Short memories

A black-and-white image of a soldier loading or readying to fire a cannon, with another soldier behind him, against red curtains, with Bush 'singing' underneath at a lectern with the presidential seal on it.One of the signs that you’re getting older is that you start to become aware that there are adults who weren’t even born when you became an adult, or at least don’t remember the things you remember strongly from your formative years; adults who don’t remember the music which defined your coming of age, for example. I knew I was leaving young adulthood behind when I realised that some of my young adult friends weren’t born when albums like Parklife, Automatic for the People or the less-well-known (but memorable to me) Mirror Blue or Swamp Ophelia came out (both 1994). I’ve already mentioned on here that today’s young voters, and even more so those who will be first-time voters in 2020, do not remember when Tony Blair came to power and John Major was defeated, which felt like a huge turning point in not only British politics but the national atmosphere. However, it’s more disturbing that people seem to have forgotten the politics of just 10-15 years ago, which should surely be fresher in people’s memory. I’m talking about the new fashion for praising George W Bush, who apparently is starting to look noble and statesmanlike compared to the current president. And he wasn’t. (More: Afropunk.)

Just before the 2015 election, when John Major, who is currently being admired for his speech against “hard Brexit” at the British Chambers of Commerce this week, intervened to scare everyone into voting Tory just in case Labour ends up in a coalition with the SNP, I made a post here to remind everyone what Major’s second term in office was like. It was miserable, characterised by corruption scandals, shambolic morality campaigns, hospital closures and bitter disputes over Europe but, worst of all, the government’s joining the rest of Europe in sitting on their hands while a genocide raged on in Bosnia. Nick Cohen wrote in one of his books that Major, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind and the other pro-Europe Tories of that era might be thought of as “kindly liberal Tories” but for their behaviour both in regard to intervention but also towards Bosnian refugees (who were not allowed to come here, explicitly to add pressure to the besieged Bosnian government to agree to a settlement), but it was actually very consistent with the sheer mean-spiritedness of his government. I presume John Major either thought Brexit was a price worth paying or couldn’t imagine the vote not going his way.

In the last couple of weeks (and to a lesser extent since Trump won the Republican nomination), it has become fashionable to compare George W Bush favourably with Trump. Even Bernie Sanders, the left-wing candidate for the Democratic nomination, said in a tweet:

This past week Bush jr has been praised for making a remark defending the mainstream media, which Trump has denounced repeatedly as a source of “fake news”, a term he seems to have got hooked on using as it it just meant lies; Bush has said that the media was needed to keep people like him on their toes. Fair enough. Others have observed (such as in this Twitter thread; the link is to the end) that he did not directly encourage hate attacks and praised Islam as a “religion of peace” after 9/11, clearly distinguishing ordinary Muslims from terrorists, while Trump has made no such distinction (and used similar broad smears against Mexicans).

The problem is that the hate against Muslims always bubbled under the surface during his time in office. The first four years I had this blog, I was using it a lot to rebut hate stories emanating from the American blogosphere, which exploded in the couple of years after 9/11 as “citizen journalism” was touted as the Next Big Thing, attacking the old mainstream media in league with the new, openly-biased right-wing networks, notably Fox News. Islamophobic neo-conservative columnists peddling scare stories about Muslims or the scariest angle they could find on any story involving Muslims, often light on facts, got airtime on both Fox and the mainstream networks very regularly. Ideas such as that Islam was a political ideology rather than a religion and that Muslims were encouraged by their religion to lie if it benefits them or Islam (taqiyya) were a staple of right-wing discourse and the ‘taqiyya’ trope was even used as evidence in court. Attempts by Muslims to assert their rights were condemned as threats; any concession to Muslim demands, even when the Muslims were paying customers, were denounced as losses for “civilisation” or examples of “dhimmitude” both on blogs and in right-wing news outlets.

I subscribed to the CAIR mailing list at that time and saw regular stories not only of hate crimes against people who looked like Muslims (some of whom, as is the case today, were not) but also of official and job discrimination, such as Muslim truck drivers being refused hazardous materials licences on the basis of groundless suspicion. There were widespread legal injustices and official harassment; Muslims arrested on flimsy grounds (such as for taking a picture of a scene that included a ‘sensitive’ public building), Muslims deported who had lived in the country for decades and whose children were American, Muslims prosecuted (and jailed) for paintball competitions that were interpreted as jihad training, Muslims subjected to wire-tapping, mosques infiltrated by spies and Muslims jailed on the basis of entrapment. All this had Bush’s sanction. Bush also introduced the “registration” scheme, by which immigrants from a number of mostly Muslim countries were required to register with the state; this is the structure Trump’s team have spoken of using for their “Muslim register”.

And, of course, there were two destructive wars that were waged with no thought to how to carry them through; only anger at 9/11 and a desire on the part of the American public to kill Muslims or Arabs. The long-term upshot of one of those wars is ISIS; true, its territory may be shrinking in Iraq itself, but its presence remains in Libya, the Sinai and Syria and its affiliates have waged terrorist campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like Trump, he and Dick Cheney surrounded themselves with extremists, in their case men like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld who had been referred to as “the crazies” in previous administrations. So, yes, Bush was a politician (which Trump was not, before this year) and had an air of professionalism and ‘class’ about him which Trump does not. But let’s make no mistake: the signs of hostile populism, or fascism, began to show during Bush’s time in office and the attitudes and rhetoric of that era laid the ground for Trump and Trumpism.

Image: A still from the animation Doctor Bushlove by Eric Blumrich. The archive of his website Bushflash, closed in 2008 after Obama’s inauguration, can be found here.

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  • M Risbrook

    You know that you are getting old when you start talking about how things used to be within your own lifetime.

    I’m increasingly finding graduate software developers who have no experience of using a command line. A 21 year old was born when Windows 95 came out so they probably don’t have any memories of DOS or 8 and 16 bit computers which required users to have to type something at a command line to make it do something. Everything to them is point and click with a mouse or touch a touchscreen. It’s a whole change in mindset to understand that good programmers have to be proficient at using command lines.

    From a political angle, a whole generation has now grown up with no real-life knowledge of the communist Soviet Union or old Labour. Free market capitalism is all that they have known both in terms of governments and opposition until Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader of Labour. I’m wondering if Socialists have latched onto this fact when it comes to selling themselves to younger people or whether they have their heads in the sand and do not understand that young people do not know and have not seen certain things that the older generation is familiar with from their youthful days.

  • M Risbrook

    This article sheds some light on what is British culture. Several years ago Riaz wrote a short article claiming that there is not one but two British cultures: traditional culture and popular culture.

    Traditional culture changes very slowly over time and the changes are barely perceptible from one generation to the next. Popular culture changes rapidly. What is popular culture of 2017 is different from the popular culture of 2007 and will also be different from the popular culture of 2027.

    I enjoyed Riaz’s museum of youth from the early 1990s with it’s strapline “The last of the pre-internet pre-mobile phone generation”. It contained various items that teenagers from that era would have used ranging from game consoles and stereos to school textbooks and pictures of bygone food and drink. Even 20 somethings viewed it with a sense of mysticism. It’s currently in storage.