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Fantasy Island

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Washington Post writer Paul Farhi cleverly compared the content and structure of George W. Bush's second inaugural address to The Rascals' classic ditty "People Got to Be Free." It worked, but a better title for the speech might have been borrowed from Green Day's current smash, "American Idiot." The gap between the world's "reality based" community and the fantasy being sold us by our benighted leadership, with the help of a quiescent Fourth Estate, may never have been wider.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.

The word "freedom" passed Bush's lips twenty-seven times and "liberty" fifteen. Mentions of "Iraq," "Afghanistan," "Al Qaeda," "Iran," "Pakistan," "Chechnya," "Uzbekistan," Egypt," "Guantánamo," "Patriot Act," "Abu Ghraib," "torture," "suspension of habeas corpus" and "José Padilla" combined for a grand total of zero. Not a word either about the fact that Bush's messianic foreign policy is killing thousands of innocent Iraqis and American soldiers; sowing hatred of America across the Arab (and most of the non-Arab) world; recruiting terrorists for Al Qaeda-like organizations; torturing hundreds, perhaps thousands of victims in numerous nations; supporting and empowering tyranny around the world; destroying the liberty of American citizens and noncitizens alike here at home; and shredding time-honored constitutional liberties as it invents new federal police powers out of whole cloth.

None of these kakistocratic exercises would be possible if the media took seriously their constitutional charge to act as a check on the irresponsible exercise of power. To be fair, reporters at the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times--though not, it must be added, New York's Paper of Record--addressed the enormous disjuncture between Bush's lofty words and the Machiavellian machinations that underlie his policies, in articles titled, respectively, "Bush's Words on Liberty Don't Mesh With Policies," and "Putting Democracy First May Test Key Relationships." Post reporters Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright quoted experts and opposition figures to demonstrate how Bush's rhetoric "is at odds with the administration's increasingly close relations with repressive governments in every corner of the world." And in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus noted that two days before the President's speech, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice proclaimed, "We embrace Pakistan as a vital ally in the war on terror"--a country, the article observed, led by a general who seized power in 1999 and last year broke his promise to step down from his position as chief of the armed forces. McManus also pointed out that Rice gave an explicit pass to Uzbekistan, a nation condemned by the State Department for its tyrannical suppression of most forms of freedom of expression.

Of course, these polite interventions understated the case. As Bush spoke to the frozen crowd of dignitaries and big-money donors, The New Yorker carried Seymour Hersh's latest investigations into the cold, dark heart of Bushism, including this quote from a former high-level intelligence official: "Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador? We founded them and we financed them. The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to tell Congress about it." There you have it. Bush, like Reagan before him, invokes America's highest ideals on behalf of a policy that supports mass murder and terrorism. Even when the reality of this gruesome charade is revealed, mainstream debate ignores it, preferring to focus on the phony expressions of "freedom" and "liberty" in front of the curtain. (If a liberal had made this accusation during the 1980s, when the US-supported death squads were doing their murderous dirty work, he would immediately have been tarred as pro-communist, or worse, by Reagan-friendly "liberal" publications like The New Republic.)

But even carefully worded examinations of the speech's most glaring contradictions had no place in America's Pravda-like cable news chat programs. As Media Matters for America documented, on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News "Republican and conservative guests and commentators outnumbered Democrats and progressives" forty-two to ten on the three networks. "Moreover, the rare Democrat or progressive guest usually appeared opposite conservatives, whereas most Republican and conservative guests and commentators appeared solo or alongside fellow conservatives." The ratio on CNN was ten to one, with extremist propaganda alternating with idiotic banter, such as Wolf Blitzer and Jeff Greenfield ruminating on the President's good fortune in being able to enjoy "a pretty cool license plate," "the best parking spaces in America and the coolest private plane."

To me, the most revealing commentary on the inauguration was provided by The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes. Writing in the organ that has provided the ideological window-dressing for so much of the Administration's adventurism, Barnes explained that the President's address had triumphantly ended the centuries-long ideological conflict between foreign policy idealists (meaning Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan) and realists (George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau). "Boom!" wrote Barnes, "The wall between the two schools is gone, at least in the president's formulation." As he explained, "The policy of idealists will lead to the goal of realists," because Bush had declared that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."

You have to be executive editor of The Weekly Standard to believe something that stupid. Indeed, the next day found numerous Administration members, speaking under the cover of Karl Rove-like background briefings, telling reporters not to pay too much attention to the man in front of the curtain. "White House officials said yesterday that President Bush's soaring inaugural address, in which he declared the goal of ending tyranny around the world, represents no significant shift in U.S. foreign policy," reported the Post's Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei. Forty million dollars spent on parties, pomp and circumstance, and the next day, back to the same bullshit.

Is this a great country or what?

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