Though George Bush, Dick Cheney and their cohorts are liars, one has always been reluctant to apply the word “liar” to the President of the United States. “Liar” is such a harsh word, a word so out of keeping with the (false?) conventions of professional and civil discourse. True, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, like Bush, were also liars, so that one might argue, only half facetiously, that over the years the word “liar” and the word “President” have become practically equivalent, practically synonyms. This argument would augur for it being permissible, as well as factual, to call the President a liar. But still the word “liar” has a harsh ring and the conventions remain against it, at least in written discourse.
On the other hand, to merely say that the President was “incorrect,” or that he made a “false” statement, sounds so weak in comparison with the venality and mendacity of the false statements. (WMDs anyone? Saddam supports Al Qaeda anyone? By fighting them in Iraq we are creating democracy throughout the Middle East anyone?)
So, since the use of “liars” is against convention, and “incorrect” and “false” are too namby pamby, what word shall one use?
Well, thanks to Hewlett Packard we now have the perfect word. George Bush is a pretexter. He and his cohorts are constantly pretexting. To pretext — using the word as a verb, in the same way that “impact” got turned into a verb (as in “it impacted me”) — is to lie. At minimum, to pretext is to falsely pretend, which, when you think about it, is hard to differentiate from lying, although the tone is perhaps slightly less harsh. So, using “to pretext” as meaning to lie (or, minimally, to falsely pretend), George and company pretexted about WMDs, pretexted about the use of rendition and torture, pretexted about the real reasons for using military tribunals (the “real reason was that they knew civilian courts would not let in evidence obtained by torture), pretexted about the competence of the government’s response to Katrina (remember “You’re doing a heck of a job Brownie?), pretexted about judicial appointments, and pretexted ad infinitum and ad nauseum.
Most recently Bush and his cohorts, in a mad fit of trying to keep Republicans in office by politicizing the war in Iraq, have been pretexting shamelessly about the meaning of our current wars. His war against terrorism is “‘the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,'” the Pretexter-In-Chief said on September 11th. And “‘the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad,'” he said the same day. One might ask, how can the pretexter know, in only the sixth year of the 21st century, that the battle against terrorism is the decisive ideological battle of a century that still has 94 years to go? Could a person in the year 1906 have foreseen the Great War and the problems it left? The rise of Soviet Communism? The rise of German fascism? World War II? The atomic age? The Cold War? Repeated genocides against one group and another? The rise of Muslim fundamentalism? All of which occurred in the 94 years after 1906. Is Bush some sort of clairvoyant, some sort of Nostradamus, who can see the future in 2006 in ways that were denied to the lesser mortals of 1906? Why does one doubt this?
What’s more, doesn’t the “‘decisive ideological struggle of the 20th century'” sound awfully much like Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s statements that we must fight and defeat the communists in Viet Nam or they will threaten and possibly take over the entire “free world”? (Which in truth is not always so free and in some places is not free at all.) Johnson’s and Nixon’s statements were pretexts — which doesn’t augur well for Bush’s statements about decisive ideological battles. And doesn’t Bush’s statement that our safety depends on fighting them in the streets of Baghdad remind you of, isn’t it defacto identical to, Johnson’s infamous statement that we have to fight them in Viet Nam or we’ll have to fight them in the streets of San Francisco? Johnson’s statement was a pretext. Bush’s isn’t?
Of course, Bush’s most recent pretexts can falsely be argued to be something other than pretexting. One could say, for example, that he is not pretexting, but rather is expressing honestly held opinions, or is merely indulging in politics. Sorry bub. These arguments won’t do. If he is merely engaging in politics, this would signify yet again how low our politics have sunk. And it also raises a somewhat philosophical question. If pretexting might not be pretexting if one believes it (assuming that Bush does), then when is an honestly held belief so stupid, so preposterous, that it is the defacto equivalent of a pretext? Is the statement that the holocaust never happened not a lie, despite its stupidity and counterfactualness, because David Irving and Ahmadinejad really believe it? We open the door to more and continuous pretexting if we allow such nonsense not to be thought pretexting, since people, including Pretexters-In-Chief, can always say, “Well, I really believe it.” (As Lincoln once analogously remarked, if one says the Constitution allows a President to fight a war without congressional approval whenever he says he is repelling an attack, then one is saying the President can fight a war whenever he chooses to say he is repelling an attack. So, too, here a pretexter would be found not to be pretexting because he really believes his own lies, er, pretexts. (It is an old saw that one should never believe one’s own b.s.))
Bush’s pretexts, including really dumb statements such as his most recent pretexts about the supposed decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the streets of Baghdad, also bring up other questions. How is it that this country elects leaders of such remarkably little intelligence as Bush and his mentor, the Yale flunk-out (who failed out when only 2% of Yalies did so.) Or, to put the matter harshly, but possibly truly, is it possible that our electorate is so stupid, or so biased, that it is regularly taken in by such people? Sadly, the latter possibility does not seem wholly bereft of accuracy. A woman who sometimes responds to my blogs, and whose responses make plain that she is a person of parts, recently opined to me that, looking around the world, it would seem that about one-third of the population of countries is deeply, instinctually conservative. Her estimate would seem true if not low for America, if you ask me. (Whereas, one would estimate that only a far smaller percentage of the population — perhaps five or ten percent — are deeply, instinctually liberal. (Which is one of the reasons why our Revolution was so remarkable and why Tom Paine remained odd man out for so long though he is perhaps the greatest political writer ever.)) Given the heavily conservative tilt of our population, there are overwhelming numbers of people who wish to believe, and therefore will believe, any conservative claptrap that reactionary pretexters like Bush and Cheney spout, no matter how absurd it is. So yes, we are faced with serious mass stupidity by lots of the electorate, aided and abetted by the incompetence and sometimes mass stupidity of the media.
Much of this, of course, contributes to the reasons why the right wing is so angry at higher education, since the right wing (the David Horowitz crowd) thinks the academy has been taken over by the left — which surely is not true of at least some highly influential places like the University of Chicago Economics Department (and its Political Science department — I really don’t know) — and which, even where true, does not seem to be having much effect on the views of students, who are often very conservative these days. The right wing zealots, however, having taken over the three branches of the Federal Government, much of state government, much of the press, and most think tanks cannot stand the fact that elements of the academy resist. (A couple of years ago it was said here, to the seeming consternation of at least one leading conservative blogger, that in view of the conservative takeover of most of America, and notwithstanding the variegated intellectual viewpoints of our own school’s faculty, there was a real question whether liberals were obliged, Horowitzian-like, to insure that there are conservatives on faculties. Lately some others have said the same thing for the same reasons. And, given the press, the think tanks, the multitude of conservative books, and the multitude of conservative students, one need not worry that the conservative view will be shut out on campus.)
In any event, it seems to me that a major share of an electorate is fundamentally conservative, and will accept any conservative pretext, no matter how wrong or even stupid, that is offered by any (continuous) pretexter like Bush. Currently, the only saving grace (if it can be called that) in the long run is that some of these people will ultimately come around to conceding the truth after the facts showing the pretexting have piled up year after year, as they have piled up for years now regarding Iraq, so that even people who voted for and long favored the Pretexter-In-Chief are apparently proving somewhat resistant to Bush’s current pretexts aimed at saving a Republican Congress, thereby enabling him to continue his war indefinitely and to save his own pretexting hide. Possibly, there may also be another saving grace in process of arising. There are some who think that the heavily conservative tilt of the population is, most importantly, a tilt of the older generation, and that the rising younger generation generally does not share it, notwithstanding all the YAFs, YRs, Federalist Societies and other conservative to reactionary student organizations on campus. If this is true, there may ultimately be a change in instinctual preferences. But even so, in the meanwhile, and while others are only slowly coming to grips with the actual facts which confute the pretexts of Bushian cohorts, people like Paul Krugman and the saving five or ten percent who recognized the facts early-on will have to live in frustration that others refuse to accept plain truths that guys like Krugman try to explain to them.
George Bush’s pretexting has been in service of what he thinks a great cause: himself. It would seem a virtual certainty that Bush thinks fate has destined him to be a great man. He even seems to think that God speaks through him. (Does he even think that saving him to be a great man is why God rescued him from being a drunk and a serial failure on the private side? It would never occur to him, I imagine, that God saved him to preside over a disaster — in government, where competence is not a prerequisite to reaching high office.)
For Bush, September 11th was a godsend, and he should thank his lucky stars that he paid no attention to the warning memo of August 6, 2001 and that the FBI paid no attention to the agent(s?) who was concerned that flying lessons were being taken by one of the persons who ultimately was a hijacker on 9/11. Had Bush paid attention to the August 6th memo, or had the FBI heeded warnings, there might have been no 9/11, and Bush would have been sunk. For on September 10, 2001 he was a nondescript, increasingly less popular president with no significant program, no major thrust, nothing that would allow him to be remembered as the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, or even the three dollar bill Kennedy are remembered. One day later, the stage was set for him to be a great man, to be a hero: to be the President who took out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and around the world, who put down Saddam, who brought peace and democracy to the Middle East. (It is not possible, is it, that this is what was going through his mind during the famous few minutes, highlighted by Michael Moore, of what appeared to be blankness in the grammar school classroom when he was told about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers?) Nine eleven gave Bush his “life force” as President. It gave him the ability to pretext about one thing after another in service of his envisioned greatness, to invade countries, to whip the American people, in service of his envisioned greatness, into a continuous state of fear as if we were facing possible Japanese and German invasions in World War II amidst takeovers of truly huge, truly enormous chunks of the civilized world by the Nazi military machine and the Japanese militarists. Nine eleven gave Bush a raison d’etre where before he had none, and enabled him, in his own mind, to pursue the course that would lead to the self imagined greatness that he thought his destiny.
You know, during World War II the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah Witness children could be forced to salute the flag in school. About a year later the Court reversed itself. Robert Jackson, whom I think the greatest pure writer ever to sit on the high Court, was against the reversal. He opined that, given the quick change of course, the majority’s reversing opinion would in future be of more interest to psychologists than to lawyers. He was, of course, wrong. Lawyers wholeheartedly agree with the second, reversing opinion, which is the opinion considered for decades now in the study of and writing about law, and lawyers wonder how the Court could have reached its first, soon reversed opinion. If there is anything worthy of psychoanalyzing, it is the initial opinion and the psychological reasons for a change of mind that led to the second, widely honored opinion. Yet Jackson’s statement nonetheless has a certain resonance here. It would not surprise me if, in future decades — say thirty, forty and fifty years from today — George Bush’s rapid embrace of 9/11, and his continuous use of it for his own, often highly partisan purposes, is a subject of interest and concern to head doctors and their ilk, not just to professors and other students of foreign relations, military affairs, or political affairs. It could well be a psychological case study of the use of disasters, and the underlying reasons for the use of disasters, to lift one to one’s self-imagined destiny of greatness.
Bush’s dreams of glory, his pretexting in their service, and the mindset into which he and his cohorts whipped the American people, have led to horrible events and results, as all know. To recapitulate just some of them, we have engaged in torture; have run secret prisons (as Bush recently conceded); have started a disastrous war in Iraq — a war which in recent months is getting ever worse, as is the war in Afghanistan too, a war in which nearly 3,000 Americans have been killed, many thousands more, perhaps nearly a score of thousands more, have been seriously crippled for life, and untold numbers of Iraqis have been killed, perhaps 100,000 or more; have let American soldiers who tortured or killed prisoners escape with a slap on the wrist and wouldn’t dream of putting higher ups in the dock for the torture; have held even innocent people in prisons for years on end; have seen the legal profession traduced by professionally despicable memoranda written and approved by reactionary lawyers to give legal cover to assaulters and murderers ranging up to the Pretexter-In-Chief (a service for which the lawyers received judgeships, cabinet positions and prestigious professorships); have spied on American civilians; and have wreaked havoc on our military services, with some people having to serve tour after tour after tour. Now the Pretexter-In-Chief has submitted a bill, and he and his henchmen in the Executive and Congress are seeking immediate passage with the least possible consideration (ala the Patriot Act) of a bill, that will make permanent some of the terrible things, and will permit additional terrible things: among other things the bill would retroactively immunize torture which was a felony under federal law, would allow much torture in the future, would allow people to be put to death without seeing the evidence against them, and would cause rules of the Geneva Convention to evaporate as far as the United States is concerned. All of this is simply unpalatable to any decent person — as some of it explicitly was to the Armed Services’ various Judge Advocates General when they testified about it to Congress — but is perfectly fine to the pretexters and the savages who are their allies in the government and the country. And, unpalatable to decent people as it in fact is, it inevitably brings up certain parallels with Nazi Germany, parallels regarding the governors and parallels regarding the governed, parallels, that is, regarding the Nazi officials high and low who drove the policies of that despicable regime, and parallels regarding ordinary citizens and even the now infamously termed “German judges,” who merely went along with the regime. I wish to talk in this blog about a parallel, or partial parallel, regarding the governed.
Like Roosevelt’s famous description of Pearl Harbor, the ordinary German citizens of the Nazi period, who went along with the regime for one reason and another, are today remembered in infamy. Whether because of economic desperation, resurgent nationalistic pride, militaristic tradition, significantly authoritarian tradition, anti-Semitism, stab-in-the-back baloney, or simply not giving a damn, they let it all happen, they let their leaders unleash the greatest worldwide military holocaust in history. One of the questions thus asked, often bitterly, of or about the ordinary German citizen by later generations of Germans, and by citizens of the allies, was “What did you do during the War?” The world did not forget the ordinary citizens’ complicity; the history-minded remember it still, and likely will continue to remember it for 200 years from the end of the War. The ordinary citizens were complicit in creating a stain on Germany that will be remembered for hundreds of years no matter how democratic, even paradigmatically democratic, today’s Germany is and tomorrow’s may be
We Americans of today are living through a period that in a crucial way is similar to that of the WWII Germans — and, it can even be argued, have been living through such a period since Johnson escalated Viet Nam, though we shall concentrate here only on the last four years or so. We are living through a period when the Bushian pretexters have wrought international havoc, have wrought deaths galore, have wrought torture, have wrought abandonment of traditional American morals, have wrought the loss of civil liberties, have wrought all this by wrighting the continuous fear against which FDR warned in his first inaugural, have thus in toto wrought disasters right and left, as many of us now agree, and have wrought pregnant possibilities of even wider wars and even greater disasters in future. By continuous pretexting and the disasters it enabled them to cause, they have stained this country, as the Nazis stained Germany. The world is no more likely to forget this pretexters stain in future than it is to forget the stain on Germany. In future, as was true for the supposedly “innocent” Germans of the War, people are going to wonder and to ask, and history is going to assess the question of, “What did you do when the pretexter stain, the disasters caused by Bush and company, was running riot?”
Few of us ordinary citizens, almost none of us, have done enough, and few, almost none of us, have had the capacity to do more than we did. We are, after all, like the ordinary Germans of the war period, leading ordinary lives; we have no political power, no celebrityhood for attracting attention, no voice, really, in what is happening, notwithstanding that we have the right to vote, a right that, despite the platitudes of politicians about the power of the vote, has become next door to meaningless in modern America where money, power and celebrityhood count for all, morality and decency for very little, and where the two political parties are, in the classic words of George Wallace — George Wallace for Pete’s sake — just tweedledum and tweedledee.
In view of all this, I am going to run an experiment for the sake of history. Given the nature of America, and given the nature of Americans, I don’t expect the experiment to be a success, at least not unless and until it is replicated by some person or some group that has a lot of money and an extensively recognizable name. But here it is: A website has been set up entitled “LetHistoryKnow.com.” This website will allow any persons who disagree with any or all of the pretexters’ policies that have led to the historical stain on America, to register their disagreement for history, for their own children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren. All that one has to do to register his or her disagreement for history and descendants is to pull up the website, LetHistoryKnow.com, type into the space provided for this purpose the (Goldwynesque) phrase, “Include me out,” and type in one’s web name and address and/or, if one is brave, one’s real name and state of residence (not one’s street address). The website will provide a permanent record of those who want history and their descendants to know that they feel strongly enough about enough of the Pretexter Stain policies — maybe not all of the policies, but at least some of them — to register their disagreement for posterity, disagreement registered by the phrase “Include me out.” (If enough people register their disagreement with the Pretexter Stain policies, I will, of course, make sure the politicians and the media learn of it.) My own position has been and will be permanently recorded ad nauseum through my blogs, journal articles and books. But in decency, just in case there are risks involved (which I doubt), my name must also be the first one on the register of names on “LetHistoryKnow.com“, so that mine will be the first name exposed to the risks, if there are any. Whether there will be any other names after mine remains to be seen, though I, of course, encourage people to say “Include me out” and to put down their web names and addresses and/or their actual names and states of residence, so that history and/or their descendants will have a permanent record of where they stood during the time of the Pretexter Stain.
LAWRENCE R. VELVEL is the Dean of Massachusetts School of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.