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There is no greater sorrow than looking back and recalling that we have had better times.
Throw your mind back to September 10, 2001. The price of gas: $1.40 per gallon. The national debt: $5 trillion dollars, sizeable but only about half of what it is today. America had over 3 million more manufacturing jobs. The trade deficit too was around half today’s. A budget surplus. The US population: 282 million, about 20 million less than now. And the unkindest cut of all: you were seven years younger.
Good and serene as that time looks in retrospect, things were even better than mere numbers may indicate. Consider this.
The day before 9-11, how many would have accepted a suggestion that seven years later, they would have been illegally spied upon, phones tapped and emails sniffed? That they would be entangled in two foreign wars? That New Orleans would disappear in a baffling act of incompetence and neglect? Or that their government would authorize torture? Or that fabled names in the financial industry would loot and cheat them, under the very eyes and noses of their own government? That insult would be added to injury by their being made to pay for a bailout of the very perpetrators of these same crimes?
And what if they had been polled on the black hole itself, the one that would suck any sense of balance out of all subsequent national discourse? Would they have believed anyone telling them that the following morning, four aircraft would be hijacked by people boarding them at three different airports, and that within a couple of hours they would demolish the two towering symbols of the America’s financial power, and hit its military nerve center?
Most importantly, could they ever have envisioned silently tolerating such an incompetent and arrogant dispensation? And would they believe it if told that they would be reelecting the same people after they knew many of these atrocities?
Perhaps the lone contribution of the Bush administration has been in revealing the weakened state of American democracy.
In time the economic bad news can and will be supplanted by better tidings. But the anguish that arises from inner moral failure is deeper, eating away at the core. It takes much to surmount, and that too only by deliberate atonement. If financial ruin, man-made or heaven-ordained, is hard to swallow, moral helplessness, entirely self-inflicted, is impossible to digest. Perhaps it is this difference that struck David Brooks when he wrote in the New York Times marveling at ordinary men and women in the Chinese countryside who despite losing everything in the Chengdu earthquake could yet be full of goodwill for the Beijing Olympics.  Brooks didn’t say this, but I’m sure the simultaneously sullen and fatalistic acceptance of every variety of wrongdoing by their American counterparts must have struck him in its contrast.
On September 10, 2001, Americans were still a proud lot, confident despite the Florida fiasco, solid in their belief that their democracy would endure. Seven years later, almost everyone feels not all is well, and an overwhelming majority actually thinks the country is headed downward.
This is the accretion to the national morale after eight years of W.
But wait, Ginzu-ad-watchers, it gets worse. As Winston Churchill wrote of Lenin (a rough quote): “His first mistake was being born. His second was dying when he did”. So too is there tragedy not only in the Bush administration’s life but also in its passing. As the Bush era closes, it also ends our chance at moral redemption, to say to coming generations: “We stood up and fought for our Constitution. We resisted wrongdoing. We sacrificed so our children might live under freedom and law.” What shall we say instead? That I for one always forwarded YouTube parodies of Bush to all my friends? That I once emailed my member of Congress when the FISA bill was passed? That I faithfully signed and submitted every on-line petition that came my way?
What a godsend the Bush administration was to anyone who regretted missing more stirring times in history, wistful for a 1776, 1861 or 1941! What other administration would ever give so many opportunities for honest men and women to stand up be counted when it mattered? Ours could have been the Greatest Generation, turning back the effort to hijack the world’s oldest democracy and routing the perpetrators of this heist, or at least giving our all to this noble task. History will record that leaders and citizens alike failed. In eight long years we have few heroes to show in this department, notable among them Cindy Sheehan and Kathy Kelly.
Of course it is almost a truism that we had a criminal administration and a Congress of collaborators. But what about us? You know, you and me – as in ‘We the People’…? In the Oct 6, 2008 issue of the American Conservative, Tom Streithorst captures the limp culpability of Homo Americanus Averageus,
It is easy to blame the war in Iraq on Bush or Cheney or the neocons or the Israeli Lobby or Halliburton or Congress or the mainstream media. But that’s not the whole story. Millions of us marched against the war but then went home and did our laundry or watched TV. 
Needless to add, many more millions could not even bring themselves to march. Others did march and continued doing so, but to Wal-Mart, not on it. Consumers, not citizens.
Streithorst’s observation relates to the Iraq War, but it is just as valid for the other outrages. Like all processes of corruption, initial resistance/reluctance/remorse is the strongest; succumbing gets progressively (no pun intended) easier from there. The first intimations of hollowness appeared with Bush’s selection;  the crumbling commenced in true earnest with 9/11. The accumulated sacrifices of brave men and women which had once secured for the United States a polity with rights and liberties, a system of checks and balances, a government for, of and by the people, were all set on the precipice by a grasping and fearful executive, a timid and terrified legislature, and a political class that understood politics only as commerce.
Americans are fond of being called pragmatic, and it can be argued that pragmatism is one of America’s strongest traits, one that has served it well at many junctures. But when deployed cynically and used as an excuse to shut off introspection, its value is diminished. Don’t look back, it’s all in the past – the point is, what should we do now? Like the White Rabbit, we are always in a hurry, careening from one blunder to the next. Take the surge in Iraq, where the soul-searching about our aggression upon a noncombatant country was scotched in favor of ‘What next’. The result is that the same wrong questions are being raised about Iran. We had the S&L debacle in the early 90’s, yet instead of raising questions about deregulation, we merrily surged ahead with more of the same. Fast forward to the 700 billion bailout. Do we learn nothing?
One other consistent lesson of the Bush presidency – there is no height to which one cannot rise if the screw-ups one makes are colossal enough. From Donald Rumsfeld to Condi Rice to Michael Chertoff to Henry Paulson, each has been kept on or rewarded for the follies on their watch.
It might seem inexplicable that a country that impeached a president for lying about a sexual peccadillo less than a decade before could allow the highest crimes against the constitution, crimes that would lead to large scale death and global destabilization to go unpunished, with the opposition declaring from the rooftops that impeachment was ‘off the table’.  It might seem unbelievable that during the Bush years, the only demonstrations on the streets involving hundreds of thousands (aside from a dwindling annual protest on the anniversary of the Iraq War ) were the ones in favor of illegal immigration! It would also seem paradoxical that Senators and Congressmen were willing to attend and address the immigration protest gatherings while every politician of note avoided Cindy Sheehan like the plague, and kept any anti-war protest at arms length. 
Albert Camus wrote something long ago by way of an explanation:
“One might think that a period which, in a space of fifty years, uproots, enslaves, or kills seventy million human beings should be condemned out of hand. But its culpability must still be understood… In more ingenuous times, when the tyrant razed cities for his own greater glory, when the slave chained to the conqueror’s chariot was dragged through the rejoicing streets, when enemies were thrown to the wild beasts in front of the assembled people, the mind did not reel before such unabashed crimes, and the judgment remained unclouded. But slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or by a taste for the superhuman, in one sense cripple judgment. On the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence – through a curious transposition peculiar to our times – it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself. ”
— Albert Camus, The Rebel
Almost eerie if you replace 70 million by 1 million; and the pictures of Abu Ghraib would stand right up against portions of Camus’ observations.
Why did we keep quiet? Here too the modus operandi of the Bush presidency holds a valuable lesson. Imagine you are driving along the freeway on a pleasant day, listening to some music and relishing the low traffic. All of a sudden you see a car heading right for you, in the wrong direction. You are shocked, but your first instinct is to avoid an accident, and you move to the other lane to escape this lunatic. Within minutes, you see another car coming the wrong way, then another, and another, and another…it is not an aberration, it is an epidemic.
This is the real Bush doctrine: If you do one wrong, you will be caught. But if you keep up a barrage of wrongdoing, escalating it constantly, you will confuse everyone and keep them off balance.
Before you could argue and address one outrage, along came another, and then another, and then the next… you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen that insurance ad with the tennis players where suddenly hundreds of tennis balls and scores of people descend on the court all hitting. The Bush administration might have disdained the Powell doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in matters of criminality they followed it to the letter – overwhelm all opposition by the fecundity and enormity of your offenses.
This is the state at the sunset of the Bush era – a people demoralized, a system that has failed in every instance, a country bemused. How to put it back together?
My background is in computers, and I’d like to use an analogy from that field. Of all things on the computer, the UNDO button is perhaps the most useful. Even if you don’t remember what you did, it allows you to undo it. A series of UNDOs can take you back to a state where things were tolerable (before the ‘improvements’ ruined everything). But UNDO has some limitations. It works well only when there has been a linear set of operations, that is, one action after another, without side effects. When there are side effects, its efficacy is limited. UNDO will undo certain things but not others. This is not what you want. Besides, it has been a reign of errors, not one or two. Where do we begin?
The answer again can be found from computers. Everyone knows how to use UNDO, but not as many know about backups. A backup, or snapshot, is a saved version of the state of the application. You may have made a number of changes, taking you to a state with which you are dissatisfied. Rather than try to pick your way out of the mess, you can simply restore it to its previous snapshot.
The simple test that I have applied to the presidential candidates this year is this: who wants to take me back to Sep 10, 2001, or even before Bush took over? We can clearly rule out McCain, who actually thinks things are just fine. Obama speaks about the incompetence of the Bush administration but seldom about its criminality. If Obama the Constitutional Professor has talked much about the injury to the Constitution, it hasn’t received any publicity. Nader and Barr have spoken out but neither has built a movement (neither has Obama, other than having crowds shout Yes We Can ). Some months ago I wrote an article about this, called ‘Restoration Boulevard’. The key is: who wants to restore the constitution? The bigger question: who will at least restore the country to its state on September 10, 2001?
It is this that should guide us. We are like travelers who, having taken a wrong turn some eight miles back, are out in some badlands. Both major contenders for the driver’s seat want to accelerate, making tall claims of where they want to take us.
Barack Obama explicitly stated in his acceptance speech that there is no going back. That would be fine if we were on the right track to begin with. In our situation, exactly the opposite is true. We need to go back to the main road first before going anywhere. Without that essential step we can only get more lost.
Reload the snapshot from September 10, 2001 at least – and pre-Reagan if feasible. This should be the weltanschauung, from which alone any correct solutions can emerge. All talk of progress from where we are today is vitiated at the source. We must begin by restoring polity to where it was before being derailed by what was effectively a coup-de-etat. The ideal start is to return to the America we knew before the day of the incompetent and the malign, a restoration of a nation sullied by a band of outlaws. Anything less would be unworthy of a free people.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN lives on the West Coast. He can be reached at email@example.com.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on Oct 28 in State Of Nature, an online magazine.
1. David Brooks, ‘Brooks: Where’s the Trauma’, International Herald Tribune, 15 August, 2008.
2. Tom Streithorst, ‘Rose-Tinted Lens’, The American Conservative, 06 October, 2008.
3. See: NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, Indogram, February, 2001.
4. See: Ramakrishnan, ‘High Crimes and Ms. Demeanor’, Indogram, 05 December, 2007.
5. See: Ramakrishnan, ‘Stopping by the Park Blocks on a rainy afternoon (with apologies to Robert Frost)’, OregonLive, 19 March, 2008.
6. See: Ramakrishnan, ‘A Slice of American Pie’, Indian Express, 25 April, 2006;
Ramakrishnan, ‘A Satyagrahi Is Born’, Counter Currents, 18 August, 2005.
7. See: Ramakrishnan, ‘The Banality of Hype’, Indogram, 07 March, 2008.
8. See: Ramakrishnan, ‘Restoration Boulevard’, Indogram.