If you didn’t know I was a baby-boomer, it would surely become evident in my tendency to find timeless wisdom in the lyrics of pop songs. My new car has a CD player, which I immediately loaded up with personal favorites. Van Morrison’s 1968 \Astral Weeks\ is my desert-island recording: I got it as a gift in 1969, on the day I went to Altamont to hear the Rolling Stones (and incidentally witnessed the death of the Sixties as Hell’s Angels killed a young black man in the crowd). For sheer brilliance per square inch, I’m addicted to Leonard Cohen’s \Ten New Songs\, released a month before 9/11/2001. But right now, the lines that are lodged in my brain come from U2’s 2000 recording, \All That You Can’t Leave Behind\, from the painfully ironic song “Peace on Earth”:
They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
And you become a monster
So the monster will not break you
You see, I’ve been thinking about Karl Rove, whom I know only from the newspapers, and about some people I know face-to-face, who behave very much like him, though they might be appalled to admit it.
Karl Rove is the supreme ideologue of the Bush administration, just now under fire for his role in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the press. Many progressives and liberals hope this scandal will depose Rove, although so far, the president has chosen loyalty over ethics — again. Rove’s willingness to do absolutely anything in the service of his goals has made him the poster-boy for the Culture of Panic.
In fact, Rove’s stock in trade is dirty tricks: stimulating moral panic in voters, manipulating them to vote his way out of fear. In the 1994 Texas gubernatorial election, for instance, he had fake pollsters call voters to ask this question about Ann Richards: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Governor Richards if you knew her staff is dominated by lesbians?” In the 2000 presidential election, Rove devised a phony poll for the South Carolina primaries asking voters “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” The aim in each case was not to obtain an answer, but to plant a question, and as with so many of Rove’s ruthless tactics, it worked.
Rove’s campaign travesties are well-documented, but his extreme ethical deficit has barely raised an eyebrow. I think this is because so many people write it off as something almost admirable: being willing to do whatever it takes in a good cause. In the present climate, most of us are acquainted with the sensation that elicits ruthless behavior. It’s become familiar and cozy and all too understandable. Indeed, from what I can see, the whole culture has been triggered into a blind panic. Everywhere I look, I see people fighting as if for their lives — ruthless, desperate, unrelenting — against the very things that will save us. Have you ever seen anyone in the grip of a full-bore emotional defensive reaction? The eyes swim (floating on a tide of brain chemicals unleashed in the fear reaction), the person temporarily loses the ability to track reality, and a full defensive force is mobilized to fight or flee. Just so, people who are drowning often struggle against their rescuers, because their brains are so flooded, they lose the ability to discriminate between a lifesaver and one who is trying to drown them.
Karl Rove’s behavior is despicable; he has no place in any government that claims to be democratic. But getting rid of him is not going to fix things. In fact, focusing on him as the problem reinforces the idea that the system is basically sound, and that purging the occasional aberrant individual will fix any flaws. In truth, the system has been highjacked: in a blind panic to avoid being overtaken by our fears, we have made ourselves the monster of our fears. The world is full of real danger, of course. But here in America, our greatest suffering is caused by our own choices, by having put our future in the hands of people gripped by an enormous panic, whose delusion is to see themselves as heroes on an epic field of battle, perpetually fighting for their lives, people who fail to see that the worst enemy is their own creation.
Rove’s critics often condemn him as Machiavellian, but this is unfair to Machiavelli, who was a brilliant student of human behavior. In 1513, in \The Prince\ (well worth reading five hundred years later), he perfectly characterized the malady that is overtaking our society as something we have left too long and has now gotten the better of us:
“[I]f evils are anticipated they can easily by remedied but if you wait till they come to you the remedy is too late and the sickness is past cure, such things being like the hectic fever which, as the doctors tell us, at first is easy to cure though hard to recognize, but in time, if it has not been diagnosed and treated, becomes easy to recognize and hard to cure. This is true of affairs of state, for if the ills that are shaping up in the present are recognized in advance (and this is an art possessed only by the prudent) they can be quickly remedied, but if, not being recognized, they are allowed to grow until they are evident to all, there is no longer any remedy.”
It’s not too late to cure our hectic fever. The cure starts by recognizing Karl Rove (and the Karl Roves within us) not as an aberration, but as one of many expressions of an overwhelming distortion, and to call the monster by our collective name. This much I know: it might be hard, but even when panic beckons, we can choose not to give our power to the monster. From my experience, there is only one remedy for the Culture of Panic, which is to mobilize the cognitive power of our big brains, thinking ourselves back in touch with reality. Shall we try it?