Whats Happening in America

What Is Happening in America?

by Eliot Weinberger

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This short article was written for "Vorwarts," the official magazine of the German Social Democratic Party.

In the Western democracies in the last fifty years, we have grown accustomed to governments whose policies on specific issues may be good or bad, but which essentially institute incremental changes to the status quo. The major exceptions have been Thatcher and Reagan, but even their programs of dismantling systems of social welfare seem, in retrospect, mild compared to what is happening in the United States under George Bush-- or more exactly, the ruling junta that tells Bush what to do and say. It is unquestionably the most radical government in modern American history, one whose ideology and actions have become so pervasive, and are so unquestionably mirrored by the mass media here, that the population seems to have forgotten what "normal" is.

George Bush is the first unelected President of the United States, installed by a right-wing Supreme Court in a kind of judicial coup d'etat. He is the first to actively subvert one of the pillars of American democracy: the separation of church and state. There are now daily prayer meetings and Bible study groups in every branch of the government, and religious organizations are being given funds to take over educational and welfare programs that have always been the domain of the state. Bush is the first president to invoke the specific "Jesus Christ" rather than an ecumenical "God," and he has surrounded himself with evangelical Christians, including his Attorney General, who attends a church where he talks in tongues. It is the first administration to openly declare a policy of unilateral aggression, a "Pax Americana" where the presence of allies (whether England or Bulgaria) is agreeable but unimportant; where international treaties no longer apply to the United States; and where --for the first time in history-- this country reserves the right to non-defensive, "pre-emptive" strikes against any nation on earth, for whatever reason it declares. It is the first --since the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II-- to enact special laws for a specific ethnic group. Non-citizen young Muslim men are now required to register and subject themselves to interrogation. Many hundreds have been arrested and held without trial or access to legal assistance-- a violation of another pillar of American democracy: habeas corpus. Many have been taken from their families and deported on minor technical immigration violations; the whereabouts of many others are still unknown. And, in Guantanamo Bay, where it is said that they are now preparing execution chambers, hundreds of foreign nationals --including a 13-year-old and a man who claims to be 100-- have been kept for almost two years in a limbo that clearly contravenes the Geneva Convention. Similar to the Reagan era, it is an administration openly devoted to helping the rich and ignoring the poor, one that has turned the surplus of the Clinton years into a massive deficit through its combination of enormous tax cuts for the wealthy (particularly those who earn more than a million dollars a year) and increases in defense spending. (And, although Republicans always campaign on "less government," it has created the largest new government bureaucracy in history: the Department of Homeland Security.) The Financial Times of England, hardly a hotbed of leftists, has categorized this economic policy as "the lunatics taking over the asylum." But more than Reagan-- whose policies tended to benefit the rich in general-- most of Bush's legislation specifically enriches those in his lifelong inner circle from the oil, mining, logging, construction, and pharmaceutical industries. At the middle level of the bureaucracy, where laws may be issued without Congressional approval, hundreds of regulations have been changed to lower standards of pollution or safety in the workplace, to open up wilderness areas for exploitation, or to eliminate the testing of drugs. Billions in government contracts have been awarded, without competition, to corporations formerly run by administration officials.

In a country where the most significant social changes are enacted by court rulings, rather than by legislation, the Bush administration has been filling every level of the complex judicial system with ultra-right ideologues, especially those who have protected corporations from lawsuits by individuals or environmental groups, and those who are opposed to women's reproductive rights. It remains to be seen how far they can push their antipathy to contraception and abortion. They have already banned a rare form of late-term abortion that is only given when the health of the mother is endangered or the fetus is terribly deformed, and a large portion of Bush's heralded billions to Africa to fight AIDS will be devoted to so-called "abstinence" education.

Most of all, America doesn't feel like America any more. The climate of militarism and fear, similar to any totalitarian state, permeates everything. Bush is the first American president in memory to swagger around in a military uniform, though he himself-- like all of his most militant advisers-- evaded the Vietnam War. (Even Eisenhower, a general and a war hero, never wore his uniform while he was president.) In the airports of provincial cities, there are frequent announcements in that assuring, disembodied voice of science-fiction films: "The Department of Homeland Security advises that the Terror Alert is now . . . Code Orange." Every few weeks there is an announcement that another terrorist attack is imminent, and citizens are urged to take ludicrous measures, like sealing their windows, against biological and chemical attacks, and to report the suspicious activities of their neighbors. The Pentagon institutes the "Total Information Awareness" program to collect data on the ordinary activities of ordinary citizens (credit card charges, library book withdrawals, university course enrollments) and when this is perceived as going too far, they change the name to "Terrorist Information Awareness" and continue to do the same things. Millions are listed in airport security computers as potential terrorists, including antiwar demonstrators and pacifists. Critics are warned to "watch what they say" and lists of "traitors" are posted on the internet.

The war in Iraq has been the most extreme manifestation of this new America, and almost a casebook study in totalitarian techniques. First, an Enemy is created by blatant lies that are endlessly repeated until the population believes it: in this case, that Iraq was linked to the attack on the World Trade Center, and that it possesses vast "weapons of mass destruction" that threaten the world. Then, a War of Liberation, entirely portrayed by the mass media in terms of our Heroic Troops, with little or no imagery of casualties and devastation, and with morale-inspiring, scripted "news" scenes-- such as the toppling of the Saddam statue and the heroic "rescue" of Private Lynch-- worthy of Soviet cinema. Finally, as has happened with Afghanistan, very little news of the chaos that has followed the Great Victory. Instead, the propaganda machine moves on to a new Enemy --this time, Iran.

It is very difficult to speak of what is happening in America without resorting to the hyperbolic cliches of anti-Americanism that have lost their meaning after so many decades, but that have now finally come true. Perhaps one can only recite the facts, and I have mentioned only some of them here. This is, quite simply, the most frightening American administration in modern times, one that is appalling both to the left and to traditional conservatives. This junta is unabashed in its imperialist ambitions; it is enacting an Orwellian state of Perpetual War; it is dismantling, or attempting to dismantle, some of the most fundamental tenets of American democracy; it is acting without opposition within the government, and is operating so quickly on so many fronts that it has overwhelmed and exhausted any popular opposition. Perhaps it cannot be stopped, but the first step toward slowing it down is the recognition that this is an American government unlike any other in this country's history, and one for whom democracy is an obstacle.

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