Tag Archives: George W. Bush

Memories of a (still-living) professor

I don’t make a habit of reading David Brooks anymore, so I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t run across yesterday’s piece until just now. It begins, “Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family,” a sentence that immediately piqued my curiosity. Years ago, I had a professor with the same peculiar last name. The next sentence, about the death of a woman named Anna after she’d been thrown from a horse, confirmed that Brooks was writing about the same family whose father had once taught my Political Philosophy class.

His name was Ashley. It was the fall of my sophomore year, and I was a typically heady student impassioned by the notion of political contrarianism generally and reactionary liberalism specifically. The school was Wheaton College, a devoutly evangelical institution perpetually toeing the border between extreme-right social ideology and academic mainstream respectability. (It succeeded brilliantly in the former arena and marginally less so in the latter.)

I was conflicted, born into a conservative family cursed (blessed, really) to settle in the Boston suburbs. Despite my considerable social isolation as a child, enough of that famed Northeastern elitist progressivism rubbed off on me to be viscerally repulsed by the ménage à trois of religion, academia, and Republican politics that permeated Wheaton’s classrooms and chapel halls.

Ashley Woodiwiss was a godsend, an embodiment of absurd contradictions. He had seven children, but was nevertheless a high-church Episcopalian in the decidedly low-church bastion of American Midwestern Christendom. He always opened his class with a reading from his pocket-sized Episcopalian prayer book, repeatedly joking that he had no idea how to pray without it. Even this self-deprecation transformed itself, to my impressionable ears, into a subtle mockery of his evangelical peers: their casual descriptions of alleged interactions with God as the laughable contrast to his distinctly Victorian bedside manner with the Almighty.

I loved him for other reasons as well. On the first day of the semester, he inquired as to whether any freshmen were present. Upon hearing nothing, he continued, “Good. Now I can cuss and tell anti-Bush jokes.”

That fall, the Democrats finally retook the House from the GOP, ending their twelve-year reign atop the chamber. This utterly delighted Woodiwiss. Beforehand, while jokingly previewing his upcoming behavior at the polling station, he told us he planned to ask an election official where exactly the “no-electioneering” line ended, step as close to it as possible, yell “Throw the bums out!” and then stride purposefully inside to cast a vote to do just that to the Republicans.

During another class session, he mused, “Jimmy Carter had Habitat for Humanity after he left office, Bill Clinton is a huge policy wonk now, so what’s Bush going to do? Speak to large churches?”

He assigned Shakespeare readings. Once, while attempting to show the class a production of one of the Bard’s plays on VHS (these were the old days, after all), he inadvertently switched the TV to a Manchester United game, whereupon he declared himself “morally torn” and proceeded to watch for several more minutes.

I remember, finally, a game he used to play on Mondays. “I want to hear three stories from this weekend where you remembered you go to Wheaton,” he’d say. A student would call out, “I went to a twenty-first birthday party and no one was drunk.” Someone else might add, “The highlight of my weekend was finding hash browns in the cafeteria on Sunday morning.” “Fantastic!” he’d respond, practically giggling.

It was, indeed, moments like these that endeared him to me most. Reading back through emails I wrote to my family at the time, I’m a little taken aback to find my barely-exaggerated descriptions of him as, alternatively, “St. Ashley Woodiwiss” and a “demigod.” Hovering beneath the surface of my academic man-crush was my giddiness at feeling like an insider: I felt at the time as if I were the only student who truly understood his acerbic wit and, more importantly, was intellectually sophisticated enough to endorse his progressive politics and share his sarcastic dismissal of evangelicalism.

This was probably not perfectly accurate, of course. But reality felt sufficiently similar such that my enjoyment of his class owed at least as much to my fellow students’ imagined bewilderment at his antics as it was to the substance of the jokes themselves.

Years later, I ran into another former student of his, now knee-deep into the (smoldering ruins of the) conservative intellectual sphere. He kindly forwarded me some favorite Woodiwiss quotes he’d once compiled and sent to the professor. Reading them now, I’m almost shocked at their mundaneness:

  • “I was sitting there swilling beer and watching football games all day long New Year’s Day.”
  • “I don’t see how you can be a Republican and be a Christian.”
  • On Exxon: “Hell no, they are terrorists, they are destroyers, they are raping the environment.”
  • “Every Protestant church starts off with a split.”

It’s difficult to fully appreciate, over seven years later, what it was about this brand of humor that so captured me as a rapt 19-year-old. There is, moreover, an inescapable irony in the fact that I received this exhaustive list of Woodiwiss’ anecdotes from a very conservative classmate, an implicit rebuke of my longtime “insider” illusion. Indeed, given the benefit of hindsight, the quote that stands out most to me now is this one: “This is the Wheaton version of a liberal,” he said once. “At Chapel Hill I’m a fascist.”

He isn’t wrong. There was little truly radical about Ashley Woodiwiss. Stripped of any context, his ironic musings were red meat to malleable students craving brain food. But despite their appearance in his Political Philosophy class, these quotes were neither political nor philosophical in essence.

In David Brooks’ piece, which discusses the death of one of Ashley’s daughters and a serious injury to another, Woodiwiss speaks of lessons learned. “Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.”

It’s not a direct quote, but I’ll take it. It sounds like something my old Political Philosophy professor might have said. Right before trying to convince everyone that George W. Bush was the worst American president of all time.

My goal this Election Day

Today, America goes to the polls. Mercifully, nearly two years of incessant campaign coverage (including nearly 30 presidential debates in total) will come to an end, assuming no last-minute recounts or hijinks. But barring a surprise wave election, in which one of the two major parties suffers massive defeats in the presidential race as well as in both houses of Congress, our bipartisan gridlock is likely to continue.

That even the apportionment of blame for this sad state of affairs is hotly debated is proof positive of the lengths to which we’ve entangled ourselves into partisan herds. Republican obstinacy faces off against Democratic radicalism in the eyes of their respective adherents. Most problematically, one of the few remaining points of bipartisan coordination is seen in the increasing trend towards ideological rigidity – on both sides.

I have seen this in my own relationship to the political sphere over the last four years. In 2008, I was an undergraduate student voting, without overwhelming enthusiasm, for Barack Obama. I was never able to locate in myself the passionate embrace of the Illinois senator that had so enraptured many of my peers. I respected John McCain and would not have been severely disappointed had he won.

Four years later, I admit to frequent panic at the thought of a Mitt Romney presidency. My discomfort with the Republican platform has morphed into a visceral disgust for most of its standard-bearers. I mock the minor gaffes committed by the tireless tag-team of Romney and Paul Ryan while largely excusing Obama’s as mere faux pas. I deride the elitism of Romney’s “47%” commentary while allowing Obama’s mention of “[clinging] to guns and religion” to fade into the past.

To be clear, I am not peddling false equivalency. Anyone who has followed my blog on a casual basis for the past several months would have little doubt as to where I lay the vast majority of the blame for the current state of American politics. But my mounting distaste for Republican policy and rhetoric has perceptibly nudged me further in the opposite direction. My own views have solidified, less the result of conducting painstaking research and more a visceral reaction to what I viewed as inflammatory and bitter actions from my ideological opposites.

It seems clear that this division is infecting all aspects of our political culture. Mitt Romney has been downright evasive regarding the release of his tax returns, but Harry Reid’s absurd claim that Romney may not have paid any taxes at all for a decade was greeted with cheers by many on the left. Would this have happened before: a party so decrying the missteps of its opponents that it gleefully fights unreasonableness with rhetorical extremism of its own?

A similar vortex has swallowed the debate over national healthcare. When Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act devolved into absolutist obstructionism without any hint of compromise, many of us (including myself) gradually moved from cautious support of the bill to full-throated endorsement. Unfortunately, a real debate is sorely needed to determine what exactly can reduce the skyrocketing costs associated with healthcare coverage in this country. But the decision by one party to halt all discussions need not be met with equivalent foot-stomping by its counterparts.

How, then, should we respond? And by “we” I refer not only to liberals and others who share my dismal outlook on the collective Republican identity: I include also Republicans whose own more sensible positions have shifted slowly rightward under the rising pressure of a red-vs.-blue war. If the opposing party is truly as denialist or radical or obstinate as we believe, what options do we have?

On a practical level, there may be little that can be achieved. But ratcheting down hyperbolism and the most abrasive rhetoric will certainly help. Whatever competitive advantage the expression of vitriol may once have facilitated in shaping public perception has certainly evaporated in the face of equally irate counterattacks.

More crucially, detaching ourselves from the entrenched binary mentality that handcuffs us to our respective parties will allow us to reevaluate our elected leaders from a more clear-headed standpoint. All too often, a unified and angry opposition has compelled many of us to move from a mild preference for a certain party platform to an enthusiastic embrace of even its more dubious propositions – including policies that we once opposed.

This is how, for example, President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program was rightly castigated by liberals as an existential threat to the public’s constitutional freedoms, while Barack Obama’s extrajudicial assassination of American citizens has prompted little more than muted protests. It’s how many Democrats scoffed at Bush’s muscular use of drones while praising Obama’s decision to then ramp up the rate of drone strikes.

As liberals, our primary responsibility is to a set of ideals, not to a thoroughly vetted, compromised, and stripped-down document attempting to represent the broad tent that is the Democratic Party. Conservatives, too, must remember that their own principles of lean government and open markets should trump the narrow interests of a Republican Party still beholden to the incoherence of Tea Party demagogues and xenophobic agitators.

For the next four years, regardless of who wins tonight, my goal is to avoid the reflexive castigation of conservative proposals that has steadily crept into my decision-making process. A nation with two healthy parties is a far stronger one than a nation with none. But it’s up to all of us to subject our ideological compatriots to the same degree of thoughtful critique as we extend to our political opposites.

These thoughts don’t fit together

The following two snippets aren’t necessarily related, but they’ve been percolating in my mind for a few days now, so I thought I’d include a little of each.

1) Buy Andrew Bacevich’s book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Bacevich is currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and was formerly a colonel in the U.S. Army. Washington Rules is a deeply insightful critique of what Dwight Eisenhower so presciently labeled the “military-industrial complex.”

“The Washington rules” of the title, Bacevich explains in his introduction, “were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed.” What follows is a brilliant historical overview of the American drift from moderate isolationism to strident interventionism. Bacevich, like many on the disaffected left, fears perpetual war. Entrenched interests in both the public and private sectors never cease to make use of fear-mongering tactics to frighten a restive population into acquiescence. This is how the CIA and Strategic Air Command, two institutions whose central role in establishing American militarism is thoroughly dissected in Washington Rules, managed to upend decades upon decades of American reluctance to flex its muscles in the global arena.

It is also how the United States finds itself enmeshed in three simultaneous wars right now. The legacy of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (and yes, their legacies are forever linked) is not simply the overreaction, the blind rage that led the United States into endless wars against unseen enemies with unclear objectives, all accompanied by the impossibility of victory. More enduring still is the zombie-like, unquestioning deference with which American citizens approach their warrior-leaders. Bush accomplished in eight years what the decades-long Cold War never could: permanent war, it seems, has become the new norm. Civil liberties are but a noble casualty along the way.

All one needs to do to confirm this sudden, collective disavowal of the pursuit of peace is to witness the nearly inaudible protest to President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in the Libyan revolution. Where the war in Iraq invited some (albeit relatively muted, especially in light of the still-heightened emotions following September 11) immediate condemnation, our Libyan incursion barely raised eyebrows. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the terror attacks he masterminded laid bare an uncomfortable truth: it takes very little to galvanize the American public in support of a perceived cause, however dubious the rationale and however vague the endgame.

Washington Rules was published in 2010, before the Jasmine Revolution and before today, when the key provisions of the Patriot Act that authorize controversial surveillance techniques were renewed for four years by Congress, despite the warnings of two U.S. senators that the bill is being interpreted in very dangerous ways. One can only imagine the blistering new foreword Bacevich could pen now.

2) Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this week was chock-full of half-truths, prevarications, and outright lies. In fact, his entire visit to the States was an exercise in exaggeration and hyperbole, as the reaction he provoked following Obama’s speech on the Middle East was completely unwarranted. Obama stated that Israeli-Palestinian borders must be based on the 1967 lines, something every American and Israeli leader has known for years. (This includes Netanyahu himself as recently as six months ago.)

Ultimately, Netanyahu is a coward, and his intransigence will only harm Israel in the long run. What I found far more disturbing was the appalling sycophancy displayed by the United States Congress, which was roused to twenty-nine standing ovations, including once — inexplicably — that immediately followed Netanyahu’s statement that Israel was not occupying Palestinian land.

As Glenn Greenwald of Salon has demonstrated on many occasions, American politicians’ obsequiousness to the Israeli right-wing knows no bounds. This absurd rubber-stamping (not to mention heavy financing) of what is in many ways a racist regime owes in large part to the enormous influence of the Israel lobby (yes, the one so strongly debated following the eponymous book by Walt and Mearsheimer).

But a word of caution may be in order. As any sane person who follows Middle Eastern politics with even a passing interest knows, yes, the Israel lobby is indeed a powerful force, perhaps the most influential outside group (especially in proportion to its immediate constituency, American Jews) affecting American politics today. One of the hallmarks of this lobby is to stifle any critique of Israel, no matter how thoughtful or well-reasoned, by using the threat of being branded an anti-Semite as a deterrent.

Of course, anti-Semitism does exist, and whether it’s John Galliano or Lars von Trier spouting racist ideas in public, it’s wrong, always. But wielding the “anti-Semite” label as a baton in order to smother dissent is not just wrong, it’s undemocratic. The dilemma, then, lies in criticizing the lobby itself. Care must be taken to avoid being perceived as an adherent of the age-old, harebrained conspiracy theories that “Jews control the media,” “Jews control the government,” and so on. They do not. But they do, unlike many underrepresented minority groups in the U.S., exert enormous influence on American policy. To acknowledge this fact is not to exhibit anti-Semitism; it simply proves one has eyes and ears.

A crucial distinction is in order, then. The Israel lobby exists, and it is powerful. But it is not synonymous with Judaism, nor even American Judaism. AIPAC, while purporting to act on behalf of both American Jews and the state of Israel, in reality is little more than a well-connected conduit between the most radically right-wing voices in both camps and the United States government. So while many are understandably reluctant to give voice to their misgivings about the Israel lobby for fear of conflation with actual anti-Semites, it is vital to differentiate between criticism of Israeli policies and hatred of a race. It is also important to remember that AIPAC, in portraying itself as the public mouthpiece of Jews in both the U.S. and Israel, is actually doing both nations a huge disservice in its unquestioning support of continually failing policies. It is only when reasoned criticism becomes the norm that the United States and Israel will both be able to enact sensible policies with regard to the Holy Land.