Dear Lewis Lapham, Harper's editor,
Though a big fan of yours, I am writing to lodge a complaint about your August, 2005, "Notebook" piece, "Moving On." An otherwise stellar contribution is marred by the omission of Nixon's crime regarding the deaths of millions of southeast Asians--a crime, as you know, committed after his election in 1968 by continuing and expanding the criminal and stupid hostilities in Indochina. Given your usual sensitivity when dealing with such topics, mentioning his crime of killing "58,000 American soldiers in Indochina" without mentioning the even larger crime of killing millions of Indochinese seems out of character to this loyal reader.
Just after the point in your piece where this omission of the major aspect of Nixon's war crime should be, you claim that "thirty-one years later, the Bush Administration commits crimes of a much larger magnitude." This seems to be a rather difficult argument to maintain even with respect to the somewhat misleading statistic you give. Nixon, of course, had a good deal of responsibility for a large portion of the 58,000 American deaths, but Johnson and Kennedy should be given proportionate blame too. More to the point, it seems clear to me that Nixon's tens of thousands of American deaths are of "a much greater magnitude" than Bush's 1802 American deaths as of April 3rd, 2005.
With respect to the millions of non-American deaths you failed to mention--even considering Nixon's proportionate blame in this respect too--your argument that Bush's crimes are of a much larger magnitude seems to be way off, even "weightless," to use a word you use later in the piece to decry the usual nature of the messages of our media. The very lack of a historical context--that lack that scares you and me so much in our Forrest Gump country, in what you call "America's child mind"--is what this particular omission and the subsequent argument seem to suggest.
Obviously the recent ascendancy of the now-dominant Forrest Gump ideology we and the rest of the world suffer under has a lot to do with the ascendancy of our Forrest Gump president. Actually, he is more a Nixonian crook than a stupid-is-as-stupid-does bumpkin--and, as you so insightfully wrote not long ago, a very American and very dangerous form of huckster. Bush's war crimes, however, have yet to reach the near holocaust-scale of the U.S.-Vietnam war. What worries me most is the absence in our culture of any widespread consciousness of this particular BIG CRIME in our collective past--much like what I would hope many Germans grapple with. It is this very cultural disavowal your omission ironically reproduces, while your essay so cogently analyzes some of the cultural forces at work that produce the kind of media conditions that allow an ahistorical ideology of simplistic fantasies and disavowal to become dominant, as Goebbels and Rove certainly know.
Also, Bush's war crimes--certainly less lethal than those of Nixon, Johnson, or Kennedy--seem more the crime of a group than the crimes of Nixon, who seemed more the mob boss than just an unlikely figurehead. So Bush's crimes would be more the crimes of something more widespread than just his deeds, or the deeds of the current version of Republican White House mafia. I would argue that Americans have more shared responsibility for Iraq than Cambodia, but the latter is still larger in scale. I see a more direct criminal responsibility now as more widespread: a more vocal hard-right minority (still a minority as Miller's Ohio piece shows) making more public decisions, and more access to information. But this access competes with what might be a more naturalized and more resilient right-wing ideology founded on the coupled fantasies of American intrinsic goodness and American superiority.
While we--those who work to be part of "the reality-based community"--do the important work of subverting Bush and the destructive and dangerous cultural fantasies and disavowal on which his power feeds (all in the hope of working toward some kind of reality-based liberal democracy), I believe it is crucial that liberals and leftists not get blinded by our justified rage at the current administration, and maintain a reality-based historical context. I think we can do this work of subversion without reductive and simplistic claims like Bush is the worst president we have ever had. I would still reserve that title for Nixon because, again, I see his continuation of the war in Indochina as being a major part of America's most recent BIG CRIME, one that seems overwhelmingly larger than either Watergate or Iraq, and one to which I feel inescapably connected as an American, even though I was born a month before the mostly bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident. Pro-slavery and pro-expansion presidents of the past might also compete for this title since they would be complicitous in two other BIG CRIMES of our nation's brutal infancy. Certainly times are tough now, but we have surely seen worse. For example, American's aren't killing each other as much as before: no civil war, no labor massacres, uprisings seem less frequent, and a repeat of something like Kent State seems unlikely.
What our current Robber Barron president represents in a broader sense, I believe, should be our focus now, and it is something that should be put into historical context--that is, it should be subverted without losing sight of the hard-core corruption and brutality that is so much a part of American history. As you know, Bush, his mafia-like administration, and the cultural ideology of right-wing fantasies-disavowal they represent are more of a continuation of our history than an anomaly.