Incivility, Death and George H W Bush

I saw this most clearly for the first time with the death of John McCain. When he died, it was begged that any criticism of him was ‘too soon’, to have respect for the family, at least wait until he’s buried. That it is distasteful to criticize someone when they die.

A week later, there were few headlines on an honest assessment of his history. Few talks about how what he said never quite matched up to his voting record. How the ‘Maverick’ was just branding, and he had too often thrown his lot in with the worst excesses of the Republican party. That had been forgotten.

What had not been forgotten was the white-washing, rehabilitation of his image. Of the talks about his military career, his bravery, the good things.

Alright, I’m going to use this word again. Propaganda. Propaganda isn’t just a thing that happens in dictatorships and failed states. It’s not a consignment of history. It’s one of those things where it’s obvious that it happened in the past, but we feel we are immune to it. We like to believe we’re smarter than that, more informed.

We are not.

This is what propaganda looks like in the first world. Reinforcing a cultural consensus that strictly benefits those in power, that we will never see afforded to the poor. If what we valued was respect for the dead, why is there no outcry when we see a black teenager shot by police is called “no angel” on evening news, and we have the fact that he smoked pot in his bedroom used as justification for his death?

But if you have the blood of thousands on your hands, it is an issue of respect, and of timing.

Reddit’s News page pinned the official notice of his death, and chose this article to do so. What do the top comments look like?

Largely inoffensive, with most of the replies being endearing or admiring. An example:

Awesome.

Perhaps the most telling of what I’m talking about is this gilded comment, near the top.

Civility is the keyword here. Civility extends to why you cannot criticize the man. Politics, above all else, must be kept bloodless, restrained. Civil. It must be debate, and sensibilities. A return to when politics was more like Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing.

The West Wing is a fantastic example, actually, of how these beliefs play out. It’s important to realize that much of the Obama administration has cited West Wing as an influence of their political beliefs and ideology, as formative as to why they wanted to go into politics.

So let’s look at a transcript of an episode from 2000, picked out by the Citations Needed podcast by journalists Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi. The episode is about Senator Seth Gillette, largely, who is only described as being ‘incredibly popular’.

In it, Gillette is portrayed as angry, furious, and Ziegler keeps his cool. He has total power and control over this situation. Gillette is the bad guy, and Ziegler, the heroic White House communications director, is the good guy.

Roll the clip.

Senator Seth Gillette: You should’ve given me a heads up.

Toby Ziegler: It happened five minutes before the man walked into the House chamber. You’re a junior senator from North Dakota and you don’t get script approval on the State of the Union.

Senator Seth Gillette: Whatever language you may have couched it in, it was not an insignificant change.

Toby Ziegler: Seth —

Senator Seth Gillette: You started off with ‘We will not cut Social Security period’ and wound up with ‘We are announcing the formation of a bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission to study new options with regard to Social Security.’

Toby Ziegler: What exactly is the danger in studying new options?

Senator Seth Gillette: What’s the danger in the White House getting behind my reform bill?

Toby Ziegler: Diverting General Revenue into the trust funds is not reform.

Senator Seth Gillette: It’s the only Social Security reform bill supported by any Senate Democrats.

Toby Ziegler: How many votes did you get for it last year?

Senator Seth Gillette: If the White House —

Toby Ziegler: Eighteen.

Senator Seth Gillette: If the White House —

Toby Ziegler: Eighty-two US senators think your reform bill sucks. So unless you have a plan for picking up a majority, I don’t know what’s so wrong with saying we’re open to hearing new ideas?

Senator Seth Gillette: And compromise essential Democratic Party principles to cut a Social Security deal with the Republicans?

Toby Ziegler: It’s simply not what we’re doing.

Senator Seth Gillette: If your commission recommends raising the retirement age one day, reducing benefits one dollar, reducing COLAs, if your commission recommends partial privatization of Social Security-

Toby Ziegler: Are there cameras on someplace?

Senator Seth Gillette: I will condemn it as the act of a group intent on destroying Social Security.

Toby Ziegler: And ruling the galaxy.

Senator Seth Gillette: Oh, you think this is a joke? You think I won’t publicly condemn a member of my party?

Toby Ziegler: The President’s not a member of your party. He is the leader of your party. And if you think demonizing people who are trying to govern responsibly is the way to protect our liberal base, then speaking as a liberal, go to bed, would you please.

Senator Seth Gillette: You’re running to the right on the environment.

Toby Ziegler: We admonished environmental terrorism.

Senator Seth Gillette: Please.

Toby Ziegler: You in favor of it?

Senator Seth Gillette: It was a cheap shot and you lost a lot of friends that night.

Toby Ziegler: We made more than we lost.

Senator Seth Gillette: And then you go on TV this morning with this ridiculous defense of a cop who kicked the crap out of a black kid cause you guys don’t want to admit you screwed up on the vetting and he never should’ve been invited in the first place. Seniors, environmentalists, African Americans. You tell me which you think has a greater chance of happening, my reform bill getting passed or the President getting re elected without the three groups I just mentioned?

Toby Ziegler: You just named three groups that’ll never desert the President.

Senator Seth Gillette: Not unless I run as a third-party candidate, no. Oh, those eighteen votes are looking a little bigger now aren’t they you patronizing son of a bitch.

Toby Ziegler: I was just thinking about this cartoon I once saw. A bunch of tiny fish are swimming through the leaves of a plant but then one of the fish realizes it’s not a plant, it’s the tentacles of a predator and the fish says, ‘with friends like this, who needs anemones?’ Come at us from the left and I’m gonna own your ass.

That’s a little bit long, but it serves an important purpose.

The West Wing encapsulates the liberal fantasy dream government. Ultimately, this is the civility ideal, idealized. That means we can dissect it for what this ideology translates to in the real world. First point: Even in their fantasies, liberals lose.

Senator Gillette is angry because the Democrats are trying to make a compromise with the Republicans on social security. Later retirement and a lower pension, to keep the plan solvent. He is portrayed as immature, as the bad guy here, for doing so.

And his unwillingness to work with the party on it will get him destroyed.

The liberal ideal shown isn’t defending social security then. It’s about being reasonable adults and compromising. It isn’t about having ideals, but about an absence of ideals you aren’t willing to budge on.

Because the left, shown here, are unwilling to compromise they’re the bad guys even when what they want is unambiguously good. Again, let’s focus on this:

Senator Seth Gillette: If your commission recommends raising the retirement age one day, reducing benefits one dollar, reducing COLAs, if your commission recommends partial privatization of Social Security-

Toby Ziegler: Are there cameras on someplace?

Gillette is the bad guy here specifically because he is unwilling to compromise on… raising the retirement age, on reducing pensions, on making it harder for seniors to get access to healthcare, on privatization of social security.

His unwillingness to compromise on those issues makes him the villain of the scene, not because they aren’t good things to want, but because his unwillingness to compromise on them eclipses that.

When your first ideal is compromise, every other ideal is something you are willing to compromise on. This is the end point for those who call for civility in politics, above all else.

So what does this have to do with the issue of being respectful of death?

It’s to emphasize that the issue is not about showing respect to the dead. It’s about showing deference to the powerful, who made ‘controversial’ decisions while in power. Conveniently, it also dismisses legitimate criticism of what the United States as a whole did during that time period.

If this man was a good man – and that cannot be disputed at this time, for the sake of civility – then the criminal actions he committed while in public office must have been committed for good reasons. This leads to some fairly perverse justifications.

Or, as one person put it;

Why does everyone have this “Anyone who has lead a country during any sort of armed conflict is a war criminal” mentality?

By disallowing criticism of his actions at a time when he is most discussed, you allow legitimacy to be given to actions without dissent. The best case scenario is that their worst actions are ignored, the worst case is that you see such historical revisionism as CNBC’s;

You also see former Democratic president, and West Wing devotee, Obama deliver this eulogy:

America has lost a patriot and humble servant in George Herbert Walker Bush. While our hearts are heavy today, they are also filled with gratitude. Not merely for the years he spent as our forty-first President, but for the more than 70 years he spent in devoted service to the country he loved – from a decorated Naval aviator who nearly gave his life in World War II, to Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces, with plenty of posts along the way. Ambassador to the United Nations. Director of Central Intelligence. U.S. Envoy to China. Vice President of the United States.

George H.W. Bush’s life is a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling. And he did tremendous good along the journey. Expanding America’s promise to new immigrants and people with disabilities. Reducing the scourge of nuclear weapons and building a broad international coalition to expel a dictator from Kuwait. And when democratic revolutions bloomed across Eastern Europe, it was his steady, diplomatic hand that made possible an achievement once thought anything but – ending the Cold War without firing a shot.

It’s a legacy of service that may never be matched, even though he’d want all of us to try.

After seventy-three years of marriage, George and Barbara Bush are together again now, two points of light that never dimmed, two points of light that ignited countless others with their example – the example of a man who, even after commanding the world’s mightiest military, once said “I got more of a kick out of being one of the founders of the YMCA in Midland, Texas back in 1952 than almost anything I’ve done.”

What a testament to the qualities that make this country great. Service to others. Commitment to leaving behind something better. Sacrifice in the name of lifting this country closer to its founding ideals. Our thoughts are with the entire Bush family tonight – and all who were inspired by George and Barbara’s example.

You have to go outside the immediate mainstream to publications like the Intercept to see more critical pieces, but right now I want to directly address some of the points raised by CNBC.

Desert Storm certainly ended Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but not without atrocity. Thousands of civilians and retreating soldiers were killed in the Highway of Death incident, enough that the exact casualty figure is unknownable. Some counts put it as low as 300, others well over 10,000.

The website rarehistoricalphotos.com presents these images.

Dozens of civilian vehicles, which were not all as abandoned as officials later claimed, litter the charred asphalt between their fleeing military targets. There is a bit more of a debate on whether military targets in retreat are valid targets, but I will take the controversial stance that they should not be.

As well, if the real problem was Saddam Hussein, why was he still in power at the end of the Gulf War? The official White House words were; “Better the devil you know”, according to military historian Erik Durschmied in his 1999 book “The Hinge Factor”.

These words would be echoed in 2007 by the man who pulled down Hussein’s statue during the American occupation: “I really regret bringing down the statue. The Americans are worse than the dictatorship. Every day is worse than the previous day.”

“The devil you know [is] better than the devil you don’t. We no longer know friend from foe. The situation is becoming more dangerous. It’s not getting better at all. People are poor and the prices are going higher and higher.”

The American occupation of Iraq continues to this day, yet George H W Bush is being championed for his brilliant foreign policy.

If you want to see what Bush did that was brilliant, one only needs to look at his 1991 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, and what it did to Yugoslavia.

I continue to admire the way that Wikipedia can say such condemning things in neutral language:

In 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslav federal Prime Minister Ante Marković went to Washington to meet with President George H. W. Bush, to negotiate a new financial aid package. In return for assistance, Yugoslavia agreed to even more sweeping economic reforms, which included a new devalued currency, another wage freeze, sharp cuts in government spending, and the elimination of socially owned, worker-managed companies.

Emphasis mine, on that last part. It’s such an odd thing to demand in economic negotiations, isn’t it? See, Bush wanted to explicitly ban workers from collectively owning and democratically controlling their workplaces as a condition for international aid. Why?

Kosovo’s mines, some of the largest in the world, were owned in such a way which made them difficult to open to international, corporate exploitation. Lignite deposits in the Kosovo mines are, according to experts, sufficient for the next 13 centuries, and they were socially owned, worker-managed co-ops.

In the 1995 to the 1998 period, the mines are quoted as producing 2,538,124 tons of lead and zinc crude ore and produced 286,502 tons of lead and zinc and 139,789 tons of pure lead, zinc, cadmium, silver and gold. Unfortunately produced by a worker co-op in a less-than-capitalist country.

While Clinton would pull the trigger on the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, it was Bush who set up the conditions that would justify it. We see these demands echoed in the future Rambouillet Agreement, of which Henry Kissinger said: “The Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted.”

I said it was brilliant. I didn’t say it was good.

Inciting a civil war to get access to cheap raw materials isn’t something that should be forgiven because you voted Democrat on your deathbed.

As well, the history with Noriega is a little more complex than ‘dealing with a strongman’.

Noam Chomsky, in a lecture in Edinburgh, said that the invasion was historic because it was the first time since 1945 that the US had not tried to justify its actions as defense against the Russians. He posited that the invasion served two real purposes: To ensure the administration of the Panama canal didn’t go back to the Panamanians, as it was supposed to on January 1, 1989, and to cut off a friendly nation to Nicaragua and Cuba, as Panama had been making them harder to blockade.

Of most interest, Chomsky states that the trial of Noriega was so farcical to prevent too much information about Bush’s connections with the leader from coming out, as the two went “way back”.

He’d been the head of the CIA at one point, at a time when Noriega had been on the CIA’s payroll. And the vice president of the Iran-Contra deals had interesting ties to South America.

That’s an interesting note too. One of Bush’s actions as a “kinder, gentler” conservative had been a truly generous act of mercy. Upon taking office he pardoned six people involved in Iran-Contra – five convicted, and Caspar Weinberger who was about to face trial.

While officially stating that he knew nothing about it as it occurred, in his diary he wrote that he was; “one of the few people that know fully the details”.

Oh, that mischievous Poppy Bush.

And where was that “kinder, gentler” Poppy Bush in 1964, when he called the Civil Rights act; “politically inspired, and is bad legislation.” Yes, that Civil Rights act.

What kindness is there to say of an oil baron who used his wealth to forge a family dynasty in politics immersed in corruption, favours owed to the Bin Ladens of Saudi Arabia – yes, those Bin Ladens – of rigged Florida elections, of nepotism. How doesn’t that stab at the heart of values liberals claim to hold dear?

How can Obama attribute the end of the Cold War to the man who would inflict supply side economics on the Eastern European, states he claims Bush guided with a steady hand?

A 1989 New York Times survey in Czechoslovakia found that 47 percent wanted their economy to remain state controlled, while 43 percent wanted a mixed economy, and only 3 percent said they favored capitalism.

They would find that, under US supervision, their social safety nets were cut. They lost the guarantee of employment, and the implementation of ‘economic shock therapy’. The Russia we see today is built on this shock-doctrine, which cratered the Russian GDP per capita by half.

Violent crime would quintuple in less than a decade, and the mafia would step in to fill the vacuum created. A few private interests would snap up the country at firesale prices: Why Russia is the way it is today.

This would be shown as the fault of communism and its inevitable failure, and not the disastrous Reaganomics inflicted on an unwilling population.

When the wall fell, East Berlin would lose many of its LGBT rights, especially for those of trans people. Homosexuality laws had stopped being enforced as early as 1957, and would be peacefully removed from the books entirely in East Berlin in 1968, a year before the Stonewall riots in the United States.

On 11 August 1987, the East German Supreme Court affirmed that “homosexuality, just like heterosexuality, represents a variant of sexual behavior. Homosexual people do therefore not stand outside socialist society, and the civil rights are warranted to them exactly as to all other citizens”. 

They started producing state films on AIDS, saying it wasn’t ‘a gay disease’, at this time. At this same time Bush, as vice president, refuses to acknowledge his own administration’s mocking of reporters that care about the issue, and invention of the term GRID: Gay-Related Immune Disorder.

Where was that kinder, gentler conservative when he was making attack campaigns against Bill Clinton for protesting the Vietnam war? When he stopped defending abortion rights? When he would denounce Reagan’s supply-side economics as ‘voodoo economics’, but push it as policy when he was in office himself?

But all of this, all of this, is less of an issue to me. The man responsible for these things is dead, after all. What offends me most is that this is not what is going to be remembered right now.

You will not see an honest reassessment of these actions, or an honest look at the US’s role in South America during these years. You will see these actions as either hard but ‘necessary’, or even heroic, painted as paying respect to the dead. You will see the bringing up of war crimes as ‘too soon’, but never see that time come into relevance.

You will see people who should be ideologically opposed to all of these things ignore them for the greater ideal of compromise and civility.

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