The Essence of Bushism

The Bush administration is unique within recent history. Its antagonism toward liberalism has been evident almost from the very beginning, and now conservatives have begun to distance themselves from it also, for various reasons such as fi scal irresponsibility.

Nevertheless, Bush has twice gained the presidency, so Bushism has - or at least had - an undoubted appeal. The appeal is of course lessening as Bush's chickens come home to roost, and Bush himself will leave office in 2008. But Bushism is more than a single individual; it is a way of looking at the world, and it might still come back to plague us again. (As the Vietnam War has come back in the form of the Iraq War.) So we will do well to obtain a clear picture of the pathology that is Bushism in order to overcome its appeal and excise it more completely and cleanly.

It is my hope that with Bushism out of the picture, liberals and conservatives of good will and sound judgment can regain some degree of rapport, based on recognition of what they can agree on (which is, I suspect, greater than the rhetoric of recent times would lead us to believe), and on respectful compromise over what they cannot agree on.

Bushism appears in three areas: foreign policy, social issues, and economic issues. Concerning the first two, Bush's signature characteristic is arrogance.

With regard to foreign policy, arrogance is of course displayed primarily in the Iraq War, an aggressive war that flouted international norms and mocked the United Nations. Other examples include refusal to cooperate on global environmental issues (e.g. Kyoto), resistance to the International Criminal Court, and a contemptuous attitude toward the United Nations itself.

In the area of social policy arrogance expresses itself in the moral / religious dogmatism - the attempt to impose one moral-religious view on all citizens - found in Bush's policy toward stem cell research, in his support for anti-gay-marriage measures, and in his opposition to abortion rights implicit in his Supreme Court and other judicial appointments.

(In the area of economic policy, Bushism appears as deference to the wealthy and glorification of the free market. I will have a few words on that at the end.)

So all in all, the chief hallmark of Bushism is arrogance, and if we are to understand Bushism, a close look at the nature of arrogance is the best jumping-off point.

The interesting thing about arrogance is the question whether it is a moral fault (having the wrong aims or attitudes)or an intellectual fault (failure to think adequately). This parallels the constant question about Bush: Is he a fool or is he a villain?

Consider arrogance from this point of view: What is its opposite? From one point of view, the opposite of arrogance is humility - the humble person downgrades himself and claims less than his fair share; the arrogant person exalts himself and claims more than his fair share. So arrogance is a moral fault.

From another point of view, the opposite of arrogance is refl ectiveness and healthy skepticism - the arrogant person fails to restrain his actions by looking carefully at the facts and the moral principles he claims to follow. So arrogance is also an intellectual fault. Arrogance can be both an intellectual and a moral fault because there is a two-way, hand-in-hand relationship between thought and choice - thought affects the way we choose, but conversely our choices determine what we think about.

The arrogant person, then, is one whose choices are so impulsive and self-righteous that he chooses not to reflect on the principles he follows and therefore fails to be self-critical or considerate of others' views. Conversely, since the arrogant person fails to reflect on his principles, his choices will tend to be impulsive and self-righteous. Arrogance is a certain way in which the mind is ordered (or disordered, if you wish): Decisions are made on the basis of impulsive desire, and thinking serves merely to implement policies already decided on. The arrogant president exercises power blindly and as his impulses dictate, based on a superficial reading of the facts and without any significant reflection on the results of his actions or the morality of his choices, not to mention the views of others.

He deals in absolutes and displays black-and-white thinking. He appeals to the overpowering fears and resentments of the time. This is the essence of Bushism.

Arrogance is not necessarily immoral, in the usual sense of immorality as a conscious and deliberate choice to follow immoral principles. Arrogance runs deeper; arrogance undercuts morality. The arrogant person assumes that whatever he does is right and proper, thereby bypassing moral choice, in particular moral choice based on reflection. Keep in mind, however, that actions arising out of arrogance often result in outcomes that are worse - more disastrous and more evil - than those resulting from deliberately evil choices (the Iraq War being a prime example). (In his assumption of innocence, Bush's arrogance is abetted by American exceptionalism - the assumption that the U.S. is different from other countries, particularly European countries, in that it is morally pure and disinterested.)

So far I have been ignoring Bush's strong points. But no matter - his supposed virtues don't refute my picture of Bush's character but rather confirm it. His oft-touted strong points - "moral clarity," decisiveness, steadfastness, solidity of purpose, and perseverance - connote a straight-ahead push toward a self-evident goal, with no intellectual barriers tolerated and with mental blinders that elbow aside refl ection and doubt. Recognition of complexity is excluded in favor of simplistic black- and-and-white thinking, and there is no room for consideration of others' points of view. Bush's virtues give him the strength of his stupidity.

Under Bushism, therefore, the role of ideas is different from their usual role. Under Bushism, ideas - "democracy," or "freedom," or "evil," to give major examples - are not to be examined, nor are they tools to be used in examining our conclusions and assumptions. (It never occurred to Bush, for example, that there might be various forms of "democracy" with widely variant attitudes toward individual freedoms, or that different groups might have different attitudes toward democracy, or that the response toward democracy might be tainted if democracy is introduced by a conquering foreign army. Likewise with the notion of "evil" - it never occurred to him that different groups, both allies and enemies, might have different conceptions of evil.) Rather, ideas under Bushism serve as beacons, as pure white guiding lights which Bushites charge toward, thus becoming the advance guard of a herd of lemmings.

Clearly, Bushism is most conducive to life in the jungle as opposed to a civilized community, and most beneficial to the wealthy and powerful. This holds true especially of Bush's policies in the economic sphere, which is the least distinctive area of the Bushite viewpoint (after all, we've seen many administrations that catered to the wealthy), but still important. Bush's preferred version of freedom is best expressed in the old saying that both rich and poor are free to sleep under the bridge at night. It is a freedom that allows the wealthy to prosper, unconstrained by principles of justice and equity. It is indeed the freedom of the jungle.

Educational footnote: By all appearances, a critical segment of the American public accepted Bushism because they were unable to detect the emptiness and illogic of Bush's message. This is a failure of the educational system. We need to graduate citizens who are better critical thinkers - individuals who can make proper distinctions, examine assumptions, recognize the premises and conclusions of an argument, and make all the other moves necessary to organize and test one's thinking.
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Volume 2, Issue 14, Posted 4:04 PM, 07.11.06