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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

April 28, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 4

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Yes, but are the claims packable?

By Joan Chittister,OSB

I've looked it up in the dictionary: flip-flop. I've asked other people what they think it means: flip-flop? I've listened carefully to determine, as others used the word, whether context could give me a clue. And I feel pretty confident about my definition till I find myself comparing the way the word is being used in this election in contrast to its apparent opposite. Then I'm not sure anymore.

As I understand it from the political ads they're using to convey the two concepts, John Kerry "flip-flops" but George Bush is "resolute." OK. That sounds good. If it's true.

You see, the problem is that I don't buy anything on advertising claims alone. I count on experience as well as data to enable me to make my final decision. Right down to toothpaste. The ads tell me what I'll like about it -- the taste, the fluoride, the endorsement of a doctor (who hasn't himself been endorsed by anyone I'm sure I trust), the amount of anti-plaque remover in it and the number of days until I'll have whiter teeth if I use it -- and with all that, I still have my own standards -- like whether the tube is packable, for instance.

Even drug companies are required to do a more honest job of presenting their therapies and possible side effects.
So, I'm watching the political "waffle" ads with a new kind of "shock and awe." My experience tells me not to assume too much too quickly. I'm shocked that those in this administration, of all people, can say anything about anyone else's mid-course corrections with a straight face. And I'm in awe that this kind of advertising marshmallow can pose as truth and be taken seriously. Even drug companies are required to do a more honest job of presenting their therapies and possible side effects.

The truth is that I'm not the only one who's noticing this kind of discrepancy. In fact, in the course of my own personal attempts to document what I know have been complete denials of previous positions, I discovered a Web site called -- complete with quotations and presentation dates -- that has already done it. It seems that George Bush himself has "waffled" and "flip-flopped" on crucial political and military decisions -- right under our noses.

First, for instance, he said we'd be regarded as liberators in Iraq. Now he's talking about our continued "occupation" of the area. In fact, the man who told us that we'd be in and out of Iraq within the year is now preparing us to realize that our troops will be there for years. In fact, they tell us, we are now in the process of building 14 permanent military bases there.

First, he told us that we invaded a country because it had weapons of mass destruction and we were in "imminent danger." Now he tells us, weapons or not, the invasion of a sovereign nation -- one sovereign nation, in particular -- was not only explainable, it was a moral imperative.

First, he put Ahmad Chalabi a Shiite expatriate who hadn't been in the country for 45 years, in charge of the first Iraqi interim government. Then he reversed that position within months.

First, he insisted he would sweep Iraq clean of the Baathist party leftovers from the Saddam regime. Then last week Ambassador Paul Bremer announced that, unable to keep order there ourselves, we would reinstall Baathist officials, the very people we had argued earlier were responsible for the brutal repression of the Iraqi people. And we would do it as soon as possible.

First, like Emperor Charles V triumphantly riding his horse-drawn chariot up the steps of the Michaelangelo's Cordonata in Rome, he told us a year ago that the war was over. "Mission accomplished," he insisted. Now he tells us that young Americans will be there for a long, long time, struggling in the streets, sweating in the desert.

First, he told us that we would be handing sovereignty over to the Iraqi people in June. Now he tells us that it won't really be "sovereignty" -- it will be a kind of "local council." Nothing serious. Nothing really independent. In fact, they will have very little control at all. Certainly not over our military. In fact, not even over their own military. And they will not be able to make any laws. It will simply be smoke and mirrors while we stand over their shoulders and censor what they do.

First, he told us that we would need the smallest of armies for the shortest amount of time. Now he tells us that we will need more troops for a longer amount of time.

First, he said that this year of operations in Iraq would cost the American people $87 billion. Then, four months later, he told us we would need another $51 billion just to get through the rest of the year. In January, after the election, of course, we'll get the rest of the bill, the rest of the numbers, the rest of the news. Maybe.

First, he was opposed to the establishment of a commission to review the circumstances surrounding the attack on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. Weeks later he announced his support.

And, as if all of that is not bad enough, he's also flip-flopped on the questions of caps on carbon dioxide, free trade, gay marriage as a state issue rather than a federal issue, the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, controls on campaign financing, and the Arab-Israeli dispute.

And he said all of these things without explanation, rationale or reasonable analysis of either position.

From where I stand,"flip-flop" looks like a political universal. If it's a Kerry disease, Bush is suffering from it, too. So maybe it's time that we all stopped being seduced by the easy accusations. In fact, isn't it time that we stopped making ironclad statements the basis of our total evaluation of political leadership? Surely we want leaders who are open to new data, new circumstance and so new conclusions. Isn't it time we concentrate instead on the plans and policies our parties and politicians propose as solutions to the questions of our time?

The presentation of programs rather than the constant barrage of personal attacks would change the ads, of course. More than that, it could also change the country. Most of all, it could change the world. And that goal is the only thing about which George W. Bush has ever really been consistent. My concern is that he surely will. But how?

Clearly, we are getting a lot of conflicting data. But however good it may sound at first blush, it changes shape far too often to be safely packable.

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