The Long View 2006-02-21: Media White Noise; Democracy the Panacea; The Ultimate Question

Twelve years later, it is hard to believe how many people really believed that toppling Middle Eastern dictators and introducing democracy would bring peace. It is a little easier since I was among them.

Media White Noise; Democracy the Panacea; The Ultimate Question

Quoting Glenn Reynolds probably just encourages him, but he is onto something with regard to the deranged press treatment of the Cheney Hunting Incident:

Part of the reason is because the story combined themes the news media love: the dangers of firearms and the untrustworthiness of Dick Cheney. It seemed a golden opportunity to indulge in a lengthy exposition of both but, at the end of the week, it seemed as if Dick Cheney was the winner...the tendency of the press and opposition to seize on stories that reflect their own prejudices, rather than their newsworthiness, means stories that might actually harm the Grand Old Party get ignored in the rush to pick up on those that symbolise why they dislike the administration.

Nonetheless, as we noted last week, the sentiment that Vice President Cheney should retire to spend more time with his family is, if not quite bipartisan, at least not confined to Democrats.

The peculiarity of Cheney's position is that he functions as the White House Chief of Staff. In most administrations, it is the Chief of Staff who actually runs the government, which in operational terms means that the Chief of Staff deals with the undersecretaries in the federal departments. In the Bush White House, Cheney does that.

I think we now see that this use of the vice president was a mistake. In a way, it was like the mistake that President Bill Clinton made when he appointed his wife Hillary to manage his Administrations health-insurance reform initiative. When the effort miscarried, there was no seemly way for the president to disembarrass himself of a failed colleague. That is the problem that President Bush has with Vice President Cheney. It would be simple enough to fire an ordinary White House Chief of staff. A vice president, in contrast, is an elected official. He might be relieved of his duties, but he can remain part of the government as long as he pleases. More important: the resignation of a vice president would suggest to ill-disposed persons that the president may not be far behind.

On the other hand, Daniel Henninger, who is quoted in the Reynolds piece, has put his finger on why mainstream-media criticism of President Bush has become so irrelevant:

The Abu Ghraib photos? A 10 forever. Dick Cheney catching a hunting buddy with some birdshot? An instant 10. The Bush National Guard story? Total 10. How can it be that each downside event in this presidency greets the public at this one, screeching level of outrage and denunciation by the out-of-power party and a perpetually outraged media?

It's perfectly true. At this point, The New York Times and ABC News and CNN could run photos of Bush presiding over an auto-da-fe on the White House lawn and no one would pay much attention. They run screaming headlines about everything Bush does.

* * *

Reuel Marc Gerecht understands the difference between promoting democracy and trying to be popular. The latter effort is confused, if not necessarily misguided:

American foreign policy has long been in the odd position of trying to assuage Muslim anger at Israel by advancing the peace process even though a sober analysis should have told Washington's diplomats that the fundamentalist set--the young men who are most susceptible to making the leap to suicidal holy war--did not see this process as progress....And Washington has consistently advanced, especially in the Bush administration after 9/11, the women's agenda throughout the region, another sure-fire way of angering the young men who are most likely to transmute into jihadists.

Gerecht argues that of course more democracy in the Middle East will occasion an increase in the number of anti-American political parties, and even of anti-American governments. Nonetheless, democracy really does promote the interests of the United States:

With dictatorship giving way to democracy, Muslims of various stripes will make their best case to their brethren on why they should be given a chance to govern. The religious radicalization of the Muslim body politic, which has gained ground under autocracy, will likely lose speed, if not rapidly reverse itself.

Islamism prospered because it was the only sort of opposition that could survive under the wonderfully stable autocracies that the West had been supporting for so long. Under less harsh conditions, other sorts of politics will be possible. The problem, of course, is preventing the Islamists from closing down the public square as soon as the autocrats are gone.

* * *

Spengler says dubious things at Asia Times. One may question, for instance, whether a Catholic is really a Jew without a sense of humor. Nonetheless, I think his meditation on Goethe's Faust illuminates the purpose of Western modernity in the maturing of the world:

Faust begins with a quotation from the Book of Job in a Prologue in Heaven, where Satan asks God's permission to tempt his servant, Faust. But the whole of Faust, in my somewhat idiosyncratic view, recasts the subject matter of Job in terms appropriate to the modern world. Goethe inverts perfectly the premise of the Book of Job. To tempt the righteous man of Uz, the biblical Satan takes from him all that ancient man might want. Goethe's Mephistopheles tempts Faust by offering him everything that modern man might desire. ...Contrary to my namesake Oswald Spengler, Western society is not "Faustian" because Western man seeks power, but rather because Western man still plays dice with the Devil for his soul according to the rules of the game established by Faust and Mephisto. Technology and freedom offer modern man the temptations of Faust more than those of Job.

These wars and jihads and technological revolutions are all very entertaining, but they are penultimate concerns. The real issue is what the human race is going to do when it is in the position of the dog that caught the car.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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