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A government of lies.

A Government Of Lies

We're all too familiar with the term "Vietnam syndrome," but little has been said recently about another, far more disturbing and insidious syndrome that spawns ever more virulent strains of social decay: the Watergate syndrome. The revelations that President Nixon and members of his Cabinet were a bunch of cheap crooks rightly sickened and disgusted the nation. But truth prevailed and a once-again proud nation proudly patted itself on the back; despite the crimes committed in the highest office in our land, our system of government worked. Democracy triumphed.

But in the wake of that triumph something totally unforeseen occurred. Either because the Watergate revelations were so wrenching and followed on the heels of the war in Vietnam, which was replete with crimes and revelations of its own, or because Nixon was so quickly pardoned, we began to shy away from the truth. We came to equate truth with bad news and we didn't want bad news anymore, no matter how true or vital to our health as a nation. We looked to our government to protect us from the truth.

The high crimes and impeachable offenses committed by Ronald Reagan and his Administration, which included our current President, in the Iran/contra scandal were far more serious and un-American than the crimes for which Nixon was kicked out of office. These latest crimes attacked the very heart and sould of our Republic. A private little government was created to pursue a private foreign policy agenda and thereby circumvent the law of the land, the Congress, the Constitution itself. This hidden layer of government, which diminishes democratic institutions to a series of front organizations, is a well-known feature of all totalitarian regimes. In all of them there is the so-called "front" government line, which means nothing, and there is the "party line," which goes on behind the scenes. The line in this case was the Republican Party line, but it was no different in its implementation and in its implications from the Communist Party line of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union.

And yet, nothing happened. Nothing really happened. The Iran/contra scandal became the Iran/contra farce. President Reagan perceived correctly that the public really didn't want to know the truth. So he lied to us, but he didn't have to work hard at it. He sensed that we would gladly accept his loss of memory as an alibi. It had simply slipped his mind what form of government we had in our country.

When the war in the Persian Gulf began we not only accepted but embraced with patriotic fervor press censorship of it. We would see only what our government wanted us to see, and we saw nothing wrong with that. We liked it that way. Our government was looking after us.

The charade of truth took another step when the diplomatic cables of April Glaspie, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, were declassified by the State Department. The justification for the entire war rested on the premise that war was unavoidable and that our Ambassador in the firmest of tones had warned Saddam Hussein not to violate the territorial integrity of Kuwait. Our State Department assured us that this was true. Our Ambassador, testifying in front of the Senate, reaffirmed the truth of this position.

It now turns out that it was all a lie. But the fact that the Bush Administration felt safe in declassifying those cables shows it was no longer afraid of the truth because it knows that the truth will have little impact on us. The Administration's message to us was this: We've given you a glorious victory and we've given you back your self-esteem. Now here's the truth. Which do you prefer? The implications are terrifying. We are being told that we can't have both truth and self-esteem anymore. We have to choose. One excludes the other.

The implications are even more terrifying than this. We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.

The Gulf War is over but the war at home goes on. The gulf between rich and destitute widens - between those of us who live in a modern postindustrial nation and those of us who live in the Third World countries of our inner cities. The present Administration's response to this internal crisis has shifted from benign to malignant neglect. The current levels of misery and decomposition of our cities and the economic gulags of our ghettos are acceptable. Since there is only so much hope to go around, there is a freeze on hope. The have-nots have now been reclassified as never-will-haves.

The dismantling of our Republic goes on, and if the spiritual and intellectual vigor of our children is the true indication of our future, then our future is even more troubling than our present. Our criminals are getting younger and younger and there are more and more of them. Eleven-year-olds are raping 9-year-olds. Little kids are killing one another. The suicide rate among the young has tripled in the past three decades.

We, unfortunately, would be willing to accept this level of decimation of our youth as a cost of doing business if only the kids who survived were to show signs of becoming productive members of our work force. But the state of the survivors is in decline. Either unwilling or no longer able to discern the true causes of this decline, we have reached the faulty national consensus that there is a crisis in our education system.

We keep asking why the level of our children's intelligence and competence, as measured by all our tests, keeps dropping. The reason is very simple: We don't want them to be well educated. The last thing we want now is for an intellectually and spiritually vigorous generation to confront us with the question of what we have done to this country.

We have forgotten the central premise that you educate by example. The practice and tolerance of racism is education. The system of justice in which the crimes of the wealthy and the powerful and the crimes of the poor are not the same in the eyes of the law is education. The daily affirmation that virtue is synonymous with profit is education. The Reagan-Bush decade of corruption and greed has been a decade of education. That our "education" President had a chance to preside over the first generation in this century to mature without a war, and that he chose to teach them a lesson that war is good, is education. That we no longer foster and welcome the idealism of our children is education. That we no longer see them as a precious asset and a source of renewal of our own ideals is education. That they're not even regarded as youth anymore but as a youth market is education.

It's not that our education system has failed. It's that it has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. Having taught our kids to tuck in their wings, to narrow their range of vision and concerns, to jettison moral encumbrances and seek self-fulfillment in some narrow sphere of self-interest, we then want them to be inspired members of our work force and make that better and smaller computer chip. They won't.

They rebel in the only way left to them. They die. The only reason we give for education is that it is an inoculation against unemployment. But neither the threat of unemployment nor even the promise of personal gain can replace that loss of human spirit for which there is no longer any function in our society. Being innocent and impressionable, the young are the first to react to the environment around them. Unless we are willing to change that environment, we must accept the verdict that our children have become the victims of choice for most Americans.

On May 27, 1991, a date that should not necessarily live in infamy but should be remembered, President Bush made the following statement: "[The] moral dimension of American policy requires us to . . . chart a moral course through a world of lesser evils. That's the real world, not black and white. Very few moral absolutes."

Considering the source, this statement is not surprising. Bush was always perceived by us as a moral cipher, but there was a time when this had a pejorative connotation, when he felt compelled to try to counter this assessment we had of him. He no longer feels compelled to hide. He can now boldly proclaim it as policy. In a way he has been very consistent. It's we who have changed. In an alarmingly short time we have transformed what we had perceived as a defect in him into a national cult. Hence his popularity. He speaks for us.

A world of few moral absolutes has a cozy universal appeal. It not only justifies mediocrity, it sanctions it. All of us who like to think of ourselves as ethical members of society no matter what we do can be comforted by such a philosophy. It offers easy self-esteem for every one of us, especially to our elected public officials who consider it political suicide to have strict moral standards and who, therefore, commit moral suicide to stay in office, and to the rest of us who need a flexible standard by which to measure our integrity. All of us can happily coexist in a world of few moral absolutes. It is only in such a world that we can go to war against Saddam Hussein, whom our President called "the Hitler of our time," and at the same time support with money and arms the genocidal monster of Cambodia, Pol Pot, who has spoken of Hitler as his mentor.

We fought the bloodiest war in our history over the moral absolute that human beings, no matter what their color, are not chattel. The self-evident truths mentioned in our Constitution have been regarded by many of us as moral absolutes. The true genius of the framers of that Constitution was that although they found "these truths to be self-evident," they worried about others. Had they been certain that they were self-evident to one and all, there would have been no need to spell them out. It was as if they were afraid a time might come when those truths would no longer be self-evident at all.

This new world order with few moral absolutes makes Stalin seem prophetic. By embracing such a philosophy, Bush, at best, appears to be a man who stands for nothing except re-election.

The myth of a nation, any nation, is a source of great strength. The myth of America inspired countless generations at home and abroad because a faith existed that we were moving forward as a people, and while benefiting from the patrimony we inherited, we were at the same time contributing by our actions to a better future for all. For 200 years that was the promise, the living faith, the moral absolute and the true north of our voyage.

There is a sense at present not so much that we have radically changed course as that we are lost. We have lost both faith and contact with our national myth. We are guided by expediency alone. Our democratic institutions are eroding, and they don't seem ours anymore. There is an uneasy feeling that we're now a collaborationist country, but we don't know for sure, nor do we want to know, with what or whom we're collaborating.

When lost, the most dangerous thing one can do is to blunder blindly ahead. The comparison may be too extreme, but when Europe was lost in the Dark Ages it went back to its heritage for enlightenment and proceeded into the Renaissance. We have that option as well, and with it the hope and promise of our own renewal.

Our choice is between our myth as a people and the mirage of our status as a military superpower. The mirage is very tempting. It stands there in front of us like some hallucinatory hologram shimmering with lights and fireworks. We can see in it whatever we want to see, but there is a tunnel waiting at the end of these lights. A monster with a human face is waiting to welcome us there and to inform us with whom we have been collaborating.

Steve Tesich is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. His most recent play, On the Open Road, opens in March at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:political ethics
Author:Tesich, Steve
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 6, 1992
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