Kurt Gödel, the 20th century’s most celebrated logician, once perused the United States Constitution for logical lacuna. The occasion for Gödel’s studiousness was a citizenship exam, which a fellow émigré, Albert Einstein, encouraged him to take. Like any eccentric genius Gödel had a tendency to take things too far, and during the course of his studies the Polish logician began to fret that a demagogue might subvert America’s democracy by exploiting loopholes in the U.S. Constitution. During a routine citizenship swearing in ceremony the originator of Gödel’s Theorem, much to Einstein’s embarrassment, took it upon himself to explain to the presiding magistrate the hidden Constitutional contradictions an unscrupulous politician might take advantage of to usher in a tyrannical government here in the States.
George W. Bush is no genius, but he has managed to exploit every ambiguity in the Constitution. Some, of course, will say, that Bush has ignored the Constitution. There is some truth to this. But it is not the whole story. How is it that Congress, the courts, and much of the public failed to hold Bush accountable while he bent and twisted the Constitution beyond recognition? To understand how this was possible it is necessary to realize that George W. Bush is not merely an individual; he is a symptom of our times. He is the embodiment of a national character flaw, and an era where appetite, instinct, egoism, and ignorance have triumphed over the reasoning portion of the soul.
Al Gore’s book, The Assault on Reason, hones in on the irrational zeitgeist that George W. Bush represents. According to Gore, television, corporate conglomerates, and Madison Avenue hucksters constitute an axis-of-idiocy bent on turning democratic citizens into slavish consumers. But TV dinners and toilet paper are not the only commodities the media mavens and corporate lords want to peddle to the American people. Political candidates, too, can be marketed the same way deodorant, kitty litter, and dog food are promoted. All you need to do is create a brand image, conjure up an insipid slogan, and repeat the same message over and over again.
George W. Bush was made for the boob tube. After all, the last thing viewers want to see on TV is someone smarter than they are. The Bush Brand™ is a cross between the Marlboro Man and a rube from Hee Haw (the country music show that can still be seen somewhere out there in TV Land). Bush’s handlers even came with the meaningless slogan – “A reformer with results” – which rates a comparison with the “Tastes great/Less filling” jingle used to sell another high calorie, but nutritively empty product, Miller Lite.
Al Gore’s point, of course, is that TV’s purpose is to amuse and distract viewers while creating desires for things they don’t need. In a lesson he learned growing up on his family’s farm, Gore tells how he was taught to hypnotize chickens so that the could be used for almost any purpose at all, a doorstop, say. Gore resists the leap from entranced poultry to zombified birdbrains devouring whatever feed the political masters are dishing out, but how else does one explain the mass hypnosis that led to the herd-like behavior where more than three out of four Americans believed that Iraq was behind the September 11th attacks?
The Bush Administration got the public to buy the Iraq war by utilizing the same techniques McDonalds uses to sell Happy Meals. Repetition and imagery aimed the emotions are used to bypass reason in order to get the public to buy something that isn’t good for them, even if it might provide some momentary pleasure. For instance, Bush’s carrier landing photo-op was every bit as color-drenched and cheesy as a fast food commercial, even if its shelf life has proved shorter than a bag of greasy fries baking under hot lamps.
Television, of course is a one-way medium, which makes it inherently undemocratic. For example, unlike the printing press or the Internet, where nearly anyone can contribute to the market place of ideas, and where there’s at least a chance that ideas will rise or fall on their merit, the cost of buying a 30 second commercial on TV presents an insuperable barrier to all but the wealthiest interests. Not surprisingly, feudal-like financial empires that have amassed great fortunes will try and consolidate and extend their power. Monopolizing the media is a natural way a powerful elite lord over the masses. With the right message the masses will want what their masters want (even if it goes against their interests).
When an audience is gripped by fear or desire they are easy to manipulate. Fear and greed, after all, are the enemies of reason. This is the genius behind “reality-based TV” shows like Fear Factor, Survivor, and countless other offerings in the great wasteland. These shows are a metaphor for the American experience at the dawn of the 21st century: plebian contestants in highly contrived settings, orchestrated entirely by media oligarchs, compete against one another for trinkets, status, and perks. The contestants, of course, are motivated almost exclusively by fear (of snake pits, banishment from a phony island paradise, or getting fired by Donald Trump) and greed (all the money they’ll win if they make it through the maze, obstacle course, or simulated corporate rat race one-step ahead of the other poor schmucks in the competition).
The television audience, of course, experiences fear and greed vicariously, though it is highly doubtful there is any kind of catharsis to be had here in the sense Aristotle imagined in his Poetics. The whole experience of being immersed in the reality-based medium, either as a viewer or participant, reduces the individual to the depth and significance of a character in a video game. Like a rat running a maze for a piece of cheese the end is predetermined, instinct is all, and reason never enters the equation. After all, the contestant who asks, “Why am I doing this?” won’t get the cheese.
Television is a technology that both reflects and shapes our society. If Al Gore is right, reason no longer plays a central role in our nation’s political discourse because television has supplanted the print media. Watching Bush at a press conference it’s hard to disagree. Asked, for instance, why the United States had failed bring bin Laden to justice Bush answered with one of his trademark tautologies (which I paraphrase): “Why haven’t we caught bin Laden? We haven’t caught him because he’s hiding.” It’s the kind of answer one might expect of a ten-year old, not the leader of the free world.
The Bush Administration has utilized similar non-sequitars at every turn: the smoking gun that might become a mushroom cloud, we are fighting the enemy in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here, as the Iraqi security forces stand up America will stand down, you can’t distinguish between Saddam and al-Qaeda, Democrats are the party of cut-and-run, and countless other clichés that get staler by the minute. Put simply, the Bush Administration has treated the Iraq War as a product to be marketed to a gullible public. But by now the vast majority of Americans have buyer’s remorse, big time.
Gore’s blistering critique of Bush’s irrational record resembles nothing so much as a blowtorch turned loose on butter. As Gore sees it, borrowing money from China so the United States can buy oil from the Persian Gulf is insane. Like the Spanish Empire in its terminal phase, America’s manufacturing base is eroding precipitously, we are living on credit, and U.S. troops are battling in Iraq, at least in part, to secure the region’s fossil fuels (just as the conquistadors plundered the New World’s precious metals to keep the Spanish Empire afloat a little longer).
Terrorism, of course, is a form of blowback from burning fossil fuels, just as global warming is a form of blowback from carbon emissions. Our energy habits are at the heart of so many of America’s woes: America’s declining manufacturing sectors (think of Ford and General Motor’s plight in trying to sell gas guzzlers in today’s global marketplace), rising gas prices (which will hamper growth and finance anti-American regimes), and carbon emissions (which will feed the conditions that will give rise to Katrina-like ecological devastation).
The Bush Administration’s campaign in Iraq has proven self-defeating. As Gore observes, Bush gambled, and lost. Bush’s wager, of course, was that American hegemony over Iraq’s oil resources would lower oil prices substantially, which would break the back of OPEC, which would bankrupting the Mullahs in Tehran, which would dry up the river of petro-profits flowing to jihadists. Had it worked Bush might have found a place on Mt. Rushmore. Instead, Bush seems destined for the same kind of infamy Ken Lay found after presiding over the worst corporate debacle in American history.
The same patterns that contributed to Enron’s demise, incidentally, were repeated by the Bush Administration with a vengeance. The stockholders/public were played for fools, corporate/Congressional oversight was non-existent, corruption knocked the power off in California/Baghdad, and the grand ambitions the CEO/Commander-in-Chief dangled before wishful thinkers turned out to mirages. Of course, when the whole scheme collapsed Ken Lay and George Bush both vowed they’d be vindicated.
Fear and greed are central to both Enron and the Bush Administration. And as Gore sagely observes, emotions like fear and greed cloud reason. Not surprising, the culture of corruption and cronyism dissolved rational decision-making procedures at Enron and the Bush Administration, which led both enterprises to become completely divorced from reality.
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