William Gladstone, the on-again, off-again British prime minister for most of the second half of the 19th century, famously liked to walk the streets at night, counseling prostitutes to a more wholesome life. He did so when he was young. He did so when he was old, and through his four terms as prime minister from 1868 through 1894. Those were the years when Britain thought itself Queen Victoria’s and God’s gift to the world (in that order), when imperialism found cover behind the infomercial known as the white man’s burden.
The link between Gladstone’s streetwalking and Britain’s globe-trotting is one of those striking historic parallels between a man’s ideals personifying a civilization’s presumptions. The link isn’t just symbolic. It betrays the rot at the heart of Western assumptions about right and wrong, about who, your majesty, the savages are. For Gladstone wasn’t a compulsive streetwalker for virtue all those years: He was, in fact, an assiduous whoremonger. He makes you think of that old hair club commercial — “I’m not just the president, I’m a customer.” And Britain wasn’t bringing civilization to the world so much as decimating and retarding it where it didn’t fit with Albion’s tastes.
Britain has long been replaced by the United States as the world’s civilizing Santa. But aside from the Big Stick years of Presidents McKinley and the first Roosevelt, who left no natives unturned in the Philippines and South of the Border, it should be said that American imperialism had a decidedly Wilsonian bend for most of the 20th century. It was too busy saving the world rather than conquering it (except, again, South of the Border). When the Soviet Union fell, it looked as if America’s job as world’s sheriff was done. Finally, the West’s trillions could be invested in something more constructive than missiles and fearmongers’ dividends.
Sure enough, the sprawl of Pentagon budgets slowed under Bill Clinton.
Conservatives panicked. For lack of war’s distortions on national purpose — the phonier the war, the greater the distortions — peace tends to rouse social consciences, and with them police truncheons (on labor in the 1920s, blacks in the ’50s, students and women in the ’60s, anti-globalists in the ’90s). Peace isn’t good for certain trades, imperial power and aimless leadership among them. For all his personal foibles, Gladstone was a great leader and reformer, and a critic of Britain’s colonial brutality under Benjamin Disraeli. Our street-walker for democracy has none of Gladstone’s qualities and all of Disraeli’s defects.
Until the latter days of 2001, President Bush’s skeletal talents for peacetime democracy were creaking out of the closet and down the ravine of opinion polls. He was a Hoover in the making (the president or the vacuum, your pick). Osama bin Laden to the rescue. His one-hit wonder on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon did wonders for a presidency looki! ng for salvation. And the most imperial presidency in the nation’s history was off on its wolves’ hunt, with democracy for a battle flag.
While President Bush has been preaching a war for democracy before every military audience that will have him, democracy has never been so much in retreat by democracies’ own doing. The same old Mideast despots we call our friends — in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan — are aborting democratic moves the moment people make them, and American power is radicalizing Iraq along Iranian (that is, tyrannical), rather than democratic, impulses. But that’s to be expected in a region where despotism is second nature. What was less expected is the retreat of democracy in the West. In the United States our own citizens defend domestic spying, torture, the suspension of constitutional protections for whomever the president chooses.
The transformation of America into an emerging police state, example to the world, is encouraging other democracies to follow. The European Union is readying to do what the National Security Agency has been doing for years — track all electronic communications on the continent. Britain is readying to track every car and truck’s movement on every road. Italy, Britain and France have all expanded government’s power to imprison people without charge for lengthy periods. Under Prime Minister John Howard, Australia enacted into law a draconian alien and sedition act that exceeds America’s Patriot Act (which reverses the innocent-until-proven-guilty standard). If elected Jan. 23, Canada’s conservative candidate for prime minister vows to militarize the country’s cities.
That’s Bush’s march for democracy for you: Autocracy on autopilot. And for what? For fascism’s seducer, a pimp called security, and whose whores we all are.
PIERRE TRISTAM is a columnist at the Daytona Beach News-Journal and editor of Candide’s Notebooks. Reach him at email@example.com.