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E-M:/ Peter Schrag: Goodbye to 2004, another year of living stupidly



Peter Schrag: Goodbye to 2004, another year of living stupidly

By Peter Schrag -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, December 29, 2004

One of the blessings of having been around a long time is that in any dark moment of our national life you can usually think of another moment that, if you put your mind to it, seemed almost as dark or maybe darker: McCarthyism, Watergate, the disaster of Vietnam.

But never in the memory of the living generation have the errors, falsifications and unreason of policy come in such rapid and overwhelming succession that each buries its predecessor before it's even partially absorbed, much less understood.

The result is an historic dynamic of error, dishonesty and corruption that's far more frightening than any individual event. The counterpoint of revelations of flawed and myopic foreign policy decisions against the deepening quagmire overseas is itself so overwhelming that most people must have trouble keeping track of it.

In the traditional pace of things, each of these events would be a scandal:

* The unnecessary disaster in Iraq - the haste in getting into it, the inadequate preparation and resources to pursue it - now partly acknowledged even by the president and his "stuff happens" secretary of defense.

* The mess in an underfunded Homeland Security regime that requires every airline passenger to remove his shoes and risk a humiliating frisking, grants government snoops broad new powers, locks up suspects without legal rights, but can't properly vet its own Cabinet secretary-designee.

* The huge tax cuts, most of them for the rich, in a professed time of war, which supposedly requires no sacrifice from anyone other than the troops overseas. Among those men and women, even those who make it home in good physical health, a large percentage will need extended psychological help for the emotional battering they've undergone.

* The ballooning federal deficit resulting in large part from those tax cuts, the decline of the dollar to record lows against the Euro and the nation's concomitant decline in economic and political influence. At some point, federal borrowing will require interest rates high enough that they will choke us.

* The ongoing failure to launch a massive energy conservation program through higher auto efficiency standards and higher gas taxes to reduce our dependency on the very regimes that finance terrorism and which represent the most undemocratic forces on earth.

* The growing visa and security barriers to foreign scholars and students, once a mainstay of the nation's economic and scientific superiority, and the shrinking federal support for low income students in the face of the growing technical power and attractiveness of universities in China, India, Canada and Europe.

* The increasingly dysfunctional health care system, which with every "reform" becomes more costly, corrupt, inefficient and unfair.

* The fiscally destructive proposals for privatizing Social Security in the effort to take it down the same road.

Much of the debate of the past year has been about the national intelligence system - the need to create better coordination among the various federal intelligence agencies that in some cases can't even communicate internally. But the bigger problem, of course, is the other, more common kind of intelligence, and what seems to be the proud national repudiation of its use.

The president's critics, among them some former high officials in his own White House, say he doesn't want to know - that he wants only to be told whatever fits with his ideology, preconceptions and intentions. So now he is converting the whole Cabinet into a den of good news bears who will never tell him he has no clothes. One White House official, asked a question that included the word reality, swiftly answered that this government makes its own reality.

But what of the rest of us? Has the accumulation of stupidity simply overwhelmed us? Are we so fearful of the much-proclaimed terrorism threatening us, has it fatally dulled our critical faculties? Are we so locked into dutiful acceptance of each successive explanation of failure that we are rendered mute?

Is the great values revival myth now our surrogate for reason? As in the Orwellian state, we quickly forget even the immediate past. It was less than four years ago that we were told that tax cuts were advisable because budget surpluses weren't good for us, then that tax cuts were urgent to stimulate the economy, and now that they should be permanent.

Likewise that Iraq would be won and democracy installed once we reached Baghdad, then that it would happen once Saddam was caught, then when sovereignty was transferred, then when elections are held and now that it will take a few more years because, oops, the Iraqi security forces (read mercenaries) aren't up to the job.

We always recovered from our bouts of national craziness before. But rarely has the national march of folly generated a momentum of inattention, denial and forgetfulness as this one has. As the New Year begins, can we still embrace the collective vision for our children that we can do things better, more wisely and more humanely? Or will we be frozen in our national stupidity forever?

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