The United States is a nation of stories and myths. As Hunter S. Thompson once said:
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.
Out of all the various types of tales that it weaves for itself, America loves perhaps above all others a good comeback story. And for entirely understandable reasons. That image of revival—of a hero once mighty and proud who is brought low, defeated, and who eventually overcomes adversity in order to triumph again— is a powerful one indeed. The redemption arc is one of the most compelling ones in all of fiction. Staring at the ashes just as the embers begin to glow and resemble the pattern of feathers can be one hell of a buzz.
In books and movies, the redemption narrative is often all about some physical or emotional adversity that the hero has to face. You can map this onto real life, where the hero analogue is a figure in the public eye—anyone from an actor to a sports star to a politician—and the adversity is a knock to their reputation that they must overcome in order to get back into the public’s good graces. That road to reputational redemption can be messy. Often it needs to be. Dan Harmon’s past abusive bullshit, as called out by Megan Ganz for example, does not disappear simply because he acknowledges it. It may well be the beginning of Harmon’s path to a better place, but that path won’t—and shouldn’t be—easy. Harmon has a hell of a lot to prove and to make up for. Then you have someone like serial abuser Charlie Rose, who has been making overtures recently at hosting a show in which he interviews other high-profile men taken down by the #MeToo movement such as Matt Lauer. Quite transparently a cynical effort by these men at reclaiming some control of the narrative around them, as well as reframing it as one of their redemption, this news was met with an appropriate and deserved spectrum of hostility.
Which brings us to this unbelievable display of fuckery courtesy of The Washington Post:
My favourite part of that piece is this:
In receiving the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished International Leadership Award for his work fight HIV/AIDS through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) initiative in Africa, he explained, “In 2003, we decided that the greatest, wealthiest nation ever had a moral responsibility to intervene… . We recognized, too, that the United States had a national security imperative to act. Societies mired in disease breed hopelessness and despair, leaving those forgotten by wealthy nations susceptible to recruitment by radical extremists.”
Notice what words did not appear in Bush’s remarks: “winning,” “losing,” “me,” “ripped off.” Bush, like every other modern president save the current one, understood the aim to use America’s resource to make the world safer and freer, which in turn will accrue to our benefit. (PEPFAR, Bush explained, “It’s the best kind of diplomacy there is. It’s soft power at its most beautiful.”)
Let’s just leave that ‘greatest nation ever’ stuff alone for now because there’s only so many hours in the day, and instead let’s focus on the larger picture here. The article mentions 2003 as the year that Bush received an award for his work combating HIV/AIDS. That is, of course, the year that also happens to be forever burned into history thanks to the beginning of another, different type of intervention.
They say that a week is a long time in politics. Naturally that effect is more pronounced than it’s ever been thanks to the fast-moving, hyper-info-saturated age in which we find ourselves. We move on from one hot topic to the next with dizzying alacrity these days. Our perspectives are constantly being realigned and our focus redirected. And sometimes that’s admittedly appropriate (the sooner we all forget about Logan Paul entirely the better). But you know what?
When it comes to George W. Bush, you can get the fuck outta here right now with that image rehabilitation bullshit.
How dare you try making him a part of some comeback story? These are multiple gold medals-worthy levels of moral and mental gymnastics we’re talking about here. For a start: You have to have been good in the first place for a comeback story to work! Painting the man who is responsible for what is probably the supreme crime of our time as some sort of enlightened internationalist figure, some sort of wise and measured statesman, just to get a few more shots in at Donald Trump? You can go whistle with that kind of playground rhetoric. It cheapens history. It dropkicks political discourse from the quite dire level it’s already at to an even more infantilised place. And we all suffer for it.
I mean, I get it: It’s understandable, in a way. As I’ve written before:
Donald Trump makes critical thinking difficult. He is so egregious in his awfulness, the repugnant stench rising from him so goddamn pungent and dizzying, that he makes (almost) everyone around him look relatively acceptable by comparison. Especially when they voice some opposition to him.
We have such a visceral, emotional reaction to Donald Trump’s awfulness, that anything seems good by comparison. Nostalgia, already a sinister beast, works overdrive in its whitewashing of the past when the present is such a goddamn shitshow. We crave that kind of release. But it’s the framing of the story that, as always, determines everything. If you were to say, for example, ‘Look! Donald Trump is so awful that even this awful guy that we had once before looks good in comparison!’ then that would be a different matter entirely to ‘Donald Trump suffers by comparison to the guy we had before.’ Leaving off that crucial bit of context is a form of intellectual dishonesty, and a concealment of truth that has real world repercussions. That’s how you end up with George W. Bush, once a disdained and scorned figure, chatting it up on a sofa with Ellen Degeneres, all happy smiles and frothy nonsense. That’s how, less than a decade after leaving office, dominant images of the man become warm, humanising ones featuring embraces with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. That’s how you allow the Overton Window to creep ever rightwards.
That’s how, in short, you get twattery like this published in a major ‘liberal’ newspaper:
But that kind of shift in discourse doesn’t come without consequence. And forcing a redemption arc on George W. Bush’s story has a number of those. The perversion of history is one. Spitting on the victims of his legacy is another.
‘George W. Bush reminds us how decent leaders really sound.’
Fuck outta here with that shit.
You know what George W. Bush really reminds us of?
It reminds us of the countless phone calls that didn’t happen pre-9/11, as Bush relaxed on his ranch in Texas, his indolence and inaction a crucial part of the failure of the intelligence apparatus of the United States in preventing the tragic loss of innocent lives in New York.
It reminds us of the unheard screams of the victims of the worldwide torture regime that he implemented, their cries echoing in the basements of black sites around the world, families torn asunder and lives ruined in sadistic ways.
It reminds us of the trampling of civil rights that was his administration’s implementation of a vast, secret, and illegal surveillance apparatus.
It reminds us of his lacklustre and racist reaction to the destruction and drowning that was visited upon a major American city.
It reminds us of the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CAARP), a program that blacklisted people from certain Muslim-majority countries from becoming citizens, residents, or otherwise immigrating to the United States.
It reminds us of his administration’s disdain for climate change action; its gutting of regulation designed to combat it; its withdrawal from climate treaties; its appointment of energy industry insiders to environmental posts; its slavishly preferential treatment of lobbyists.
It reminds us of his cosy relationship with Wall Street and his part in the lead-up to the financial crisis that would shake the world and bring about a lost decade of ruin for millions of people around the world.
It reminds us of the silence of between 180,000 and 1 million dead Iraqis, their number not deemed worth counting by the U.S. Army, their lives extinguished for no other reason than having had the misfortune of being born Iraqis at the time when Bush and his cohort of hawks decided to destroy their nation in order to plunder its resources to the tune of billions and to destabilise the region in furtherance of geopolitical goals.
You want a story of redemption? Go read The Count of Monte Cristo.