Thursday, June 12, 2003

Trolling around the internet, I found a very intelligent article by Anne Applebaum, author of a recent book on the Soviet Gulag. In this article, America, the Gulag, Applebaum discusses how she was confronted with a startling question on a recent trip to London:

"Do you see any parallels between the security state that George Bush has created in America since 9/11 and the Gulag?" For a moment, the question struck me dumb. It had been put by a BBC radio interviewer, and we were on the air. It seemed impolitic to say, "What a ridiculous question," and I was too surprised to laugh. Finally I mumbled something about not having noticed that great a difference between daily life in George Bush's America and daily life in Bill Clinton's America, and left it at that. What I should have done was point out, tartly, that access to information is still far freer in America than it is in Britain, that immigrants are far better treated in America than in Britain, and that democracy remains a more open affair in America than in Britain. One always thinks of these things too late.

Yet in the days that followed, I did, rather surprisingly, have the opportunity to try out a few more answers. I was in London because a book I wrote about Soviet concentration camps had just been published there. For some, it seemed, the combination of that subject and my nationality offered the perfect opportunity to discuss the viciousness of contemporary American society. Several times I was asked if Guantanamo Bay should be considered a concentration camp. One reviewer, after saying a few neutral words about my book, complained that "the author has missed an opportunity to condemn human rights violations in her own country." Another interviewer asked whether people in America are often arrested for insulting the president on the Internet.

I sometimes also find myself in conversational situations where it seems that some of my interlocutors also resort to this type of hyperbole to express their opposition to the policies of the Bush Administration. I say this not to defend those policies, particularly the long detentions of foreigners after 9/11 which chiefly resulted in the arrest and eventual deportation of people guilty of minor immigration infractions -- but to beg for some kind of commensurability in people's speech. Whatever one thinks of the USA Patriot Act, or the detention of foreigners, they come nowhere near to the standard of a concentration camp or a totalitarian state such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Do people like the BBC radio reporter really think that the U.S. is becoming a totalitarian state, or are they just using remarks like that to raise the political temperature? Sort of like the indiscriminate use of "Nazi" or "fascist" to express one's dislike of someone else's politics. (For example, here in Ithaca there has been graffitti downtown saying, "Bush is a Nazi." I've often wished I could talk to the person who wrote the graffitti and ask them what they mean -- and also to ask them what they think Nazism was and is).

Another thing I've noticed, which may be related, is the tendency among liberal/left-wing people to regard Bush as a stupid man and/or a puppet of his "handlers" (e.g., Vice-President Cheney). I've often asked people why they think so -- do they have evidence for his stupidity? Wrong, maybe, depending on one's political views, but not stupid. I didn't vote for Bush and I won't vote for him in the next election, I don't like his conservative judicial nominees, I think that his tax cut is ruinous, I think that he shamefully let Senator Santorum off the hook for his anti-gay comments, etc. but I don't think he's stupid. On the contrary, I think that it some ways he has been brilliant -- for example in the way he rallied the country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I have a lot of respect for him. I think it's dangerous for people who oppose his politics to underestimate him as "stupid" -- it leads to underestimating his political astuteness and the connection he has with many Americans (a connection that I think is similar to that which Ronald Reagan had when he was President).

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