, "having failed at nearly everything else he had ever tried," Adams’ son-in-law, William Smith, had "lately been elected to Congress." That is pretty much the story of George W. Bush. Except that Bush got himself elected Governor and then President. He had been a playboy and a drunk who had to become a fundamentalist -- a right wing nut job? -- in order to straighten out his life, and had been a serial failure in business who repeatedly had to be bailed out by Daddy’s and Granddaddy’s friends and wanna-be-friends. But he got himself elected Governor and President. No other President, I think, had such preparation for the job. Harry Golden would be right, but for the wrong reasons, in saying "Only In America."

But one must give Bush credit. Politics is the family business, the family business to an extent it was for no other family in the last century but the Kennedys, and before that the Adams. It also is preeminently one of the fields where, for nearly 50 years, and in many instances far longer, competence and honesty has not mattered. To the contrary, honesty, competence and morality can be, in fact are, positive hindrances to someone seeking major political office: it is generally thought that people who believe they can be completely honest yet be in politics are deluded fools. Modern politics is also the preeminent business in which the traits needed to reach high top -- here dishonesty, spin meistering, colossal egotism, and at times a nearly utter lack of principle -- virtually ensure that one who reaches high office will be incompetent to do a good job once there.

Recognizing that politics is the family business, and surely aware that the surfeit of right wing fools, including very rich ones, would fall all over themselves trying to help a scion of the Bush family, George Bush understood that he had a future in politics, a future in which he would not even have to serve years of apprenticeship, but could shoot right to the top immediately as first a Governor and then the President. In one sense it can accurately be said that Bush is not to blame for what occurred. For all that he did was to take advantage of the situation as he found it. The deeper question of why our public life is as it is, of why he found it as it was, of why it enables someone like Bush to win the Presidency, is not a question for which Bush bears initiating responsibility or for whose growth he himself bears responsibility except for his conduct since about 1998 or 1999. (Also, the deeper issue is, in its large aspect, separate from the issue of his family’s dynasty. Of course, the family did take advantage of the situation and used it to further its own political and financial ambitions, and to that (not wholly inconsiderable) extent the family and the deeper issue are interlocked.)

The view to be stated here, which goes back at least 45 years, is not one the media or the pols would agree with. The media always takes a very short view of things: it sees things in the context of the last few days or perhaps weeks. Given our recent disasters, a few media people are taking what is for them a long view -- from the time Bush was elected. But the media does not look at history or the seriously long view; as a general rule, not even its truly exceptional and intelligent members do so. The pols follow the media’s lead, and don’t know history besides. The same for the general population, which is subject as well to emotional political enthusiasms of both short and long standing. So one does not expect the view of this writer to be popular, not even if it is completely true. Perhaps especially if it is completely true, since it is in its own way Veblenesque even if its author lacks the brain of a Veblen.

My attitude goes back at least to 1960, when Kennedy made image the summum bonum of public life. Kennedy himself was apparently a reasonably talented man -- and not just in chasing skirts. But in terms of substance achieved his administration was pretty weak. (Some say, of course, that Johnson’ s program was mainly Kennedy’s program achieved. One is dubious that Kennedy would have gotten it through, though. On the other hand, it is at least possible that Kennedy would not have fought a useless major war in Nam.) Weak on substance achieved, Kennedy and his people relied on image both in getting him elected President and as President -- as his people still rely on it in regard to his Administration. And with a focus on image there necessarily came associated braggadocio and immodesty -- you can’t put the focus on image without them.

That was the beginning, I think, of what ultimately occurred in post World War II times. After Kennedy made image all-important, Johnson and Nixon added rampant dishonesty to our political life. Nixon added outright criminality. Ford added not punishing -- instead pardoning -- the guilty. Reagan added rampant greed and economic unfairness as the price of huge economic growth redounding to the vast financial benefit of the upper middle class and the wealthy, while devil take the hindmost -- the poor and the uneducated. By the time Clinton became President, all the rest of these traits were well ensconced in our public life and in our private life too, where especial sway was held by image, dishonesty, and rampant greed. To this already disastrous stew, some of which he used to get elected, Clinton added known immorality. George Bush II then added stupidity and lack of empathy.

Throughout all of this, as honesty took a back seat, competence did likewise. Instead of accomplishing necessary things, politicians talked about them, (as in New Orleans) held press conferences about them, spun about them, lied about them, especially about disastrous events occurring because of lack of competence. Competent people don’t have to lie -- they accomplish. Lying is the handmaiden of incompetence and failure. So Johnson lied about Viet Nam and the economy. Nixon lied about Viet Nam and Watergate. Reagan probably lied about Irangate. Bush I lied about taxes (and some think he likely lied about Irangate too). Clinton lied about Monicagate. George Bush II lied about Iraq.

And the press, which Abraham Lincoln long ago recognized as the most powerful of all forces in influencing the nation, went along with lots of this. Early-on it supported Nam. Early-on it thought Watergate silly. It never did catch on in advance to the savings and loan scandal. It did not assail Reagan very vigorously. It gave Clinton a free pass on immorality in 1991 and 1992. It gave George Bush II a free pass on incompetence, embedded itself in his army in Iraq, and became a cheering section for bushwa and Bush-wa. It took the New Orleans disaster for TV newsmen to finally start saying publicly that all the pols ever do is talk, instead of accomplishing what needs to be done. (Even some local pols began saying the same things (in strident language) -- but about the national pols, of course. And then some national pols turned on the local ones or on each other.)

And, as this now-45-year-old trend became ever bigger and more pervasive in both public and private life, it was augmented, justified, pushed ahead by well funded conservative think tanks who taught judges, economists, pols, TV journalists and other molders of opinion that uncabined greed is good, that fairness leads to economic damnation, that America’s goal should be to remake the world, by military force if needed. These people’s highly financed push for a reactionary revolution -- not a conservative one, a reactionary one -- succeeded beyond the wildest imaginations of the alarmists of 1964 who thought Goldwater’s massive defeat meant the end of the Republican Party. Can you imagine that? -- the end of the Republican Party. And what did the Democrats offer in response? Pretty much nothing. Except, perhaps, for Viet Nam, wild-eyed inflation in the 1970s and more of the throw-money-at-the-problem economic policies that people were rejecting.

In the course of all this, the country simply swept under the rug, ignored, implicitly said to hell with problems that were festering and that came back, or are coming back, to bite us in the posterior parts. The problem of racial inequality: often ignored. The problem of class: totally ignored (as for much or even most of American history). The now 30 year old history of the average working stiff being unable to keep up in his income, while for most of that period the well-off became ever more well off: totally ignored. The threat posed by fanatical Islamism rampant: totally ignored until 9/11. (Ironically, and almost totally unknown, 9/11 is also a great day in American history because on September 11, 1786 a group of delegates met in an Annapolis conference that is issued a call for what became the constitutional convention.) The fact that Congress has for over 40 years declined to address what Viet Nam and Iraq show, 40 years apart, to be perhaps the major post World War II problem of American life, the problem that leads to so many others -- that is, the fact that Congress has declined to address the transfer of the decision on war from Congress to the President, a transfer that is directly contrary to the wishes of the framers who Bush and his crowd love to cite in pursuit of specious "originalism" and who dreaded lodging the war deciding power in the Executive because history taught them that he is far too likely to make war for light or bad reasons and to thereby create havoc in his own country: largely ignored. The fact that so much of value in American life was being lost, including what the Europeans call solidarity, while every man engaged in a selfishness-and/or greed-based Hobbesean struggle of all against all in which success, however shoddily or illegitimately obtained, was the only god and was all that mattered -- not honesty, not competence, not fairness, not morality, but only success: totally ignored in private life until disaster struck in the early 2000s due to uncabined greed and reform was consequently demanded, and totally ignored to this day in public life. The problem of potentially loose nukes by the thousands in Russia, which if they ever got loose (so to speak) might make us wish for the good old days of a "mere" hurricane and flooding in New Orleans and elsewhere: too much, though not wholly, ignored. Environmental threats that can lead to disasters like that which has now struck New Orleans: downplayed, ignored, starved of remedial funds. The inevitable shortages of energy supplies that we have been warned of for decades and that have now led to gasoline prices of nearly $3.50 to $4.00 per gallon (or even more): downplayed as much as the powers that be could get away with.

What we have seen in the public life of this country in the last 45 years, and at times in private life too, is an ongoing, ever-increasing systemic failure. Image became more important by far than competence and achievement; dishonesty, spin meistering and outright lies replaced honesty; fairness and reasonable efforts at coming closer to equality went out the window; and government promoted uncabined, unalloyed greed as supposedly beneficial. This congeries is systemic failure. What else could it be called in a country that thinks itself decent?

This writer certainly does not expect widespread, or even any, agreement with this view. It is a view which hits too many people where they live. It hits them where they live regardless of whether they are in public life or, as true of most folks, are simply in private life. It would be resisted to the nth degree even if it were empirically provable beyond peradventure rather than being a matter of opinion. But call my confidence in the view conceit if you want. Call my view overwrought because of the various good things that occurred in the last 45 years (winning the Cold War without a (once barely escaped) nuclear holocaust, the increase in the rights and status of women, gays and minorities, the increase in the overall gross domestic product). Call the view one-sided if you want. Call it thick headed obduracy if you want. Call it whatever you want, I nonetheless do remain confident that systemic failure is how historians are most likely to see the matter a hundred years from now. Just as historians finally saw, admitted, and wrote the truth about why the South fought the Civil War -- to save slavery -- after 110 years and more of successful Southern propaganda to the contrary, so too historians of the long distant future, from whose eyes the scales will have been removed by time, will see and say that from 1960 to 2005 there was a systemic failure involving lack of honesty, lack of competence, societal unfairness, and greed unalloyed with considerations of the general welfare.

* * * * *

Those of us who have been adults from the beginning of the Kennedy Administration to the current time of the Bush II Administration have been subjected to the Chinese curse: we have lived in interesting times. It is true that much is better today than in 1960: as indicated, lots of African Americans have it better today, women do, gays do. There is more consciousness about the environment, about the disastrousness of war (if not about how to stop war). Food is better. Healthcare is better for lots, though not all. But the problems, almost all agree, remain immense. Such is the nature of the human condition, it seems. One problem, if resolved, is always replaced by another, conceivably even more threatening one, as the end of the Cold War was replaced by the problem of fundamentalist Islamism rampant.

One thing that I think can fairly be said, however, is that dishonesty, stupidity, incompetence and a lack of any sense of the other guy can make a given problem worse -- viz. Viet Nam and Iraq -- and can lead to new problems -- viz. Iraq seems to have geometrically increased the number of Muslims who desire to act against the United States. And today we already are long into an era in which dishonesty, incompetence, unconcern for the other fellow, arrogance and greed have become the American way in public affairs. This, systemic failure is not the cruise that most of us signed up for. Call us relics of the 1960s if you wish, but we signed on for a very different cruise, one in which decency prevailed, not its opposite. And the question now is, what if anything can be done to straighten out what Longfellow called the ship of state.

The platitudinous answer that is usually given is to get involved in public life. Yet a major problem has long been that the best people, the ones who are honest, the ones who are truly competent and therefore don’t need to spin and lie to cover up failure, don’t want anything to do with politics as they are practiced today. Politics today are too dirty, too much the playground of the sleazy, inept and unprincipled. The truly honest and competent generally prefer to make their lives on the private side, where they can succeed without becoming sleazes, where they can achieve instead of just talking. They want no part of either of our two major political parties, which they see as being in many ways just Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (Not in all ways but in enough ways, e.g., the constant sucking after money and after the rich who can give it to them, and the consequent protection of interests of the rich.)

But what if a new party were to arise, just as the Republicans arose in 1854 to resolve the fundamental schism then besetting the country? What if there were to be a new party whose lived-by creed were to be demands for honesty and competence, demands for fairness, and demands for intelligent respectful discussion of the pros and cons of courses of action in order to come as close as we can to decency? Would such a party automatically be rejected? Automatically be a failure? Yellow dog Democrats will horrifiedly tell you that such a new party would simply assure future conservative Republican hegemony (as Ralph Nader is accused of doing and, if memory serves, George Wallace too). Maybe so. But then again, maybe not. Maybe such a new party would attract the decent elements from the Republican Party, not just from the Democratic Party. Maybe it would attract to politics decent elements who have forborne to associate themselves with either of the two current major parties because they both are so morally corrupt.

There are other countries that successfully have had or still have three or more parties. There have also been times when this country has had three parties because of demands for reform. Our likely cockamamie winner-take-all election system has not always meant, and need not necessarily mean, that there inevitably must be only two parties and that they must always be the same two.

Who knows? Maybe it is time, even long past time, to start talking about a third party. Maybe it is time to start talking about a party that could draw the decent people of society because it stands for and practices the decent values of society -- and won’t deserve to exist if it doesn’t practice them. One thing is for sure, though. If people don’t start thinking and talking about a third party based on fundamental decency, we’ll never know if one could be formed, if it could be successful, or even if it could "merely" have a wholesome influence on the two present, morally and intellectual corrupt major parties because of their fear of its potential success. Nor, given a systemic trend that is now 45 years old, will we be able to expect, unless we start thinking and talking about a third party, that old fashioned virtues like honesty, competence, achievement and fairness will come back to replace the dishonesty, incompetence, mere talk and unfairness that currently are the prevailing ethos of public life.*

*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

Comments to this post are onVelvel II.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home