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The State Of Our Cynicism

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By George F. Will
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group, are 'ready' for democracy -- as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress."

-- George W. Bush

Nov. 6, 2003

"The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure."

-- George W. Bush

State of the Union, 2005

"The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations."

-- Edmund Burke

In State of the Union addresses, the childish events in our civic calendar, presidents list numerous proposals pursuant to the supposed presidential duty to be omnipresent and omniprovident in our lives. Every 48 seconds or so -- last year's address was interrupted by applause 66 times in 53 minutes -- legislators of the president's party erupt with approval, while those of the other party use stolidity to signal disappointment. But if you are a glutton for punishment and tune in tonight, you will at least not hear a reprise of the passage cited above from last year's address.

The success of the terrorist organization Hamas in the Palestinian elections is but the latest proof of what happens when the forms of democracy are severed from what the president, with a cosmopolitan shrug, dismissively called "our own Western standards of progress." Now comes wishful thinking, and then cynicism.

Regarding the latter, the watery materialism of much thinking -- the theory that social structures and economic incentives trump ideas as shapers of behavior -- will interpret the Hamas victory in the benign light of the Garbage Collection Theory of History. On Sunday, on ABC's "This Week," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said: "My hope is that as a consequence of now being responsible for electricity and picking up garbage and basic services to the Palestinian people, that they recognize it's time to moderate their stance." Perhaps. But their stance -- Israel must die -- is, they say, the will of God, who has not authorized moderation in the name of sanitation.

Regarding cynicism, Jimmy Carter, an even worse ex-president than he was a president, responded to the Hamas victory by quickly suggesting a way to evade the U.S. law against providing funds to terrorists. He suggested that the executive branch of the U.S. government could launder money destined for Hamas, passing it through the United Nations. This suggestion has a certain piquancy, coming as it does from someone who was elected president as a national penance for President Nixon's lawlessness, and coming as it does after the oil-for-food program in Iraq, which demonstrated the United Nations' financial aptitude.

Four days after Hamas provided evidence that the United States cannot anticipate, let alone control, events, the New York Times inadvertently suggested this thought: If the Times and the Bush administration each had sufficient self-awareness, they might be mutually mortified by recognizing their similar mentalities regarding America's power.

On the front page of Sunday's Times there began a 7,800-word story on Haiti's descent, not for the first time, into murderous anarchy. The story about the progress of nation-building and democracy-planting in our hemisphere carried a symptomatic headline: "Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos." The story's thesis was intimated by its subtitle: "Democracy Undone." The thesis was that if U.S. diplomacy had been more deft and single-minded, the Times might not now be reporting this about Haiti:

"Today, the capital, Port-au-Prince, is virtually paralyzed by kidnappings, spreading panic among rich and poor alike. Corrupt police officers in uniform have assassinated people on the streets in the light of day. The chaos is so extreme and the interim government so dysfunctional that voting to elect a new one has already been delayed four times."

Tonight, on the 1,050th day of the Iraq war (the 912th day of American participation in World War II was D-Day), the nation needs an adult hour, including a measured meditation on overreaching, from the Middle East to Medicare's prescription drug entitlement. But in State of the Union addresses, rarely is heard a discouraging word.

The Democrats have already been heard from. In their "pre-buttal" to the State of the Union, they promised, among much else, that, according to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, if they come to power, "every American will have affordable access to broadband within five years."

Which tells you something about the state of the Union.

georgewill@washpost.com


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