Magazine article The American Conservative

While You Were Sleeping

Magazine article The American Conservative

While You Were Sleeping

Article excerpt

While You Were Sleeping [Attention Deficit Democracy, James Bovard, Palgrave Macmillan, 291 pages]

IN NINE BOOKS and hundreds of articles, the libertarian muckraker James Bovard has returned repeatedly to three themes: government repression, government incompetence, and government deceit. All three go under the microscope in his newest tome, Attention Deficit Democracy, but the focus is on the deceit-and, even more, on the deceived. To Bovard, the public is so easily snookered that America's democratic rhetoric has become a fraud. The 'will of the people,'" he writes, "is often simply a measure of how many people fell for which lies, how many people were frightened by which advertisements, and which red herrings worked on which target audiences. Rather than the 'will of the people,' election results are often only a one-day snapshot of transient mass delusions."

That isn't a passing flash of cynicism. He says it on the first page of the book, and he never goes long without declaring something similar. "In the same way that some battered wives cling to their abusive husbands, the more debacles the government causes, the more some voters cling to rulers." "After the 2004 election campaign, the clearest mandate is for people to be sheep with the president as their shepherd-in-chief." "Many voters don't understand or don't care about freedom." Other books attacking Leviathan read like a call to arms. This one reads like the despairing cry of a man who has issued many calls to arms already and has lost hope that any angry army of patriots will ever show up.

So Attention Deficit Democracy does not just give us the stacks of facts about official misbehavior that are Bovard's stock in trade. It offers reason after reason that the American public neither knows nor cares what is being done in its name.

There is a long chapter, for example, about the ongoing torture scandal. It covers the extent of the abuses committed by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan-not just the humiliation documented in the Abu Ghraib photos, but electric shocks, anal rape with a chemical light, and violent beatings that sometimes left prisoners dead. It points out how few of the detainees at Abu Ghraib were actually involved with terrorism. It makes a strong case that the maltreatment proceeded from official U.S. policy and not, as some apologists insist, from the misbehavior of a few bad apples.

But those are only secondary arguments. The real point of the chapter isn't the torture; it's the fact that the administration got away with it. "The Bush administration," Bovard writes, "has shown what it takes for the U.S. government to get away with torture: almost nothing-or just some happy talk about the spread of democracy and freedom. ... The lack of reaction by most Americans is almost as damning as the torture itself."

Sometimes the book sets the policymakers aside and focuses entirely on the failures of the public, scolding Americans for surveys that show 85 percent of young adults unable to find Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel on a map, 72 percent of the country convinced that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved in the September 11 attacks," and a smaller but still depressing 15 percent guessing that "checks and balances" refer to "Negotiations between Congress and the President over a balanced federal budget." Bovard decries the decline of reading, the sad state of the schools, and the effectiveness of dumbed-down political rhetoric. The image he draws depicts not just an increasingly abusive state but a citizenry too swamped in "massive ignorance of public policy" to do anything about it.

Before I say any more about Bovard's portrait of the public, I should stress that I can't argue with his picture of the government. To be sure, I can quibble with a claim here and there. Bovard repeats, for example, the familiar canard that a 1999 UNICEF report on the Iraqi sanctions had estimated that they "had thus far killed half a million Iraqi children. …

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