Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

The Issue of Bullies

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

The Issue of Bullies

With all the news floating around, all urgent (maybe), you can miss things. Veterans Day this year, November 11, fell on a Saturday, and no one listens to the president's weekly radio address - not on a Saturday morning. No one much listens to commercial radio at all, perhaps, what with that iPod feeding your ear, or satellite radio feeding you Howard Stern or all Elvis, all the time, commercial free. There's pop rock and the talk shows - Rush and the right-wingers, Air America on the left - and the medical and self-help shows. Who the heck is listening to the president, or to the Democrat of the week with the counter-spin? The whole business is sort of an early fifties thing - from the days when you could hear Jack Benny or Jack Webb weekly for a dose of comedy or Dragnet (before television).

So Veterans Day no one much noticed when the president said this - "One freedom that defines our way of life is the freedom to choose our leaders at the ballot box. We saw that freedom earlier this week, when millions of Americans went to the polls to cast their votes for a new Congress. Whatever your opinion of the outcome, all Americans can take pride in the example our democracy sets for the world by holding elections even in a time of war."

Yeah, yeah - more meaningless nice words - we're a wonderful nation and all that. But, butů just what was he implying?

Someone was troubled -

    That was really a scary comment. Did they actually think of canceling the election because of Iraq?

    Why would he say such an inflammatory thing if the thought never crossed his mind?

And this -

    We should be "proud" that the federal government didn't cancel our elections? That the Bush administration didn't use the war as an excuse to interrupt the democratic process?

Well, some on the right, mightily disappointed in the results of the election, were being provided comfort. The implied message was that, yes, he could have declared marshal law and canceled the elections - and declared himself president-for-life or some such thing - but that would have been wrong.

No doubt there are those who are angry that he didn't - seeing him now as a wimp like his father. What's the point of having power if you don't use it? He got rid of habeas corpus and can lock up whomever he wants without charges forever, no one has successfully challenged him on bypassing warrants and all the laws to wiretap anyone he chooses, he signs bills into law and adds signing statements reserving the right to ignore those laws when he chooses, he systematically calls those who question his policies, or any of his decisions, traitors who might as well join the worldwide jihad and fly a 757 into any nearby big building - and he wouldn't take this step? Maybe he shouldn't have mentioned it at all. There's no pleasing some people.

Those would be the authoritarian bullies. But then, they've had their day.

Joan Walsh in Salon says that's what the election was about, and they lost. Her take on things is that the results of the midterms were clear - it was "the repudiation of the culture of bullying and intimidation perfected by Republican leaders, especially since 9/11."

She trots out her examples.

George Allen -

    Everyone knows he stepped in "Macaca," but the debate about the word's racial meaning threatened to obscure the basic message: Allen was caught on YouTube doing what comes naturally, bullying somebody, somebody who just happened to be the lone brown-skinned man at his campaign event. Sure the racism mattered, a lot, but it was the bullying no one could deny. And when Salon, just a few weeks later, revealed the senator's habitual use of the N-word in college, one factor cited by witnesses who came forward was seeing Allen, the bully of old, captured on that video.

And there was the incumbent senator from Pennsylvania, the number three Republican in Congress, who got tossed from his seat -

    In the last year Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tried to transform himself into a good Catholic conservative motivated by love, not hate, but Santorum sealed his defeat in 2003 in an interview where he equated homosexuality with bigamy, polygamy, incest and most famously "man on dog" sex. In the furor that followed, Republican leaders from Sen. Bill Frist to President Bush defended Santorum, head of the Republican Conference, who held onto his leadership post despite the storm. "The president believes that the senator is an inclusive man," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. "The president has confidence in Senator Santorum and thinks he's doing a good job as senator - including in his leadership post." Pennsylvanians obviously disagreed.

Well, maybe, but there were lots of issues there - using state money to educate his kids in Maryland, the general flakiness (Iran is really not The Eye of Mordor) and a sense that he didn't care a whit for what happens in native Penn Hills, or in Scranton. But Walsh may be partially right.

Then she lays into Donald Rumsfeld -

    Given his unconscionable botching of the Iraq war, it may seem a small thing to accuse Rumsfeld of mere bullying. But his complete control over war planning and execution - as well as over the president's perspective on them - stemmed largely from his capacity to belittle and intimidate everyone from Condoleezza Rice to generals to the Pentagon press corps. So many images from Bob Woodward's "State of Denial" have stayed with me - Rummy "snowflaking" the Pentagon with his orders on little white Post-its, micromanaging every aspect of the Defense Department, is one of my favorites. But one of the most damaging sections depicted his work to make sure Bush didn't pick Adm. Vern Clark, the outspoken chief of naval operations, as his first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2001. "Clark was the one officer who might survive Rumsfeld and preserve some sense of dignity and independence for the uniformed military," Woodward explained, and Rummy preferred the more pliable Air Force Gen. Richard Myers. Rumsfeld got his way, on that choice and countless others - at least until last Tuesday.

Well, he's gone now.

Rush Limbaugh isn't, so we get this -

    Here's hoping soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent the bloviating radio host flowers and candy, because he cost Jim Talent his Missouri Senate seat - and the Republicans their Senate majority - by mocking Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's symptoms. (Thanks for having that camera in the studio, Rush - your monstrous ego was your party's undoing.) Now Limbaugh is claiming he feels "liberated" by the Republicans' losses, because he no longer has to "carry water" for inept GOP leaders. That's just good comedy. From Vice President Dick Cheney to President Bush to beleaguered Denny Hastert after the Foley scandal, Republicans in trouble made it a point to head to Rush's studio and cry on his man-bosom about Democratic perfidy. Let's hope the nation is soon "liberated" from Limbaugh's abuse.

No irony intended, but fat chance. He's the one success on commercial radio - his audience is massive. He'll be mocking the handicapped, crippled, sick and unlucky for years to come. His career depends on it - and he's found a broad swath of Americans who, too cowardly or weak to be bullies themselves, get their jollies letting him say what they will not. They feel deep grudges and seethe with resentment - life is so unfair - so Rush will be around for them for a long time to come. He'll find someone to mock for all of them.

Walsh says the defeat of George Allen is the most significant thing in all this, "as last spring he was considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2008. Allen was cut from the same cloth as Bush, two transplants to the South - Allen from Southern California to Virginia, Bush from Connecticut to Texas - who embraced certain Southern stereotypes, from cowboy boots to nicknames to a faux-down-home suspicion of book learnin', but not much Southern dignity or decency."

So we have two peas in a pod, but she doubts the president will learn much from what happened.

She doesn't explain that, but everyone knows the explanation anyway. Bullies don't learn. They just get meaner. There's no alternative. Any other way of dealing with life would shatter their carefully constructed sense of self. To keep that - to keep one's very self - you redouble your efforts to be what you know you are, to hold onto your identity. It's an existential thing.


Of course, as, after the elections removing his power base, the president reintroduced the nomination of John Bolton to be our ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton was not approved before and appointed to the post when the senate was in recess, and has to leave in January unless they actually confirm him. That didn't work the first time, and it is certain to not work this time. But as the new congress won't convene until January 20, the president wants this lame duck senate to confirm him. They say they won't. He insists they do. There is no chance at all they will. What's up with that? It's that sense of self thing. The president has no alternative.

Similarly he wants this lame duck congress to approve the Arlen Specter compromise on wiretapping anyone and everyone the president chooses, without warrants. The bill gives the president the right to do that, with the caveat that, if he chooses, he can decide to tell a few select senators and congressmen when he has done such a thing - but informing them is entirely optional. That bill is dead too. But the pressure from the White House to pass the thing is increasing. The pressure is a statement of "being," really. It has little to do with what the law is and could be. It's an existential thing too.

And there's this -

    Immigrants arrested in the United States may be held indefinitely on suspicion of terrorism and may not challenge their imprisonment in civilian courts, the Bush administration said Monday, opening a new legal front in the fight over the rights of detainees.

    In court documents filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the Justice Department defended the military's authority to arrest people oversees and detain them indefinitely without access to courts.

That's not going to fly. The courts don't appoint kings. The law matters. But it does make a statement, an identity statement. This is who we are!

In a more scholarly vein, Austin W. Bramwell in The American Conservative moves the whole thing away from the less than scholarly president - these are not the president's ideas alone (if at all, they are on the instinctual level) - and suggests the whole bully thing is integral to reactive conservatism and got hooked to the whole neoconservative movement -

    After 9/11, neoconservatives championed any war that we waged in reaction. In this, they were acting opportunistically but not hypocritically: in their view, 9/11 is what happens when the United States suffers any challenges to its authority. The rest of the movement knew only that it wanted a ruthless response. Neoconservatism just happened to provide a convenient ideological infrastructure with which to justify metonymic revenge against some Muslim Arab or other. Before 9/11, the movement was praising modesty in foreign affairs; after 9/11, it did not so much embrace neoconservatism as blunder into it by accident...

    What they need is analysis: the skeptical tradition extending from Machiavelli to Hobbes, Hamilton, and Burnham that seeks to understand the world as it is rather than as we might like it to be.

Yeah, but bullies don't do analysis. And they don't use words like metonymic - "a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated." They just knew someone had to be hit hard, and it hardly mattered who that was - Iraq would do. Metonymic, my ass.

Bramwell decides that the "conservative movement" is now dead, much like Walsh. As if.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, offers a letter My Fellow Neoconservatives. All is not lost. We can still find our inner bully.

First, don't abandon George Bush -

    All policies are perfect on paper, none in execution. All politicians are, well, politicians. Bush has embraced so much of what we believe that it would be silly to begrudge his deviations. He has recognized the terrorist campaign against the United States that had mushroomed over 30 years for what it is - a war that must be fought with the same determination, sacrifice, and perseverance that we demonstrated during the Cold War. And he has perceived that the only way to win this war in the end is to transform the political culture of the Middle East from one of absolutism and violence to one of tolerance and compromise.

    The administration made its share of mistakes, and so did we. We were glib about how Iraqis would greet liberation. Did we fail to appreciate sufficiently the depth of Arab bitterness over colonial memories? Did we underestimate the human and societal damage wreaked by decades of totalitarian rule in Iraq? Could things have unfolded differently had our occupation force been large enough to provide security?

Are we idiots led by an idiot? Ask the question the right way, Joshua.

And he adds don't abandon Rumsfeld, even though he's gone -

    One area of neoconservative thought that needs urgent reconsideration is the revolution in military strategy that our neocon hero, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has championed. This love affair with technology has left our armed forces short on troops and resources, just as our execrable intelligence in Iraq seems traceable, at least in part, to the reliance on machines rather than humans. Our forte is political ideas, not physics or mechanics. We may have seized on a technological fix to spare ourselves the hard slog of fighting for higher defense budgets. Let's now take up the burden of campaigning for a military force that is large enough and sufficiently well provisioned - however "redundant" - to assure that we will never again get stretched so thin. Let the wonder weapons be the icing on the cake.

Right. When things don't work, do more of the same.

And there's more - subvert Middle East governments, combat anti-Americanism but finding Europeans who understand the persuasiveness of military force, and the key -

    Prepare to Bomb Iran. Make no mistake, President Bush will need to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office. It is all but inconceivable that Iran will accept any peaceful inducements to abandon its drive for the bomb. Its rulers are religio-ideological fanatics who will not trade what they believe is their birthright to great power status for a mess of pottage. Even if things in Iraq get better, a nuclear-armed Iran will negate any progress there. Nothing will embolden terrorists and jihadists more than a nuclear-armed Iran.

    The global thunder against Bush when he pulls the trigger will be deafening, and it will have many echoes at home. It will be an injection of steroids for organizations such as MoveOn.org. We need to pave the way intellectually now and be prepared to defend the action when it comes.

Good luck with that.

And as a kicker, he has one last suggestion -

    Recruit Joe Lieberman for 2008. Twice in the last quarter-century we had the good fortune to see presidents elected who were sympathetic to our understanding of the world. In 2008, we will have a lot on the line. The policies that we have championed will remain unfinished. The war on terror will still have a long way to go. The Democrats have already shown that they are incurably addicted to appeasement, while the "realists" among the GOP are hoping to undo the legacy of George W. Bush. Sen. John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani both look like the kind of leaders who could prosecute the war on terror vigorously and with the kind of innovative thought that realists hate and our country needs. As for vice presidential candidates, how about Condoleezza Rice or even Joe Lieberman? Lieberman says he's still a Democrat. But there is no place for him in that party. Like every one of us, he is a refugee. He's already endured the rigors of running for the White House. In 2008, he deserves another chance - this time with a worthier running mate than Al Gore.

Okay, run Joe. And tell the American people it will be no more realism - that not what the country needs - just all innovation, all the time.

The bullies don't realize they were voted out for a reason. Maybe Bush should have called off the elections last week. This is madness, and it's only partially contained. Not all of us want to connect to our inner bully. It seems a few thousand more than half of us don't. It's an existential thing. It only seems political.

Maybe it's time to face the truth. All this never was political, and there's no political solution to be found. When people flight to maintain their identities, what compromise is possible?

Now THAT is a depressing thought.

This item posted November 19, 2006

[The Issue of Bullies]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik