I have been enjoying Melinda Henneberger’s ‘Agreeing to Disagree’ in Newsweek, in which she recounts the arguments that arose in the wake of the American Presidential election and the effect of the rhetoric on small children.
Here is my take: I have lived in Great Britain for nearly thirty years, and except for a long break in Israel have watched the United Kingdom evolve from a war-battered island full of quaint men who tipped their hats and ladies who wore gloves to tea, to a bustling, vulgar 21st Century high-tech nation. When I first came to the country dubbed ‘dim little islands’ in a Grierson-era documentary, there were still large bomb sites in the City and East End, and two of my elderly neighbours lived without hot water. People had ‘outside loos’ in the country and, to my horrified Yank sensibilities, some folks still bathed, well, maybe once a week.
Those elderly neighbours had staggering stories of bravery to tell me, about the Blitz as if it had happened yesterday, and about the deprivations they had suffered without complaint during the dark winter of 1940. One of these remarkable nonagenarians had received the MBE for rescuing children from a blazing orphanage in Lisson Grove during the terrifying scourge of the V2 attacks in 1944. In my street, a grand piano was thrown into the main road from the force of rocket attacks and people one had greeted at dawn were obliterated before they could get to a shelter.
When I had my flat rewired in 1984, the electrician emerged from my basement ashen, having found a 1944 newspaper open to the racing pages with the name ‘Stan’s the Man’ circled on the horseracing card. We both had the same thought: the person who had been sheltering in my basement in 1944 had ventured out to place a bet but had never returned…
How does this relate to the Bush-Kerry election? Well, despite my recent articles about the vociferous London Lefties who berate me about terrible Israel and evil America, the British have taught me a lot about ‘careful learning.’ Call it stiff upper lip, but when one watches a televised debate, or listens to a participant on a BBC Radio 4 panel, one is struck by the even-toned and measured way in which participants discuss opposing views. When I did a radio programme in London I had to spend several hours doing my research before going on air, should I get one little fact wrong.
One of the things that has disturbed me about this past four years has been the refusal by so many of my fellow Democrats and liberals to listen to anything Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Rice or Cheney has to say. Taking it one step further, my friends will go into a kind of paroxysm of irrational rage when I say I enjoyed seeing Ashfroft kibbitzing with Larry King and Ted Olson, and the Attorney General singing and playing the piano. (Yes, I am a Phi Beta Kappa, but like all those ‘morons’ in the red states, this kinda stuff helps me to relax in the evening.)
When I read a particularly astute piece by David Frum in a London paper I forwarded it to my e-mail list. Irate recipients replied without delay: ‘How DARE you send me this filth?’ or ‘I will NOT read him.’
Fine. But if you will not read him, how do you know what the opposition is thinking? Time and again this past year, I have incurred the wrath of Democrats by saying how much I learned from a Rumsfeld briefing in which he explained the origins of the position of the civilian Defence Secretary from the days of the Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution. ‘You would listen to that Fascist Nazi war criminal?’ Frankly, I found some of Rummy’s vintage briefings educational compared to the nightly dose of BBC reports about the brutal Israelis.
In the past four years during which we Democrats should have been working out what it is about these neocons that turns on so many ‘folks,’ I have made it my business to watch Colin Powell’s briefings and to try to catch White House press sessions and statements from the Justice and Homeland Security Departments. I have read every book that has come out of the Coulter-Frum-Perle camp as well as the Hersh-Woodward-Chomsky-Vidal literature.
What was it Yitzhak Rabin said? You cannot negotiate with your adversary unless you know him inside and out…
You may wonder what my narrative about the Blitz has to do with the above. In the past few weeks leading up to the Presidential election, all of my fellow Democrats have reminded me that the re-election of Bush will mark the end of democracy, of civilization and of the American way of life. When I used to listen to the elderly war survivors and understand the hideous tyranny they would have endured had Hitler won, I am staggered when my fellow Americans suggest Wolfowitz and company are perpetrators of similar tyrannies.
If anyone had bothered, during the past four years, to listen to the major figures of this Administration, they would have heard articulate, educated and darned shrewd patriots explaining what we have to do to keep ourselves safe from an enemy as destructive as anything we faced in the Nazi and Soviet eras. Yes, I have heard the arguments about Rumsfeld meeting Saddam and the West arming the Taliban against the Russians. Yes, America has done some ass-backwards things in its time.
But the fury with which my timid praise of the Bush gang has been greeted in recent months is in itself a form of Soviet repression. Like Robert Byrd and the late Sam Ervin, I am a diehard Democrat. But I have to grudgingly admit (Robert Byrd would not agree with me on this, I suppose) that those guys on Capitol Hill and environs have been doing something that made a hell of a lot of Americans on November 2nd feel safer with them than with John Kerry. The boxing promoter Don King hit it on the button, when asked by a horrified BBC interviewer the day after the election what African Americans would make of all this: he pointed out that the Bush administration, without fuss, had placed African Americans in positions of high authority on the world stage -- what other Western country has done so?
There is another aspect to this discussion: in my near-thirty years in the UK I have seen a grievous decline in the calibre of British leadership. In every generation there were men and women of astonishing stature. But in recent years, the absence of inspiring figures -- coupled with the endless tsurris in the Royal Family --- has been a depressing reality. Despite his extreme Left views, Tony Benn’s eloquence is a treasure but for every Benn there are precious few of his kind about. So, when I switch to Fox or CNN and see the likes of Cheney, Rice, Powell and Rumsfeld -- notwithstanding the vilification, ridicule and hideous cartoon depictions of them in the UK and Euro press, who have decided they are idiots and war criminals -- I realise the gap that exists in the new generation of British leadership.
Barack Obama swept to victory in Illinois, garnering masses of votes because he is the real thing: a man of high intelligence, energy, vision and wisdom who makes one want to hear more. I am afraid that is how I have felt about Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld and Cheney these past few years, although I would have loved to have been inspired by some fellow Democrats. I do not mourn the departure of Tom Daschle, whose demeanour made the President’s much-criticised ‘freeze’ in the Florida classroom look like a volcanic eruption. (By the way, I regard the President’s reaction on 9/11 as ‘aplomb.’)
When a friend of mine decided to present an evening of poetry, she was asked by one of the organizers to change the word ‘folks’ in one of the titles. This was done because ‘folks’ is a Bushism. She protested. The organizer went into a strident fit of pique. And the Bush ’folks’ are the mind-altering Fascists??
In her article, Henneberger recounts the plight of people who ‘came out’ about voting for Bush and the venom this admission engendered in polite company. Michael Moore, who sat quaking alongside Bill O’Reilly, was not an asset to this campaign. And how miserable I feel that Osama bin Laden used Moore’s film as his source of derision about the President’s aforementioned schoolroom actions on 9/11. Is anyone going to seriously believe that Al Gore would have jumped up and screamed, ‘Hey kids! New York’s under siege! Teachers -- Battle stations! ‘ ?? Would Al Gore have run to the nearest TV camera and said ‘My fellow Americans! Find your nearest disused Fallout Shelters! Go now!’
It was interesting to watch Michael Moore’s body language when on O’Reilly’s show during the Convention. He was scared. Had Moore been an avid Fox-watcher like me -- yes, me, a Democrat! I love Fox!! -- he would have known that O’Reilly’s bite is as harmless as his bark and that he has a good heart. When I tell people I assiduously watch Oliver North’s superb ‘war stories’ on Sunday nights they recoil in horror. Would I rather watch him than the BBC’s Barbara Plett openly sobbing as Arafat is airlifted from Ramallah, or Jonathan Dimbleby fawning on the leader of Hezbollah?
When one lives in Europe today and is surrounded by extremist Islamist posters, stickers and literature on every urban street, one is irritated by the rhetoric of the Moore-acolytes. I guess I am one of the ‘idiot 51%’ who believe that Iraq may have been involved with 9/11. When one visits one’s local pharmacy; coffee shop; grocery and newspaper stand all run by Muslims in London, one hears an Iraqi, a Palestinian, a Syrian and a Saudi extolling the virtues of suicide bombers and of the ‘Magnificent Nineteen of 9/11.’ The ‘folks’ whom the British and European papers think are so dumb for believing there is a link amongst the terror groups and tyrannical Gulf regimes have a raw instinct, and they are sittin’ on a stoop thousands of miles away in Iowa, not in my local shop in Londonistan. Or as Rumsfeld once said, ‘The American people have a good centre of gravity.’
Whenever I attended a rally of some sort this year, I was accosted by the strident fringe left of the party, when all I wanted to do was talk about the issues that worry me. These are not smart people. The British and Europeans may think the red states are full of dumb people but…One evening, I found myself in a hotel bar with two fellow Democrat activists. One was embarrassingly loud, ranting about the war criminals in the government and their soldiers killing innocent Iraqis. Suddenly, a burly man got up and stood over her. She cowered. He told her he had just lost his son in Iraq and that he did not appreciate her sentiments. She shut up and was, to be frank, dumbstruck.
A large swathe of American voters is dumbstruck since November 2nd. What the Democratic party has to understand is that we are all in this together; just as neo-Nazis do not care if a Jew is Reform or Orthodox, Osama does not care if he kills Michael Moore or Paul Wolfowitz. I beseech my fellow Democrats to accept what we have, and to start behaving with the dignity and eloquence I have seen emanating from the Powells and Rices of this world: in 2008 we will need to top their panache, and finesse them if we are to win.
In the meantime I am amongst a tiny faction of conservative Democrats who is sleeping soundly knowing that Rummy, Ashcroft, Ridge and Dubya himself are trying to win the war on terror. They have children and grandchildren. It is not just for oil. If I am proven wrong, I will be duly humbled. But I think I am right about these ‘folks’ -- they want a world for their progeny and so do I. That’s about it. That’s my centre of gravity.