Note: This article was originally printed in my high school newspaper, so some of the examples used are specific to that environment.
It is difficult to really figure out what’s going on with the Bush Administration lately. There’s been the habeas corpus issue: under new United States law any foreigner can be held prisoner indefinitely. No reason need ever be given, and no one held under the new provision has any right of access to the judicial system. In theory, any foreign exchange student could be held in this manner. There’s also the Bush administration’s stonewalling and lack of action on the ridiculous “torture” issue. “We do not torture,” Bush said. A ridiculous statement to make in the face of more than 300 photographs depicting graphic scenes of torture. It’s possible to go on at length in a litany of outrage after outrage, and to present good, compelling cases against nearly everything that Bush has done since the day he first mentioned Saddam Hussein.
These good arguments are presented constantly, but they are usually neutralized or buried. There are good reasons for this, too: it’s true that several of the channels which distribute information to the ‘masses’ are controlled by people with an interest in tilting the message conservatively simply because the conservatives are the ones who have expressed willingness to play ball with corporate interests. But the number of media companies which repeat Republican messages is too great to be accounted for by a simple explanation of conscious slanting. Whenever media outlets refer to the War on Terrorism or talk about “the fact that the Democrats have not offered an alternative plan,” (as the Eagle did only a few days ago) they are enforcing Bush’s ideas and paradigms. Mostly we assume that people formulate opinions and then express them with words, but fairly often the process reverses. Words create thoughts, and thoughts create opinions.
Here’s an example: our school’s administration enforces the controversial (among students) policy with regard to holes in jeans and other clothing. Since the administration is not elected by and does not directly represent the students, they are not required to justify their policy at any length, or with anything approaching the vigor of a political campaign. This is all to the good, but let us suppose for a moment that the students at our school do elect the administrators, and that two parties develop, one opposing holes in jeans and the other supporting holes in jeans. Obviously the default position of the students would be support for a loosened policy. How would the hole-free party go about winning?
First they would anticipate the arguments of their opponents: holes in clothes do not represent a significant disruption, prohibiting holes inhibits freedom of expression, and lower income students may not have the money to buy new clothes every time their old ones tear.
The obvious next step would be to answer these questions, but to answer them would be to jump the gun. First it is necessary to decide how to answer them. The anti-holes party would never use words such as ‘prohibited,’ ‘not allowed’ or ‘illegalized.’ They would take care to always refer to their policy as ‘Freedom from Holes’ and to refer to aspects of their cause in terms of the positive consequence that they would like the listener to perceive.
It’s also important that, concurrent to the construction of a special ideologically charged vocabulary, the vocabulary used to express the opposition view-point be destroyed. The anti-holes party would let a member of the opposition commit an error of some sort and then would relate it to their political positions by telling the public that the mistake came as a result of moral weakness, and that therefore support of a permissive dress-code is a sign of moral weakness. Anti-holes partisans would take care to utilize the language of the opposition in their produced context of moral weakness and abdication of family values, until soon ‘pro-hole’ might as well be the same thing as ‘pro-manslaughter’ or ‘pro-nudism.’ If we are willing to give in on this one point, they ask, where will it end? Why should there be any dress code at all? Further, why should anyone come to school?
At this point it’s obvious to everyone that anyone who opposes a strict dress code is interested in the downfall of the entire school system. In fact, they are working against USD 265. Since their speech is harmful, it must be stopped, by whatever means necessary.
It’s easy enough to see through all that. But it’s directly analogous to the approach that the GOP has consciously taken to win the last two elections. The conservatives (and in fact most successful politicians) start with a set of initial facts and from that point attempt to create impressions, negative and positive, in the minds of the audience. Aware of the attention span of their audience and aware of the benefit of brevity, politicians make the easiest, simplest, shortest arguments that they can, “Senator So-and-So opposes the Patriot Act. I just wonder why he wants the terrorists to win.” When Senator So-and-So responds, he can make his specific arguments against the Patriot Act, but how can he address the charge of being soft on terror, other than to simply deny it, which also has the effect of allowing the sound-bite back into the media, where it can percolate in the mind of the masses. It’s untenable to deny the charge, and it’s untenable to simply leave the charge hanging in the air unanswered. Too many liberal challengers have been presented with this dilemma, and have responded as indicated by their pollsters and spreadsheets: by trying to sop out a position in the middle where enough voters on either side will be just frustrated enough to vote against the other fellow.
Democrats can’t get by by arguing against torture, for habeas corpus, and against the Patriot Act. By taking this issue by issue approach Democrats miss a huge segment of the populace. Republicans in general and Bush in particular claim to have specific, good, reasons for their unprecedented grab at executive power. But the only real reason that is ever presented to the electorate is a blanket claim that all measures being taken are necessary to fight the War on Terror, and that anyone who opposes any of them is capitulating to the terrorists.
So what Democrats, progressives, and conservatives (who have traditionally represented logic and moderation in foreign policy) must oppose is the whole idea of a War on Terror. The idea implicit in the War on Terror construct is an idea of terrorism as empire, with ‘Islamofascism’ an analogue to the USSR. This simply isn’t true. The goal of the terrorists isn’t to create a Muslim Empire or a new Caliphate. The fact that many of them seem to be occupied with killing each other should be graphic proof of this. There are not two monolithic powers involved here; a monolithic strategy is not going to work. Because terrorism is a mindset rather than an organization, and because the United States is too large and too free to ever be totally safe from it, the War on Terror is a war that can never be won. It will go on forever unless it is ended now. Nations who wage endless wars do not persist.