PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Bush Lies About Iraq Are Only The Symptom, Not The Disease
Sometimes it is a pleasure for a columnist to say "Maybe I was wrong." A few weeks ago, I wrote that most Americans don’t care whether the Bush administration lied to take us to war in Iraq. In this postmodern world, I said, hardly anyone asks whether words match the factual reality. It’s all just a kaleidoscope of media images, anyway. So evidence that our leaders lied is shrugged off.
Well, maybe I was wrong. The flap over the falsified intelligence reports on Iraq grows bigger every day. Now centrist pundits, like the Washington Post’s venerable David Broder, warn that it could open the door to a Bush defeat in 2004.
Of course, Broder adds, Bush’s re-election chances depend above all on what happens to the economy in the next 15 months. If we are still in the doldrums a year from October, the Democratic candidate will have one simple message: "It’s the tax cut, stupid." Bush’s tax giveaway busted the federal budget, lined the pockets of the rich, and did nothing for the rest of us.
Maybe the people will wake up from their postmodern slumber and begin to care about sifting truth from falsehood, in economic and foreign policy. But let’s not ignore the effects of postmodernism too quickly. The mainstream press wants us to focus on one very specific lie: Iraq never tried to buy uranium from Niger. It’s a typical postmodern soundbite. No big picture, no historical context, no larger implications.
This kind of thing can bring a president down. Richard Nixon did not resign because he was caught undermining fundamental principles of American democracy. He resigned only because he was caught lying about paying hush money to a few low-level operatives.
Do we want to defeat George W. because of one specific lie about Iraq, Niger, and uranium? Or because he lied about what the CIA told him about that specific issue? Maybe so. Maybe the end—ousting Bush—is so important that the means hardly matter. We could probably build an anti-Bush campaign on a series of very specific grievances, like the Iraq / Niger issue and the ongoing deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and have some chance of success.
But then we simply pave the way for a postmodern Democratic president who will manipulate media images as shamelessly as any Republican. We also endorse the same principle that Bush invokes to cover up his lies: the end justifies the means.
The Bushies invoke this principle on two levels. They tell the public that we are purely good and Saddam was utterly evil, so anything that helped to oust him was good—even a few little falsifications of fact. This is a powerful argument for most Americans. We ignore it at our peril. We have to be able to respond to it thoughtfully and persuasively.
Of course, the policy elite merely smile at such moralistic simplicities. They know that the real goal of U.S. policy is not to purify the world morally. It is the same goal U.S. leaders have been pursuing for decades: a unified global economic system, based on what they call "free market" principles. If lies and moral platitudes as well as bombs are needed to do the job, they say, so be it. The end justifies the means.
If we want to avoid that trap, we must resist not simply Bush, or the Republicans, but the whole postmodern impulse to substitute image for reality. Catchy soundbite images have their place. They can get people’s attention. If the current flap about a single Bush lie opens a chink in his armor, it will also open some mainstream minds to an alternative message. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.
But Bush’s lies are only a symptom. We need to focus on the underlying disease. We must patiently explain the larger context and the principles on which our opposition to the Bush administration rests. We need an analysis that is clear, sophisticated, and true to reality. As the great poet says, we must know our song well before we start singing, cause it’s a hard rain gonna fall.
Right now, we should be busy explaining why Bush’s lies are merely a symptom. If you want to see the whole disease, look at the links between our economic woes and Bush’s Iraq lies. Lies had to be told because Saddam had to go—not because he was a ruthless dictator, but because he was a successful model of resisting economic globalization. Now U.S. corporate interests are streaming into Iraq, buying up Iraqi assets at bargain-basement prices and elbowing out the Iraqi competition. The same tycoons who will reap the benefits of Bush’s tax cut are also reaping the benefits of his war and the intimidation it was intended to spread around the world.
Ultimately, the links between the economy and foreign policy must be understood at a very abstract level. The globalization that U.S. leaders have pursued for decades is based on false principles. First, that society is collection of isolated, competitive individuals—a war of all against all. Second, that letting this war rage unchecked, in an unregulated, "winner-take-all," global market economy, creates a rising tide that raises everyone’s boat. Third, that this same economy gives every poor person’s children a chance to become fabulously wealthy. As long as people believe these principles, they will accept tax cuts for the rich at home, wars against the poor abroad, and the lies that are told to justify it all.
It’s not enough to criticize. We must offer an alternative. We must explain over and over, in every possible way, that all of humanity is a single interwoven family. We all depend on each other. If you want to raise everyone’s economic boat, watch the smallest, weakest, leakiest boat. When we cooperate to help the very neediest, and measure our own well-being by the well-being of the very neediest, that’s when we all benefit the most. The U.S. cannot begin to lay claim to any pure goodness until our policies are based on these humane principles.
You need not be a Marxist to acknowledge what Marx proved: ordinary people can understand all this. Don’t underestimate their intelligence. Give them a sophisticated, compelling analysis of the system that governs their lives, and they will take the time to study and understand it. They will begin to doubt the goodness of the system and the people who rule it. Give them an alternative that works better for them, explain it clearly, and eventually they will understand and embrace it. If we don’t go beyond symptoms and postmodern soundbites—if we don’t trust the intelligence of the people—we will never get to real democracy.
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