June 1, 2009
Kabuki is defined as a highly stylized form of classical Japanese dance-drama in which actors often wear elaborate makeup and engage in precisely dictated movements, a useful metaphor for the current American political process which can't seem to break out of old patterns even as the nation hurtles from crisis to crisis.
Although Barack Obama won the presidency on a platform of change---and millions of Americans are tired of Washington's destructive habits--U.S. politicians, the news media and significant parts of the electorate refuse to transform how they have operated over the past several decades.
Like a kabuki performance locked in a stale past, the various players interact in predictable ways, moving about each other with elaborate yet tiresome maneuvers: the Republicans and the right-wing media posturing as bullies, the Democrats cowering in fear, the mainstream press obsessed with the superficial, and many on the Left carping from the fringes.
A good example of how this kabuki continues to play out was in the criticism of President Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.
His judgment--though shared by former President George W. Bush and key members of that administration--was viewed by Republicans and right-wing talk radio as an inviting new "wedge" issue. They sounded the alarm about the supposed danger of transferring detainees to U.S. super-max prisons or resettling some, like the Chinese Uighurs, who have been judged no threat to the United States.
As the "not in my backyard" furor built--and some Americans panicked over scary fantasies about Islamic terrorists breaking out of super-max prisons and roaming the countryside--congressional Democrats retreated rather than stand their ground. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid joined a 90-6 vote in deleting $80 million that Obama had requested for closing down Guantanamo.
The U.S. press corps also bought into the Republican exaggerations of dangers--much as occurred in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. The New York Times again played a key role with a misleading May 21 article touting a Pentagon report done in the last month of the Bush administration claiming that one in seven of 534 previously released Guantanamo prisoners had "returned to jihad."
The evidence in the report turned out to be flimsy--with a later examination by two terrorism experts putting the percentage of former detainees later connected to violent activities at about one in 25, not one in seven.
"Bizarrely, the Defense Department has in the past even lumped into the recidivist category former prisoners who have done no more than criticize the United States after their release," analysts Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann wrote in an op-ed.
Nevertheless, the fear-mongering worked. Former Vice President Dick Cheney's complaints about Obama putting America at risk were treated with respect by the U.S. news media despite Cheney's long history of exaggerating and misrepresenting terror threats. The press billed the dueling addresses by Obama and Cheney on May 21 as a heavyweight match-up.
For his part, Obama appeared defensive, reacting to the harsh attacks from "no-middle-ground" Cheney and other right-wingers.
"My single most important responsibility as president is to keep the American people safe,"- Obama said in his May 21 speech. Using a passage reminiscent of former President Bush, Obama added: "That is the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It is the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night."
Like many Democrats before him, Obama avoided hard truth-telling: that the American people must show courage today as their forebears have done so many times in the past, that the United States must never be a nation of cowards ready to trade its founding principles of freedom for cheap -- and likely empty -- promises of greater security. Instead he talked of a new program for "prolonged detentions" without trials.
Yet, as the Democratic congressional leadership cowered and Obama wavered, the kabuki played out predictably.
As New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted, "the déjà vu in the news media was even more chilling."- Most of the punditocracy scored the fight on a curve, setting up a false equivalence between the men's ideas. Cheney's pugnacious certitude edged out Obama's law-professor nuance." [NYT, May 31, 2009]