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An Opiate for the Mass Media
Stirling Newberry

It was in Kingman AZ that I had to stop for gas, as cruising at 90 MPH down I-40 burns fuel the way an Internet company used to burn money. I swung into a national chain gas station/convenience store and saw, among the many cars and two tour busses - one with a freshly minted "Bush Sucks" bumper sticker. There were two people in the car, and at first I thought that either the bumper sticker was from before some terrorists dialed 911 on the World Trade Center - or that the Northern Arizona Democratic party was looking for a phone booth to hold a convention in.

It turned out to be neither. Once inside I overheard the two young women working the counter talking to each other - no more than their 20's - talking about how they hated Bush. There were layoffs coming and both of them had "no hours" next week, they were blunt about their worries for the future, and the tales of layoffs from those they knew in Las Vegas - up to 40% reductions at some hotels. The conversation hushed as soon as they realized someone was listening, and turned back to a variation on the national hymn to God Bless America.

Later that day, in Flagstaff, an irritable old man bellowed at me - accusing me of being a homosexual and of trying to pick up for not supporting the president in this time of crisis.

This national schism, on the one hand a very cold realism about the poor health of the economy, and a very clear understanding of who is to blame - and on the other hand a bellicose angry clinging to the faith that the Republican party cannot be so incompetent and out of touch - is played out on a national scale. Last Sunday night Bear Stearns advised publicly that the patriotic thing to do was to buy stock. Yet, it was the Wall Street professionals who dumped their holdings, cash outs from mutual funds were minimal, and CNN sadly mused on Friday that the expected "patriotic rally" never materialized.

This schism - between our public stance and our private knowledge - is mirrored as well in our government. Publicly the powers that be are all pieties about "a government of national unity". Meanwhile the house organ of the Republican National Committee - the Wall Street Journal Editorial page - has publicly called for more tax cuts on capital gains. This a week after their news section publicly admitted that Paul Krugman's criticism of the Bush Estate Tax repeal/upper bracket rollback was on the mark and well founded. Sensing an opportunity, they end their retreat and recross the river to attack in favor of policies that they have already admitted are bankrupt and foolhardy.

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It is this policy bankruptcy which is the real problem facing the country. Bush ran almost impatient with "the last 8 years", repeatedly telling the nation that what was left undone by the previous administration was a failure - any time Gore promised to do anything, Bush asked why it hadn't been done already. Once in office he passed a tax cut, set a minor policy in health research, made a European trip to press for his policy - and then began an intensive campaign of inactivity.

The Democrats, for their part, pushed for being slightly less irresponsible Republicans. They had a few things they wanted to do, but only after a president with a negative mandate took everything that was on the table. Now that there is a crisis, and all ideas should be on the table, they have proposed - nothing, except filing away at a few bad decisions that the public was in favor of rolling back before.

However, the present national compromise - of private admission of failure and simmering partisanship - plastered and whitewashed with empty rhetoric - is inherently unstable. If the present crisis is not resolved it will boil over to discontent.

Many people have argued that democracy does not necessarily come to better decisions than other forms of government, that it does not necessarily choose better leaders than the dog eat dog system of oligarchy. This might be true, but it misses the point. The power of Democracy is that all of the citizens recognize that they have signed on to the resulting decision. It is this process, of feeling responsible for the implementation of decisions that one disagrees with, that makes Democracy strong.

While publicly the press claims that questions of Bush's legitimacy are dead, and the data that might well have been the fatal shot below the water-line of what is a very leaky vessel of his sovereignty has been suppressed - the sense of not having a connection to the decisions made is not so easily repressed. It was present before the election of 2000, and even if there had been not a whiff of scandal in that election, it would be there now. Those questioning the election are merely another group of people who feel themselves among the dispossessed of the current political system.

The absence of ideas makes the support of even those behind the regime lukewarm - one group of people are being promised war, another, an international coalition with restrained response - one cannot have both. And yet it is easy enough to watch Fox, and have one advisor preach military options, and then be followed by James Baker promising that any steps that will be taken will be carefully considered, targeted and proportionate. At the same time that the administration wants war powers, and uses a wartime metaphor, it asks people to spend, buy stock and go on with life as normal.

Historical comparisons to other regimes might seem inflammatory, but it should be pointed out that there is a very sharp limit to the duration that such policies can be pursued without sparking hyper inflation - since, after all, those who are being shifted from productive work to war work still demand consumer goods with their pay - and the government is printing enough dollars to pay them. Hence, net consumer production drops, but net consumer demand goes up. While this can, for a time, be stalled by ramping up production, it takes only months, not years, to accomplish this ramp up, and the policy of a war footing - once attained - is a powerful political opiate.

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As noted before, there is a tremendous need for such a political drug - to dull the aching throb of national duplicity. On one hand airlines want a bailout, on the other hand they engage in massive layoffs, as a way out of the expensive contracts that last year's season of strikes wrought. On one hand we are preparing massive tax breaks for the wealthy, while on the other hand the unemployment insurance system is vulnerable to a wave of layoffs. On one hand Bush calls for national unity, on the other he had his proxies in Congress attempt to funnel money approved for rebuilding New York over to the airlines.

But this mass media morphine of crisis is an addiction that rules by fear. It does not take very long for addiction to opiates to pass, withdrawal is horribly painful, but it ends, and ends abruptly, unlike addictions to alcohol and nicotine. The best solution is to stop the political culture of duplicity - which, while it is more agreeable to the conflict-averse Congressmen who are its ultimate architects, is corroding the underlying national will. And by doing so, corrodes our real ability to meet the current crisis.