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An Era Worthy of Orwell

Deficits help the economy. Snooping preserves freedom. Is doublespeak our new official language?

March 16, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

Why wait seven more years? With calamitous events fishtailing who knows where, let's pause and regain our bearings with an early look back at those strange times that opened the new millennium -- that era we have been calling the decade of the "Ohs."

After years of decrying the long reach of "judicial activism," conservatives at last commanded a majority on the Supreme Court and promptly appointed a new president of the United States. The president, however, gave credit to a higher authority. He explained to friends he had been "called" by God to lead.

In the name of saving the environment and protecting American values from corporate control, Ralph Nader and the Green Party siphoned off enough votes to turn both government and the environment over to corporate control.

Faced with Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Tyco, et al., Republicans denied ever saying: "If only government was run as efficiently as business."

George W. Bush clarified himself. When he said the U.S. government should not meddle in matters of nation-building, he referred only to the domestic front. Abroad, he redefined America's mission as world-building. To that end, the U.S. field-tested the largest conventional bomb ever seen.

After many years on the margins of society, the protest movement came to life and filled the streets with angry antiwar demonstrators. The movement was so effective at swaying public opinion that the president was forced to hasten his plans to invade Iraq.

Fed up with abuses that clog up courts, Congress cracked down and made it far more difficult for workers to escape their debts by declaring bankruptcy. This freed courtroom space for corporations to file for Chapter 11 and wriggle out of their obligations for such things as pensions.

In a capstone to the government investigation of Wall Street crooks, the big brokerage houses agreed to pay a collective $1.4-billion fine. Prosecutors, however, spared the guilty parties the embarrassment of having to admit they did anything wrong. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, upheld a sentence of life in prison for a man who shoplifted nine videotapes in California.

In order to preserve fundamental liberties, the Bush administration instituted a global policy of incarceration without representation. It also sought financing for a new supercomputer to keep track of the movements, conversations, e-mails, purchases and proclivities of every person in the United States. Bookstores were told they had to divulge the reading habits of their customers to federal authorities.

To restrain the heavy hand of runaway government, the president proposed to give people back their taxes. In endorsing the concept, the Wall Street Journal described the federal deficit as another way to encourage personal savings.

In the shocking aftermath of Sept. 11, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the nation would stop at nothing to root out terrorists. Ashcroft subsequently denied FBI agents permission to examine Justice Department records of people who bought guns.

Ashcroft ordered the FBI to drop lesser priorities and focus on real threats to the public. Agents immediately raided a co-op where AIDS sufferers were smoking pot under sanction of state law and with approval of local police. The Department of Justice also announced it would prosecute doctors in Oregon who followed a voter-approved initiative and assisted terminally ill patients in ending their lives.

Seeking to prevent fires, the president asked for $400 million in subsidies to pay loggers to cut forests down.

Democrat Al Gore geared up to run for president again, saying he wouldn't make the same mistake and spend the campaign waffling. He then waffled, and decided not to run. Dick Gephardt, the congressman who led House Democrats to defeat in 2002, announced he was the man to lead Democrats in the 2004 presidential election. Tom Daschle, who led Democrats to defeat in the Senate, said he could do more for the cause by staying in Congress.

Gasoline prices reached record levels; consumer confidence plummeted for most products except gas masks; millions of Americans lost their health insurance. Congress responded to the widening crises by rewriting the menu in the House cafeteria. As the U.S. census reported that America was more diverse than ever, the Republican leader of the Senate waxed nostalgic, saying Americans should have voted for segregationists in 1948. Not to be outdone, a Democrat in the House said Jews were behind the push for war against Iraq.

Meantime, the State Department earmarked $1 billion to tell citizens abroad about the virtues of openness in the United States.

Trendsetters declared an end to the age of irony.

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