The Eve of Destruction

George Bush is getting four more years to remake the world in his image. (Too bad for us, he already started.)

Environmental regulations will be framed as an attack on your retirement fund. Liability law, too. Corporate taxes, certainly. Maybe even, someday, child labor laws (that's the brazenness: Conservatives never shy from putting forth agendas that seemed unimaginable a year ago). People will presume it is in their interest for the companies in which they hold a temporary position to goose their stock no matter the long-term cost to the corporation, to our institutions, to society as a whole—no matter the long-term cost for all the other classes we belong to, as consumers, as workers, as citizens. All but a tiny group of big-ticket investors would benefit far more on a net basis, as they do now, from the maintenance of a strong welfare state. No matter: The propaganda may prove irresistible.

Breaking Social Security is central to passing Bush's "tax reforms," which will remove taxes on investment income and shift the tax burden to wage earners who can't afford to save any money—thereby creating newly outraged tax-hating constituencies bent on decimating government's legitimacy yet further. Absent unrelenting Democratic resistance, in fact, the next four years will establish the leverage to fulfill another of Grover Norquist's coinages: to get the federal government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

That's just how the Bushies do things: They plan. Every action is calculated to set in motion a cascade of consequences, to change the world. Take "No Child Left Behind," the education "reform" so brilliantly named you can't be against it without betraying some perverse desire to, well, leave children behind. It is a stone hustle, meant to lay the groundwork to destroy the entire American public school system.

Look at it this way. You've heard of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the one that produces those anguished news reports every four years about all the countries American schoolchildren lag behind in basic skills. But according to the TIMSS, if Minnesota were a country, it would have the second-best science scores and the seventh best in math. By No Child Left Behind's statutorily required benchmarks of "Adequate Yearly Progress," however, only 42 percent of Minnesota fourth-graders were proficient in math. And NCLB's test targets increase every year. So by one estimate, in 2014, some 80 percent of the schools in Minnesota's world-class education system will be rated "failures."

The benchmarks are insane, you see. If one group within a school out of the 37 categories NCLB measures "fails," the entire school does. Which means, according to the president of the American Educational Research Association, 12th-graders should be proficient in math in exactly 166 years.

Which serves the administration's purpose admirably. Failure, glorious failure: In Chicago, the city must now offer 200,000 students the chance to move out of "failed" schools—but there are only 500 spaces in which to place them elsewhere. So now the public school system must be destroyed.

It's only politics. It was the first George Bush who tried to initiate the privatization of American education but failed; in 2000, Michigan and California pro-voucher ballot initiatives lost by at least two to one. But that was back when 43 percent of American parents gave their children's schools a grade of "A" or "B." By 2004, that number was cut in half. "The tests mandated by NCLB had ripped back the curtain and exposed a major national problem," explains Phyllis Schlafly—even, apparently, in noble Minnesota.

The money has already begun changing hands. "Classroom methods long believed to work are tossed out in favor of those that a few selected groups have tested and approved," The Nation recently reported in a story buried—it's hard to get people to pay attention—on the magazine's website. Bush's multibillion-dollar reading grants, the weekly found, are doled out by "a panel that includes many people with ties to various commercial curriculums."

Public education "is an ossified government monopoly," explains conservative intellectual Chester Finn. So it is time to drown it in the bathtub.

The fantasy of total control has emerged as central to the Bush administration imagination. It comes out in the unguarded utterances: the aide who blurts to a New York Times reporter that he was just one more sad-sack member of the "reality-based community." ("That's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.") The president demanding during the Iraq debate to congressional leaders, "Look, I want your vote. I'm not going to debate it with you." A White House aide, to a congregation of Pentecostal ministers, the "current government is engaged in cultural, economic, and social struggle on every level."

It shows up in the tautological narcissism of Bush's National Security Strategy document, which actually uses the phrase "the best defense is a good offense," and artfully constructs a vision in which whatever the United States does to preserve its interest is always already "peaceful," even when it requires war, is always already "democratic," even when it requires installing governments by fiat, is always already selfless, even as it establishes only two categories of states, those who cooperate and those who do not, in a situation of crisis defined unilaterally and whose time horizon stretches to infinity.

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