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speaking ill of the dead

the passing of george h. w. bush last week has occasioned a lot of discussion about legacy and decorum. this usually attends the passing of influential people, politicians in particular, and the argument is something like this:

position one :: a person who influenced our lives and our world has passed and out of respect we should remember the good and remarkable things that he [less often she, at least for now] accomplished. now is not the time to revisit controversies.

position two :: not everyone is hitler, but that doesn't make them saints, either. a person has died and while we don't want to cause undue pain to their family, they had a long, healthy life and that is more than can be said for many of the people touched by their influence. however sympathetic they may have looked later in life, we need to say that the things that they did we horrible.

personally, i have some sympathy for both positions when it comes to a figure like bush41. given my political leanings, it's unsurprising that i find many of his actions fall on the scale of troubling to repulsive. on the other hand, there are things that he did that i would never expect of a republican president and not just because he was better than the republicans that followed him.

the good parts are ones that people like me often missed but which are being discussed a great deal now: canadian scientists and politicians had been pushing against a wall to try to get the united states to cooperate on capping emissions that caused acid rain. bush opened the door wide and signed a historic update to the clean air act that lowered harmful emissions by 40%. he took on the nra through a partial ban of semiautomatic weapons and returned his lifetime membership when the group opposed him. while still staunchly pro-israel, he was more moderate than many others to occupy that office and encouraged israel to incorporate palestinians into the political process and into parliament. [he later became more conservative in this regard, cutting ties with the palestinian liberation organization.] the americans with disabilities act was passed on his watch.

he deserves credit for those things especially because they were stands against many in his own party and not necessarily in keeping with the times. environmental regulation was a political non-starter and criticized as a burden on business. support for gun reform was lower then than it is today. palestinians were still seen largely as terrorists. republicans do not support greater government regulation, even when it protects the vulnerable, as a general rule.

the bad parts, though, are pretty significant and don't just relate to his time as president. he spent a year at the head of the central intelligence agency in the wake of shocking disclosures of their malfeasance at home and abroad. much of his time there was spent fighting to keep congress from taking action against either the agency or its employees and protecting many of those employees from prosecution. later, as president, he used his power to pardon them. these are people who were involved in domestic spying and who helped install and prop up governments they knew were committing atrocities. the pardons also protected him from having to give testimony on the iran-contra affair. republicans now excoriate the government and people of iran, blithely ignoring the fact that their party illegally armed them in the eighties.

that didn't stop him from committing violence against iranians, though: when the american military shot down an iranian passenger jet, killing hundreds of civilians, he angrily defended the action, insisting he would never apologize for america. [this defence was later echoed by republicans who termed barack obama's more moderate stance his "apology tour".]

his open homophobia and refusal to act in the face of the aids epidemic until the pressure against his inertia meant that thousands of americans died of the disease.

the "revolving door prison" ad that he ran against his 1988 opponent michael dukakis is widely credited with kickstarting the age of the brazen attack ad. there is a line that dates from that ad to the gross behaviour of donald trump. bush is responsible for lowering the level of political discourse and for accelerating its decline like no other.

and speaking of the decline of civil discourse, that ad continued and amplified the scapegoating of blacks for violent crime in america. bush41 was a champion of the disastrous "war on drugs" that saw thousands of african-americans imprisoned, often for relatively minor offences, while whites often walked free. the ad's subtext was clearly that if americans elected dukakis, they were all going to be raped and murdered by black men. it was exactly the sort of dog whistle that he and his family have criticized trump for using.

he steadfastly refused to condemn the apartheid government of south africa, despite the fact that their racist policies were well known. in fact, he sent money to a movement aligned with them who were fighting a civil war against the left-leaning government of angola.

donald trump likes to pin the troubles caused by nafta on bill clinton but clinton only signed it. bush was an architect. nafta can be debated but there is no getting around the fact that it gutted the american rust belt, which has never recovered.

he hypocritically turned the might of the american military against manuel noriega, a dictator whose regime his cia previously backed, acting as if he were the greatest threat to democracy in the world. noriega wasn't even the greatest threat to democracy in central america. the interference in panama started in the reagan administration but bush was extremely involved in that as well, more than most vice presidents would have been.

but the thing that bush41 will be remembered for the most is iraq. although his son was the bush who jumped in to destroy the hussein regime more than a decade later, it was the father who moved on them first. iraq invading the tiny emirate of kuwait in 1990, under the pretext that it was a rebellious province that should have been part of iraq. the united states declared that they would defend democracy in kuwait and started a ridiculously one-sided war in 1991. both sides were full of the worst kind of shit: both wanted to control kuwait's precious oil reserves and the iraqis were further angered by kuwait's refusal to forgive the debt iraq owed them as a result of their eight-year war with iran.

despite the fact that the gulf war, as it was called, was successful and popular [in a country still smarting from defeat in vietnam], it ultimately lead to the implosion of much of the middle east with no end to the carnage in site nearly thirty years later. hundreds of thousands of iraqis have died in the violence and deprivation that has resulted from wars and sanctions and have received little sympathy from anyone in the bush family or their collaborators. over a million have been displaced and are unlikely to ever return home.

there was at least a fair chance that saddam hussein's regime would have been toppled and the country thrown into chaos from within. it was not a "natural" country; it was one designed by committee in europe. but the presence of american soldiers and arms made the situation far worse and poisoned the view of america in the minds of the arab world, possibly forever.

i'd say that that tips the scales pretty substantially to the negative, especially when you consider that his administration only lasted four years. [sort of. most of the people around bush41 reappeared in senior positions with bush43. -ed.] but my point isn't to make a final historical judgment. i'm biased. my point is that all of these things need to be discussed. they need to be discussed in an honest and direct manner, without sugar-coating or cautious omissions out of "respect for the dead".

bush41's legacy, from his pardons to his attack ads to his feckless war-mongering, is one marked by a total lack of any sense of responsibility. and refusing to criticize his record perpetuates that. he is responsible for a humanitarian disaster in iraq and he is responsible for massive reductions in toxic emissions. almost every leader's record will be like that and we shouldn't be intimidated into glossing over the bad on the pretence that it's impolite. george h. w. bush is dead. he will be discussed less and less over time, so if there isn't serious discussion of his accomplishments and failings now, chances are that there never will be.

that's not to say that the discussion has to be vicious. bush41 was a human being. his family are human beings. throwing around judgments that he was evil before his body is in the ground is hurtful but more importantly, it damages the argument. a refusal to acknowledge that bush did anything helpful or progressive is ahistorical. and it ignores some questions that really should be asked:

bush41 valued the environment. he wanted to protect vulnerable groups like the disabled. while it wasn't the case all the time, he showed that he wasn't afraid to stare down powerful lobbies when he felt they were wrong. although it was late and under enormous public pressure, he did eventually act to protect victims of aids and to stop the escalation of the epidemic. how could a man with his level of intelligence and moral fibre have been so callously indifferent to the suffering of people in other parts of the world?

given that he showed he was more than capable of standing up to lobbyists, why did he not do so when negotiating nafta? it's not like the consequences for america were a surprise when they started to happen. but he chose to protect the needs of big business over those of the people who elected him.

he was more than capable of reaching across the aisle to work with democrats and even preferred doing so to working with his own party at times. that didn't mean that there was no discord. he felt hamstrung by the democratic congress as much as anyone. but he wasn't intransigent. so how did he convince himself that winning at any cost, by grossly distorting the truth and turning that into a slick media campaign, was acceptable? sure, we all want to win, but at what point should a man like him have stopped? and why didn't he at least apologize for the ad with its racist theme later on? there was nothing to lose once he was out of office.

talking about these things is what allows us to grasp how people function as politicians and how they end up making the decisions they do. it gives us insight into what characteristics predispose someone to violence against foreign countries, inaction on important issues, or the ability to work with people they don't agree with. we need this discussion to gain a deep understanding of history. we need it to evaluate future candidates for president or any political office. we need it to ward off the complacency that comes from having a president of the united states who is so obvious about everything. subtlety matters. subtlety has dominated political life. and subtlety makes for complicated history.

george h. w. bush was the man and the president that he was. he didn't apologize for that and seemed generally comfortable with his decisions. talking about all that that encompassed isn't disrespectful, it's quite the opposite. he was proud of much of what he did as president, vice president and head of the cia. why should we be cherry-picking what accomplishments we continue to mention? how does that help anything?

it helps nothing. it's antithetical to truth. and ultimately, our discomfort in discussing the difficult parts of bush41's legacy says a lot more about how he and others like him have conditioned us to avoid responsibility for our past. 

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