09 October 2006

The Limits of Schadenfreude

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The story of now-former Congressman Mark Foley should have a limited range to it as soon as we remind ourselves of what allegedly happened here: a man clearly unable to control himself took advantage of his position and power to abuse kids. No, he didn’t touch them, and no, they aren’t young kids. Nonetheless, these were teenagers whose sense of the world is still developing, who had come to Washington to learn about the workings of our government, and for whom Foley was implicitly an authority figure and a role model. Foley abused that authority, to his and their collective damage.

The damage is ours, too, as Americans, because neither the scandal nor the fall-out serve us well. The Foley scandal comes on the heels of the GOP-staged Senate coup: protests against legislation proposed by President Bush to determine how the United States handles detainees, and whether the President has the authority he claims to wiretap within the U.S. without a warrant and in contravention of both the Constitution and prior law. The coup, however, was largely one of theatrics, for political – not ideological – reasons. Yes, Senators McCain, Graham, Warner, and Specter undoubtedly believe that President Bush was pushing for changes to our laws that would be damaging to this country. That is hardly new: Bush and Cheney have engaged in a lot of activities that many citizens consider seriously damaging to the country, expanding the “authority” of the Executive branch with little more than a peep out of the Congress.

Which means we have to ask ourselves: why a Congressional rebellion now? One possibility is that, with mid-term elections in sight at a time when Bush’s popularity is low, giving the public the impression of some Congressional independence could prove valuable. Another possibility is that in securing concessions from President Bush, this little Senate Republican clique may have attempted to make Bush look reasonable. Still more plausibly is an even more sinister notion: that by engaging in a high-profile public fight, other members of Congress are less likely to argue over the resulting “compromise” bills, for fear of damaging their party. (Then there is the ultimate, obvious answer: this visibility helps both McCain’s and Graham’s future careers in politics.) As usual in these situations, it is the American people who lose the most, as we enter further into gray areas that allow infringements on our basic civil rights and leave too many opportunities for the continued abuse of (executive) power.

The loyal opposition has not been much better. In the face of this issue, the Democrats have been cowards: here, as with other current events, they have been content to sit back and watch the Republican implosion from the sidelines. Democrats (and others) may be right in fueling the idea that House Speaker Dennis Hastert should resign, they may be right that this is another example of the Republicans’ inability to police their own (bad) behavior (especially when viewed in relation to such things as the Jack Abramoff scandal), or that the failure-to-act on information about Foley is similar to the failure of this GOP-lead Congress to restrain President Bush. Such political opportunism – watching while the other guy stumbles – in this case only further reveals the weaknesses within the Democratic Party: a failure of ideas on issues from the Iraq war to Social Security and health care, and a bizarre sense of the inevitability of their leading lady’s rise to power despite her national unelectibility.

And so, to schadenfreude. I am all in favor of enjoying the muck the Republicans appear to be in at this moment, tremendous trouble of their own making, and I certainly hope that it does negatively affect their Congressional elections on November 7th. But let’s enjoy this schadenfreude while reminding ourselves that all this GOP-lead (and Democrat-ignored) trouble has very real consequences. As we now know, Congressional pages have been verbally abused. As a result of the misguided Iraq war, thousands are dead – both American and Iraqi. Despite big words, the genocidal crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan continues (and with our military stretched thing, we have little muscle with which to interfere). Our government, under the leadership of Bush and Cheney, has created a society fixated on fear-driven irrelevancies, such as the Transportation Safety Administration’s insistence that one’s toiletries fit into a one-quart bag – as if the greater volume of the one gallon bag represents a more significant danger than the contents of the bags themselves. Our nation is off-track, and the Foley scandal is just one small part. Thus, taking pleasure in the pain of the GOP or the pathetic nature of the Democrats is also, to an unfortunate degree, taking pleasure in our own pain, too. And that is not schadenfreude, it’s just masochism.


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