The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
—Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Hoisted by their own petard.
Sometimes when we dream the sound of the waking world intrudes. Once (and I swear this is true), home on leave and fresh from boot camp, sleeping on the couch with the television on, I jerked awake to the sound of reveille, as I had been every morning at 0530 for the previous three months. The bugle call was emanating from the television I had left on, now broadcasting an old movie about the cavalry.
I used to sleep with the radio playing, so I’ve had dreams with soundtracks, some incongruous, sometimes by chance perfectly apt. They always seemed to intrude just before awaking. Sometimes a hopelessly trite or silly song would interrupt the most fearsome nightmare; welcome, but with an unsettling, ironic effect.
I have felt, like so many that I encounter, that the last few years of the Bush miasma resemble an unrelenting nightmare. Is this latest scandal, with its familiar and sordid nature, like a frivolous pop tune that intrudes on the slumber of the nation, awakening some from a grim reverie, others to a grim reality?
I confess to feeling no significant sense of outrage at those sordid details of Rep. Foley’s misdeeds that have managed to penetrate the flimsy mental barrier that I’ve erected against them (I really do like to sit these things out). Neither, though, am I amused.
Similar to the Monica Lewinsky farce, I can’t help but feel nothing so much as embarrassment for the nation as a whole, that we have made this the current focus of our national dialogue. I have the same feeling of wanting only to be done with it. I will say this much: the outrage of the Democrats is as artificially augmented as the breasts on a stripper (excuse me, just trying to keep in the seamy spirit of the thing). But then, when the nation was treated to lurid details about cigars and blue dresses, the outrage of the Republicans and their outlying mandarins was just as affected. Same as it ever was.
Thus, I was going to write that the Foley scandal (hopefully) bringing down the foul reign of Karl Rove was unsatisfying. Why couldn’t they be called to the dock for their bloodier crimes? It would take a sex scandal, would it? And one has to lament, it is more the nature of such a scandal to quickly and completely capture the public's attention with titillating details than any real outrage felt about abuses of power and sexual immorality that makes this the blow that may take down the fearsome Rovian beast. Our political process is largely determined by late night television. And Jack Paar is nowhere to be found.
But on further reflection, I can’t help but draw some perverse satisfaction. Rove, Bush, et al. have skillfully shanghaied social conservatives into the service of empire, with a level of deviousness that brings to mind the charlatans who led into slavery the waifs of the Children’s Crusade. I don’t mean to compare the average traditionalist to a child, but to an orphan; he is similarly abandoned, by his culture and political class.
The promises of the current “conservative” class of politicians have always been false, their personal behavior always strikingly hypocritical. The real sacrifices necessary to preserve some semblance of a coherent culture and moral code are an extremely hard sell, especially when they conflict with the aims of the Republicans' and Democrats' true patrons: the vested interests that bankroll the entire political enterprise. I’m reminded of a line from the film Boogie Nights, when the director, with droll understatement, tells the young actor, of the funding provided by the producer: “it’s an important part of the process.”
It may of course be that culture, community, and common morality are doomed by modernity and commerce. And politically, that is plain brown wrapper, behind-the-counter material.
Karl Rove has always recognized that all the great center of the nation wanted was that the ruling elite take them seriously, and for someone in power to address their concerns regarding our headlong flight from traditional morality into secular decadence; to frame these concerns as something other than rank bigotry. He knows how to make a show of it, and the opposition has made his job easy.
I remember reading a story in the New York Times about socially conservative voters before the election of 2004. It began something like this: John Smith is scared to death. What scares him is gay marriage. At the time I could only think to myself that with an opposition like the Democrats, the Republicans could very nearly phone it in. And in a sense they did, faxing talking points to the various corners of the mediasphere, with gay marriage prominent, I'm sure; right up there with the war and the failing empire, therein described as the "war on terror."
After the election, I was talking to a liberal friend, both of us stunned and saddened that Bush had won re-election, and I angrily said that the Democrats were hopelessly negligent for making an issue of gay marriage. For a week afterward, I was deluged by forwarded emails, each something about alleged gay-bashing crimes. It would have been no use arguing that the connection between violence and gay marriage was specious; the indulgent sense of moral security my friend felt for being on the "right" side of the question was more important than anything else.
Here then was the manipulation viewed from the other side: conjured up tales of a terrified homosexual underground continually hounded by pick-ups full of leering, murderous thugs who can only be thwarted if civil unions become the law of the land. A nighttime horror story of monsters under the bed; the phony specter of a near threat to distract the childlike rabble from the reality of the daily slaughter destroying the republic from half a world away.
I can almost hear an IED exploding, punctuating the stomach churning black comedy of it all.
Sexual morality has always been hopelessly beyond the control of any secular government, thank goodness. All a conservative leader can offer is resistance to the excesses of rights activists and educators coupled with a plan for rolling back government programs that tend to engender the social pathologies of illegitimacy and irresponsibility; welfare, for instance. Add a principled opposition to abortion and you’ve nearly completed the slate of realistic and legitimate legislative goals for the traditionalist.
Of course the Rove/Bush cultural movement hasn't done a thing to arrest any particular decline, nor has it offered any real opposition to either the welfare state or the durable system of race and sex preferences, offering only token resistance to tokenism when not joining in wholeheartedly. And where do they dump their most egregious example of an emblem promoted well beyond her merit? Atop the State Department.
A sound conservative tenet is to value deeds, and while domestically the Bush Administration has offered little more than tax cuts, profligate spending, and the occasional bullying gesture such as denying funding for stem cell research, abroad it has been very ambitious indeed.
Support for this so-called conservative agenda at home subsidizes the most aggressively interventionist agenda abroad. And few recall or even ever knew that there once was little connection between militarism and conservatism. The president seems to give speeches as often as not from the confines of a military base, and no one seems to mind; we are continually exposed to images of him with a uniformed formation behind him, like a minor dictator. And like many a minor dictator, his is a thoroughly incompetent military mind: his aggressive adventurism has been as poorly conceived, planned, and executed as it has been unprovoked.
But unlike the tinhorn despots he emulates, he is not an overpowering central figure surrounded by lackeys but an empty vessel into which a disdaining cabal of swaggering bureaucratic bullies pour their own ambitions and designs. Is it any wonder it seems no one is in charge?
And what tells this atheist observer that Bush is a pretender at piety? That he hasn't the humility to know he has no business being president.
Rove and Bush have long benefited by the sense of unrelenting cultural siege felt by those who have no place in the Democrats' hierarchy of grievance, those on whom it is always open season: traditionalist white Christians. People generally too immersed in the day to day business of work and family (that is to say, perpetuating the life of the nation) to be expected to invest the necessary time to unravel the ever increasing layers of Fox News bullshit disguising the true nature of current foreign policy. They trusted their leaders; that is, the ones who weren’t telling them they were hopeless troglodytes consigned to historical obscurity because they have misgivings about the post haste dismantling of any and all moral tradition.
Bush addressed their most exigent concerns, not with substance certainly, but with words. Then again, where else were they to go? The Democratic Party has abandoned them to the predations of corporate power and globalization with as much enthusiasm as the Republicans and, when it isn’t ignoring them completely, portrays them as the bogeyman with which they stir up the fears of their rubes. And all the while, the global designs of imperial conquest abroad and cultural dissolution at home proceed unheeded.
Of course the Democrats have lately been as inept at their particular form of demagoguery as the Republicans have been skilled. Relying on the phony populist rhetoric of the buffoonish Howard Dean, clumsily characterizing the middle class conservatives he's trying to woo as rednecks in pickup trucks; revealing he's never had a real conversation with either, and suggesting he holds each in equal disdain.
But then this appears, and we realize that it was inevitable that a highly placed hypocrite would be exposed. But the timing, it seems almost--providential.
But we’re nearly all hypocrites to some extent. That never did argue against the importance of a common morality to civilization. One might say it argues for it; we are all imperfect. Fallen, yes, like Mr. Foley, who I can't help but feel a bit sorry for; at least until I consider his support for the war. Then it's for the whole of us that I feel sorrow.
Chastity and temperance are vastly more appreciated when exhibited by the other guy. I can't resist dusting off an old standard:
I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, because then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.
There is a legend often related along with this quote, that Voltaire once excused his servants before engaging in a frank discussion of religion that he feared would erode their faith.
The elected are our servants; let's dismiss them so we may speak freely about their god, power.