With Apologies to George W. Bush

by Benjamin Studebaker

Guess who’s back, back again? Palin’s back–tell a friend. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, has given another speech, this time for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, one of those conservative 501(c)4’s that has so often been in the news lately. What do I find interesting about this Palin speech? The fact that, 5-10 years ago, parts of it could have been made by your average democrat.

Here’s the whole thing, if you’re feeling indulgent:


There are two bits that I find most interesting. First this bit, in which Palin opposes foreign intervention:

Militarily, where is our commander in chief? We’re talking now more new interventions. I say until we know what we’re doing, until we have a commander in chief who knows what he’s doing, well, let these radical Islamic countries who aren’t even respecting basic human rights, where both sides are slaughtering each other as they scream over an arbitrary red line, ‘Allah Akbar,’ I say until we have someone who knows what they’re doing, I say let Allah sort it out.

The tone is different from what we would hear in a speech made by a democrat in say, 2004. Palin is dismissive of the value of Muslims, Muslim countries, and Muslim conflicts, because she has hostility toward that particular group of people–there’s some bigotry there. The case against intervention has been made much better elsewhere. Her argument also leaves open the door to a future intervention under a republican administration, as if the party of the president has any influence over whether or not an intervention is in the American national interest. I see no connection between the two–a President McCain would be just as ill-advised to intervene in Syria as a President Obama. Nonetheless, there are two interesting things that one can sift out from the surrounding sewage:

  • Palin doesn’t think we should intervene in Syria.
  • Palin thinks the “red line” is arbitrary.

I happen to agree with both of those claims, as I have expressed previously, and hopefully with superior justification. Any agreement at all with Palin strikes me as rather a bit odd. But then there’s this bit:

Now more than ever it just seems so Orwellian around here. You know, 1984. And, you know before this 1984, terms like ‘leading from behind’ meant following. And like the other day, the White House, testifying before Congress, bragging that they use the ‘least untruthful statement.’ Now, where I come from, that’s called a lie. Yes, officials lied and government spied and in Benghazi, the government lied and Americans died.

This is just weird. This kind of language has been used before, but not by individuals of any similarity to Sarah Palin politically. Palin appears to be attacking:

  • Perceived similarities between the Obama administration and the Orwellian government of 1984
  • Attacks on state surveillance
  • The insinuation that lies told by members of the Obama administration have gotten people killed.

Here’s a bit from a 2006 Seattle Times editorial where pretty much the same argument is made but directed against the Bush administration:

In true INGSOC fashion, the administration has used Bushspeak to spin a story broken by The New York Times about a domestic-spying program run by the National Security Agency and approved by executive order soon after 9/11 into a necessary program needed to weed out the deeply integrated terrorists living next door.

“INGSOC” being the fictional government in Orwell’s 1984. The very same NSA surveillance program is the target of both Palin and this piece. And of course, who can forget the “Bush Lied, People Died” bumper stickers, which have an eerie similarity to Palin’s last line, whether planned or by coincidence.

Government policy hasn’t really changed under Obama, despite his 08 theater. Most of what could have been said about Bush’s foreign policy could also be said about Obama’s, from the NSA to Afghanistan to even the latent interventionism.

Yet when I read Palin, I am struck by just how wildly hyperbolic the 1984 stuff was and is. If you’ve read the book, the government in 1984 doesn’t just watch everyone all the time (which not even our NSA does–it retains the data and the right to peruse it, but it only actually looks at a tiny fraction of what it has), it wages a perpetual, global war on a WWII-scale, regulates language, curtails free speech, makes people disappear, executes them for dissent, and so on. INGSOC isn’t Obama, and it wasn’t Bush. INGSOC was a scaled up imaginary version of the Nazis and the Soviets. To the extent that we live in a world in which hegemonic ideas predominate and reduce our capacity for outside-the-box thinking, the mechanisms by which that happens are much more similar to those portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We are not policed by fascists or communists who use coercion, fear, and force to control us. We are instead offered myriad entertainments and distractions so that we remain content and docile. We are self-regulating.

The leaders themselves are the products of the system, not its overlords or directors. Obama is himself influenced by our culture’s decadence, as was Bush, as was Clinton, and so on. There is no master plan. The leadership genuinely does not believe any of this is taking place, because it is itself a victim of it. It does not realize the ways in which it has been socialized to support and maintain a status quo, to be content and docile in the face of problems that require transformational policies. You and I are not immune either–how many hours have we spent watching sports or television or movies? How much time do we devote to discussing celebrities, the various petty entertainments? Even those of us most interested in politics are too frequently distracted from political thought and political behavior by the vast buffet that makes itself available even to many poor Americans, who still generally have televisions and who still generally get cable. Add to that the number of people who have been subdued by alcohol, by drugs, by all the other entertainments available to us, and our willingness to put up with sustained incompetence within the government naturally follows. Even our politics is now fused with entertainment on the cable news channels.

None of this is anyone’s fault, it’s just the way societal forces have happened to carry us. And insofar as I think it is unreasonable for Sarah Palin to call Obama an Orwellian, it was unfair of the left more in the mid-2000’s to do the same to Bush. So that’s where the title comes in. When Bush was re-elected in 2004, I was 12. I was insufficiently thoughtful to realize that Bush himself was not to blame for many of the societal ills I ascribed to him. I highly doubt that George Bush will ever read a word of this blog, but nonetheless, I’m sorry, and the next time we have a hard-right president with whom I frequently disagree (who am I kidding “next time”? Obama’s policies are not especially forward-thinking), I promise to do better. I hope others do too, but I’m not holding my breath.