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What the US Says Goes

I’ve read that severe autism involves receiving a storm of sensory perceptions, literally assaulting a mind unable to properly sort them out. It is a terrifying experience, driving sufferers to avoid human contact.

That description of autism resembles what I briefly sometimes experience from the passing parade of political events.

A Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, a man with a family and career in Canada, was arrested and deported last fall on his way to Europe while simply changing planes in New York. In an act of aggressive stupidity, despite his travelling on a Canadian passport, he was deported by American authorities to Syria. His family has not heard from him since. Now, we have received reports that the man has been severely tortured. After all, Syria is a closed society, and he would be wanted for avoiding military service if nothing else, the very thing that motivated millions of people to migrate to America from Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The American Secretary of State announced in his dignified baritone that the U.S. will indeed pay its promised blood-money of $15 million dollars each for the lives of Hussein’s sons. I thought this a fitting cap to Mr. Powell’s career in the State Department. Apparently, he thought so, too, for not long after, he let it be known he would retire after Bush’s next inauguration. I guess he felt he had to get this out before it became clear to the whole world that Bush’s crowd was as likely to re-appoint him as give up root-beer socials over smoldering cows down at the ranch.

There will almost certainly be a second inauguration, despite all those desperately silly count-down clocks on the Internet telling us how long Bush has left. This most inarticulate President in American history, a man who has set in motion policies we will all live to regret, remains fairly popular. I don’t know which is the more appropriate analogy, the vast ship that takes a very great time to swing into a turn or the lab critter that learns only by banging its head into the walls of a maze, to best describe America’s capacity for political advance, but it is painfully slow.

General Ricardo Sanchez, America’s Boss of Bosses in Iraq, has ordered occupying troops to lighten up a bit, recognizing what the whole world understands, that spraying a crowd of civilians with automatic fire does not win hearts and minds. I think he does need, however, to speak with the troops who ripped Iraqi flags from the graves of Hussein’s sons and stomped the rough graves with their boots. If Iraqis themselves did this, it would be a fair expression of past hatred, but American soldiers doing it is nothing short of stupid.

Bush’s distinguished Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who believes both in speaking in tongues and in stepping on them when they don’t agree with him, has directed federal prosecutors to report judges giving light sentences. So much for the idea of respecting judicial independence, but judges have always been targets for America’s crypto-Nazis. The only good high-court judge is one who interprets the Constitution as though it were still 1789, rather than 2003, and the only good lower-court judge is one who packs the prisons.

Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he will run for governor of California. This would not be notable since California’s list of past governors includes Ronald Reagan, former pitchman for Chesterfield cigarettes and Boraxo soap powder, Jerry Brown, fast-talking mystic, and Richard Nixon, the Republican gift that just kept giving. What is notable is that Hollywood’s aging, dyed-hair, action-figure hero started his campaign with words resembling those of now-forgotten whiner-billionaire, Ross Perot. Remember, how Perot was going to clean out the stables in Washington? Arnold is going to “clean house in Sacramento,” California. He’ll squeeze it in between three-hour sessions in the gym and appointments with his hair dresser, manicurist, and body-waxing team. What a fresh and inspiring theme, cleaning house, offered to the people of the nation’s largest, wealthiest state. He’ll probably be elected.

Al Gore is making a much-promoted speech, a clear hint that interest in running still flickers in the breast of this ineffectual politician whose annoying campaign helped give the world Bush. It is not even a slight exaggeration to say that something is very, very wrong with America’s political system when Bush and Gore are the best candidates 280 million people can field.

A small disturbance quivered through the press over the proposal for a futures market in terror attacks advanced by John Poindexter, convicted felon given new life by Bush as one of those Republican government-haters who never in his life has done anything but work for government, a public-service lifer. While I find his futures-market idea repulsive, I cannot quite grasp the wide disapproval. The truth is that America is coming almost to be defined by lotteries. Apart from state lotteries everywhere and whole communities living off the avails of casinos, many companies selling almost anything you care to name have shifted their advertising spending to running lotteries in the mail. You would think from their promotional material that they weren’t selling anything but were just in the business of making strangers happy by winning big. It’s the same for much of the telephone soliciting that plagues America: they’re only calling to give you something. And it is a crap shoot in America whether your employer even continues to offer a decent health insurance policy.

Bush’s efforts in the Middle East certainly are paying big dividends. Israel released 340 carefully-selected Palestinian prisoners, and the act was front-page news as though something important had happened. Never mind that Israel holds about 6,000 such prisoners, and never mind that all of them were improperly arrested and imprisoned by the Middle East’s “only democracy.” The release of less than 6 percent of them is advertised as a step towards peace by the contemporary Prince of Peace, Ariel Sharon. Meanwhile, the world’s biggest slab of reinforced concrete, complete with machine-gun towers and razor wire, Sharon’s mere “fence” (ah, what’s in a name!), continues to rise on the West Bank, severing the natural relationships of centuries and demonstrating Sharon’s conception of a Palestinian state resembling a zoo exhibit of dangerous animals secure in their natural habitant.

I received my 437th e-mail accusing me of anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism? You might think that is the name for some dreadful heresy, opposing the sacred official religion. Perhaps, it is the political equivalent of following anti-Christ? Religion and nationalism do get very confused in America. That’s certainly the attitude such writers display.

The simple truth is that if being critical of the arrogant, thoughtless, and abusive aspects of American society sometimes earns you this epithet, it may come to be regarded it as an honorable distinction. This kind of unimaginative labeling shows no awareness of a critical tradition embracing Swift, Voltaire, and Johnson, and extending back to Isaiah and Jeremiah. A critical tradition that included those like Tom Paine who worked to stoke the embers of revolution in America more than two centuries ago, but then, missing, too, is any awareness that America’s armies now resemble the nasty Redcoats and Hessians excoriated in every grade-school history text.

The e-mail came from an American–they always do–undoubtedly someone deeply affected by his high-school experiences of watching cheer leaders flipping to reveal what’s under their skirts to the sounds of out-of-tune brass bands and intermittent prayers for home-school victory. These early cultural experiences regrettably often permanently fix future understanding and behavior.

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John Chuckman lives in Canada.

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