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The Weblog at The View from the Core - Sun. 02/15/04 02:53:05 PM
"The Poltics of Fear"
Democrats in Self-Destruct Mode CLXXXVI
I've been looking for a transcript of Al Gore's (in)famous speech of last Sunday, but it hasn't turned up yet. Here, though, is another Al Gore speech of a few days before, Feb. 5, which seems to be along the same lines.
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Keynote Address to Social Research Conference
New School University
- Remarks as delivered -
Thank you very much, I am Al Gore, I used to be the next President of the United States of America. I do want to it’s great to be in a blue state.
I do want to thank you, Arien and others for inviting me, to speak at what I regard as a very timely conference on the uses and misuses of fear in our political system in America. Truly it’s an honor to be part of a program that includes so many distinguished scholars, who unlike me have genuine expertise in the fields of study that are directly relevant to this topic. I’d like to in that regard acknowledge that I’ve already learned a lot from the people that you have gathered together here, because in organizing my thoughts for this I had the opportunity to read some of the articles and book excerpts that some of them have written. And I called some of them on the telephone I spent two hours on the phone with Joe LeDoux yesterday, learned a lot, and with some others.
Let me also say at the outset that it is a personal pleasure to share a podium with my friend and former Senate colleague, Bob Kerrey, who brings to this particular discussion not only his experience and leadership in the political world and in the academic world. But also, it bears noting because of the subject of our discussion here, his extraordinary personal example of how to stare down the fear of death and lead with raw courage, in circumstances that are hard for the rest of us to even imagine. This is a topic where courage as well as fear has direct relevance.
We’re meeting moreover in a city that has itself been forced to learn how to conquer terror. And because we are gathered very close to Ground Zero, we should of course begin our deliberations with a moment of respect and remembrance for those who died on September 11th, and for those who have been bereaved.
(Moment of silence)
Terrorism, after all, is the ultimate misuse of fear for political ends. Indeed, its specific goal is to distort the political reality of a nation by creating fear in the general population that is hugely disproportionate to the actual danger that the terrorists are capable of posing. That is one of the reasons it was so troubling to so many last week when the widely respected arms expert David Kay concluded a lengthy, extensive investigation in Iraq for the Bush Administration with these words, and I quote: “We were all wrong”.
The real meaning of those words of Kay’s devastating verdict is that for more than two years, President Bush and his Administration have been wittingly or unwittingly distorting America’s political reality by force feeding the American people a grossly exaggerated fear of Iraq that was hugely disproportionate to the actual danger posed by Iraq. Now how could that happen?
Could it possibly have been intentional?
It’s a serious question. More serious than the laughter might imply. And there are some clues to the answer.
The fear campaign aimed at Iraq was precisely timed for the kickoff of the midterm election campaign of 2002. You remember that one, the one where Max Cleland, who lost three limbs fighting for America in Vietnam, was accused of being unpatriotic?
The curious timing was explained by the President’s Chief of Staff as a marketing decision. It was timed, he said, for the post Labor Day advertising period because that’s when advertising campaigns for new “products” as he referred to it are normally launched. The implication of his metaphor was that the old product the war against Osama bin Laden and al Quaeda had lost some of its pizzazz. And in the immediate run up to the election campaign of 2002 a new product the war against Iraq was being launched. For everything, there is a season, particularly for the politics of fear.
Another clue: it did serve to distract the American people and divert attention from pesky domestic issues like the economy, which were after all if you look back beginning to seriously worry the White House in the summer of 2002.
And of course the third clue is to be found in the now voluminous evidence that the powerful clique inside the Administration that had been aggressively agitating for war against Iraq since before the inauguration immediately seized upon the tragedy of 9/11 as a terrific opportunity to accomplish what they had not been able to do beforehand: that is to invade a country that had not attacked us and did not threaten us.
They were clever. And they managed to get the job done. But somehow, some deceitfulness took place. There hasn’t been specific responsibility assigned for this deceitfulness yet, but it’s being investigated by the President.
The so-called intelligence was stretched beyond recognition, distorted and misrepresented. Some of the intelligence that the President personally presented to the American people on national television in the State of the Union Address turned out to have been actually forged. By someone though we still don’t know who. Amazingly enough, the White House still doesn’t seem to really care who forged that document. Imagine for a moment that you were President of the United States. I
It’s not that hard.
And imagine that you were standing before a joint session of Congress, on live national television, speaking on the one occasion of the year when the Constitution of our nation commands the President to speak directly to the Congress and the American people about the state of the Union. And you delivered an important point on the issue of war and peace. And after your speech the United Nations which is where the information came from the United Nations publicly announced that the document you had been given was a forgery.
Would you be embarrassed? Wouldn’t you ask for someone to be accountable for it? Wouldn’t you be interested in who forged the document? And why? And how it got into your hands? And why you were allowed to use it in your State of the Union Address?
Sherlock Holmes was in a famous story in which the clue was the dog that didn’t bark. The White House hasn’t even growled about who forged the document that got into the hands of the President of the United States and was used on national television. I’m curious. Who forged that document? And why has no one proceeded?
The CIA warned his staff we are told not to let him use that particular document. But there was some kind of regrettable communications foul up inside the National Security Council. But again the President’s now expressed his determination to find out who the culprit is and who might be responsible for the fact that, again I quote: “We were all wrong”.
Over the past eighteen months I have written and delivered a series of speeches addressing different aspects of President Bush’s policy agenda, including his decision to go to war in Iraq under what I regard as patently false pretenses, including his dangerous assault on civil liberties here at home, his outrageously fraudulent economic policy and his complete and total failure to protect the global environment indeed, his invitation to those most responsible for polluting it to step up the pace. And in preparing and delivering speeches on these topics and others that are related, initially my purposes were limited in each case to the subject matter of the specific speech. However, as I tried to interpret what was driving these various and separate policies certain common features became obvious and a clear pattern emerged.
In every case there was a determined disinterest in the facts. The incuriosity about the document the forged document I referred to earlier is not out of keeping with the President’s incuriosity in his hour long meeting with Paul O’Neil, with his incuriosity about the substance of the policies in each of these areas.
The second pattern common to all of these policies was an inflexible insistence on carrying out preconceived policies regardless of the evidence concerning what might work and what clearly would not work. First the verdict, then the trial.
Third, in each area there is a consistent bias favoring the wealthy and powerful, particularly key members of the electoral coalition that supported him at the expense of the broader public interest.
Next, a marked tendency to develop all the policies in secret. And to avoid any accountability to the people, to the Congress, to the Courts, or to the press.
And in each case there has been a disturbing willingness to misrepresent the true nature of the policy involved and its real implications. And no matter what the issue, it is now clear that in every instance the Administration has resorted to the language and politics of fear, in order to short circuit the debate and drive the public agenda without regard to the evidence or the facts or the public interest.
For example, the Administration did not hesitate to heighten and distort public fear of terrorism after September 11th in order to create a political case for attacking Iraq, where no facts to justify a connection to the attack of September 11th could be found. Iraq was said to be working hand in hand with al Quaeda. Iraq was said to be on the verge of a nuclear weapons capability. Defeating Sadam was conflated into bringing war to the terrorists, even though what it really meant was diverting resources away from the pursuit of the people who actually attacked us and it meant causing us to lose focus on that critical task.
The Administration also did not hesitate to use fear of terrorism to launch a broadside attack on measures that have been in place for a generation to prevent a repetition of gross abuses of authority by the F.B.I. and by the Intelligence community at the height of the Cold War. I served on the House Select Committee on Intelligence immediately after the period when the revelation of these abuses lead to major reforms. And conservatives on that panel were then resisting those changes tooth and nail. They have long memories. And now these same constraints have been targeted in the Patriot Act and have been either removed or sharply diminished. And of course the President wants the Patriot Act extended and made permanent. I was encouraged when he made this political appeal for renewal of the Patriot Act in his State of the Union address and the applause was tepid at best on both sides of the aisle. I view that as one of the few bright spots in that speech.
Neither did the Administration show any scruples at all about using fear of terrorists as a means to punch holes in the basic protections of the Constitution, to create a class of permanent prisoners, to make it possible to imprison American citizens without due process. For the first time in American history, to snatch an American citizen off of the street, put him or her in prison without allowing that citizen to see a lawyer, to see their family, to make a telephone call, to be told what the charges are, or to have any access to due process or the courts. He did not hesitate to totally sequester information about policies and about people, not just from the people themselves, but from the Congress and from the courts. All of which was justified by recourse to fear.
Our nation has gone through other periods in our history when the misuse of fear resulted in abuses of civil liberties. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 through 1800, the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare after World War I, indeed this University by acts of conscience and courage in the direct aftermath of the Red Scare following World War I. Then in World War II the internment of Japanese Americans, a shameful episode. Then the McCarthy abuses of the Cold War period. After each of these periods of excess, we as a nation felt ashamed and tried to make up for the abuses, with monetary payments in some cases, with apologies, with new laws and new protections. And although we have not yet entered the period of regret and atonement this time around it is already obvious that we are now in one of those periods of regrettable excess.
The Administration did not hesitate to use the politics of fear in economic policy. The fear of recession was put forth as a argument for massive tax cuts, primarily benefiting the wealthiest while loading debt on the rest of the country for generations to come. It used fear of energy shortages to build an energy policy made to order for the oil industry at the expense again of the rest of us. It used the fear that we would lose a competitive edge to block responsible action to deal with global warming and has by that action mortgaged not only us, but our children and their children to consequences are unmitigated by any acts of foresight in this generation. Meanwhile, of course, even the Chinese have now passed us in fuel economy standards for new automobiles, just to take one example. This Administration uses fear of the problems of old age to contrive and illusory drug bill that essentially transfers billions from the people to the pockets of the large pharmaceutical companies. It does not hesitate to use fear even of God, not only to pronounce its own views on marriage, but to impose them on the nation in the form of a Constitutional Amendment at election time.
At the level of our relations with the rest of the world, the Administration has willingly traded in respect for the United States in favor of fear. That is the real meaning of “Shock and Awe”. It is this Administration’s theory that American “dominance”, to use their word, coupled with a doctrine of preemptive strikes, regardless of whether the threat to be preempted is imminent or not and incidentally, today George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, made it clear that the C.I.A. never said Iraq was an imminent threat the threat, to be preempted, didn’t have to be imminent. And this combination of policies, according to the Administration, will be sufficient to persuade our rivals and enemies to leave the field.
But in addition to asking the question of whether or not the Administration’s use of fear to manipulate the political process was intentional, I think there is another question that urgently needs attention. How could our precious nation have become so uncharacteristically vulnerable to such an effective use of fear to manipulate our politics? After all, it is a serious indictment of our political discourse in America that almost three quarters of all Americans were so easily lead to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the attacks of September 11th. It is an indictment of the healthy functioning of our democracy that nearly half of all Americans still believe that most of the hijackers from September 11th were Iraqis. It is an indictment of the way our democracy is presently operating that more than 40% were easily convinced that Iraq did in fact have nuclear weapons.
When David Kay said “We were all wrong”, he was speaking for the Administration and the intelligence community and the national security experts. But he could have easily could just as easily been speaking for the country as a whole. A free press is supposed to function as our democracy’s immune system against such gross errors of fact and understanding. What happened?
For one thing, there’s been a dramatic change in the nature of what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas has described as the structure of the public forum the way our political discourse takes place. It no longer operates as it once did. It is simply no longer as accessible to the vigorous and free exchange of ideas from individuals in the way those ideas were freely and vigorously exchanged during the period of our founding. The age of print effectively ended in the 1960s, when television overtook newspapers. And that gap has grown dramatically since then since then. Today only 17% of college students read newspapers. The dominant medium of political discourse is the 30 second television commercial.
Some of the neurologists and brain researchers who will talk at the sessions tomorrow will describe how images not only the image of the plane hitting the tower, the planes hitting the towers and the Pentagon, but other images of murders on the six o’clock news go straight to a part of the brain that is not mediated by language or reasoned analysis. And in the news business of today the common saying, which I’m sure all of you’ve heard, is “If it bleeds, it leads”. And the second order suffix is “If it thinks, it stinks”. And the competition, again to use the vernacular, is to “glue eyeballs to the screen”.
The ownership of the media companies has also changed. And it’s rare for a media operation to be a family business any longer with a deep pride in the independence and journalistic tradition that has survived over generations. They are now part of conglomerates. Does that make a difference? Perhaps another conference on another day.
But where the political system is concerned, it is a fact that the leadership of the Republican Party is augmented by its links to the corporate ownership of these conglomerates that control the majority of media outlets that dominate the news delivery process today. This is a process of ownership change that is already so far advanced that it alarmed even conservative Republican members of Congress and caused them to join with members of the Democratic Party to oppose the F.C.C.’s efforts to make the world of information even safer for monopoly.
When error of fact and judgment is no longer caught by the immune system of our democracy, it is time to examine the nature of that dysfunction and to promote the recovery of good health in our political discourse. There is still maneuvering to accelerate that consolidation process and the President still hopes to carry the day. And this after all includes a growing part of the electronic media characterized by paranoia presented as entertainment. This is the part that allows drugged addled hypocrites, compulsive gamblers and assorted religious bigots to masquerade as moral guides for the nation.
(Laughter and applause)
So what are the consequences? Fear drives out reason. It suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction. It also requires us to pay more attention to the new discoveries about the way fear affects our thinking process. Again, these experts on the panels tomorrow have much that is new in their respective fields to share. I’m told by those who I respect in the fields of neurology and brain science that this era is similar to the era when Galileo first used the telescope to deliver a new understanding of the way the solar system actually operated. For most of the last century the study of the human brain was based on individuals who had freak accidents and unusual injuries and the doctors would pay attention to what part of the brain was taken out by the injury and then after careful observation of strange behaviors would slowly put together what functions were controlled by the part of the brain that been injured. But now there is the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope and they are able to observe healthy brains in normal operation, measure the electrical function, measure the other indications of what part of the brain is most active at what time and an entire new understanding is coming forth. And one of the areas that has been richest in the contribution of new understanding about how we as human beings function has to do with fear.
In political theory, the common if usually unstated assumption is that citizens operate as rational human beings, reasoning their way through the problems that are presented in the political system as if every question, every problem and every opportunity is resolved into words and debated, analyzed rationally and subjected to a discourse with others until there is a reasoned conclusion. But as these scientists will make clear tomorrow, that’s not the way it works at all. There are other structures that operate to a large degree independently of the reasoning process.
And when fear is activated it is very difficult to turn off. Fear was activated on September 11th in all of us to a greater or lesser degree. And because it was difficult to modulate, or to change in particular specifics, it was exploitable for a variety of purposes unrelated to the initial cause of the fear. When the President of the United States stood before the people of this nation, in the same speech where he used the forged document, and said imagine, my fellow citizens he didn’t use that last phrase but he said imagine another act of terrorism. And in essence, what he asked us to conjure was a fictional fear of Iraq giving a nuclear weapon to terrorists who actually had no connection to Iraq. But because our nation had been subjected to this fearful incident, to this tragic, cruel attack on us, when our President said imagine with me this new fear it was easy enough to bypass the reasoning process the normal discourse that takes place in a healthy democracy, with a give and take among people who could say: “Wait a minute, Mr. President! Where’s your evidence? There is no connection between al Quaeda and Saddam Hussein!” He actually said you can’t distinguish between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. He actually said that.
And because again of what these experts will talk about in ways that I could never talk about tomorrow, it was a time of great vulnerability. We placed our trust in President Bush. I placed my trust in President Bush. I went to the Iowa caucuses I’m sorry, the Iowa Democratic convention in the fall of 2001. I had prepared I don’t mind telling you in August of that year a very different kind of speech. But in the aftermath of this tragedy, I proudly, with complete and total sincerity, stood before the Democrats of Iowa and said: “George W. Bush is my President. I will follow him, as will we all in this time of crisis.” I was one of millions who felt that same sentiment and gave to the President total trust and asked him lead us wisely and well.
He abused the trust of the American people by exploiting the fears of the American people in order to take this nation on an adventure that had been preordained and designed before the attacks of September 11th ever took place.
And the verdict of history will not be a kind one.
Our founders had a healthy respect for the role of fear. The root word for democracy, “demos”, meant to them as it means to us the masses of common people, who at that time were an object of some fear in the minds of many who were founders of our nation. What they wanted was an orderly society in which property would be safe from arbitrary confiscation. After all, the Revolutionary War was at least in significant measure about taxation. And what they believed was that a too pure democracy would expose that new society to the ungoverned passions of what today some call “the street” the passions of people with little to lose, whose angers could be all too easily aroused by demagogues the same root again and then turned against those with wealth.
So our Constitution, of which we are justly proud, is really in significant measure and effort based at least as much on fear as on hope; to compromise and balance out the conflicting agendas of two kinds of Americans: those who already have achieved material success, and those who aspire to it; those who are happy with the status quo, and those who can only accept the status quo if it the jumping off place to something better for themselves. And that tension can never be fully resolved and it is perfectly clear at the present moment in the profoundly differing agendas of our two major parties.
Neither has the fear that underlies these differences gone away, however well it may at times be camouflaged. And somewhere along the line and I’m going to propose my candidate for when it happened the Republican party became, for the core group controlling it, merely the nameplate for the radical right in this country. The radical right is in fact a coalition of those who fear other Americans: as agents of treason, as agents of confiscatory government, as agents of immorality. This fear gives the modern Republican Party it’s well noted cohesiveness and its equally well noted practice of jugular politics. Even in power, the modern Republican party feels itself to be surrounded by hostility, beginning with the Government itself which they present as an enemy; extending to those in the opposition party, which they’re presently shutting out of conference committees, shutting out of any meaningful participation in the legislative and governmental and constitutional processes; and extending ultimately on to that portion of the country whose views and hopes are by the other party that is to say half the nation.
And under these circumstances it is naturally perhaps tragic in the classic sense, but none the less natural more the modern Republican party to be especially efficient in the use of fear as a technique for obtaining and holding power. This phenomenon was clear under both Presidents Reagan and the first President Bush, except softened to an extent by the personalities of both men. Under our current President Bush however, the machinery of fear is right out in the open, operating at full throttle. Fear and anxiety have always been a part of life and always will be. Fear is ubiquitous and universal in every human society. It is a normal part of the human condition.
But we have always defined progress by our success in managing through our fears. Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong all found success by challenging the unknown and overcoming fear with courage and with a sense of proportion that helped them overcome the real fears without being distracted by distorted and illusory fears. As with individuals, nations succeed or fail and define their essential character by the way they challenge the unknown and cope with fear. And much depends on the quality of their leadership. If their leaders exploit their fears and use those fears to herd people in directions they might not otherwise chose, then fear itself can quickly become a self-perpetuating and free wheeling force that drains national will and weakens national character, diverting attention from real threats deserving of healthy and appropriate fear, sowing confusion about the essential choices that every nation must constantly make about its future. Leadership means inspiring us to manage through our fears. Demagoguery means exploiting our fears for political gain. There is a crucial difference.
Fifty years ago, when the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union was raising tensions in the world, and when McCarthyism was threatening our freedoms, liberties here at home, President Eisenhower said this: any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America. But only fifteen years later, when Eisenhower’s Vice President Richard Nixon became President, it marked the beginning of a big change in America’s politics.
Nixon in a sense embodied that spirit of suppression and suspicion and fear that Eisenhower had denounced. And it first became apparent in the despicable midterm election of 1970, waged by Nixon and his Vice President Spiro Agnew. I saw that campaign firsthand. My father, who was the bravest politician I have ever known, was slandered as unpatriotic because he opposed the Vietnam War; was accused of being an atheist because he opposed a Constitutional Amendment to foster Government sponsored prayer in the public schools. I was in the army at the time, on my way to Vietnam as an army journalist in the engineers. I had leave the week of the election. “Law and order”, court ordered bussing, a campaign of fear emphasizing crime these were the other big issues that year. It was a sleazy campaign by Nixon, one that is now regarded by political historians as a watershed, marking a sharp decline in the tone of our national discourse.
In many ways, George W. Bush reminds me more of Nixon than of any other President.
Like Bush, Nixon subordinated nearly every principle to his hunger for reelection. He institute wage and price controls with as little regard for his conservative principles as President Bush has shown in piling up trillions of dollars of debt. After the oil embargo of 1973, we now know Nixon threatened a military invasion of the oilfields of the Middle East. Now Bush has actually done it. Both kept their true intentions secret.
Like Bush, Nixon understood the political uses and misuses of fear. After Nixon was driven from office in disgrace, he confided in one of his regular interlocutors these words, that were written down and quoted. Nixon said “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school,” he said, “but it’s true.”
The night before that election, thirty three years and three months ago, Senator Ed Muskie of Maine spoke on national television and said this, and I quote: “There are only two kinds of politics. They are not radical and reactionary or conservative and liberal. Or even Democratic and Republican. There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust. One says: you are encircled by monstrous dangers. Give us power over your freedom so we may protect you. The other says: the world is a baffling and hazardous place, but it can be shaped to the will of men.” Cast your vote, he concluded, in trust in the ancient traditions of this home for freedom.
The next day my father was defeated, defeated by the politics of fear. But his courage in standing for principle made me so proud, and inspired me so that I felt he had really won something more important than an election. In his speech that night, he stood the old segregationist slogan on its head and defiantly promised that “the truth shall rise again”. I wasn’t the only person who heard that promise. Nor was I the only one for whom that hope still rings loudly and true. I hope and believe that this year the politics of fear will be defeated and the truth shall rise again.
Almost three thousand years ago, Solomon warned that where there is no vision, the people perish. But the converse is also surely true: where there is leadership with vision and moral courage the people will flourish and will redeem Lincoln’s prophesy at Gettysburg that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth. Thank you.
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I am Al Gore, I used to be the next President of the United States of America. One gathers that this remark has become his opening line everywhere he speaks.
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