We live in an age of falsity, in which words have lost their meanings and concepts are reinvented as the situation demands. The United States is in a jobless recovery — even if that phrase largely disappeared from the American lexicon about 2004. Good news somehow must follow from a rising unemployment rate, which itself underrepresents the actual percentage of Americans long out of work.
At the same time, we are supposed to be relieved that we are in a contracting expansion, where fewer goods and services are proof of a resilient economy. In our debt-ridden revival, borrowing $1 trillion each year is evidence that we don’t have a spending problem.
If an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent and the economy shrinking by 0.01 percent a year — with a fifth consecutive $1 trillion annual deficit — are indicators of recovery, what would the old 5 percent unemployment, 4 percent growth in GDP, and $300 billion annual deficits mean? Or do the meaning of words and the nature of “facts” depend on who is in the White House at the time, or rather on whether the president is trying to make us more equal or to enrich the 1 percent?
At key points, whole controversies vanish without a trace. Suddenly, about four years ago, Guantanamo was no longer a gulag. Then it became no longer much of anything — in the manner that renditions, preventive detention, tribunals, and drone assassinations likewise disappeared from public discourse even as they became institutionalized.
We can scarcely remember now that the country tore itself apart over the waterboarding of three confessed terrorists, as it snoozes through its government blowing apart 2,500 suspected terrorists — and anyone caught in their general vicinity when the drone missiles hit. I think the logic must have been that a reactionary George Bush wished to waterboard a few confessed terrorists more just to bend the law than to derive any information that might save Americans — whereas Barack Obama actually reads the great ethical philosophers as he “reluctantly” signs off on targeted assassinations that have no doubt saved more people than he ordered killed. And we have to understand that if we were to object to such a kill tally, we would thereby be endangering the greater good to come at home over bothersome details abroad.
We have only a faint memory of promises of no more lobbyists in government, no more revolving doors, a new civility, a new transparency, and a new bipartisanship. Do we now even remember all those slogans that went up on the barnyard wall, and have since been painted over? When the president lectured us that the captains of Wall Street were not to get bonuses for snagging federal bailouts, he was not speaking of his future secretary of the Treasury, a progressive who does what must be done for the people.
An ambassador and three other Americans were murdered, ostensibly because of an anti-Muslim video whose producer still languishes in jail in California. The party line was that Libyan demonstrators, irate over that Internet production and out for a walk one evening, brought along their GPS-guided mortars and machine guns to spice up a demonstration at our consulate. Things can always get out of hand, when a right-wing chauvinist makes a hurtful video.
In this age of fakery, what is legitimate dissent? Is it Hillary Clinton attacking an administration in 2003 (“I’m sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and disagree with this administration, somehow you’re not patriotic. . . . We have the right to debate and disagree with any administration”) or Hillary Clinton nine years later, as an administration insider, turning on her interrogators in an effort to deflect inquiry (e.g., “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”)?
Al-Qaeda must be imploding, as its new profile from Libya to Mali is proof of its overstretched presence. The Muslim Brotherhood is largely secular; jihad is a personal spiritual journey; we ordered an overseas contingency operation to get bin Laden, who had been responsible for some man-caused disasters, and one of whose acolytes waged workplace violence that threatened our diversity programs. After Chuck Hagel forgot what he had said, what the president had said, and what his inquisitors had said, we knew he would be confirmed as defense secretary. All these are mere bothersome details that should not impede the general truth that the United States is now on the right side of history, at home and abroad.
Suddenly our troubles are blamed on those now known as the 1 percent, who make more than the new moral cutoff line of $250,000 per year. These public enemies are fat cats and they use corporate jets. Worse, they don’t build their own businesses, and they profit when it is no longer time to. They make money way beyond the point where they should have stopped, they don’t spread their wealth, and they don’t pay their fair share. Sometimes we would almost imagine that they worked for Citigroup, vacationed at Martha’s Vineyard, or used insiders to cash in on cattle speculations. Millionaires are rightly grouped with billionaires, who have 1,000 times the money, but they are not the same as thousandaires, who have one-1,000th the money.