What Bush Has Stolen From Us

BY Susan J. Douglas

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When have we ever had a president publicly reject the Geneva Conventions and endorse torture as a matter of national policy?

Many of us had been waiting for tougher talk from Barack Obama about John McCain and the Bush presidency. At the Democratic convention, Obama began to deliver – but it wasn’t stark enough.

I recently visited Australia and New Zealand, and it made me realize that we need mythic language – the kind that comes from oral cultures reliant on handed-down legends – to capture what has happened these past eight years. Like the Aborigines’ dreamtime stories, we need something more powerful than “the failed policies of the Bush administration.” I propose “The Stolen Years.”

It began, of course, with the stolen election in 2000. But just think how much has been stolen from us: our morality and, indeed, our sense of humanity.

These are not just policy failures. This has been a spiritual pillaging of any sense that the United States can ever aspire to, or represent, higher principles; that our nation is, or can be, a democracy, however flawed; that the government cares about citizens other than the really rich.

The Bush administration has seized all we hold dear and ground it into the dirt with its boot heels.

Most important has been the nation’s sense of its own morality. Few of us are deluded that the U.S. government was, before the Bush regime, a beacon of moral rectitude and social justice. The United States has overthrown many governments, mostly in secret, and supported repressive rulers. But when have our leaders publicly and adamantly rejected the Geneva Conventions and endorsed torture as a matter of national policy? It’s one thing for there to be a gap between national principles and government practices, and quite another for a president to deride those principles as no longer essential to the nation’s moral compass.

Also stolen from us has been a faith in the rule of law, the notion that the U.S. Constitution is a foundational document whose principles must be adhered to. The lawlessness and barbarism of Guantánamo – where people have been imprisoned for years without trials, or denied the right to know the specific accusations against them, where people have been tortured – has leeched from us any sense that our judicial system is any better than, say, the secret Star Chambers of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

After revelations in the ’70s about the FBI’s surveillance of artists, civil rights, feminist and antiwar activists, there was a national outcry. As a result, Congress restricted domestic spying on American citizens. Bush’s warrantless wiretap surveillance program, however, stole that basic right to not be spied on by our government.

With Bush’s suggestion that climate change was some imaginary hoax, with his thwarting of stem cell research, and with his FDA’s negligence in applying strict testing to a host of products, he robbed the country of eight years of cutting-edge research on the environmental and medical challenges – if not emergencies – that face us.

Of course, what Bush most wanted to sack was any notion that the government could help or support its citizens. His goal was famously articulated by right-winger Grover Norquist: to “cut government … down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gave us heart-wrenching images of what this meant: people stranded on their roofs, waving desperately for help; people forced to live in sweltering filth in convention centers; people left to rot. The ideology stole any vestigial notions of a common good in which we might all have an interest – and to which we should all contribute, especially those of us more privileged than others.

While presidents have often lied to us – the secret bombing of Cambodia, Iran-Contra, “I never had sexual relations with that woman” – none has mounted such a full bore, cynical, Soviet-style propaganda campaign against its own people as George “WMDs” and “Mission Accomplished” Bush.

Such propaganda efforts were especially aimed at women. While Laura Bush went to Afghanistan to show her concern for gender oppression, her husband was busily closing the White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach, removing information about issues like pay equity and childcare from the Labor Department’s website, and posting bogus information – such as the discredited claim about a link between having an abortion and getting breast cancer – on the National Cancer Institute’s website.

These are not failed policies. This is Grand Theft Auto – of who we are, and what we could become. Progressives and liberals should have “The Stolen Years” as our mantra, and say “never again.”


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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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