Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Back to the basics

Perhaps the single uniting theme of the Bush/Cheney Administration has been a constant push towards what political commentaries fulsomely and rather fussily call ‘the unitary executive’. Every policy decision, every executive action, every declaration of privilege, every move they make, every breath they take, every single thing that Bush, Cheney, and their various appointees, stooges, minions, and toadies have done while in power has been designed to further one agenda and fulfill one grand purpose – making the President, and the Executive Branch of government, not only more powerful than any other branch of government, but, effectively, making the Presidency, and the Executive Branch, the only center of power in American government.

As I’ve mentioned, the name that’s been hung on this apparent ideal of those currently running the Executive Branch is the rather prissy, bureaucratic sounding ‘unitary executive’. But there are other words for the kind of government this phrase represents, words going back to our European antecedents, and back further beyond them to our Roman and Greek forbears who lived thousands of years in the past – Monarchy. Dictatorship.


A journalist named Charlie Savage has a new book out called Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. In this book, Savage traces the current Administration’s obsession with power to one man – Dick Cheney – and one formative time period for Cheney – the end of the Nixon Administration, when Cheney was the youngest Chief of Staff ever appointed to the office by any sitting President.

Apparently, having to watch as Richard Nixon was hounded to his resignation by the press and Congress proved a transformative experience for the young Cheney. Infuriated and outraged by an American people and an American government that would dare attempt to impose limits on what their elected Chief Executive could do in order to safeguard the nation from enemies both within and without, Cheney seems to have dedicated the remainder of his life to restoring the Presidency to the level of grand imperial power it had briefly attained under Nixon… and, more, to in fact make the Presidency so powerful that nobody and nothing, not Congress, not the Supreme Court, not the military, not the press, and certainly, not the American people, could ever bring a President down again. Or even in any way hinder a President from carrying out any particular plan or agenda that such a President might find necessary, appropriate, or even momentarily convenient to his wants, needs, or passing whims.

Such a style of government has its advantages, of course, especially in seasons of catastrophe, crisis, or war. When there is little or no time for discussion, debate, rationalization, or lengthy, hammered out compromises, and difficult, life or death decisions have to be made and implemented instantly, it is generally best if one voice speaks for all and supreme executive power rests with one person only.

But humanity has, over the course of millennia, done its best to weave the strands of culture, taboo, tradition, and legality into a tapestry of society and civilization whose entire purpose for existence is to limit, to whatever degrees may be possible or practical, the onset and duration of catastrophes, crises, and wars. Ideally, we would all like to live in times of world peace, steady prices, rising wages, good health, and calm weather, and we’d like to mostly be left alone to enjoy such times when they occur. That’s the sort of civilization we all yearn for. We only want our government to intervene when something goes awry, and when that happens, we want our government to do only what is absolutely necessary to fix things up and get us back to the good times again.

Unfortunately, utopia is not a state of nature, and world peace, steady prices, rising wages, good health, and calm weather do not readily occur for any lengthy period simply because we’d all like them to. As we have socially evolved over the course of our history, we have generally discovered that if we are to secure any lengthy period of security and prosperity, we require, as a race and as a culture, some sort of government. We may resent the necessity, even to the point where we damn it entirely as evil, but adults can all pretty much agree that we need some kind of social order to live comfortably, or sometimes at all, and to maintain that social order, we require some kind of hierarchy of authority.

The ‘unitary executive’, or monarchy/dictatorship/tyranny, whatever, is a kind of government/hierarchy of authority that has been tried out exhaustively throughout human history. I myself suspect it was the very first form of human government, arising almost certainly in the caves, when one of our proto-ancestors first enforced his or her will on his or her fellow tribe members by injudiciously laying around them with a club to stifle any and all protestations against their ‘unitary executive’ authority.

Certainly, the ‘unitary executive’ has been with us ever since the caves; in mankind’s first ur-villages, then in our proto-cities, then in our first nation-states, Republics, and Empires, the Big Boss may have given himself many different titles, but in the end, it’s all the same. Everybody else does what one guy tells them to do, or that one guy will make them miserable. If The Big Boss Ain’t Happy, Nobody’s Happy.

Big Boss government works extremely well for everyone, when the Big Boss is an enlightened, reasonable, benevolent despot with above average problem solving abilities and a modicum of wisdom. And Big Boss government works extremely well for the Big Boss him or herself, and, often, his or her closest cronies, even (or especially) when the Big Boss is a monumental turd. Unfortunately, in the last instance, Big Boss government works extremely poorly for the vast majority of people, who usually end up doing all the work to support the Big Boss, and his or her cronies, in decadently luxurious style, while the working majority itself exists in the kind of wretched poverty and existential despair whose only comforting circumstance is the abysmally short individual lifespans of those subjected to it.

Even more unfortunately, history shows us that unenlightened turds far outnumber reasonable, benevolent, and wise people – and that in most power struggles, the unenlightened turd has a significant advantage over the pleasant altruist who merely wants to help others. And, when the unenlightened turds get into power, government’s natural and express mandate – limiting the impact of inevitable catastrophes, crises, and wars on the working majority’s quality of living – gets immediately set aside, in favor of the purposes and agenda of all unenlightened turds everywhere – increasing their own personal wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.

Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and all their current cronies and partners in crime exemplify Unenlightened Turddom In Power. Catastrophes, crises, and wars are not seen as things to be avoided at all, or quickly resolved when they do inevitably occur. No, these are all events that the properly positioned can profit from in endless ways. These massive disasters become enormous economic windfalls for the elite few, and those who lose their lives, their livelihoods, their health or their wealth to crisis, catastrophe, and war are always entirely incidental and utterly unimportant to the tiny, powerful fraction of a percentile point of the population who pile up the collateral profits.

When a hurricane threatens a major American metropolis, an altruistic or even remotely responsible government would do everything in its power to prevent that catastrophe beforehand (by making sure the protective levees were strong enough to withstand any storm, and by putting a workable evacuation plan in place should the levees fail regardless) and to alleviate it afterwards (sending in a immediate relief and rescue missions, rebuilding as quickly and efficiently as possible, doing everything possible to help and succor flood victims and involuntary evacuees to return to their homes as soon as is humanly feasible).

When turds are in charge, though, the riffraff are deliberately abandoned to the storm by their betters, to die or be dispossessed of their property and their freedom if not their very lives. If thousands of children disappear into international slave markets in the wake of such a disaster, who’s to notice, or care, that the little pickaninnies aren’t there any more, and a few million dollars that weren’t there before have now found their way into a half dozen numbered accounts somewhere? If potentially valuable real estate that was once cluttered up by no goods and idlers and outright criminals now becomes available for enormously profitable re-development, well, these things just happen sometimes, and who can you fault for it? If all the people doing the rebuilding seem to be spending 90 cents out of every Federal relief dollar on something other than bricks and mortar and roofing tile, well, there’s a lot more to the construction business than meets the eye, don’t you know. And if the gaudily rebuilt New Orleans seems to have no room for lower income sorts other than those that smile while they service the super rich residents and the moderately rich tourists, well, it’s a hard world if you don’t weaken, and that’s the fact, Jack.

When turds attain high office, wars become not something to be avoided whenever possible, but to be undertaken as soon as the public can be goaded into supporting them, for publicly admitted reasons that mostly won’t stand up to scrutiny, and private reasons no more complicated than the fact that wars are always enormously profitable to the powerful, and no one is more powerful than a war time President or such a President’s War Cabinet.

When turds gain authority, recessions and even worldwide depressions are not global cataclysms to be headed off at all costs, but are rather wonderful and entirely welcome opportunities for system wide social readjustment. The best time to be wealthy is during a Depression; when hardly anybody has anything at all, nearly everyone will do anything for very little indeed. No one can be overly concerned for niceties like freedom and civil rights when they aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from, or, worse, how they’re going to feed their children that evening.

We wonder at how quickly, steeply, and deeply our entire world seems to have toppled over a precipice directly into hell since Bush and Cheney first took office. We find it hard to believe that anyone could be so blunderingly incompetent as to do so much seemingly irreparable and fundamental damage to our economy, our environment, our society, and our civilization in such a comparatively short period of time. But the simple truth is, unlike Pee Wee Herrman, the current Administration really did ‘meant to do that’. War is far more profitable than peace, and chaos far more enabling to untrammeled power than order. When those who care for nothing besides their own self aggrandizement achieve high office, lawless strife is exactly what they always strive for. These people always feel they should be above the law, or, even better, that their every whim should be the law.

No matter how bad it gets, we all seem to share some bizarrely delusional daydream that at some point, our government will finally wake up, realize all the damage its doing to we, the people, and set about setting things right for us.

It is an aphorism of near infinite wisdom that those who yearn for power should never, never, never be allowed to wield it. We are now seeing the consequences of our own refusal to heed those words.


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