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Thursday, April 13, 2006 09:34 pm

Rise up

My message in a bottle is still out there, floating. But there’s something you can do.

Last time I filled this space, it was in the edition of Illinois Times that appeared just before Christmas and Hanukkah. In that commentary I suggested that Congress should impeach President George W. Bush. I was angry that the president directed the National Security Agency to spy on U.S. citizens. That action fit a pattern of lawlessness, considering that Bush and his administration lied about Iraq, imprisoned people indefinitely without charges, and countenanced the use of torture. My suggestion, of course, was impractical, counterproductive, and a tad ridiculous: Congress is led by members of the president’s party, and impeachment would leave us with Dick Cheney as the commander in chief. And nobody wants Cheney in charge. But friends and readers who shared my viewpoint were gracious enough to overlook the fact I’m not always grounded in reality, though everybody appreciates a good rant now and then. Temper tantrums are a manifestation of powerlessness. They’re usually not productive or entertaining, though sometimes it just feels good to yell. Think of Shakespeare’s Lear, shaking his fists at the skies, unable to change the course of events but still weirdly compelling in his rage and despair. How do you respond to the steady drumbeat of sad news? Do you shake your head at the hypocrisy of a president who denounces leaks but then is caught having authorized the disclosure of classified information for political purposes? Do you just shrug when you hear news that the administration, which is having trouble occupying and pacifying two nations, is planning military strikes on a third? For more than three years, the peace movement has been trying to mobilize public opinion against the Iraq War with vigils, teach-ins, and demonstrations, and today most Americans agree that the war and the occupation were dumb; most Americans have lost confidence in Bush to competently extricate us from this situation. But moral persuasion, intelligent argument, and common sense aren’t enough — they never have been in the face of arrogance and brute power. The real arguments against the stupidity of this war are being won each day in that godforsaken place, where our ineptitude has opened a Pandora’s box of misery for our sons and daughters — and the people of Iraq. U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. — one of the few actual progressives in national government — recently introduced a resolution calling on Congress to censure the president for the illegal domestic spying. Censure is a measured but serious condemnation, but it’s not the same thing as impeachment, which may lead to removal from office. As expected, most members of Feingold’s own party have run to the sidelines, including, as staff writer R.L. Nave noted last week in his column, Illinois’ two U.S. senators, both “progressive” critics of the administration. Seems that everybody with designs on 2008 would rather allow public resentment to build than take the risk of becoming a punching bag for shrinking but still potent supporters of the president. Profiles in courage? It’s hard to find any, these days. But is it any surprise? The genius of the conservative movement that led to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 lay not only in its ability to demonize and caricature its enemies but also in its single-minded, take-no-prisoners focus on redefining the language of public discourse. “Liberal” became a derogatory epitaph, sympathy for the poor a character flaw, tolerance a weakness. Affirmative action meant giving minorities an unfair advantage. Welfare was a reward for indolence. Unions and job security meant featherbedding. Environmentalists were tree-huggers. Today we live with the horrible consequences of coarsened public discourse, when we are somehow convinced that we’re not all in the same boat, that we don’t sink or swim together, that we are not really our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. So we have too few members of Congress courageous enough to do the right thing — and that means we’re probably stuck with Bush until January 2009. But just because we elected jellyfish legislators doesn’t mean we can afford to sit idly by, marking time. George W. Bush defined the war on terrorism in stark terms: Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists. In this election year, let’s try the same approach, and treat the war in Iraq as the defining issue. Either you’re for the occupation or you’re not; either you’re with Bush or you’re not. Iraq is a local issue; it’s a state issue; it’s a national issue; it’s an international issue. Find out where your candidates stand. And vote for peace.
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