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"Would Americans Really Be So Superficial?"

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In the magazine THE WEEK, there's a regular feature called "How they see us," in which press opinion from around the world regarding some aspect of the American scene is pithily anthologized. In the October 30 issue, the subject is the Foley scandal, and the little anthology closes with this paragraph regarding what was said by the Spanish newspaper EL PAIS:

Would the American really be so superficial, asked Spain's EL PAIS in an editorial. Given the massive failures of this administration, "from the invasion of Iraq, with its disastrous human and economic effects, to the mismanagement of the hurricane Katrina crisis," it should be a foregone conclusion that the party that enabled and abetted Bush should be punished at the polls. Yet most commentators seem to believe that only the Foley scandal has tipped public opinion definitively away from Bush's Republicans. No further evidence is needed that "the tradition of democracy in America' is in decline.

So what is the story here about Americans? It does seem as though those commentators are right, that it's the Foley scandal that's changed the dynamic of public opinion. What does it mean that Bush's poll numbers were gradually climbing back while he's been twisting arms in Congress to give him the right to torture and to give him all those powers that our Founding Fathers put habeus corpus and a half-dozen amendments into the Constitution to prevent any president from exercising. It does seem as though --before the Foley scandal broke-- the tide was slowly turning the Republicans way, while the Bushites were telling one DEMONSTRABLE lie after another, and while their blunders were making an ever more dangerous mess of the world.

And then comes this tawdry business of the Republican who has the hots for the young male pages, and the leadership that kept it all under cover to protect their power rather than to protect the young men or the values of decency about which they've made a big show of their supposed devotion all these years.

Yes, it's a juicy scandal-- and the cover-up is especially important for what it reveals about the utter hypocrisy of the Republicans, about how power is really their only true value.

So I don't think it's so terrible that the American people respond with revulsion to this Foley scandal.

But why did it take this scandal, with its sexual dimension, to get the people's attention? Why wasn't it enough, for so many Americans, that these Bushites are visibly assaulting the Constitution that defines what this country stands for, that they have our friends around the world to recoil with revulsion from this Bushite America, that they lie about everything, that they are quickly creating the very kind of unchecked and unprincipled power against which this country stood in opposition?

One piece of the answer may lie in the very narrow way so many Americans have been taught --manipulated I would say-- into seeing morality. Over the centuries, Power has worked to twist the idea of morality so that it leaves Power alone, focusing instead solely on the domain of purely personal conduct. (This is discussed at greater length in my earlier essay, "How Ruling Powers Distort Morality So that it Does Not Restrain Them," at .)

Thus reports from Virginia indicate that many Christian conservatives there see the Foley scandal purely in terms of the misconduct of one person, who behaved badly, and do not have their moral sensitivities offended by what the Republican leadership did --or failed to do--about that misbehavior.

Morality gets twisted into a focus on sexuality, on individual private behavior, while abuses of power and institutional irresponsibility do not register on that truncated moral radar screen.

But polls do show that a large majority of Americans do believe that there has been a cover-up by the Republican leadership of what was going on with Foley and the pages. And the polls also show, in the wake of this scandal's breaking, a sharp reversal of fortunes for Republican candidates all over the country.

I wonder if another factor in Foley-gate seemingly outweighing the Bushites' dismantling of the American Constitution (and their severe damage to the prospects for peace in the world, and all the other injuries they are inflicting on our prospects, and our children's) is that too many Americans have become incapable of understanding anything that isn't concrete and specific and capable of being played out in a soap opera.

The Constitution, to a young child, is at best an abstraction. And how the dynamics unleashed today (in the international system, for example) might play out in the future is an abstraction. Indeed, the future itself --that place where American dissenters might be declared "enemy combatants" and get disappeared into an American Gulag, that place where botched non-proliferation diplomacy might lead to the incineration of an American city, that place where the mountains of public debt the Bushites have piled up might financially cripple the country-- that place called the future is also but an abstraction to a mind bound to the immediate and concrete. In other words, to a childish mind.

But the story of a middle-aged man trying to seduce a 16-year-old boy, just like the story of a woman in a vegetative state, just like the story of a man who murdered his pregnant wife, just like the former football superhero being tried for the murder of his estranged wife and her lover-- all those stories of sex and violence involving the kinds of passions and actions we humans have been enacting since before we were human-- these are meaningful to the American mind of today.

Perhaps it is not, as the Spanish newspaper wondered, so "superficial." Perhaps it is that we have become a nation of children.

We have become a nation that can be impressed with swagger with no substance behind it. We have become a nation that can be led around by the nose by leaders who scare us continually with boogeymen. We have become a nation that can be persuaded by bold assertions that are demonstrably at odds with factual reality. We have become a nation that can understand only the most primitive forms of human drama.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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