Distal Muse

Dinner Table Politics

by Mark W. Tiedemann

    I grew up in a household in which dinner time was an iron ritual and most of the serious conversation happened that hour. Sometimes, if it was real deep and serious, it continued on till bedtime, but it started at the dinner table.
    You know the kind of debate--people who know each other well bantering over how they would fix the world if it were in their power to do so. Let me stress that in our house, it went beyond that and we often had pretty deep discussions. I learned how to debate and argue and--much to my fatherís dismay lately--think during these periods. It was profoundly profitable for me. I donít know what kind of an idiot I might be now but for those years of being shown that just agreeing with dad wouldnít end the pain. I had to have an opinion and I had to support it.
    What I subsequently learned, though, was that dinner table politics is very limited. Itís a ritual, shallow in its own way, and should not be used outside the home. For the world at large, you need to read, widely and well, and pay attention to other sources. I got into trouble and tangles on more than one occasion by using what we discussed the night before and nothing else in other settings. I learned to check up on every damn thing, even my dadís pearls of wisdom, many of which...
    Well, you get the idea.
    The trouble is, while I would never want to see this kind of very American activity end, it has unfortunately caused mischief and even grief.
    What do I mean?
    Only that our current president--indeed, his entire administration, at least in the upper echelons-- seems to be running things based on dinner table politics--and nothing else.
    There are murmurs and rumblings. Iíve seen the "I" word mentioned--Impeachment. Now Senator Feingold has proposed Censure, and the most recent polls suggest over 40% of the public supports the idea of Censure, including 20% of Republicans. These are troubled times indeed. President Bush has overstepped the mark--often. Ordering the NSA to spy on Americans without court oversight is unequivocally illegal. The revelation, coming as it has right when the administration is trying to get the Patriot Act made permanent, has sent a convulsive chill through congress, and rightly so. I personally thought the Patriot Act was a wet dream for John Ashcroft--think of all the agnostics, atheists, homosexuals, and pornographers that could be prosecuted and imprisoned if we could nail Ďem with something like this!--but its passage, right after 9/11, was to be explicitly applied toward terrorism, leaving Mr Ashcroft with a rather inflexible mandate to stick to the intent of the law. Bush, however, didnít flinch at stepping out of the box.
    After almost 6 years of this, people have got to be asking themselves where he gets this stuff from.
    Now the circus begins with the Dubai Ports scandal. I would--and have--laughed at this because of the deep, deep irony.
    The fact is, thereís probably not a damn thing wrong with the idea behind the sale. Dubai is not Iran. Not all the Middle East can be categorized as a homogenous lump. We do have allies. There are more people in that part of the world who want things to work out with us than not. This could have been another bridge allowing for the growth of better relations with people poised on the brink of becoming categorical ideological enemies to the United States.
    It is not surprising at all that the reaction has been so vehement in opposition.
    The Senate tried to bank the fires. Many of them understood what this was all about. They knew better than to react the way their constituency has reacted. But it is that reaction, of the people who put them in office, that has stunned them into abandoning support of the presidentís intended sale. The Public--you know, The People?--have flooded the mailboxes and phone lines of their representatives with resounding condemnations.
    What surprises is the reaction of the administration--they donít understand why people are so upset.
    How can this be? After five years of demonizing the Arab world so we can maintain a military presence and fight the terrorists bred daily in those lands, why would anyone be surprised that the average person on the street canít seem to manage the worldly sophistication to see that This Is Different?
    But they are. Dubai is our friend, our ally. Dealing with them is perfectly safe. Itís not like, say, Iran...
    The stunned reaction of the Bush Whitehouse to this reaction underscores the guiding philosophy by which they have worked since taking office.
    Dinner Table Politics.
    They drew a picture for themselves of the problems they perceived in the world and drew assumptions of how to deal with them based not on hard facts and reliable data, but on prejudices built up since the 80s. They defined an enemy and didnít bother to see how the nuances of such definitions might play out in the real world. They underestimated both the American people and the people of Iraq and the attitudes of our allies. They declared that the methods of their predecessors did not work and for XY and Z reasons, because admitting that any of Clintonís solutions did work or were at least based on a real world appreciation of the problems undermined Bushís dominant ideology, namely that Everything Clinton Stood For Is Contrary To True Americanism. They left their dinner tables stoked with the simplified rhetoric of American arrogance and given the opportunity of power strode forth into the world and acted.
    The sad part of this is that those actions will now haunt subsequent administrations, and even where Bush might have had a right notion or stumbled on the good solution to a given problem, it will matter not at all. No one will admit it, use it, or give any weight to it. And we will pay for it dearly.
    The first mistake they made, of course, was assuming in the case of Iraq that being liberated from a tyrant mattered more to the Iraqi people than being occupied by a foreign power. Thatís a dicey equation to parse at best. There might have been a way to make it work, but Bush Inc didnít think it through. Now we have a mess.
    The second mistake they made was in assuming all the checks on executive power put in place after Nixon were secondary to people wanting to be secure. It may turn out to be true, but they didnít actually ask anyone other than their own demagogues and pedagogues. Carl Rove and Grover Norquist do NOT represent the average Americanís concerns over these matters.
    The third mistake they made was in assuming that Patriotic Rhetoric would cause there to be a weeding process that would sort out the "liberal" traitors from the True Americans. A weeding process may be happening, but it is far uglier and less categorical than they obviously expected, and they have--or should by now--learned that the definition of American is far more heterogenous an issue than they imagined--or wanted.
    Finally, they have seriously misunderstood the consequences of the way they wield power. After 9/11 the world was on our side. We had sympathy and support. If we had cashed in on that wisely, we would now be in a position to actually do some major good. Instead Bush took it as carte blanche that we could act as we pleased and we became a Bully. Itís possible that it would not have mattered who was in office at that time, the result might have been similar--wounded animals are unpredictable and unreasonable.
    But the fact is that the culture of the Bush administration is not based on Reason, but on Received Wisdom--dinner table wisdom. And the failure of these folks to understand whatís now going wrong shows this more than their initial actions.
    Bush declared back in 2000 or so, quite publicly, "I donít do nuance."
    Obviously not.

copyright © 2006 by Mark W. Tiedemann