How bad does it have to be?

I haven’t been doing much political posting here for a while, in the interest of trying to keep a user-experience design focus, for the most part.

But things are getting weirder and weirder in this land of ours. Or, at least, it’s becoming more clear how weird it’s been for quite a while.

I think many of us already knew that Cheney was creepy and secretive, and that he’d managed to cultivate an unusual amount of power for a VP. But I don’t know that many of us suspected how deep it really goes, or how dark.

Hertzberg gets to the point in the New Yorker:

More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime; and, of course, the bloody, nightmarish Iraq war itself, launched under false pretenses, conducted with stupefying incompetence, and escalated long after public support for it had evaporated, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, nearly half a trillion dollars, and the crippling of America’s armed forces, which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.

Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of very humane and decent things Cheney has done in the world. It’s perhaps not fair to judge someone solely on the negatives. But what a list of negatives … I suspect he’s hit a tipping point, pushing him from merely corrupt to, well, evil.

Am I being harsh? Is this rhetoric too strong?

The question then becomes: how bad does it have to be for the rhetoric to be necessary? How corrupt and destructive does a public leader need to be in order to justify demonic, polemical characterization — which is often necessary to jar people’s frames of reference enough to wake up and see this is not just another administration, that it’s not just garden-variety incompetence or greed?

So, really, that’s what this post is about. That question. I wonder, in history, how it felt for people living in countries that were doing just fine and seemed nice and moderate and sane, but that were on the brink of catastrophy? What did the signs look like?

It seems like, in all the narratives I hear from such situations, regular people kept making excuses for their leaders, or buying into some watered-down version of their leaders’ more extreme views. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.” “Oh, come on, this is (insert year here) in (insert country or region here) — that could never happen here!”

I remember news reports from Somalia in the early 90s, when reporters walked around in the ruins talking to people who had been poets, artists, teachers, doctors. There was talk of how modern and sane and moderate Somalia had been, how it had been one of the cultural (in a Western sense, I’m sure) jewels of Africa. Turned to blood and rubble.

People want to believe their leaders aren’t “as bad as all that.” Even people who don’t like their current leaders tend to have a sort of boundary that keeps them from thinking their leader could truly be a dictator in the making.

How bad does our administration have to be in order for us to say, out loud, these are criminals, and they must be stopped? And then, even if we do, what then?

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

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