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Doug Giebel: What Is America?

What Is America?

Values, Democracy and All That
By Doug Giebel

"[T]he proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls . . . America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected. Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience."

- George W. Bush, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2001

A week after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, President George W. Bush spoke at a Washington, D.C. mosque:

"In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect. Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear covering must not be intimidated in America. That's not the America I know; that's not the America I value."

On his visit to China in February of 2002, President George W. Bush said:

"Our movies and television shows often do not portray the values of the real America I know."

In October 2002 while cheerleading to hype his impending invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush addressed an audience in Cincinnati, noting:

"Failure to act would embolden other tyrants, allow terrorists access to new weapons and new resources, and make blackmail a permanent feature of world events. The United Nations would betray the purpose of its founding, and prove irrelevant to the problems of our time. And through its inaction, the United States would resign itself to a future of fear. That is not the America I know."

During an interview on the Al-Arabiya network in May 2004, President George W. Bush asserted:

"I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this [Iraqi prison abuse] as an excuse to remind people about their dislike. I think the average citizen will say, 'This isn't the country I've been told about."

Later that same day on the Alhurra network, President George W. Bush explained:

"People in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know."

In June 2004, during a stop-over in Ireland, President George W. Bush claimed:

“I was sick with what happened inside that prison and so were the American citizens. The actions of those troops did not reflect what we think. It did harm, it did harm because people in Ireland and elsewhere said this is not the America we know. This isn’t the America we believe exists."

What is the America known to President Bush?

Although he may have been sickened by the revelations and photographs of torture in Abu Grahib prison, during his tenure as Governor of Texas and advised by his long-time legal side-kick and current Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush approved and sometimes applauded the executions of over 150 Texas prison inmates.

A Texas federal judge wrote, "Many [Texas] inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system and about their own suffering from such abysmal conditions." Governor Bush had to fire at least one Texas prison employee over abuse issues.*

Has President George W. Bush forgotten so soon?

According to Human Rights Watch, in 1998 during the Texas Bush Administration, approximately 1.7 million human being were incarcerated in the jails and prisons of the America known at least to some of us.

In fairness, President Bush has described his America. To Chinese students he said:

"We are a nation of laws. Our courts are honest and independent. The president can't tell the courts how to rule and neither can any other member of the executive or legislative branch. Under our law, everyone stands equal. No one is above the law, and no one is beneath it."

To his Cincinnati listeners he said:

"America believes that all people are entitled to hope and human rights, to the non-negotiable demands of human dignity." President Bush told his Middle East audience, ""The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom. The America I know cares about every individual."

Echoing the late President Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush has said:

"We are all members of the great, happy club called America. We are the city on the hill, the light of the world. Let's be proud of ourselves and be happy. We make mistakes, but we try to correct them and go on to better days."

Many, perhaps most, Americans would agree with this noble sentiment. And yet our city light of the world is not only "shine," it is an authentic all-too-human community with plumbing and sewers and darkness beneath the glow: something too easily forgotten by feel-good politicians whose chamber of commerce boosterism would see only the fruit and ignore the necessary pit.

As this is written, the shining city is being subjected to The Great Campaign of Values, as the Kerry-Edwards team tries to out-shout and out-rival the Bush-Cheney corner regarding honor, virtue, patriotism and everything "good" the United States is presumed to be. Will this nation long remember or endure such an annoying and sticky barrage of value-driven rhetoric? Is America's Dr. Virtue (William Bennett) advising both war camps? Will no one (perhaps the candidates' wives) come in to rescue us from ourselves?

Each Christmas season, Americans get a holiday from commercialism as many watch and respond to Frank Capra's picture "It's A Wonderful Life." Cynics may scoff at the sentimental ending where George Bailey's friends pour into his home to save him emotionally and financially as the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" swell in the background. "People aren't like that," some may sneer. But they'd be wrong. Many human beings have not lost touch with "the best that they can be," whether it's raising funds for a child with cancer or rescuing a stranger, taking in stray animals, acting as care-givers for ailing loved ones, volunteering. It happens not only in America, but everywhere across the globe. (This writer hopes Kerry and Edwards might take a lesson from "Wonderful Life" actor James Stewart and speak
more softly to the voters they hope to enchant. A nation would be grateful.)

Ignored at the feel-good ending of Capra's film, however, is the darker side of imaginary and symbolic Bedford Falls, where greed and arrogance rule, where poverty, death, disappointment and disaster exist (and are necessary) in stark contrast to mankind's better nature. Lest we forget.

"What is America to me?"

In this time of anger and hostility, thoughtful citizens may be asking that question. President Bush, through his repeated invoking of "the America I know" has prompted such introspection. The America we know today is a nation trapped in an undeclared "war" perpetrated by politicians both Republican and Democrat who, even when faced with the truth, can not bring themselves to admit they went to war (and forced others to fight "their" war) based on arrogance, bullying, deception, greed and lies.

Contrary to the claim made by President Bush that when "we make mistakes . . . we try to correct them," as the God of Truth stares them in the face, the nation's leaders play the blame game and pass the buck. If once we were "A Nation of Sheep," now we seem to have become A Nation of Hypocrites and Liars. It's one big part of the America we know.

"What is America to me?" are the opening words of "The House I Live In," an inspiring patriotic pro-American song written in 1942 and sung by Frank Sinatra in an eleven-minute short film produced at the end of a war that George W. Bush is too young to remember, a war that his father may remember all too well. (We don't hear much from the elder Bush about his son's preemptive/preventive war of choice.)

The song Sinatra sang, written by Lewis Allen and Earl Robinson, brought swells of emotion and tears to the eyes of listeners in a time when the world was war-weary. But we've traveled a long way from then, and the Allen-Robinson anthem to "American values" might seem a relic to audiences raised on rock and rap and the demeaning sarcasm of progressive realists, political comics and talk-show blowhards. Still, the message is worth re-consideration as our super-patriot "leaders" wallow in the taffy-goo of value talk. (This writer recommends Sinatra's performance of the song at his Concert for the Americas.)

Consider this: "The House I Live In," released by RKO, was produced by Frank Ross and Mervyn LeRoy. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy with a script by Albert Maltz, one of Hollywood's creative and interesting screenwriters. The film was honored with a Special Academy Award in 1945. In 1947, Albert Maltz was hauled before Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt, where he refused to answer questions. He became part of what is known as The Hollywood Ten and was sentenced to twelve months in prison. Because he starred in the picture written by Maltz, Frank Sinatra was rumored to be a communist sympathizer and his career took a nosedive.

That is the America they knew.

Was it really so much different from the time of our lives now, when the United States Constitution is under attack from those sworn to protect it? Today in place of Joe McCarthy we have John Ashcroft and others both in and out of government who brand people traitors and anti-American for daring to disagree with Bush Administration goons. Men, women and children who deserved to live full lives have died and continue to die in an unnecessary war fostered by uncaring politicians who spout pieties and spit bile. Careers have been ruined, innocent people have been imprisoned, due process denied on the whim of the President of the United States, and too few citizens and elected officials have the courage to raise their voices, pound the table and demand, "Have you no shame?"

* Doug Giebel is a writer and analyist in Big Sandy, Montana. His essay on academic corruption, "When Professors Cheat," will soon be published by Mellen Press. He welcomes comments:

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