A Symbol is Not a Cymbal

It’s an understandable confusion, as the Bush administration makes loud crashing sounds about the symbolism of their South American invasion. George invaded South and Central America like the Music Man—seventy-six trombones and seventy-six hundred riot police.

Symbolism was the flag under which his ship of state sailed and it must have been an eternally long, teeth-gnashing week for a prez, dearly missing his ranch and feather pillow. The shadow of Hugo Chavez fell over each and every wished-to-be-sunny occasion.

Every public sighting of the American president (and there were few of them unscripted) had the appearance of a venture outside Baghdad’s Green Zone—all helmeted police and military cordons. It must be irritating as hell that Hugo moves through the nations below our fenced-off border, not only with impunity, but struggling with a different kind of chaos, that of cheering citizens.
We chose not to cooperate with Fidel Castro a half century ago and the cost has been incalculable across America’s closest sphere of influence. George has chosen to square off against Chavez in a replay of that failed diplomacy.

Makes one wonder what potato truck these guys fell off of on their way to running South and Central American policy.
In Mexico, he did away with the formal protocol of state dinners, where all that small-talk turns uncomfortably to what the hell is going on along our common border. It’s hard to contrive the proper toast, when there are dead Mexicans in the Arizona desert and you’re pulling Felipe Calderón’s citizens off 700 miles of wire fences.

Our head of state opted instead for the shanty neighborhoods of the poor and met (if anyone truly meets this man) people struggling to make ends meet. It was a first, he’d heard of, but never actually met anyone who had to struggle in life. You could read in his quizzical look, “why don’t their fathers help them?”
The prez called a visit to a Guatemalan village “one of the great experiences of my presidency.” The last time he was asked to name a ‘great experience’ in his presidency, he named catching an oversized bass from his stocked ranch pond, so figure out for yourself if those confused Guatemalans are above or below a ten pound fish.

But in the ‘great experiences’ category, I suggest to the president that another shanty neighborhood, where people struggle equally, can be found closer to the White House. It’s called Walter Reed Hospital.
Privatization made it what it is today, from a once hallowed institution (it still is in primary care) to an outpatient Guatemalan village. He’s privatized the military, as well as however much he could reach of government services, uncluding the VA. Walter Reed is yet one more lingering footprint from the ‘privatization president.’

“We’re allies in the cause of social justice,” Bush told the Guatemalans. One wonders if the linguistically dyslexic president recognized how similar is the sound of Guantanamo and Guatemala. Does he know the history of this neighborhood, or did that particular aide miss his ride on Air Force One?

Just a couple of countries south, Reagan Republicans damn near wiped out Nicaragua. Contras. Ring any bells? Daniel Ortega? The sitting President of Nicaragua, like Castro, overcoming all American obstacles and assassinations.

It’s all so confusing.

“The plight of the poor”
has drawn U.S. concern, he explained in Uruguay. There we are, back to symbols again—the Uruguayan poor as a symbol of the ignored and disenfranchised New Orleans poor. Each of them drawing U.S. concern and neither of them drawing U.S. help. Just last week, George’s little FEMA fairies were throwing the poor out of trailer parks in Mississippi with 48 hour notice.

“We’re all members of God’s family and when one of us hurts, we also hurt.” That was in Brazil and I don’t know specifically who he meant by ‘we.’ I just saw a movie titled The Queen and Helen Mirren spoke of herself in that role as we, so maybe it’s a kingly we that George claimed was hurting.

I, for one, don’t hurt when a Brazilian hurts. I care about Brazilians, but in a less intense way than I do about my own country’s poor, my own nation’s hungry, the state of my own state’s homeless. The prez is more international about those things.

He’s earmarked (a term that no longer means what it once did) a couple hundred billion to rebuild what he’s knocked down in Iraq and to hell with    
•    Cleveland, Ohio
•    Detroit, Michigan
•    Miami, Florida
•    El Paso, Texas
•    Atlanta, Georgia
•    Buffalo, New York
•    St. Louis, Missouri
•    Cincinnati, Ohio
•    Milwaukee, Wisconsin
•    Newark, New Jersey

Those are, in that order, the top ten poorest cities in the United States. I hear Baghdad and Rio de Janeiro, Bogota and Mexico City on the president’s agenda instead. Are they symbols?  A symbol is by definition “something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible.” Have the visible poor of South America become Bush’s delegates for America’s invisible poor?

What does it mean and how are we to put in context, that this ignorant, wandering, dysfunctional president seems to have excluded Americans from God’s family?

Peter Baker writes in the Washington Post

Bush had more symbolism than substance to offer. He announced a few modest initiatives to help with housing, education and health care and boasted of increasing direct aid to Latin America during his presidency, but did not mention that he just sent Congress a budget actually cutting that aid next year. Beyond an ethanol agreement with Brazil, which was more ambitious than specific, there were no concrete outcomes of his talks.

George is good at that give with one hand and take away with the other; praising the troops and cutting their health care and benefits; strutting over No Child Left Behind and slashing funding for education. A Columbian (El Tiempo) headline by columnist María Jiménez Duzán, blared

“Bush: Is Seven Hours Enough? President George Bush left and Bogotanos, thank God, can go back to our normal life, after a few days in which the only thing we weren’t prohibited from doing was using the bathroom, for fear the sewage tubes would be used for a terrorist attack.”

It may be time, or way past time, for the Bush administration to abandon symbolism. Give up on the rhetoric, Karl. It just isn’t working. Let George pull the covers up over his head at the ranch and tough out the next 22 months.
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