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Field Notes from Bush Country: The Closing of the Bushite Mind

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For many years now, I have been conducting talk-radio conversations in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. This began shortly after I moved there in 1992, and now that I've moved away and it continues with my making regular guest appearances by phone.

Politically, the Shenandoah Valley is a conservative part of a conservative state. When Oliver North lost his bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1994, he carried the Valley by a half dozen points. The area is also religiously fundamentalist, on the fringe of the Bible Belt. The population is largely rural and small town.

As an intellectual, cosmopolitan, liberal Yankee, I had a rather different perspective on the world from that of most of the people in my listening audience. Nonetheless, during the course of the 1990s, I felt I made some progress in opening up a space where we could discuss the issues that divided us in a spirit of mutual respect and genuine inquiry.

But now, with the rise of the Bushite power, that progress has been reversed -and then some. The program I did there just last week showed quite dramatically just how effective the Bushite power has been in closing the minds of their supporters to any ideas or information that might loosen the hold of Bushite dogma.

I was appalled.

Challenging the Bushites

At the outset of each show, I customarily frame the discussion with a set of ideas or questions. Last week, in the context of the Bush administration's recently disclosed domestic spying operation, I began the program by propounding what I described as four "conservative" principles in which I deeply believe.

These principles were:

1) I believe that the Constitution is a great American treasure, that it's what most defines us as a nation, the means by which we preserve both liberty and order, and something that we as Americans have the sacred duty to defend.
2) I believe, as did our Founding Fathers, that the United States is "a nation of laws, not of men," that -for the preservation of the American way of life-- it is absolutely essential that those who enforce the rules also obey the rules.
3) I believe, as did our Founding Fathers, that eternal vigilance -on the part of the press, and of the people""is the price of liberty. And that the Constitution's system of checks and balances represents the Founders' great insight that unchecked and unaccountable power is the greatest threat to the values for which America stands.
4) I believe that an oath is a sacred promise, and that this is especially true-because of the awesome powers and responsibilities of the office-- of the oath the president swears upon taking office, the oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

I figured that, since the audience would be overwhelmingly conservative, and since probably three-fourths of them would have voted for Bush -twice""my advancing these "conservative" principles would pose an effective challenge to these listeners.

It would require them either to say that they disagreed with these "conservative" principles, or to argue there's little reason to wonder whether President Bush might have violated those principles, or to agree that there's enough "probable cause" to require an investigation into whether this administration has run roughshod over the law.

I doubted that these Bushites would explicitly repudiate the principles; I knew that I had enough information to establish "probable cause" for suspecting the Bushites of lawlessness; and so I hoped the conversation would move people in the direction of their acknowledging the vital importance of an unbiased and thorough-going investigation.

No such luck.

Ad Hominem Ad Nauseum

While logic might reduce the options to those three, the callers to the program seemed unconstrained by logic. Almost without exception, they chose to engage in the ad hominem attack""to ignore the message and attack the messenger""a form of argument regarded by philosophers as one of the logical fallacies. They seemed to believe that because I could be labeled a "liberal," anything I said -even statements of established fact-- could simply be dismissed or ignored.

"It's just you Bush-bashers can't stand it that we got a Republican president and a Republican Congress. And so you're just using anything you can to strike back!"

I'd respond with things like, "Well, that Republican, Bob Barr, is saying the same thing I am. So what would you say to him if he presented you with this worrisome evidence that this president might be violating the Constitution?"

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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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