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February 1, 2006

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

By Andrew Schmookler

I've been doing talk radio shows for years in a conservative part of a conservative state. My experience last week --doing a program in which I attempted to discuss what's being done to our constitutional system-- revealed something appalling.


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?”

Since they didn’t have a good response to that, they’d just change the subject. My guess is that if Bob Barr had been there, saying what I was saying, they’d have found some label for him that enabled them to dismiss his points as well.

The forces now ruling America have already taught their followers to discredit all the possible alternative sources of thought. Not only have “liberals” been demonized (liberals have become the new “communists”), but also discredited are all media that are not propaganda mouthpieces of the regime (there is no notion of journalism as a noble, truth-seeking profession). And likewise they’ve cast science as an enemy, and with it all other forms of expertise-based knowledge.

The impermeability of this Bushite thought system, which I encountered last week on the radio, reminded me of Catch-22. “If the source of some idea or information isn’t one of us, then we can reject it. And if anyone presents ideas or information that challenge our dogmas, then that person cannot be one of us.” A fool-proof system for protecting the faith.

I spent much of last year calling for a “prophetic” approach that would speak moral truth about this amoral power, and thus awaken from their trance the good people who have given this regime their support. The task, I thought, was to strip away the layer of politics that divides us and show the dark, underlying reality in terms of the values that are shared by Americans of all political stripes (values like upholding the Constitution).

But that assumed at least a modicum of openness to hear, and from this foray into Bush country it now seems to me that at least a good segment of these Bushites may be beyond such awakening.

But how big is that segment?

The Defenders of the Faith

It’s always difficult, in talk radio, to know how indicative the callers are of the larger audience. I know that the callers are not necessarily a representative sample of attitude and belief.

Over the years, I’ve noticed – in this rural Virginia culture—that certain kinds of issues tend to bring more of the closed-minded warriors out onto the battlefield, while the more moderate people remain silent. This seems to happen when matters of core allegiance –“You’re either with Us or with Them”—are at stake.

I noticed this in 2000, for example, when I did a program about the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag’s flying over the statehouse in South Carolina. This issue brought out an atypically combative band of callers to defend the stars and bars against this Yankee, and to dismiss utterly the concerns of the African-Americans of that state.

My experience doing that program reminded me of what a Virginian friend of mine had told of how, when he was growing up a couple of generations ago, those with any moderate views around questions of race would be intimidated into silence by charges of being a “n*****-lover.”

Aggressive accusation seems to be the cultural orthodoxy’s way of protecting core dogmas from any open discussion that might challenge it.

Nowadays, it seems, there is a new, Bushite orthodoxy whose dogmas include the assertions that George W. Bush is a good man, that he can be trusted, that he is protecting us from people who would hurt us if they could, and that anyone who questions any of these notions is the enemy.

And so, last week, when by implication I called some of those dogmas into question, with my set of “conservative principles,” orthodox defenders-of-the-faith came forth to attack and discredit the enemy.

Given that dynamic, one may hold out some hope that the mentality displayed by those callers was not purely representative of the thousands listening to the show. But to the extent to which they are indicative of the kind of consciousness into which the supporters of this regime have lapsed, we should fear for our country.

Taught Stupidity

I recognized the voices of those callers and, from previous decent conversations I’d had with them on the radio, knew them to be people with far more intelligence than they showed in their engagement with me last week. Their performance –filled as it was with logical non sequiturs and an apparently complete lack of interest in knowing actual facts—seems evidence that our countrymen are being disabled and diminished by the political forces they rallied to defend.

The regime, it seems, is teaching them how to not think, how to close themselves off from anything that might awaken them to the ways their rulers are deceiving them.

Years ago, I read a definition of “neurosis” as “a form of learned stupidity.” In other words, people might learn –as an adaptation to the pathologies of a particular environment—how not to see what is before their eyes and not to think clearly about the true meanings of their experience.

In America now, what is happening is not at the individual level of neurosis, but at the larger cultural level where the ruling powers have created an environment to induce a collective blindness and inability to think clearly.

This form of consciousness --the intentional product of propaganda and manipulation—can be seen as a form of “taught stupidity.”

It was this that appalled me in my recent foray into Bush country: to think that the greatest power in the world now draws its strength from the intellectual crippling of millions of our countrymen.

Authors Bio:
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 WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST. His previous books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, for which he was awarded the Erik H. Erikson prize by the International Society for Political Psychology.