How can I not start on a personal note today? Election night was a roller coaster. I had written a piece a day earlier in which I had expressed guarded optimism about the prospects of experiencing 2005 without George Bush. By Tuesday evening, with hopeful exit polls pouring in, I was pumped. Optimism surged. Phone calls with friends, exchanging bits of half-baked information, only added to the effect. My children arrived; the TV went on; friends began to drop by. I actually found a bottle of champagne, probably years old, and put it on ice. A moment of madness — and hope.
And then, worst of all, I realized I was experiencing a startling surge of relief, of happiness, of well-being. Whatever it was, it coursed through my body and made me realize how deeply George Bush and his cronies had gotten under my skin. And then, of course, slowly, ever so slowly, it began — with me saying again and again as one state after another turned red on various TV channels: That was expected; that was expected; that was expected.
This morning, a wonderful young friend, guessing my mood, e-mailed me to say that, even if I felt terrible, at least the election results would be good for Tomdispatch. He may be right. Four more years of Bush folly and horror, how perfect for an oppositional blog. But unfortunately there’s a problem, since Tomdispatch, as it happens, is just me, and I feel mighty drear today. If the news isn’t good for Tom Engelhardt, how can it be good for Tomdispatch?
Now, I look at my son and I imagine a draft. I look at him and I think of the young Americans who should never have been but are desperately in harm’s way in Iraq. I think of the Iraqis and try to wrap my brain around the next 100,000 of them who will die in the urban killing fields of that country, while the second Bush administration pursues its mad, murderous policies. I think about those northern glaciers and the polar ice, and try to imagine them gone in a globally warmed world. I think about being in the heart of the heart of a vast (possibly failing) empire and my heart sinks — and so, unfortunately, does Tomdispatch’s.
I think of the possibly dying Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has held on these extra years by the skin of her teeth, and I remember all too well what it meant in the years of my young manhood to search for a back-alley abortionist, and then I wonder what the Bush court of 2006 will say when the next set of Guantanamo-like cases reach it, or when other U.S. citizens, even perhaps some without names like Hamdi, find themselves jailed on the President’s whim. I think of the hideous and useless new weapons systems on which our money will now be squandered. I think of the administration’s race to militarize space, as if there weren’t enough advanced weapons on our own planet. I think about the neocons, hidden away these last months, who will undoubtedly return oh-so-eager to take a whack at Syria or Iran or North Korea or who knows where else.
I think about the very concept of governing checks and balances — inexorably slipping away these last decades — in a world in which the Bush administration controls the White House, Congress, and the courts, and in which the President now has his own political people running his own secret armed intelligence agency, the CIA. And I think about that greatest check and balance of all, the one between our government and a country which, in its relatively short history, has often enough been convulsed by spiritual awakenings and — yes, what other word can we use — crusades of every sort, now that the political and religious are increasingly combined in the body of a single man, our President.
In the meantime, a little over half of voting Americans — and there were a lot of voting Americans this time around — have now signed on to the rashest presidency in our history (short perhaps of that of Jefferson Davis); they have signed on to a disastrous crime of a war in Iraq, and a losing war at that which will only get worse; they have signed on to whatever dangerous schemes these schemers can come up with. They have signed on to their own impoverishment. This is the political version of the volunteer Army. Now, they have to live with it. Unfortunately, so do we.
My small guarantee. Much of this will change over the years to come. This world of ours already spins on a dime, economically, politically, militarily, environmentally. (Just wait, for instance, until the tactic being developed in Iraq, thanks to our President, the blowing up of oil pipelines, spreads beyond that country’s boundaries, as it certainly will, and then check out oil prices and the stock market.) But, to sound a small note of hope, as the world spins on a dime, so often do administrations. And you just never know when one of them will indeed implode. Take Richard Nixon, who sailed through a disastrous war in Vietnam and into office as second time in 1972 on a veritable landslide of votes, and then slide slowly into Watergate and disgrace. These will not be quiet years and, I suspect, they will not prove good ones for George Bush.
I noticed a tiny piece today. Not 24 hours after the election, the Hungarian government announced that, with one more three-month extension, it would, by the end of March, withdraw its 300 troops from our mighty coalition in Iraq. It’s a miniscule statement. Easy to miss. No one here is even likely to notice. But consider it a tiny, polite omen. The United States is obviously the 800-pound gorilla in any global “room,” but in the coming years much of the rest of the world will have little choice, distaste aside, but to do its best to figure out how to turn backs on, or work ways around, or cut out of the mix this country and its aggressive, treaty-eating, go-it-alone rulers — its “Moolas” (as George Bush called the Iranian mullahs in one of the presidential debates, as you might speak of “simoleons”).
I predict that, within a short space of time, we will find ourselves — if I can coin a phrase — an imperial pariah. The Bush administration demanded the right to go it alone. Now they may have no choice but to do so, and the “tribute” any empire can demand of its allies and subject nations may trickle into our economy far too slowly for anything but terrible times, just as the world’s oil economy begins to spring endless leaks.
There can be no comfort in predicting bad times, and only small comfort, given what will certainly lie ahead, in the impressive surge of activism that accompanied this election even if, matched from the other side, it could not win it. But we should all take modest heart, not in the pious babble of John Kerry in concession and George Bush in triumph talking about healing the wounds and bridging the splits in our polarized land. No, we should remember that they — the Republicans — had decades to organize themselves, and they’ve had power as well. We’ve had only the barest few years since George Bush conjured us up from quiescence. How can we really be surprised?
In some ways it’s already remarkable what’s occurred. The war the President started has chased him to the polls. He wasn’t a sitting war president, he was a fleeing one — even if, thanks to Karl Rove and others, a fleet enough one as well. Now, he’s elected but soon enough he’ll find out that he’s going to have to keep on running.
In the meantime for us, for me, there’s the hangover from an election — many elections — lost. Tomorrow, or in the days or weeks or months thereafter, an antiwar movement of growing power will undoubtedly come into being. Is there really a choice? In the meantime, there’s always the present to deal with.
Deep into election night, my wife wept in her sleep, and I arose in the morning with my jaw locked tight and the mood-hangover of a lifetime. But we’re a protective species. I got up, skipped the television news, took a desultory few-minute wander around the Internet, got dressed, grabbed my usual breakfast, went out and bought my hometown paper. I glanced at the headline, “Bush Holds Lead,” already knowing he had done more than that, and then I did the protective thing. I found “the Arts” section, triple folded the paper in that identifiably New York way at the crossword puzzle, pulled out a pen, and while walking down Broadway toward the subway, began to fill it in.
A small, ordinary, everyday pleasure. And it did calm me. Tonight, I’ll go home and watch the Knicks season opener. (I start all New York sports seasons — Knicks, Mets, Giants — with hope but always prepared to follow my team right to the end, right into fan hell.) Ordinary life, it’s what we all want most of the time. And we try always to hang onto it, most of the time, under the worst of circumstances, however mild or horrific they might be, in New York or Dayton or Baghdad or Beijing.
Here in New York City, we don’t exactly specialize in starry skies. And the other night when the moon was actually in eclipse and you could see it, miraculously, from our street corner (as my wife did), I’m embarrassed to say I was tired and caught it from the couch on TV instead. But I’m still capable of conjuring a sky-worth of the universe, the sort of sky that stretches from horizon to horizon and leaves you feeling awed, and oh so very small. Sometimes that can be a scary feeling, but sometimes — as now — it’s worth remembering anyway. Sometimes, on the nights when everything imaginable goes wrong, it’s worth reminding yourself that we’re just one species — the whole lot of us — on a tiny planet at the edge of a not so grandiose galaxy, one of only god knows how many. It’s worth remembering that it’s not, as they say, the end of the world.
Read more dispatches by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.