March 16, 2007

Et tu, Barbara?

Quico says: So Barb Walters' drooling interview with Chávez pretty much blows a hole in my earlier, only-cranks-take- Chávez-seriously-in- the-US argument.

Deep, deep sigh.

Frankly, I find it all confusing and upsetting. Gringo liberals have no trouble at all seeing George W. Bush's overheated demonization of "terrorists" for what it is: an ideological alibi designed to rally his supporters' unquestioning loyalty, a crass ploy that allows him to delegitimize his critics in his drive to dispense with procedural niceties like, y'know, habeas corpus and the right to a public trial.

This mechanism is perfectly clear to y'all when Bush does it. The paradox is that you draw a blank when Chávez makes the exact same move.

Please get it through your heads: Chávez's rabid condemnations of Bush are not about Bush at all. What Chávez is doing is building up a credible foreign straw man to help him delegitimize dissent and consolidate autocratic control over society. That's what's at stake here.

For Chávez, demonizing Bush is just the first step in a strategy to tar all domestic dissidents as unpatriotic, disloyal, basically treasonous. It's precisely the same thing Cheney does when he says his critics are "emboldening the enemy," or "undermining the troops," or whatever the latest phrasing on those GOP talking point is.

Chavista bushwhackery works in exactly the same way. More than anyone, US liberals should be wise to this bait-and-switch.

If anything, Chávez's brand of manipulation is even more cynical: however much Bush hypes up the terrorist threat for political purposes, in the wake of 9/11 it's clear that Islamic radicals really do pose a threat to the US. But the threat Chávez alleges is entirely bogus: there's simply no chance of a US invasion of Venezuela.

In fact, this delegitimation-by-association jujitsu does far more harm to civil liberties in Venezuela than in the US, because our state institutions are far more politicized than yours. Chávez already controls every putatively independent branch of the state. Without independent courts to check his power, without career prosecutors able to scrutinize his moves, without an autonomous ombudsman or comptroller, Chávez's leeway to deny our most basic civil rights is already much, much wider than Bush's.

The resulting climate of intimidation and enforced ideological conformity would send your average US liberal scurrying for Canada.

Just the other week, to take just one example, Chávez "warned" that the CIA is trying to infiltrate his newly created Community Councils. These are neighborhood committees that have been allocated billions of dollars, bodies Chávez hopes will eventually take over the functions now vested in directly elected mayors and state governors.

Now, try to think through what happens when Chávez says the CIA is trying to infiltrate them. Suddenly, anyone at the local council with a dissenting opinion becomes suspect of treason. Just by raising the prospect of CIA meddling in the Community Councils, Chavez manages to ensure complete ideological docility from them. It's a strategy chavistas have used again and again, to delegitimize everything from opposition presidential bids to bus drivers' strikes.

My point is that Chávez's whole anti-Bush shtick should be understood for what it is: a mechanism of social control. It's not about you, it's about us.

Addendum: A couple of readers write in to note that, as one put it,
Barbara Walters is like that with *everybody*. She could have Osama Bin Laden on her show and find something nice to say about him. Her show is where disgraced celebrities go for their first public reappearances since they know they'll get softballs and sympathetic glances all night. I wouldn't take her as the pulse of the mainstream media, hard-hitting-question-wise.