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August 30, 2002
The End of the Illusion

Awash in bathos. That’s what the media promise to be before, during and after the anniversary of 9/11: Tom Brokaw reliving the day with air traffic controllers. John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted (now host of his own talk show) at Ground Zero with relatives of the victims. Flight 93 widow Lisa Beamer ... well, everywhere, from the Today Show to Good Morning America to Larry King Live.

As always, in the construction of collective memory, certain images and interpretive frameworks will be reiterated and magnified. Others will be tinier than a bat squeak. (For example, as of this writing, I do not know of plans for a retrospective documentary of the past year produced and hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union.) But if progressives could get an hour or two on TV, what interpretive frameworks might we put forward as we think about what has happened here since last September?

I think one of the most important, and chilling, developments of the past year has been the Bush administration’s unashamed embrace of neoliberalism, the term lefty academics in particular use to describe the American political system of at least the past 50 years. Neoliberalism refers to a government that has all the requisite trappings of a democracy— legislatures, public campaigns, national conventions, elections—but is really a highly unrepresentative government by elites for elites.

Since most Americans don’t want to admit out loud that they live in a plutocracy, successful politicians have, until now, worked hard to keep up an illusion. Bill Clinton was a master at this: His moving rhetoric about the needs of children, or affirmative action, or the crisis in health care, all masked his administration’s all-too-frequent cultivation of conservatives and capitulation to business interests.

But Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft don’t care about maintaining the illusion, and have decided they don’t need the trappings of democracy. After all, that’s how they won the presidency. If you review the last year, you will see a carefully calibrated process to achieve a real paradigm shift in gaining American acceptance of the less candy-coated aspects of neoliberal politics.

Because 9/11 allowed Bush to become a “wartime president,” and wars are always a time of impinged democracy, this has been an especially propitious 12-month period in which to convince the country to acquiesce to autocracy. The campaign has had several important phases: undermine civil liberties (and see if anyone cares), insist on a highly arrogant foreign policy (and see if anyone cares), stonewall about administration officials’ highly profitable adventures in the corporate Eden of the pre-Enron days (and see if anyone cares), and then substitute a series of “leaks” for public debate about whether the president should, on his own, declare war against Iraq (and see if anyone cares).

Step by step, they’ve used the “all war, all the time” version of the presidency to push people to the next level of consent, relying on coercion when necessary. It helps, of course, that the opposition party is a bunch of spineless weenies.

The USA Patriot Act was the first crucial move. But we know this year’s depressing history: the detaining of thousands of Muslims and Arabs, often for months, without charges; the proposal of a national ID system; the Justice Department plan to fingerprint and track immigrants; the expansion of the FBI’s ability (which we now learn doesn’t even have e-mail!) to spy on religious and political groups; the undermining and evading of the Freedom of Information Act; and, everyone’s favorite, the National Neighborhood Watch program (in which your TIPS on the weird guy down the street will go directly to America’s Most Wanted).

While the TIPS program has been widely ridiculed, it has helped deflect attention away from the other serial assaults on democracy. And once people have said “uncle” to increased power and secrecy among law enforcement and the federal government, why should they blanch when the president says that people should certainly be “allowed” (his word) to debate the merits of a war with Iraq—but that, in the end, he’ll decide on his own what to do.

Given how effectively this administration has naturalized top-down power, is it a surprise that Al Gore—I mean, Al Gore—has been accused of running too populist a campaign in 2000?

Looking back at the last year from this perspective would indeed be bracing. It would also be denounced as unpatriotic. So you won’t hear any of this coming from Lisa Beamer or any of the other icons of 9/11. In fact, the anniversary, through an avalanche of patriotic symbols that celebrate the image but not the substance of democracy, will only advance the surrender to neoliberalism, Bush-style.


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