Saturday, November 02, 2002


“Should I feel guilty because I'm glad he's dead? If I feel like liberal democrats are American traitors, isn't that a logical response?” Posted 10/29/02, on

What does it mean for a democracy, built as it must be on faith in ordinary human nature and capacity, when ordinary citizens begin to routinely entertain the notion, if not simply assume, that their leaders are committing the foulest crimes, including treason and politically convenient murder?

I don’t know the answer to that important question. But I do know this: Andrew Sullivan, in a recent Salon column, was wrong to state an equivalency between two Internet writer’s examinations of the bitterly paranoid response of some, who loved and admired him, to Senator Wellstone's unexpected death, and the multiple taxpayer-supported investigations of Vince Foster's suicide.

There was nothing “fringe” about speculation that President Clinton and his wife might be murderers. It was indulged in, with more than just a wink and a nod, by well-known public office holders like Representative Dan Burton, and influential media owners and political advocates like Reverend Falwell; people possessing, or routinely welcomed into, the nation’s most powerful and public forums.

Given that reality, Mr. Sullivan may want to revise his assessment of "American reasonableness." As well as re-examine any assumptions he may be harboring about the current state of American faith in our political leaders, or, for that matter, in each other.

Paranoia has been main stream for quite some time now. In fact, during President Clinton’s terms in office, we taxpayers indulged political paranoia and distrust to the tune of 70 million dollars.

Where was “American reasonableness” then? Could it be found dependably in the corridors of Congress and among the sworn officers of the courts? Did it thrive in the pressrooms of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers, or in the green rooms of our major broadcast media?

No. Paranoia stood in the halls of power bellowing down the majority voice of ordinary voters; dashing their hopes for a reasoned debate on the important, pragmatic matters of the day. It shattered civilized notions of privacy, robbed us, as a nation, of our dignity, and turned our politics into pornography. It saw conspiracy, and even treason, behind every human error, and read volumes into every ill-advised word. It turned political discourse into a non-stop expression of moral umbrage by people whose moral authority rested only on celebrity, and photogenic teeth and hair. It made careers and ruined lives. And ultimately it offered us irrefutable proof that our President had succumbed to the same age-old sins of the flesh that have tempted many, including our own neighbors, co-workers and friends. And then he had, as humans have done for eons, tried to hide those private, fleshly sins from public view.

Did the embarrassingly personal and private nature of the sin revealed, in comparison to the scouring public combat of the investigations, reassure us? Of course not. It just once again proved, to all of us, what we are most afraid to acknowledge: that the leaders at the helm of the most powerful ship of state in history are merely human.

Now, with the political shoe on the other foot, Mr. Sullivan wants us, with no more than a few partisan assurances and the issuance of a high court’s judgement, to get our faith in democracy back.

But, for reasons far more serious than Bill Clinton’s philandering, or the Impeachment Manager’s partisan excess, distrust infects the air we breathe. And, because it’s useful, paranoia is still the coin of the realm.

In fact, paranoia and routine hints of conspiracy have infected Mr. Sullivan’s writing just as much as they have infected the broader body politic.

For example, in the very first paragraph of his commentary, Sullivan robs the two writers he has chosen to critique, Michael Nimans, an obscure college professor, and Ted Rall, a cartoonist, of their individuality, and assigns them to some “morally debased” and shadowy “movement.”

In size and power, this is not quite the same conspiracy that relentlessly stalks the forces of goodness and reason in books like “Bias” and “Slander,” yet, for his purpose, it will do.

Sullivan then selectively edits Mr. Rall's essay to, more dramatically, make his point and defeat the writer’s own. Giving us his assurance, with no provided link, that those quoted are “the money lines.”

But, as a discussion of responsibility for Senator Wellstone’s death, the actual money line, it seems to me, in Mr. Rall's essay is this: “Odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a natural or mechanical explanation for the crash of Paul Wellstone's plane.”

Whatever the writers’ criticisms of the Bush administration may be, Mr. Sullivan doesn’t answer them. Nor does it occur to him, any more than it would any other partisan, to try to address and allay the distrust that is these writers’ real subject. His argument, at heart, is one that, without reflection, is trotted out to cover any circumstance -- not that the opposition is wrong or mistaken in the particular, but that, in its general nature, it is morally wanting, false, and “other.”

That is paranoia at work.

And, despite Mr. Sullivan’s sophistication, it is the same kind of paranoia that makes our political conversation routinely absurd, and reflexively dismissive. For instance, by labeling the 52% of voters, overwhelmingly middle and working class, who did not vote for Mr. Bush in the last election as a shadowy “elite,” that does not share “our” values. Or, at best, implying that large numbers, even a majority, of citizens are profoundly foolish dupes of that elite -- that has overtaken our schools, emptied our churches, weakened our resolve, ruined our marriages, and contributed to the delinquency of our children.

It is also the kind of paranoia that can whip normally decorous partisans, many on the public payroll, into a frenzied mob determined to stop the legal counting of votes and discount the democratic voice of other citizens. That can loudly condemn, on no evidence other than self-interest, the judgement of one court as corruptly partisan, and, at the same time, lead another court to abandon its established principles in order to preemptively save us from the potentially messy consequences of democracy itself.

Like Mr. Sullivan, I would like to relegate destructive paranoia to the fringes of our political life, or assign it to only one side of the political bench. But, as a reasonable American I know, from experience and history, that, along with greed, ambition, arrogance, cynicism and, yes, even lust, it abides among the powerful as surely as among the rest of us.

I also know that paranoia, one of the most self-justifying human conditions, has done terrible things, and can be counted on to do them again.

Given the state of the physical evidence in the Wellstone crash, as it is now being reported, whether or not the Senator's death was caused by some intentional human agency may be something reasonable people are unlikely to ever, as a matter of absolute fact, be able to ascertain. As with so many things in life and politics, arguments against or for foul play must therefore ultimately rely, not on material fact, but rather, as Mr. Sullivan quite accurately states, on “reasonableness.”

But what, when fact is missing, or in dispute, does “reasonableness” rely on?

The answer to that is “trust.” Something that, in terms of this administration, despite the unwillingness of Mr. Sullivan and others to acknowledge it, many Americans lost in the wreck of the last election -- and that no amount of sifting through the evidence, or partisan arguments and rationales, can ever recover.

The plain fact is this: Bush partisans aggressively used all the levers of powers at their disposal to stop the vote count in Florida and gain the presidency. And, no matter what those partisans may wish to tell themselves, the people they used those powers against weren’t some conspiratorial elite or degraded minority trying to grab illegitimate power – they were millions of ordinary Americans like me, exercising, proudly, the legitimate, important, and only, political power we possess.

In positing politics as war, Mr. Bush’s party made America the enemy.

And if that isn’t both paranoia and a cause for it, what is?


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