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Apr 18, 2006
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Category: News and Politics

Posted on Apr. 14, 2006

Gore Vidal
Zuade Kaufman

National Book Award-winning author Gore Vidal

By Gore Vidal

Editor’s Note: The following essay by Gore Vidal is the full-text foreword to Robert Scheer’s new book: “Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton--and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush.” Ordering information here. Read Scheer’s introduction here.

America and Empire

by Gore Vidal

The twentieth century produced a great deal of writing about American politics, much of it bewildered when new notions like empire started to sneak into nervous texts whose authors were not quite certain if “empire” could ever be an applicable word for the last best hope of earth.

The bidding then changed dramatically after World War Two, when Harry Truman armed us with nuclear weapons and gave us an icy sort of permanent war against Godless Atheistic communism, as personified by Joseph Stalin, standing in for Hitler, whom we had got rid of with rather more help than we liked to admit from the new world demon Stalin. How, why did Truman lock us all into a national security state, armed to the teeth? The simple story was dread of communism everywhere on the march, but those of us who had served in World War Two knew as well as our political leaders that the Soviet Union, as of 1950, was not going anywhere very soon: They had lost twenty million people. They wanted, touchingly, to be like us, with consumer goods and all the rest of it.

What actually happened was tragic for the Russian people and their buffer states: Truman, guided by that brilliant lawyer Dean Acheson, was quite aware that by 1940 the world Depression of the early ’30s had returned. The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt had largely failed. What was to be done? FDR took a crash course in Keynesian economics. As a result, he invested $8 billion into re-arming the United States, in order to hold our own against the Fascist axis of Germany, Japan, Italy. To the astonishment of Roosevelt’s conservative political enemies, the U.S. suddenly had full employment for the work force and a military machine of the first rank with which we were able to defeat Fascism, and just about anyone else who defied us.

Truman and friends learned and never forgot an important lesson: It was through war and a militarized economy that we became prosperous with full employment. After victory in Europe and the Pacific, Truman himself began to play the war drums. Stalin was menacing Turkey and Greece (Acheson threw in nearby Italy, and why not France?). We must stop the rising Red tide, while acquiring that era’s latest propaganda toy, a TV set. This wearisome background was well known to historians like William Appleman Williams, but hardly suspected by too many of the usual publicists of the American way of life.

Robert Scheer has had the good fortune to observe first-hand the last half-dozen Presidents, from Nixon to “W”. He has also had the perseverance as a journalist to insist that he be able to conduct one-on-one conversations with the odd sort of men who were playing (or trying to play) President. This makes for a fascinating immediacy in the book at hand, particularly when he is giving his protagonists a harder time than they had expected. Scheer has always suspected that he would be one of the last journalists able to use the print medium fully in the electronic age that had dawned around 1960.

Scheer makes a telling analysis of Nixon and his “frozen smile,” with the comment that “despite being unquestionably the best prepared of all modern Presidents before assuming office, it was his indelibly awkward and secretive style that did him in.” Scheer is impressed by this President’s mind despite himself, as was Walter Lippmann, whom I once teased for supporting Nixon. Walter was serene: “I only know,” he said, “if I had a difficult lawsuit on my hands, I would go to him as a lawyer. He presents you an entire case before your eyes: He is simply brilliant, unique in public life.”

Print journalism is a challenge to the writer’s intelligence, as well as to that of his subject. Of course, few journalists and player Presidents are up to Scheer and Nixon. Yes, Nixon did much that was evil along the way (Cambodia, Watergate), but he usually managed to harm himself most—a form of good manners. He was primarily interested in foreign affairs and the opening up to China; détente with the Soviets; these were significant achievements, and he had no strong domestic policies, which should have been a great relief for Us the People. No wartime tax breaks for cronies is quite enough for us to applaud him in other roles.

Presidents are trapped in history as well as in their own DNA codes. After Watergate, Nixon starred as Coriolanus for a while, but when he saw that this got him nowhere, he realized he was so steeped in blood that he could not turn back, so he went on as Macbeth, to our benefit at times. Scheer is not the first of our journalists to recognize how like classical players the Presidents tend to be if they have the right war or disaster to contend with. Scheer is generally good-humored about them, though Bush I’s implacable self-love seems to rub him the wrong way; also, Reagan’s rambling does not get either of them very far, yet Scheer has grasped what few others have: Mrs. Reagan’s importance not only to her somewhat listless husband but to our country, where she seems to have understood before other politicians that the Cold War was getting us nowhere.

Scheer had problems with Jimmy Carter and, perhaps, with Southern politicians in general. He struggled with the man’s compulsive fibbing about himself and his place in an imaginary Plains, Georgia, which kept changing to fit his restless re-imagining of his career, recalling homely barbershop quartets as well as killer rabbits at large in catfish ponds. Scheer had an edgy time with Carter, but it was to Scheer that Carter confessed he had lusted in his heart for ladies, causing much of the nation to admire and smirk.

Scheer concedes Clinton’s brilliance as a player but frets over (as many of us did) “the end of welfare as we know it.” It is with this President that Scheer is most interesting, largely because Clinton is as intelligent as he, at least on the subjects they discuss. Clinton has dared occasionally to touch the third rail of American political discourse: the superiority of other nations’ economies to that of America the Beautiful and the Earmarked.

Scheer: Some now blame the Europeans and Japanese for our problems and call for protectionism. Are you sympathetic to such calls?

Clinton: But to be fair, the biggest problems we have in maintaining the manufacturing base are our failures to work together to achieve high levels of productivity, to control health care costs, to have a tax system which is pro-manufacturing. Our tax system now is anti-manufacturing. And it was during the Reagan/Bush years. I think, you know, it rewarded money making money and not production, not jobs, not goods, and not services.

Scheer: Well, that’s what we say now. But when the last tax-reform package was passed, many Democrats supported it. It was supposed to help production.

Clinton: I never thought it would . . . You know, the elemental principle of taxation should be [that] people should pay according to their abilities to pay. And you should have incentives that do specific things. Those ought to be the two driving, in my view, principles of the tax system.

This is very grown-up stuff.

The final chapter, perhaps in every sense, deals with George W. Bush. Scheer confesses he was ill-prepared for someone who seems to have no idea of, or interest in, playing President, as opposed to playing “Wartime President,” easily the trick of the week when Congress has modestly declined to declare war on anyone.

Certainly, with these observations on a section of our history, Scheer joins that small group of journalist-historians that includes Richard Rovere, Murray Kempton, and Walter Lippmann.

Gore Vidal is an internationally acclaimed novelist, essayist, playwright and screenwriter whose historical fiction and collected criticisms have garnered him the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. An outspoken political activist, he ran for the U.S. House in New York in 1960 and in the 1982 senatorial primary.

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Posted: Apr 18, 2006 7:06am
Apr 11, 2006
America’s "Noble" Cause: 
Preserving its Right to Murder, Exploit, Torture, and Impoverish with Impunity
  America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between. - Oscar Wilde

“Why are we over there in Iraq?”

“To protect our freedoms.”

“How are the Iraqis threatening our freedoms?”

“They attacked us on 9/11.”

“If that is true, why are so many Americans against the war?”

“I don’t know, but I think Cindy Sheehan and all the other war protestors should be rounded up and shot.”

04/10/06 "
ICH" -- -- I was involved in this exchange with a co-worker about two months ago. I was utterly perplexed at how this individual managed the obvious cognitive dissonance created by thinking that we are fighting to protect our “freedoms” while simultaneously holding the notion that non-violent dissidents “should be rounded up and shot”.

In retrospect, why was I so surprised? As a vehement critic of the United States government’s foreign and domestic policies, I have received numerous death threats from &ldquoatriotic” loyalists to the American Empire over the last year. Recently, a severely brain-washed US resident who maintains a site called American Jihad issued a “Farwa” (his spelling) against the editors of Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, and Uruknet and against dissident writers Mike Whitney and Kurt Nimmo. Many of my essays have appeared on Dissident Voice and Uruknet, so I suppose I am a target of the “Farwa” too.

Violent Extremists Abound

While many death threats issued by American hate-mongers may be hollow, the nations of the Middle East do not have the market cornered on fanatical ideologues who commit acts of terror. Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, Michael Griffin, Paul Hill, Ted Kaczynski, Baruch Goldstein, David Lane, Donald DeFreeze, Clayton Waagner and Earl Krugel are but a few of America’s home-grown violent extremists. America, and often components of its government, have a history of assassinating dissidents who become too powerful as they pursue equality and human rights. Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, RFK, MLK, and Paul Wellstone each met a premature demise which ended their efforts to introduce real social justice into the Empire.

Your Mind is our Vessel

Actually, I suspect many of the ardent supporters of the American Empire truly believe that they are preserving and spreading noble principles like freedom, democracy, equality, and human rights. There is no shortage of propaganda to convince them of this “fact”. Delusions and illusions “generously” provided by the corporate-controlled mainstream media afford Empire loyalists with the opportunity to avoid the burden of independent thinking. Sound-bites, canards, propaganda, stereo-types, and white-washed versions of the truth supply their programmed minds with a virtually endless loop of rationalizations to justify their approbation of a morally reprehensible entity.

People who continue to nurse at the bosom of Lady Liberty, the noble symbol of an imaginary land which has never existed, rail against those who seek peace, social and economic justice, and human rights. In their perverse worldview, health care, safety, ample nourishment, and adequate shelter are reserved for a select segment of the population in the Empire’s homeland. Those of us who believe in a more just and equitable world are indeed a threat to the oppressive capitalist imperialism of the United States. To perpetuate the Empire’s military dominance and parasitic exploitation of humanity, our attempts to awaken and rally the masses must be stopped by any means necessary.

Often accusing proponents of a more just and humane world of seeking “entitlements” for the poor and oppressed, the foot soldiers of the Empire are actually struggling with virtually every fiber of their being to preserve what they believe to be their own entitlements. Since the concept of “might making right” reinforces their belief that their “special rights” supersede the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is time to identify and enumerate these exclusive privileges:

Inalienable Rights of Select Citizens of the American Empire

1. We have the right to pre-emptively attack the nation or region of our choice simply based on our belief that they may be a threat to the Empire. No evidence necessary.

2. We have established and will maintain the right to murder an unlimited number of innocent civilians so long as our military machine does the killing and we label the victims as “collateral damage”.

3. We have the right to label whomever we choose as “terrorists” or “enemy combatants” and to hold them indefinitely without a trial.

4. We are exempt from the Geneva Conventions and have the right to commit acts of torture or to rendition our unconvicted prisoners to other countries which will torture them.

5. We have the right to continue glorifying and justifying the land theft and genocide we committed against Native Americans.

6. We have the right to continue to claiming we are the “leader of the free world” when slavery was a legal institution in our nation until the Civil War, women were not able to vote until the Twentieth Century, institutionalized segregation existed until the 1960’s, and we deny 5% of our population (Gays and Lesbians) equal rights and protection under the Constitution.

7. We have the right to sell ourselves as a “democracy” despite the fact that we are a constitutional republic, and despite the fact that corporate interests, lobbyists, wealthy campaign donors, and Israel shape most of our foreign and domestic policy.

8. We have the right to bill ourselves as a “bastion of human rights” (and thus justify our imperial interventions) despite the fact that we have the highest prison population in the world, we have a government which tortures on a wide scale, and we are one of the few “developed” nations which metes out the death penalty.

9. We have the right to hoard the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the history of humankind while prohibiting other nations from possessing such weapons. We also are the only nation with the right to employ WMD’s on a wide scale, as evidenced by our annihilation of over 100,000 Japanese civilians.

10. We have the right to plunder 25% of the world’s resources to provide for a scant 5% of the world’s population, while blustering that if the rest of the world embraced laissez-faire capitalism, they could reap the same bountiful harvest. (Forget the mathematical impossibilities involved. Those just get in the way of the propaganda!)

11. We have the right to continue to empower multi-national corporations with the rights of person-hood, limit their exposure to criminal prosecution and civil suits, and to enable them to exploit human beings in other nations. As long as our corporate friends are showing a profit, they can operate sweat-shops, facilitate the murder of labor agitators, maintain monopolies, off-shore American jobs while exploiting the foreign workers who take them, avoid paying taxes by setting up “shell headquarters” in places like Bermuda, destroy the environment, and continue the race to the bottom in wages and benefits, here and abroad.

12. We have the right to maintain and enhance a socio-economic system that places a significant portion of the world’s wealth in the hands of about 3 million people (approximately one percent of the US population). Tax cuts and an end to estate taxes will ensure that the Empire’s plutocracy perpetuates its reign. We have the right to foster a malevolent world economic order which results in 3 billion human beings living on less than $2 per day.

13. We have the right to account for half of the world’s military expenditures to &ldquorovide for the common defense” of 5% of the world’s population while 46 million of our people have no health insurance, 13% of the overall American population lives in poverty, over a million are homeless, an alarmingly high percentage of Black America suffers poverty and receives a pathetic education, and crises like New Orleans result in passive mass murder and diasporas of “undesirables”.

14. We have the right to send military recruiters into public schools. Our recruiters have access to student addresses and phone numbers and we pay them to use propaganda and financial incentives to entice our youth into sacrificing themselves for the latest imperial crusade.

15. We have the right to accrue as much public and personal debt as we deem “necessary” to perpetuate the American Dream for our nation and to satiate our personal obsessions with acquiring material possessions.

16. We have the right to impose our hollow, shallow, and violent cultural values on a world cowed into acceptance by the raw military and economic power of the American Empire.

17. We have the right to spy on our citizens, eliminate habeas corpus, and contract private companies like Blackwater to avoid the constraints of posse comitatus. It is of no concern to us that our actions seriously conflict with the US Constitution.

18. We have the right to produce 25% of greenhouse gasses, ignore and discount mounting evidence of global warming, and refuse to sign the Kyoto Treaty.

19. We have the right to malign, threaten, intimidate, or kill those within the Empire who have the audacity to question or oppose our agenda.

20. We have the right to maintain a corrupt Duopoly consisting of the Republican and Democratic Parties, which consistently present American voters with candidates whose goals are to perpetuate the Empire and the agendas of its corporate and plutocratic leaders.

21. We have the right to use the IMF and World Bank to impose our economic will on “developing” nations which we “help” by burdening them with crushing debt.

22. We have the right to ignore and violate international law while demanding that the rest of the world (excepting Great Britain and Israel) adhere to it stringently.

23. We have the right to subsidize and support Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

24. We have the right to concentrate the power of the United States government in the hands of the Executive Branch under the pretext that it is necessitated by the “War on Terror”.

25. We have the right to label those who dare to oppose our invasions or genocides as savages or terrorists and strip them of their human rights.

There you have it. Now the American Empire’s principal supporters and beneficiaries have their own “Bill of Rights”. Ironically, it has more than twice the number of rights guaranteed to all Americans under the original Constitutional Amendments. Since the true Bill of Rights is anathema to their cause, it is essential that the Empire loyalists’ “special rights” outnumber the rights protected by our Constitution.

A Severe Spiritual Malady

Certainly believing in America’s and its supporters’ entitlement to these “special rights” would qualify one as a sociopath (one with minimal concern for the welfare and feelings of others) within the world community. However, in the American Empire, those subscribing to such depraved and self-centered “rights” receive affirmation and acceptance.

Obviously this Bill of Rights II is my construct and does not formally exist. However, each of the entitlements I enumerated is necessary to enable the United States to exist in its current perverse form. If you truly support and pledge allegiance to the American Empire, this Bill of Rights II represents the core of your sociopolitical beliefs.

For those of you who embrace the notion that Divine Providence bestowed these “inalienable rights” upon you and your nation, I call upon you to search your souls. I challenge you to do a long and fearless moral inventory. If you do, and the maleficent elements of the United States of America have not managed to burn your conscience out of your psyche, I predict you will begin the journey to rejoin the brotherhood of humanity by renouncing your support of the American Empire.

If you are so narcissistic (or perhaps morally bereft) that you have no problem with the means by which the American Empire sustains its unregenerate existence, at least consider a pragmatic angle. The United States is pursuing a ruthless course which will eventually lead to a fierce and violent backlash, which will probably affect you. The 6.2 billion other members of the human race are only going to accept so much abuse before they strike back in a powerful way.

Jason Miller is a 39 year old sociopolitical essayist with a degree in liberal arts and an extensive self-education. When he is not spending time with his wife and three sons, researching, or writing, he is working as a loan counselor. He is a member of Amnesty International and an avid supporter of Oxfam International and Human Rights Watch. He welcomes responses at or comments on his blog, Thomas Paine's Corner, at
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Posted: Apr 11, 2006 1:21am
Apr 8, 2006
American Democracy Indicted
by Anthony Gregory, Posted April 3, 2006

Attention Deficit Democracy by James Bovard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 291 pages.

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” So says a popular bumper sticker. Indeed, those of us who have been paying attention to the political scene for years have often found ourselves outraged. The president’s approval rating has gone up and down, but throughout his five years in office never has public outrage been quite commensurate with the levels of incompetence, deception, and criminality coming from Washington. The same was true under Clinton. People are simply not paying attention.

There are few writers who pay more attention to the political follies of our time and who provide their readers with more meticulously documented reasons to be outraged than James Bovard, whose new book, Attention Deficit Democracy, presents his diagnosis of what is so terribly wrong with modern American democracy.

Whether we see it as a fundamental ailment or mere symptom, the American people are largely ignorant of political reality — deeply ignorant. This has been true for some time, and Bovard cites numerous polls from the last several election cycles that all indicate a staggering lack of simple understanding. In 2000, the University of Michigan “conducted a comprehensive survey of Americans’ political knowledge” and discovered that “only 15 percent knew the name of any candidate for the House of Representatives from their congressional district; only 11 percent could identify William Rehnquist as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and only 9 percent knew that Trent Lott was the Senate majority leader.”

Debunking new and old notions about the fail-safe virtues of democracy, advanced by authorities ranging from philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau to today’s social theorists of the political science establishment, Bovard questions the premise defended by modern academics that “voter ignorance is no threat to popular government.” In fact, even when it comes to exceedingly important issues and elections, “ignorance and delusions have become the dominant factors in presidential approval — and thus in setting the nation’s direction.”

To demonstrate the apparent inverse relationship between public understanding of the government and the severity of the issues at hand, Bovard takes on a number of sacred cows in the war on terror. He reminds us that 9/11 perversely produced in most Americans far more trust in the government that had just failed to protect their compatriots in the greatest intelligence debacle in U.S. history. And “nowhere was Americans’ ignorance more profitable for Bush than on the war with Iraq,” says Bovard, an issue on which, the author reminds us, Americans, and especially Bush voters, displayed unbelievable ignorance and complacency, falling for the administration line that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and operational ties to al-Qaeda. Shortly before the 2004 election, a Newsweek poll found that 42 percent of Americans believed Saddam was directly behind 9/11.

Fear of foreign enemies, but also of domestic hardships, seemed the prime motivation for voters in November 2004: “Voters could choose whether they would be killed by terrorists if they voted for Kerry or whether they would be left destitute and tossed out in the street if they voted for Bush.” Nearly everyone has come to see the government as the source of their “freedom from fear.”

But ignorance and fear do not a prudent democracy make. Instead, they help foster what Bovard perceptively calls “Battered Citizen Syndrome”: “In the same way that some battered wives cling to their abusive husbands, the more debacles the government causes, the more some voters cling to rulers.” And “the more fears government fans, the fewer people will recall the danger of government itself. The more frightened people become, the more prone they will be to see their rulers as saviors rather than as potential oppressors.”

Independent Institute senior fellow Robert Higgs argues that all governments rest on fear. The trouble with democracy is that it provides the illusion that the government is the people, and so all that is needed is an election to guarantee the government will have good intentions and benevolent policy. In assessing our modern democracy, Bovard bursts the bubble and takes on the illusions.

Deception and war

People tolerate excesses of all types from their government in the name of democracy. Most relevant today, and most notable throughout American history, is the issue of war. Regarding foreign policy, of which Americans tend to be more ignorant than they are of domestic policy, the U.S. government brags of its efforts abroad, excusing its acts of aggression as necessary tools of liberation, and claiming the right to wage virtually any war, tell any lie, and even torture people — all to make the world safe for democracy. The extent to which the American people go along with it all concerns Bovard, for he sees that such capitulation is what allows the abuses to continue.

Attention Deficit Democracy presents a nice little summary of the U.S. government’s questionable military and diplomatic legacy in the name of democracy — touching on the contradictions in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and various Progressive-Era interventions in Latin America; the excessive friendliness towards Stalin’s regime in World War II (during which “Harold Ickes, one of FDR’s top aides, proclaimed that communism was ‘the antithesis of Nazism’ because it was based on ‘belief in the control of the government, including the economic system, by the people themselves’” the Alliance for Progress; the horrific Vietnam war; numerous CIA coups; and Reagan’s National Endowment for Democracy.

Bovard’s treatment of covert operations and overt foreign aid programs in his chapter “Messianic Democracy” is one of the premier treats of the book, as the author documents case after case of folly, foolishness, and fraud in the U.S. government’s attempts to meddle in foreign elections, assassinate and oust foreign leaders, and secretly fund revolutionary groups and candidates — all in the name of “democracy” but, more often than not, yielding incredibly perverse results. From Reagan’s secret funding of the Nicaraguan Contras to Clinton’s deployment of military forces to protect Aristide’s regime in Haiti, the reader sees one example after another of how the &ldquoro-democracy” impetus behind U.S. foreign policy typically has the real-world consequence of supporting one homicidal tyrant or gang of thugs over another.

The first casualty in war is the truth, and to defend the perennially belligerent foreign policies of Washington, American politicians lie. In the name of democracy, wars are waged, and in the name of those wars, deception becomes just another policy tool. Unfortunately, the American people seem to swallow the lies happily as if it’s their duty as citizens.

American wartime presidents, from Polk to Truman and from Wilson to Johnson, have told the bloodiest, most important lies in U.S. history. In more recent years, as Bovard compellingly shows, presidents have relied on a barrage of brazen lies to prop up their case for war.

A partisan of neither major party, only of liberty, Bovard sums up the lies surrounding Clinton’s Kosovo war of the late 1990s. Clinton and his cabal called the terroristic Kosovo Liberation Army “freedom fighters”; distorted the history of the region and exaggerated the Balkans’ threat to the world; cried “genocide” when in fact the killings were far fewer in number than what was suggested; lied about the precision of the NATO bombing campaign; and disingenuously told the Serbian people that they would be protected by the United States when peace broke out. Bovard also takes issue with what Clinton’s “aides labeled the Clinton doctrine” — which the author says boils down to the principle “that the U.S. government is allowed to attack foreign nations on false charges.”

As a helpful reminder that today’s Republican administration is guilty of repeated deception, Bovard lays out the case plainly, citing the shameless lies of such officials as Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. The book’s focus on Clinton and Bush alike reminds us that wartime deception cannot be addressed by simply switching the party that occupies the White House.

We have come to the point where Americans, confident that their democratic rulers will behave virtuously, have empowered Leviathan and granted their rulers a de facto “right to lie for 72 hours.” “As long as the lies are not exposed in the same news cycle,” Bovard explains, “the refutations may as well be done in a different century.” The political establishment tells as many lies as it wants because the people have come down with a bad case of attention deficit democracy; they forget what it was that got them riled up and so supportive of the president’s new power grab or military invasion only days after it happened and the lies have been refuted.

Tolerance for torture

Nowhere is the public acquiescence to political criminality uglier, and nowhere is the author more compelling and damning in his case against modern American democracy, than in the new tolerance people have towards torture as acceptable policy. In perhaps his most powerful chapter, Bovard takes on the torture state, setting to rest once and for all the absurd defenses and denials of U.S. torture in the war on terror.

A review of this length cannot possibly do justice to this chapter, but suffice it to say that Bovard has done his research and nailed the case against the administration, whose officials, all the way to the top, clearly authorized interrogation procedures that can be defined only as torture — although, as Bovard notes, a leaked Justice Department memo, prepared at the request of then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, “began by largely redefining torture out of existence. It then explained why even if someone died during torture, the torturer might not be guilty if he felt the torture was necessary to prevent some worse evil.” In the memo’s own words,

Because Section 2340 requires that a defendant act with the specific intent to inflict severe pain, the infliction of such pain must be the precise objective.... Even if the defendant knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith.”

In other words, torture is not torture unless the person doing it is doing it only to bring about pain.

A Pentagon report of 3,000 pages (only 177 of which were released publicly) investigating the Abu Ghraib scandal and announced by Maj. Gen. George Fay in August 2004 found numerous cases of alleged serious abuse, including the “highly probable” allegation, in its words, that a detainee “was left naked in his cell for extended periods, cuffed in his cell in stressful positions ... made to ‘bark like a dog, being forced to crawl on his stomach while MPs spit and urinated on him, and being struck causing unconsciousness’ ... [and] beaten with a broom.... [A] chemical light was broken and poured over his body.... During this abuse a police stick was used to sodomize” the prisoner.

The torture allegations go far beyond what was seen in the Abu Ghraib prison photos leaked in 2004. The scandal reaches many other prisons in Iraq as well as Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Bovard presents a disgusting picture of the repulsive systematic abuse that prisoners, including many innocent people rounded up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, have endured, as well as some particularly horrifying stories of rape, sex abuse, extreme torture, and murder.

The American people have come to tolerate, even embrace, the barbaric policy of torture, and Bovard has been paying attention and is outraged. It is a sign of a truly dysfunctional political system and troubling political culture. The images at Abu Ghraib released to the public, which show much less gruesome abuse than the photos seen by senators and stories reported elsewhere in credible sources, should have alone caused a revolt against the fundamental mechanisms of today’s government. To convey the severity of the situation, and its implications for the foreign policy-goal of winning Muslim hearts and minds, Bovard forcefully writes,

Many Americans have remained oblivious to the impact that the Abu Ghraib photos and other torture reports have on foreigners. How would Americans have responded if the roles had been reversed? Consider the case of Jessica Lynch, the 20-year-old blond, blued-eyed, attractive West Virginian Army supply clerk captured after her supply convoy was attacked during the invasion of Iraq.... What if Americans had seen photos of Lynch with blood running from cuts on her thighs, cowering before attack dogs lurching at her? What if Americans saw photos of a hooded Lynch with wires attached to her body, looking like she was awaiting electrocution? What if Americans saw videos of Lynch screaming as she was being assaulted by Iraqi captors? Such evidence would likely have swayed millions of Americans to support dropping nuclear bombs on Iraq. And yet many Americans refuse to recognize how similar evidence inflames Arabs’ attitudes toward the United States.

Blind trust in government

After reviewing sociological literature about why people trust or distrust the state — often written by proponents of greater trust in government — the author presents the discomforting reality: people are inclined to trust the government more than it deserves. And although “blind trust in government is often portrayed as a harmless error — as if it were of no more account than saying pagan prayers to a pagan deity that didn’t exist” — Bovard insists that “the notion that rulers are entitled to trust is the most expansive entitlement program of them all.” Indeed,

Blind trust in government has resulted in far more carnage than distrust of government.... It was people who believed and who followed orders who carried out the Nazi Holocaust, the Ukrainian terror-famine, the Khmer Rouge blood bath, and the war crimes that characterize conflicts around the globe.

Post–9/11 America “vivifies the danger of excessive trust in government” but is only the latest example of the modern political climate that Bovard says is burdened by “intellectual passive obedience” — &ldquoreemptively quieting one’s doubts about the statements of one’s rulers” and “viewing political (and all other) reality through a moral lens supplied by one’s rulers.”

It has now gotten to the point that elections are no more than “reverse slave auctions,” where the people every two and four years vote for their masters, who then obtain near absolute power. This is largely because of a feeling of dependency people have, so that “instead of seeking representatives to safeguard their rights, people now seek strong leaders or saviors to redeem their lives and protect them from all harm, 24/7.”

“Absolute power” is not much of an exaggeration. Bovard reminds us of the ever-increasing power of the administration to designate people as “enemy combatants” and thus strip them of all procedural rights.

Even if a person has no affiliation with terrorist organizations, they can still be classified as an enemy combatant.... Bush has repeatedly referred to people locked up at Guantanamo as “illegal non-combatants.” But the presidential label “enemy combatant” is still sacrosanct even when the president effectively admits it makes no sense. They are “illegal” simply because the president says so.

And yet, Americans still believe they are free because they can vote. There is a bipartisan illusion that democracy is liberty itself and that state power is non-aggressive if checked every few years by a majority vote. These delusions achieve their most absurd levels under the guise of the so-called Democratic Peace Theory, which Bovard gracefully unravels. He gives us several counterexamples to the idea that democracies never fight each other, and takes on the methodology used by democratic peace theorists, which appears to involve the redefining of the concepts to fit their tautological conclusions: Democracies don’t fight each other, and when they seem to, one of them is therefore not a democracy.

Some advocates of democratic peace talk as if democratic governments are pacifist entities, almost incapable of militarism. Bush declared at a 2005 press conference that “a democracy reflects the will of the people, and people don’t like war. They don’t like conflict.” Yet during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush constantly portrayed himself as a war president.

Bovard convincingly argues that the Democratic Peace Theory as a prescription for U.S. foreign policy is actually a recipe for perpetual aggressive war and imperialism. And war, as Bovard reminds the reader, is devastating to the liberties that democracy is supposed to protect.

Bovard argues that, in mistaking democracy for liberty and the interests of their rulers for those of their own, the American people have come to suffer a “Big Picture myopia,” whereby no number of specific political atrocities or disasters can knock them out of their stupor of believing that their democratic government, overall, is good and free. In a stark example of the disparity between myopic optimism and political reality, Bovard chronicles the brutal sanctions imposed by the United States through the United Nations on Iraq throughout the 1990s, which caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to die. After destroying the sewage treatment infrastructure of Iraq, the U.S. government forbade the importation of needed foods and medicines by prohibiting oil exports — leading to “epidemics of gastroenteritis, cholera, and typhoid,” as a 1995 article in an Air Force publication reported.

But instead of the proper outrage over this war crime, more Americans were stirred up by the oil-for-food scandal.

The selective indignation over the oil-for-food bribes exemplified Big Picture myopia. There was no sense that any U.S. government official should be held responsible — or even obliged to answer questions — on the carnage the sanctions inflicted on the Iraqi people.... There was probably a hundred times more coverage in the U.S. media in late 2004 and early 2005 of the oil-for-food corruption scandal than of the catastrophic loss of life that resulted from the blockade.

And it is all because the media, like most Americans, have come to equate democracy and freedom and regard an occasional national vote as the only necessary check on political power. Americans assume their nation to be essentially free and peace-loving. They do not properly fear their rulers or even know what is being done to them in their own name.

Bovard says, “The notion that democracy automatically produces liberty hinges on the delusion that &lsquoeople are obeying themselves.’” But,

if the citizen is the government, why are there far harsher penalties for any private citizen who pushes, threatens, or injures a federal employee than the punishment for similar actions against private citizens? Why are governments allowed to claim sovereign immunity when their employees injure or kill private citizens?

Attention Deficit Democracy is an indictment of the modern American democratic state. It is an indictment of the American people, who have lost interest in the sweeping and dangerous powers their rulers have grabbed and abused in recent history, especially since 9/11 but also going back many years before that. Following in the tradition of his other books, Bovard carefully documents hundreds of instances of government wrongdoing and deceit in domestic and foreign policy. But more than in his other recent works, he draws on history and on sociological insights to form his diagnosis of the general affliction in modern America. The book shows that the problem is nonpartisan and deeply seated in American culture and will not be likely to reverse simply when another man moves into the Oval Office. Things must considerably change for our democratic government to stop ravaging the freedoms it is supposed to guard. The American people must reclaim their libertarian heritage, and understand liberty and the limits and dangers of government power, even when brandished by a popularly elected power elite. They must start paying attention, and thus start being more outraged. Reading Attention Deficit Democracy is a perfect place to start.

Anthony Gregory is a research assistant at the Independent Institute and serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He has written for, the Libertarian Enterprise, and See his webpage,, for more articles and personal information. Send him email.

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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