The End of an Era?

If you’re like me, and the last eight years have been essentially one giant cringe, you may be getting these momentary rushes of euphoria – almost like little squirts of dopamine in the brain – with the knowledge that it’s almost over. Last night, while watching the newest torture-happy episode of 24, I thought to myself, “Now that Bush is leaving office, can 24 stop feeling the need to come up with increasingly contrived reasons to torture someone in every episode?” (seriously – and I say this as the standard fictional-torture-loving red-blooded American male – get over it 24).

But, as with the end of any era, there is the nostalgia aspect. By most accounts, the 60s sucked big-time. Dudes were getting drafted, icons were getting assassinated, people were getting hosed in the streets, there were riots, there was rising crime, there was rising drug use, women were still subjugated, poverty and illiteracy was rampant in rural areas, etc. But what do people remember? The Forrest Gump shit. Hippies, LSD, the sexual revolution, civil rights gains, bell-bottoms. All of it, good and bad, gets filtered through that soft-focus lens of history. A “gumpification”, if you’ll allow me the coining of a term, occurs, smoothing the rough edges of the gritty, uncomfortable reality of the situation into a smoothed narrative, one that is acceptable in hindsight.

While this gumpification may annoy some as a gross distortion of past reality, it is also part of the process of dealing with the past. We all do this in our lives, often looking back on horrifying experiences with nostalgia, or even pleasure, basking in the distance between the uncomfortable reality of a past experience and our fictionalized memory of that experience. A clear example of this in political history is Richard Nixon. Once the great shame of a nation – the highest example of wickedness and weakness in our politic – he is now known more to young people as a cartoonish bad guy, something like a mix of a pirate and Count Dracula, his personal catch-phrase a blubbered out “I am not a crook!” between slack rabbit cheeks as his arms hover inhumanely above his head piercing the skies with matching Vs. We gumpified him into a lovable disgrace. He can’t hurt us anymore.

While it may seem as if this piece is going to be about Bush, it is not. His gumpification has already occurred in large part. I don’t really feel any specific animosity toward the man. It helps that he was a complete and utter tool. History will prove him to be merely a place-sitter, a child in daddy’s chair. He was a nothing-president, and no one really fears him anymore.

Bush is now a national joke; Cheney as well is somewhat of a caricature, though more of a growling-wolf-with-bared-teeth kind of character, not as humorous just yet; Rumsfeld has been iconicized – by collections of his unintentional poetry – into a sort of bumbling senile Sgt. Carter; Wolfowitz is the guy who sucks on his comb before he combs his hair; Karl Rove is in reality just a charismatic huckster, the type who would rip us off at a yard sale and upon us realizing our mistake wag his finger knowingly at us with a sly smile. These chief architects, of the wars, the failed economic policies, the unbelievably poor distaster responses, the shredding of our constitution, and on and on and on, are essentially finished doing their damage, and we’re about to shoo them out of the kitchen like the little rascals they are. Hell, we’ve already forgiven Powell for lying to the U.N.

The real demons though, are the ones that aren’t going away. Equally essential to the national tragedy that was the last eight years was the enthusiastic encouragement of a few conservative pundits who were somehow able to frame the debate on their terms. I’m having a tough time gumpifying them, mainly because they are still doing their dirty work (although you can see my effort in labeling them “demons”). I make a distinction, which I feel is very important, between those pundits who lean to the right and have opinions that are in general accordance with the Republicans and the Bush administration and those on the right that formed their opinions and arguments based on what the administration decided. You can generally tell who is in which camp by who still supports the president unequivocally to this day.

In the former:

Bill O’Reilly
David Frum
Jonah Goldberg
Chris Wallace
Charles Krauthammer

In the latter:

Rush Limbaugh
Sean Hannity
Ann Coulter
Bill Kristol
Fred Barnes
Kathryn Lopez

The distinction is that those in the former camp believe what they believe, and are, for the most part, wrong. The latter group holds no real beliefs for themselves; they form their opinions and recommendations based on what the administration wants. The administration wants X and they figure out ways to make it happen. The former group is still tremendously unqualified to give their paltry opinions, that usually coincide with the administrations – and in all likelihood many of those opinions would not exist were it not for the administration – but I don’t believe they are consciously delivering the propaganda; they are not literal campaigners, as are the ones in the second group.

These propagandists are not going away just yet. They have yet to complete their destruction, which is why I still fear them, and why it is difficult to marginalize them. Limbaugh is still a source of horror, despite attempts over the last two decades to caricature him (including one on The Simpsons!), because he will still be doing damage in the years to come. The real acute pain and shame I felt over these last eight years was primarily watching my fellow countrymen and women, and in some cases friends and family of mine, fall prey to the propaganda of these evil people (I have always been one to consider amorality worse than immorality; harm done out of duty more dangerous than harm done out of sadism). In a way, the shock of these last eight years was not that these terrible things happened, it is that they could happen, with the blessing of the American people.

I am a horror film nut, my favored sub-genre being horror-of-personality, rather than supernatural horror. What frightens me is not the literal monster in the shadows, its the monster that hides in the shadows of our own minds; it is the knowledge that you share a kinship with the worst that humankind can surface. I am not the type to believe that the masses of any public are simply herds of sheep to be led. What causes people to adopt horrifying positions and to approve of horrifying policy is that there is a part of all of us that can be cruel and evil; there is a facet of our personalities that can excuse anything. The millions who were able to excuse blatant torture and murder at Abu Ghraib (even with photographs!), with a little help from Rush and Co., did so knowing full well what was happening, but were able to adopt it into their morality. Those millions of people are not different than I; they are not necessarily more stupid or less informed than I. The question arises: what would make me excuse these types of actions?

The last eight years were, in a word, sobering. They were a slap in the face to all peace-loving, warm-hearted liberals, telling them to come down from their Tower of Babel. The people of Earth, especially The U.S., are not ready to create a heaven here. The fact that support for the Iraq War was 76% in 2003, at the time of invasion, means that pretty much every anti-war person, such as myself, had people that they love and care for deeply who were enthusiastically in favor of invading another country under scant evidence, knowing full well that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children would be killed as a result. These pundits, along with a weak-kneed mainstream media, were the ones that brought out this evil in us. To me it was, and is, tremendously hurtful and is still quite fresh in my mind. When Bush and his team goes back their respective ranches in a few days, leaving their mythic afterimages on the public consciousness, these muses of horror will remain.

But this brings me to my original inspiration for this piece, an oddly uplifting sensation I felt upon reading an article by one of these muses, called “Bush’s Achievements”, subtitled Ten things the president got right, by Fred Barnes. The column left me with a certain nostalgia. I imagined Barnes’ rather cartoonish appearance as I remembered seeing him on Fox News: his chubby, bespectacled face flanked by his seemingly frame-painted rigid hair, his dopey smile delivering his audacious words with a glint in his eye that told you he knew what he was saying was bullshit, but ya can’t blame him for trying! I’m sure if I sought out a video on YouTube of Fred Barnes speaking this would all come crashing down, and my disdain and revulsion for the man would resurface, but why would I want to do that? Certainly these assholes will never wield the power they once held, why shouldn’t I let them float gracefully into the gumpification of my memory and history.

The damage that these pundits caused is irreversible, and they are not going away anytime in the very-near future, but their power has lessened dramatically. Some of them even seem to be capitalizing on their becoming parodies of themselves, as is the case with Ann Coulter in recent days. Let us hope that they embrace these new roles as clowns for, unlike Nixon, they have no dignity to lose. I long for the day when these people can no longer cause dread, and we can look back on them with condescending smirks of levity, perhaps eventually we can even laugh in turn at the horror in ourselves they once unearthed.

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