|SO IT TURNS OUT THAT the "axis of evil" line in the State of the
Union speech was the work of a Canadian, David Frum, according to a proud
e-mail circulated by his wife, Danielle Crittenden. Itíll be the high
point of Frumís life so far, I imagine; his "thousand points of light"
and "evil empire" rolled into one, the backroom flourish that turns him
into Peggy Noonan overnight. I think itís a tired bit of rhetoric, an ill-chosen
phrase, to say the least, and nowhere near as clever as it deserves to
Iíve been pretty candid about my opinion of Frum, but here goes again.
Frum is a nasty piece of work, a terrible little blowhard, the kind of
mean, tireless suckler on the dessicated teat of power that flourishes
on the charisma-free margins of the left as well as the right. A silver-spoon
child of rich, liberal parents, his journey to the right was archetypical
enough to make him a poster boy for a generation seemingly dedicated to
eradicating compassion from public life. A generation I also
belong to, which makes my aversion to Frum a point of principle.
Heís a canny barometer of public opinion, though Ė a useful talent
for the ambitious. Thereís nothing original about regretting the excesses
of the Seventies, but you can make a name for yourself by conflating that
decadeís bad taste, poor aesthetics, whip-shy politics and moral exhaustion
with the whole of the left. His book on the Seventies was crank politics
at its best, and reminded me of the Simpsons gag, where the
unveiling of a statue of Jimmy Carter moves a member of the Springfield
mob to cry out, "Heís historyís worst monster!" Heís the kind of conservative
pundit whoís made a career of equating all human weakness and lapses of
taste with a liberal attack on "western values", his basic assumption being
that only doctrinaire conservatives hold the key to a sound, moral society.
His formula is simple enough: velour shirts = wife-swapping = feminism
gone mad = fashionable Maoism = weakness on terrorism = collapse of Western
As an op-ed writer, Frum was eager to demonize the totem demon of
his day, the welfare mother, confident that his own upbringing made him
eminently qualified to prescribe solutions for social problems he could
never hope to understand. In any case, the welfare mother was just another
trope, a symbol one need never bother to comprehend, since a new one would
come along soon enough. Frum, like every political pilot fish, knows that
as long as youíre on the crest of a political wave, you need never justify
His meagre talent has remained intact, buffed to a high gloss by
his newfound proximity to power as a Bush speechwriter. Popular nostalgia
for the moral sureness of the Second World War has been catalogued to death;
Frum only had to rummage around the bottom of the duffel bag to find a
hoary scrap of threadbare noun to recycle. Victory in Afghanistan had been
quick Ė too quick, perhaps, for public opinion to remain sufficiently ardent.
A new enemy was required, and language sufficient to keep us inspired.
The enemy was disappointing, the work on the ground in the aftermath
of his defeat inevitably regarded as dreary stuff, at least by the victors.
Bin Laden Ė the demon at the heart of the enemyís strength Ė didnít even
have the decency to follow the script. There was no suicide in the bunker
Ė fervently imagined in our media, at the hand of his own sons, even Ė
and no humiliating gibbet in Kabul's town square for his corpse. He didnít
even oblige us with capture and a trial, though that was no doubt the least
desirable of outcomes. Like any good demon, he vanished like a vapor, borne
on the winds toÖwhere? Iraq, surely, or Iran, though evidence is scarce.
The hell with evidence.
Perhaps the wind shifted, and his malign spirit has found a home
in North Korea. Itís hard to imagine bin Laden finding hospitality in Kim
Il-Jungís dreary, secular, bad dream of a communist utopia, but that isnít
the point. The whole thrust of the "axis of evil" is the image of bin Laden
as a virus, or a demonic possession finding its host in the vulnerable
body of a sinner. Itís hard for me to resent Bush for all this overheated
rhetoric. Iím certain he actually means it, just as much as Iím sure Frum,
a cynical, bilious little suckjob, doesnít. (link:
hereís someone who hates Frum even more than I do.)
I KNOW IT ALL SOUNDS a bit melodramatic, but Iím just trying to rise
to the level of rhetoric Frum has put in his bossí mouth. "Letís roll"
didnít really catch on, despite the best efforts of everyone from the op-ed
writers at the National Post to Neil Young. (You can make
up your own vision of a "Canadian conspiracy" here.) "Youíre either
with us or youíre against us" was simple enough, but it suffered from a
prolixity that doesnít market well. Besides which, itís really nothing
more than a recycling of John Foster Dullesí high Cold War foreign policy,
boiled down to a schoolboy's dare.
Iím not trying to diminish the unsavoury, threatening nature of the
governments of Iran, Iraq, or North Korea. I wouldnít want to live in any
of these countries, but they seem to have been drummed into the "axis of
evil" by a coin toss, or a dart tossed at a wall map. Iraq was the default
candidate, but I canít help but remind myself that it was once a valued
friend of the U.S. when newly fundamentalist Iran was the enemy. Choosing
Iran seems like reckless brinksmanship Ė a generation after Khomeiniís
revolution, it was undergoing a liberalization that might be over now that
itís on the shit list.
North Korea is a Stalinist basketcase state that relies on international
food aid for survival, much of which comes from the U.S. It has no friends
in its neighbourhood, and might eventually have shrivelled away, with some
judicious, long-term diplomacy. But diplomacy is a dirty word these days,
a virtual synonym for spineless, ghost of Chamberlain-at-Munich, UN-style
political "appeasement" of the kind that, itís assumed, led to 9/11. More
well-pawed, inadequate WW2 metaphors, I know, but itís been that kind of
The only thing all three states have in common is the potential for
nuclear capability, as well as chemical and biological weapons programs.
Trying to selectively force the nuclear, biological and chemical genie
back in the bottle Ė which is what the U.S. is trying to do, all talk of
a war on terrorism aside Ė seems a quixotic kind of game. After all, they
did a pretty bad job of preventing India and Pakistan from developing nukes,
a far more immediate threat to world peace, and a recent intelligence failure
that, in hindsight, might have warned us about CIA and NSA shortcomings
leading up to 9/11.
Itís also a bit inconsistent, considering that China has been an
erstwhile ally of North Korea, and sold Iran biological agents. (Just as
the U.S. under Reagan sold anthrax cultures and more to Hussein's Iraq.)
But of course, China is a favoured trading partner, in spite of -- or perhaps
of -- the vast array of priority battle plans filed at the Pentagon anticipating
war with the Peopleís Republic. Weíre willing to take a lot from China,
far more than weíre willing to take from "rogue states" like the evil axis,
even if, in the case of Iran at least, theyíre ruled by elected officials,
and loosely fit the definition of a democracy, far more so than China,
in any case.
PERHAPS IíM BEING UNREALISTIC, asking for consistency, a semblance
of logic, even, from Bush and his administration. I know Iím way out of
line, expecting a higher level of speechifying. I really ought to stop
imagining that someone like Karl Rove or Dick Cheney has anything resembling
my own tastes or value system. After all, they hired Frum, where I would
have encouraged him to find his own level Ė writing angry letters to the
editor of his community paper, preferably. Perhaps I ought to stop taking
politics so personally.