09/10/2006 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back from Byzantium -- Thoughts Post-9/11

I'm just back from six weeks in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul; my girlfriend bought an apartment in that most ravishing of cities, which is a cross between Venice and Rome, not to mention Hong Kong. Not to mention Tijuana.

My daily news of the world came mainly from browsing the local English-language paper over a glass of tea at a rickety sidewalk table under trees and grapes vines. Or online at an Internet cafe, with the neighborhood muezzin's cry cutting through the piped club music...

From such a distance, US political life seems unreal. Surreal. Not as something dreamy though, but in the crushing sense that the public reality of America under Bush is in essence a spectacle: an ongoing preposterous and lethal political theater designed to secure power at home. The US government -- from homeland security to foreign affairs -- constitutes a public-relations enterprise designed to sell Bush to the domestic audience.

It's a corporate-razzamatazz approach to governance: a sell job. Even more so, a con job. Who says Enron went out of business? It just converted into "governing" America. (Like Enron didn't really do business, Bush doesn't really govern.)

Join all this to militarism, and fundamentalist evangelism and Christian Zionism, and I'll leave you to supply the political adjectives for what we have the elements of.

And the American media just blithely babbles on. A headline in the International Herald Tribune refers to Bush recently being "in a political mode."

As if Bush had any other mode!

There over tea by the shores of old Byzantium (I get atmospheric), I kept wondering: Before the press institutionalizes skepticism, before it understands and conveys that something drastic and appalling is going on, just how many catastrophic lies must a government tell, from day one? (Remember Cheney and the "energy crisis"?)

How many phony wars must it start?

How many ex-Nuremberg trial prosecutors like Benjamin Ferencz must declare that Bush should be tried for war crimes alongside Saddam Hussein?

How much of the world must laugh in contempt at those buzzwords of "freedom" and "democracy," seeing whose mouths they come from? Seeing the brazen, neo-Orwellian discrepancy between US words and deeds?

It was heartening, thrilling even, briefly, to read about Lieberman's defeat; and that brilliant bare-knuckles pounding on Bush by Salt Lake City's mayor Rocky Anderson.

But then comes news that some 40% of Americans still believe Saddam had something to do with 9/11. And the percentage among American troops in Iraq is maybe double that.

And then comes Bush's argument (just for one more example) that those CIA torture/non-torture techniques saved lives. Can somebody find Bush and his apologists a bio of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian theoretical grandfather of Al-Queda? Qutb was a radical...who became truly pernicious in his thinking as a consequence of being tortured in Nasser's prisons. Where dogs were set on him, etc.

The world did not change because of 9-11. The world changed because of Bush's response to 9-11. A response that is, for my money, the flat worst imaginable in every way.

And the Democrats? My god. If Al Gore does run, he'll have my vote. But who else? I'll pass along what a Turkish economist said over dinner (again under trees): she's of course utterly anti-Bush, but her hope, for the world's sake, was a Republican isolationist as American president. Someone who'd just keep America at home, parked at the mall. She'd given up on the feckless triangulating Democrats.

In this I'm reminded of words by Chris Hedges, the former NY Times war correspondent (whose book, War Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning, is essential reading for these times, I think). Hedges trained not as a journalist but at divinity school. Many of the figures who influenced him were involved in the struggle against Hitler.

Hedges writes:

"I can't help but recall the words of my ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. James Luther Adams, who told us that when we were his age, and he was then close to eighty, we would all be fighting the 'Christian fascists.'

"He gave us that warning twenty-five years ago, when Pat Robertson and other prominent evangelists began speaking of a new political religion that would direct its efforts at taking control of all major American institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government, so as to transform the United States into a global Christian empire. At the time, it was hard to take such fantastic rhetoric seriously. But fascism, Adams warned, would not return wearing swastikas and brown shirts. Its ideological inheritors would cloak themselves in the language of the Bible; they would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.

"....Then as now, Adams said, too many liberals failed to understand the power and allure of evil, and when the radical Christians came, these people would undoubtedly play by the old, polite rules of democracy long after those in power had begun to dismantle the democratic state. [My italics]. Adams had watched German academics fall silent or conform. He knew how desperately people want to believe the comfortable lies told by totalitarian movements, how easily those lies lull moderates into passivity."

We now have the irony of the Bush folks trotting out the "Islamofascism" line. Indeed. What's that cute Rove technique, not just to attack your opponents supposed strength, but to project onto your opponent your own obvious weaknesses? Muddy the waters of critique, so words lose their force.

And all that's left is theater and spectacle...and a few buzz words repeated over, and over, and over... Like a commercial. Like in Orwell.