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Deferral by Default

Dear Gabriel,

Like the rest of the family I’ve hassled you quite a bit over the years for just pulling up stakes and moving to Syria, of all places. (Was Long Island that bad?) But in light of the election results here last week I wonder, my dear older brother, if you might have a spare room or two for my family and me. Damascus suddenly looks like a good place to spend the next couple of years of this Republican shogunate, although I wouldn’t be surprised if your mayor, too, is a Republican, if your muezzin is a Republican, if your cats meow Republican. They’re everywhere, those Grand Old Party boomers. Word has it the GOP expects to sweep the first elections in Baghdad after the winter’s war, then set its sights on a few of those oily Asian republics and boldly go where no pipeline has gone before.

I’m exaggerating. Even the Democrats would kill for those pipelines, but you get the idea. The country is in the mood for monochromatic simplicities like never since the days when Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge posed as presidents, Congress was somnolent, and William Howard Taft, that rotund mediocrity, was chief justice of the very conservative supreme court he’d packed a few years earlier, when he was president. Then as now the country had gone through a bit of a trauma — not World War I, which Americans rather enjoyed as they do most wars, but a tide of anti-corporate populism that scared Wall Street stiff. The Harding-Coolidge years lubed up Wall Street again and stiffed everybody else, with the inevitable consequence of 1929. We’re in for a repeat racket.

You left the country just as the purring 1990s got under way, but think of them as the 1920s uncorked and unclothed, as the1980s unbound. No prohibitions to worry about, no more Soviet Union to worry about, not much of anything to worry about, really. For a while it even seemed as if we had deficits and the business cycle licked. With the whole nation pledging allegiance to the markets, politics became so irrelevant, Democrats and Republicans so interchangeable, that the whole country settled into governance by toss-up. Then came the attacks. Wall Street was literally doused in the ashes of Sept. 11, and for a while the sweat in corporate board rooms smelled of that 1929 vintage. Acridly fruity. The economy was tanking anyway, like the Bush presidency, and it looked as if having an ellipsis for a president might prove costly.

But Republican policy is the art of deferral. The stage managers of the Bush presidency realized immediately that the trauma this time was at once far more visceral and far less severe than, say, a real war or a depression. Like any act of terrorism in an essentially stable society the attacks were nothing more than a spectacularly deadly freak. They couldn’t change the lives of most Americans one whit, and didn’t. The change was all Bush’s. He turned the attacks into his own personal blessing, milking them for their traumatic value as his only means of making himself indispensable and his business-scripted repression necessary. Plagiarizing from the Cold War play book, he manufactured the kind of fears and enmities that naturally make Americans more conservative. He succeeded so well that the likes of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, two basement-variety rogues, now seem more threatening to the United States than Stalin, Kruschev and their ICBMs ever did. (And they said the age of irony was dead). Just as Harding called the American dream “a damn good phrase with which to carry an election,” Bush has made perpetual war with one axis or another a damn good plan with which to carry many elections. Fear and loathing have never been so politically expedient.

The administration can now resume making America safer for shareholders and the world safer for America, all the while paying for the new imperium with Reagan-style debt and that unfailing electoral bribe, the tax cut. Because most of those who do vote are older, richer and exclusively concerned with defying taxes (if not death), the Republican gift has been to turn their America into a banana republic, the kind of place where they don’t have to pay taxes, but legally. As a result our social services are beginning to look like those of a banana republic, too (inmates get better health care than about 50 million Americans, feedlots are better subsidized than many schools). You’d think the Democrats would have a thing or two to say about this splendid little heist. But the opposition is part of the problem. It doesn’t exist. I haven’t been a Democrat since Adlai Stevenson left the building (and I wasn’t even born when Adlai Stevenson was around), but I’m sure I’m only one in many millions who look at Democrats and despair of their intellectual vapidity, their cluelessness in the face of so many opportunities to live up to their name. They’ve instead stood by like spectators at their own beheading. The wonder is that despite everything the nation is still split down the middle between the two parties, which only confirms the extent to which Republicans are winning by default. The show is so easily the Democrats’ to steal, if they could muster a spine or two out of their skeletal ideas. But should I make my way out to you, dear Gabriel, I wouldn’t be surprised if the road to Damascus was full of Democrats falling off their donkeys. I would be surprised if any of them could manage a revelation or two to help them make their way back to where they belong. Chances are they’d get right back on their donkeys and confuse them with elephants.

Give my love to Faridah and your three boys. But on second thought, don’t leave the porch light on for us. The best of America was hewed in dissent, and I have too much faith in this place to turn off my own porch light.

PIERRE TRISTAM is a Daytona Beach News-Journal editorial writer and columnist. He can be reached at ptristam@att.net

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