The United States of America is all akilter.

The country once boasted a vast array of published and broadcasted opinion that existed in a healthy and vigorous atmosphere of polemical discourse. There was a general consensus that a true balance in dialogue was essential to democracy; that no single orientation, left or right, had a monopoly on truth.

But now, thanks to the Bush administration’s constant onslaughts on any viewpoint that differs from its own, the light of genuine polemical discourse has been dimmed to near darkness.

Inspired by his propaganda meister Karl Rove, President George W. Bush has cleverly shifted the fulcrum of opinion to one side. This has the effect of maintaining the pretense of balance while actually moving it from the center considerably to the right.

Let me illustrate this by going back a bit in time, and to a different country.

It can be said that the policy of fairness and balance in the news was pioneered by the BBC from the time of its first radio broadcasts in the 1920s. Producers there were ever careful to present two sides of the story, lest they be accused of bias.

With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, the BBC naturally gave a good deal of air time to events in Germany. That was before Germany and the United Kingdom went to war in 1939, and there was much sympathy in Britain, particularly among the upper classes, for Adolf Hitler’s approach to social policy. But as Nazi aggression became more evident in the late ’30s, the BBC began to adopt a more critical attitude toward Hitler.

Goose-stepping troops

Movies in those days were preceded by filmed news reports, which were generally presented in pairs. Hence one report might depict Hitler’s goose-stepping troops, but this would be “balanced” by coverage of the latest fashion show in Berlin. The message taken away by the audience would be that, well, there was some cause to worry about Germany, but, after all, things weren’t really all that bad.

But things were really all that bad. A policy of balance in the news is commendable, but it has to be asked, “Who is defining where the center is?” By putting Hitler on one side of the center, it made him appear to be acceptable, if somewhat extreme.

To return to the U.S., where, ever since the 1969-74 presidency of Richard Nixon, the center of American politics has been shifting to the right. Even liberal leaders of recent years such as last year’s defeated Democratic candidate for president, Sen. John Kerry, and former President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) represent views on social policy that would be to the right of center in most countries of Europe.

The last chance to redress this situation, by bringing the center back into the equilibrium of democracy, was the presidential election of 2000. The defeat of the Democratic contender Al Gore, a dedicated reformer, through nefarious manipulation of the electoral process, may well have sounded the death knell of mainstream American liberalism for at least a generation to come.

George W. Bush is an ideologue through and through — alien even to his own Republican party’s tradition of consensus leadership. Nixon was a pragmatic negotiator, as flexible as he was wily; Ronald Reagan, as president from 1981-89, reached out to all Americans with the facile smile of goodwill; and the present president’s father, George Bush, himself president from 1989-93, was a politician of a measured, if arbitrarily exercised, integrity.

Attack dogs rip the flesh

The frequent attacks on liberals by Mr. Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — the Cerberus guarding the White House gates — has tainted the word “liberal” in the lexicon and made many wary of identifying themselves as such, lest they be thought of as not quite true blue.

The president of the United States, however, is not only commander-in-chief, but also protector- and harmonizer-in-chief. He should unite the country, particularly in trying times, not have his attack dogs rip the flesh off of it, bit by bit, in the name of vigilance.

Yet George W. Bush continues to push that fulcrum of balance farther and farther to the right. In a speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., on June 28, he continually aggrandized the military in order to make it appear as if anyone opposing his war in Iraq was not just a dissenter but a coward and a traitor.

Where is the tradition of healthy dissent, the alternative approach, the pragmatic dialogue in this America? Thrown into the fire and brimstone of a president’s quasi-religious rhetoric, that’s where it is. George W. Bush and his snap-dog guardians have taken “America the Beautiful” and changed it into “The Ballad of Pennsylvania Avenue: On A Clear Day You Can Kill Forever.”

The freedom of expression that once existed in the United States is seriously endangered. Given America’s immense power and influence, this affects us all. Restoring a true-to-life balance in word and deed in America may be our own best shot at democracy, wherever we live.

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