November 25, 2006

Of philosopher kings and diminishing dictators

When I listen to George W. Bush speak I’m amazed that he can string several words together. The guy comes across as an absolute dolt. His often incoherent and ridiculous comments have boosted the careers of such comedians as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I’m sure his advisors cringe whenever he steps in front of a microphone, wondering what unimaginable absurdity will spew forth next.

The lights are on, as they say, but there's nobody home. But quite obviously there's more to the Bush Administration than just Dubya.

Indeed, Bush is a puppet president if there ever was one. He is not so much a leader as he is a preposterous figurehead who is both sympathetic to and easily manipulated by corporatists and the religious right.

And it’s not just Bush – his entire administration seems as ineffective and reckless as he his. VP Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have muddled their way through their terms and created innumerable problems overseas.

Of course, it hasn’t always been like this in the United States. It seems like ages ago now that Bill Clinton, an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, was at the helm of the executive office. And during the 1980’s, while he may not have been the sharpest or best of presidents, Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator who had a coherent vision for America.

These days California can boast such leaders as Arnold Schwarzenegger...

Despite the dumbing down of U.S. politics and politicians (a phenomenon that’s hardly the domain of the U.S. -– as witnessed here in Canada recently with the rise in power of conservative leader Stephen Harper) and the anti-intellectualism that runs frustratingly rampant in North America, there have been many first-rate precedents for cerebral presidents.

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most intellectual U.S. president ever, was Enlightened and pro-science. Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were no slouches either. Jimmy Carter used to correspond and debate with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould (could you imagine Dubya trying to debate a scientist like Richard Dawkins – the mind boggles just thinking about it).

The situation today with Bush and his corporate puppet masters reminds me of what happened in the Soviet Union after the death of Josef Stalin. It’s a phenomenon that has been referred to as the Law of Diminishing Dictators where each successive leader becomes more useless and ineffective than the last. Puppet masters need puppets without brains or political skill, otherwise they're difficult to control.

Stalin was a very capable and conniving leader. He was skilled, savvy and brutal enough to lead the Soviet Union through a devastating world war and see his country become a world power. He terrorized his citizenry and terrorized his Politburo even more. He was notorious for his many internal purges to eliminate any potential rivals, giving Hitler the inspiration to do likewise. Needless to say, there was a massive sigh of relief among the Politburo members after Stalin’s passing.

Resolved to never allow such a powerful and charismatic leader to lead the Soviet Union ever again (i.e. fearing for their collective asses and the ongoing social brutality), the Politburo decided that Nikita Khrushchev, a barely literate peasant, would be a reasonable successor. As benign as he appeared to be, however, he proved to be a bit more unpredictable than expected as witnessed by his 'we will bury you’ shoe-pounding Cuban Missile Crisis tenure. He was eventually replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who was yet another step down the evolutionary ladder. Brezhnev proved to be very good at two things and two things only: collecting cars and showing off his countless shiny medals.

Just when the Soviets thought they had outdone themselves with their successive string of low-brow and ineffectual leaders, along comes Yuri Andropov. He was 70 years old when he took office, was in poor health, and died after only 13 months in power. Then came the coup de grace with Konstantin Chernenko, the 73 year old comatose General Secretary. In one infamous moment, Politburo member Viktor Grishin dragged the terminally ill Chernenko from his hospital bed to a ballot box to vote in the 1985 elections.

By this point in Soviet history the liberal voices in the Politburo were powerful and motivated enough to bring in the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, but it was already too little too late.

Thankfully, democracies typically alleviate these sorts of situations prior to the onset of economic and social collapse. That said, elections are often only as good as the quality of the individual voter. It's arguable that the largely anti-intellectual, poorly educated and often fickle North and South American voter is responsible for bringing in such statesmen as Bush, Harper and the populist leftist leaders that are now emerging in the southern hemisphere (although the situation in South America is much more complex than that and worthy of deeper and fairer analysis).

But there is near-term hope on the horizon both in Canada and the United States. Both countries have Poindexter leaders in waiting: in Canada there is public intellectual Michael Ignatieff (the potential heir apparent to philosopher king Pierre Trudeau) and in the States there is Hillary Rodham Clinton, a graduate of Wellesley College and Yale Law School.

In the meantime, we shouldn't expect any groundbreaking or progressive social policies from leaders like George W. Bush, but at least we can keep watching the Daily Show and the Colbert Report for our comedy fix.


Anonymous said...

Hey George, putting a picture of Joseph Stalin together with Hilary Clinton and Thomas Jefferson in your Great Leaders gallery is very strange and rather offensive. I also find it rather startling and alarming that you seem to imply that he is the highpoint of the "evolutionary ladder" of Soviet leadership. You do mention the Purges and what you euphemistically refer to as "social brutality" but let's not mince words here - he murdered over 20 million Soviet citizens in cold blood(including my grandmother, I might add), and spent his last few years as a certifiable paranoid.

George said...

Hi Peter,

Actually, Stalin may have been responsible for nearly 60 million deaths. As far as a fanatical and cold-blooded Marxist ideologues go, I'd say that's pretty effective.

This article and its attendant photo gallery was an illustration of effective or charismatic leadership as contrasted against puppet figures. I'm surprised that you inferred any kind of comparison beyond that.


Unknown said...

Dubya's difficulty speaking is something he didn't have in his first term as governor of Texas.

It is unclear how much of Dubya's many problems relate to an evaporating IQ, but I don't see that we can blame his administration's problems on a puppetmaster in the shadows. Cheney and Secretary of State Condi Rice may have undue influence, and Bush is incurious such that he relies on Cheney, Rice and others for options, but the decisions, bad as they are, all seem to be his.

Presidents Grant and Harding were puppets; not so Bush, imho.

And btw, I am a liberal living in Sacramento, California. Schwarzenegger is bright and skillful. Some cartoonists may be a little out of date, playing him up as being brawny and therefore not brainy, but the guy has the lights on upstairs and clearly is in charge of his administration.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you're actually equating Bush with Harper.

...and putting Ignatieff on a pedestal. It's amazing how closed minded people are...

Anonymous said...

Speaking of dictators, from hindsight it looks like Saddam Hussein has an undeservedly bad reputation. He apparently knows what it takes to keep the Iraqi people in line. I'd almost bet money that if the American occupation force releases Saddam from jail and puts him back in power, he could restore order in that country in a matter of weeks.

Anonymous said...

While I concur (more-or-less) that Dubya is neo-cortically challenged (shall we say), I also agree with Peter Jenkins that your choice of exemplary leaders is, well, appalling (except for Tommy Jefferson, of course). Stalin was a paranoid, egomaniacal sociopath, and arguably so is Hillary Clinton. She is, as best I can tell a power-luster and power-tripper not unlike the "O'Brien" character in Orwell's *1984*. You're much to bright, George, to be influenced by mainstream, elitist, almost(but arguably not quite)meaningless pedigrees such as Yale----aren't you?! Yale's not bad, but it's actually not much better than other top-notch liberal arts colleges and universities (though it self-servingly likes to promote itself as better, of course). Hillary would like to be queen...or empress. Check out the Libertarian Party and/or the American Revolutionary Party...

George said...

Okay, fair enough re: Hillary -- but my standards for politicians have fallen pathetically low; these days I'm happy to see someone with a vocabulary above the grade 4 level.

Again, I'm surprised that people have assumed that I'm comparing Stalin to U.S. leaders, or that I'm somehow singing his praises. Believe me, I am very aware of what Stalin did and what he was all about. All I am trying to convey here is that the Soviet Poliburo, after Stalin's death, did their best to prevent another charismatic leader from taking power, a trend that resulted in a string of leaders with deceasing political effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

George: I beg your pardon! You were sufficiently fast is posting that original comment. Again, my apologies... But I really do think we need to look beyond---WAY BEYOND---the standard neo-fascist (literally---as is crony corporativism) Demopublican and Republicrat crap. Please do check out Louis Kelso's ideas, and see the American Revolutionary Party.

Keep up the good work, Kid-O! I'm always honored by the privilege of being allowed to comment here and elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

George: Bless your heart; I forgot you're Canadian; my GOOF, please forgive me. See this Canadian organization's website. It one of a number of Kelsonian-oriented sites/orgs:

Anonymous said...

George - the problem is that you have tried to force fit the facts from the U.S. leadership to fit your theory that the U.S. and Soviet situations are parallel insofar as declining leadership is concerned. Even taking your argument at face value that successive Soviet leadership represents a continuum of effectiveness from Stalin at one end to Chernenko at the other, the U.S. situation is not at all parallel. Successive U.S. Presidents have been all over the map in terms of effectivness. There is no declining continuum from Jefferson to Bush Jr. For example, President Carter (a one term former peanut farmer who botched a hostage rescue, created stagflation, and negotiated a peace treaty that led to Sadat's assassination) was much less effective than any of his successors. While President Reagan was a Great Communicator, I am not sure that he was any less of a "puppet" than Bush Jr. How else would Iran-Contra have occurred? Finally, your reference to academic credentials as an indicator of not being a puppet seems highly off-base. After all, Bush Jr. has a Harvard MBA and what good has it necessarily done him in terms of management skills? So since your comparison between the U.S. and the Soviets in terms of steadily declining leadership falls flat, we are left with just the images of Stalin and Jefferson as your suggested examples of the high-water mark of leadership. It would be similar to writing a post entitled "Great Orators of History" and including photos of Adolph Hitler and Demosthenes.



George said...

Hi Peter,

Your comments are very well taken. My post was meant as a conversational stream-of-consciousness rant that shouldn't have been taken as seriously as many have taken it. Again, I was only using the example of "puppe" Bush to segue into a discussion of the former Soviet Union, and I tried (apparently unconvincingly) to segue back to the Bush discussion by noting how democracies work differently. My apologies if any of this was unclear.