A Simple Lie, or the Can’t-Do Party

Like I’ve said, predictions and acting on predictions, that’s a complicated business. What’s not complicated is when the head of Homeland Security says, “Nobody could have predicted that this would happen”.

You can’t spin your way past that one. You can’t lie your way out of that hole. You can’t do what has apparently becoming fashionable among the flacks and toadies of the punditocracy and blogosphere that now want to claim they speak for the Republican Party, and flush anything remotely resembling principles or consistency down the toilet in order to praise Our Dear Leader and all his appointees. I do honestly beg your pardon for saying so to those of you who are regular Republican voters, because I know you’re not necessarily at all the same as the people who now represent your party on the national stage. Hell, I vote Republican on occasion, when the man or woman so nominated is a worthy one. But goddamn it, you folks who do so regularly, you’ve got to stand up now and be counted. This is your hour to call in your chips and make your party start to be something closer to what you imagine it to be. If not, if not: well, look at the company you’re keeping. If that doesn’t worry you, honestly, screw you. I worry enough about the company I have to keep on some arguments and positions, and say so. If you can’t be bothered to draw the line between your decency and the screaming indecency of your leadership, then what’s the point?

Do you believe in standards? In accountability? In competency? Make your beliefs have some bite to them. I’m all for fairness and complexity and sensitivity to the difficulty of the job we’re setting for our public servants. I’m all for a breathtaking rethink of the entire nature of government. Even with all the intricacy of the deeper issues, there’s a kind of basic ground floor of decency, competency and honesty here. Chertoff and Brown, at the very least are so far below that ground floor that they might as well be swimming in the Earth’s molten core.

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11 Responses to A Simple Lie, or the Can’t-Do Party

  1. Joey Headset says:

    You know, it’s not easy defending the indefensible. It takes a great deal of intellectual effort… or something resembling it. And some of the people you speak of have been at it so long now; they’ve invested so much of their being into excreting these increasingly disingenuous arguments, they quite literally can’t bring themselves to stop. It’s hard to understand how a people can get so passionately attached to arguments that they themselves scarcely believe, but it happens. It’s the Debate Team Mentality; it’s what happens when one truly embraces the notion that arguments can be “won” through guile and the employment of shrewd rhetorical tactics – and that the correspondence of any given argument to reality is of virtually no consequence.

    Walk far enough down this road, and you end up in the same predicament that Wile E. Coyote so often confronted: you find yourself standing on (or, in this case, for) absolutely nothing. As we all know, the WORST thing you can do in this situation is to re-access the wisdom of your current trajectory (ie., look down). Rather, your best move – really your only move – is to close your eyes, and keep on charging forward. Regardless of where that might lead.

  2. DougLathrop says:

    Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t think I had any words left. Watching this horrorshow unfold over the past week has been leaving me more and more numb every hour. I’ll think I’ve gotten a firm foothold on the stupidity, the sheer incompetence and criminal negligence of this President and his administration–and then another trapdoor opens. Finally, just now, I found myself remembering a small scene from Babylon 5. I had to look up the exact wording–I didn’t know it by heart–but here it is:

    “As I look at you, Ambassador Mollari, I see a great hand reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds–the sounds of billions of people calling your name.”

    “My followers?”

    “Your victims.”

  3. bbenzon says:

    At the close of Face the Nation this morning Bob Schieffer delivered a short editorial in which he described the federal government’s response to Katrina as being “like dogs watching TV.” They see the moving lights and images, but don’t know what they mean.

    On Meet the Press Chartoff explained about not being able to predict the levee breach. On Monday evening it looked like New Orleans had dodged the big one; the levee’s were holding. So it came as a big surprise when, on Tuesday in a secondary effect, the levees gave way.

    He was followed by the President of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans who gave three specific examples where help was offered and local FEMA officials turned it down. I forget the examples, but I believe one of them was three truckloads of water from Walmart.

  4. Dr. Adam L. Gruen says:

    Principles *and* consistency, my goodness your demands have increased over the years, TB.

    In point of fact, the only principle (consistently applied, I might add) they have, as far as I can tell, is one-party rule. Their own. They exist, for the purpose of existing. They exercise power, for the purpose of extending the exercise of that power. It’s a sustaining political tautology.

    I’d be the first usually to quote a good B5-ism, but the phrase that comes to mind is the old Phil Collins song (paraphrasing): “Calling it black when I know that it’s white, it’s always the same. It’s just a shame, that’s all.”

  5. Alan Jacobs says:

    My only question, Tim, is why you direct your question only at Republicans. I agree with what you say about those Republican “leaders” whose idiocy is now displayed clearly on the national stage, but what about the incompetence and corruption, equally shocking and equally visible, on the parts of the local and state governments in Louisiana, both historically dominated by Democrats? What about the thoroughly bipartisan pork merchants in the U. S. House who have repeatedly eviscerated funding to repair or improve the levee system? Anyone who thinks that you can show that you’ve learned the chief lessons of this horrific tragedy just by changing sides of the political aisle — i. e., virtually everyone (it seems) who reads and comments on the Daily Kos — is terminally frivolous.

    The roots of this disaster go very deep in American political culture and American social history. I have yet to be able to discover who ordered that the wealthy, well-fed, well-cared for guests at the Hyatt hotel should get loaded onto buses ahead of thousands of desperate African-American refugees — though signs point towards the mayor of N.O. — but that was an uncanny repetition of the virulent racism that forced black residents to stay in the city during the 1927 flood, when all the white people escaped. The racism is almost equally entrenched in the city’s culture now, but is not enforced by Jim Crow laws, but rather by an agreement on the part of all the city’s leaders, black and white, Republican and Democrat, to whore after tourist dollars — thus maintaining a city occupied by profiteers and an underclass, with hardly any middle class at all.

    The horrors we have been seeing in the past week have nothing — nothing* — to do with party politics, but are rather the product of social and economic forces that both of the major parties have agreed to accept. That you can actually find college-educated people claiming — as they are claiming on thousands of websites and newspaper around the country — that if Al Gore had been elected in 2000 this wouldn’t have happened is the clearest possible indication that evidence that in political matters Americans are invincibly ignorant. Behind such claims is an astonishingly vapid optimism: a belief that the deepest-rooted and most intractable social problems can be made to go away by changing the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

    (And I know you’re not one of those people, Tim; but I think many of them will think, based on this post, that you are.)

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Alan: In the short term, I direct fire at the Republicans because the people saying what seem to me to be unconsciousnable and dishonorable things (honor is the heart of what drives me here) in the public sphere are Republican appointees or their least thoughtful partisans (like Goldberg).

    One of the basic ethical principles of public and institutional life that I believe in like I believe in sunshine and taking a deep breath is that the buck stops at the desk of the people who have meaningful authority. Chertoff would get nothing but flowers and kisses from me if he got up and said, “I’m humbled by this tragedy…it shows us that we are too small and the world is too big…I wish we had done more and done it better”. Some might thing that is synonymous with saying that nobody could have anticipated the levees breaching, but that’s…just…wrong. What Chertoff said is a lie. Or ignorance. And I hate both.

    I hate both when they come from anyone. The Democrat leadership has historically been seeped in lies and ignorance: I have hated it and them when they were. I believe honor, integrity and consistency of principle are important for everyone. I think it’s lamentable when anyone lacks the consistency to apply their declared standards evenly.

    A public thinker or commentator who has consistently suggested that the world is complex, that it is difficult to ever assign blame clearly, that events are always inevitably ambiguous, that there are only shades of grey, cannot be faulted for saying that something like this event is another shade of grey. A public thinker who has consistently had an intricate understanding of causality in the world cannot be faulted for thinking what they have always thought. But people who have harshly judged some for faults that they freely exempt their “own” for deserve a harsh judgement in return.

    The causality of Katrina’s destruction lies very deep in American history. It is not George Bush’s fault, nor Chertoff’s fault, nor Brown’s fault, nor the fault of anyone in power now. Al Gore or George Bush, we’d be facing a situation whose ground-level challenges were the same right now. That’s too easy, too lazy a suggestion, to say that Bush is somehow the main causal root. But that observation is not a free pass to lie, or to be cruel, or to mock and make free. The depth of casuality excuses no one from the obligation to be honorable and decent. Chertoff lied when he said no one predicted this. He can say, “It is too much for us” and not be required to lie. He can even say, “We fell short, tragically short” and not have that admission cancel out the deeper historical roots of this.

    Causuality is exactly this (should I have to tell conservatives this? This is precisely one of the wisdoms I would attribute to many forms of conservatism): both individual and systemic at once, both in our grasp and beyond it. What is beyond us, we should understand and meet as best we can. The things which fall to us, we should do as well as we can and when we fail have the honesty and clarity to acknowledge our failure before man and God. No one could have stopped Katrina, and when Katrina came, people were going to die and suffer. But we could have aided the sick and dying faster and better than we did. Fewer might have died, fewer might have suffered, and we might have still been able to feel that America is the can-do society rather than an enfeebled, excuse-making, confused King Lear. That was what was within our human grasp: the mitigation of disaster, not the prevention of it.

    More what is in our grasp is the ability to be honest about what we have done and not done. There is no requirement or inevitability to the meanness and cheapness of Brown and Chertoff. Nothing about it that was attributable to anyone but themselves and the people who put them where they were. What I or anyone else even remotely like me says clearly has no pull at all on the national leadership any longer: 49% of the country are non-entities. So if anyone is going to demand accountability, it is the voters and writers and speakers who are in the 51% who matter, the constitutive majority. I call now desperately to those who might be heard precisely because I believe in your collective decency, your willingness to enforce accountability, because I believe Brown and Chertoff do not speak for YOU. Because I believe that you also know that we could have mitigated the inevitable more than we did, and because that is the essence of human dignity, of decency. Not to imagine in hubris that we can prevent the unpreventable, but imagine that we can stay human in the face of it.

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, I think we are in agreement about 95% of what you say: I would not want you to take back a single thing you said about Brown and Chertoff. They are callous functionaries of the worst kind, and should be out on their asses already. But for someone like me — a registered independent who would proudly call myself a conservative while strenuously denying that there is anything truly conservative about the Republican party — the problem is that I now see many Democrats, including some in party leadership, using the Katrina disaster as just more fodder for their partisan mills. In other words, I see them also acting as “callous functionaries of the worst kind,” and if Brown and Chertoff do not speak for me, I don’t, at the moment, see anyone else who does. The kind of voting-by-repudiation you call for may in the end be the position I reach, but I would like to have a better reason for voting for a Presidential or Congressional candidate than “he or she couldn’t be worse than the clowns in there now.”

    The whole situation has brought me closer than I have ever been to despair about our political culture, and the possibility of third-party candidates — which I have refrained from pursuing n the past because I wasn’t interested in empty gestures — now strikes me as perhaps the only possibility I can embrace.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree with your characterization of some Democrats and of the uses of the disaster by people who also lack honor or any particular moral compass.

    I’m also a registered independent, which isn’t just my voter registration, but a pretty fair characterization of how I see myself politically.

    I really do think this is a moment where it’s important for conservatives to say exactly what you say here: that the Republican Party’s present leadership does not reflect the declared values and virtues of conservatism, which seem to me place individual responsibility high on any list. If you cannot be heard in that declaration by positive participatory democracy–and I think it is now plain that you will not be, any more than I’m likely to be heard by the local Democratic establishment in Philadelphia if I complain about corruption. In such a circumstance, I don’t think there’s anything left but some form of repudiation. If I were voting in Philadelphia, I’d vote for the Republican who has run in the last two elections in a heartbeat, not just because I think he’s a better political leader than the current mayor, but also to say, “You’ve got to do better, and I will not be blackmailed into voting for you on the logic that the other party is worse.” Why it is more important for Republicans and conservatives to do this now should be self-evident: because the Republican Party is firmly in charge at the national level.

  9. bbenzon says:

    From Salon’s Scott Rosenberg


    Key Quote:

    This “CEO president” has repeatedly failed in the realm that was supposed to be his strong suit — basic management. When crisis management fails on this large a scale, the calamity may only take a quick moment, a day or a week, but inevitably it has been years in the making. In Katrina’s case, it’s the kind of outcome you get when you have a national leader who never fires anyone for doing a lousy job but who instantly dismisses anyone who breaks ranks or speaks out of line. You end up with a government of incompetents and yes-men placeholders who owe their jobs to loyalty and patronage, not achievement and skill.

  10. bbenzon says:

    There are conservatives and there are conservatives. Some conservatives live within and fully accept a democratic polity. They are conservative within the context of the range of values and policy options existing within the polity.

    There are conservatives of a different stripe, whose values and ideas are fundamentally feudal. The folks in the Bush administration seem like that. They espouse democratic values because that’s the law of the land in which they find themselves. But they are fundamentally out of tune with and ill at ease in our democratic state. Their deepest value is personal loyalty, to one’s peers in the hierarchy and, above all, to one’s superior in the hierarchy.

    Their good deeds are those of noblesse oblige, no less, but also no more. They can be kind to their inferiors in the hierarchy, but they set the time and the place. After all, there is a difference in kind between the order of rulers and the order of the ruled. The ruled must know and remain in their place.

    Feudal conservatives do not respond well to criticism and are concerned with preserving their image. That image is essential to maintaining the hierarchy, which rests on legitimacy flowing down from the top. At the very top, of course, you have divine agency. Since the nature and actions of this agency can be known only though interpreting events and actions, it is critical that they maintain hold over the means of interpretation. That is why the administration has such extraordinary message discipline and is given to intricately staged appearances by the President. That is how they legitimize the hierarchy.

    Such systems have proven to be extraordinarily vulnerable to corruption. They have no checks and balances.

  11. Doug says:

    “the problem is that I now see many Democrats, including some in party leadership, using the Katrina disaster as just more fodder …”

    The problem that I see is that, as Tim has said, the federal government failed in one of its most basic duties. Failed in a way that has cost possibly thousands of citizens their lives.

    The federal executive and the federal legislative branches are presently run by people from one party. That party has the power; that party has the responsibility. When the people of the country demand accountability from representatives of that party, it is not fodder, it is acknowledgement of the simple truth: With power comes responsibility.

    (And the fact of the matter is that FEMA got much better during the Clinton administration. The present administration took a different approach. They got different results. If you seek his monument, look about you.)

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