Excise a few historical and cultural references and Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Gilead, set in 1956, could have been written in 1880. An extended soliloquy by an aging Iowa clergyman with a failing heart, Gilead is water from another well, from another time–a time when Americans were less puzzled by moral earnestness and sane, quiet devotion to the difficult task of living decently. Religious readers will search in vain for the platitudinous comfort, doctrinal affirmation and eschatological fantasy that seem to drive the recent bull market in Christian publishing. No quick fixes, no chicken soup from Sister Robinson. Her narrator, the Rev. John Ames, raises only the eternal questions, which he respectfully leaves unanswered.

Aside from eternal questions, the most urgent issue Gilead examines was resolved by the Civil War. In religious terms it was a question of engagement–whether a Christian or any devout believer is required to make specific moral choices and act on them in the real world. In 1850 it was an unavoidable question of conscience: Could a man of God obey the law when the law supported slavery? Ames’ ferocious grandfather answered with his blood. Allied with John Brown and the jayhawkers in the Kansas wars, Old Ames fought slavery from the pulpit on Sunday mornings and from the saddle, pistol at the ready, on weekday nights. He fought on in the Civil War, enlisting in the Union Army and losing an eye at Wilson’s Creek. His own hero, an evangelist named Theodore Dwight Weld, once preached “every night for three weeks until he had converted a whole doughface settlement to abolitionism.”

Old Ames symbolizes an antique righteousness that has been lost. “Doughface” is a word of its time that has also been lost, and may need to be resurrected. “Dough-face Song,” by the abolitionist poet Walt Whitman, was published in the New York Evening Post in 1850:

“We are all docile dough-faces,
They knead us with the fist,
They, the dashing southern lords,
We labor as they list…..”

In Whitman’s poem “dough-face” refers to pliant, cynical congressmen who compromise with slave-state legislators to protect their own interests. In another early poem, “The House of Friends,” he vilifies “Doughfaces, Crawlers, Lice of Humanity.” “Doughface” was not of Whitman’s coinage, as far as I can tell–it was in general use to describe the morally neutered, the human cipher of no depth or backbone or spirit whose apathy, in Whitman’s view, offered comfort to slaveholders and offense to almighty God.

The doughface will always be with us; in a democracy he’s the dead weight the rest of us will always be obliged to carry. But in times of civic peril and critical decision–the 1850s, certainly, and the first decade of the 21st century–doughface inertia becomes a millstone so heavy it can crush a nation’s heart. A doughface crisis approaches when public servants commit spectacular outrages that seem to outrage no one; when unbearable truths are evident but widely ignored or rejected; and not coincidentally, when public figures who appear to be imbeciles grin from every wall and page and screen.

Look for the imbeciles. Not long ago I was standing in a checkout line, glancing idly at the usual display of gossip tabloids and celebrity slicks, when the cover of People magazine caught and held my eye. This was before I learned the word “doughface.” Yet here were America’s doughface princesses staring back at me like two golden lemurs caught in the beam of a primatologist’s flashlight. Britney Spears? Mariah Carey? I’d seen the names but never the faces. I was startled by their resemblance to each other–and by the paralyzing soullessness that radiated from their photographs.

These were the two most insipid, paint-by-number, vacant-looking blondes I’d seen since the ’50s, when beach girls did their hair like Sandra Dee. “Bimbo,” which implies a kind of sexual allure, is too good for Spears and Carey. They look like knobs of pale fungus tricked up with bright wigs and cosmetics; their little blue pop-eyes are as shrewd and expressive as a couple of blueberries poking out of your breakfast muffin. And doughface isn’t only skin-deep. Vapid surfaces conceal a more numbing vacancy underneath, as betrayed by a quotation that has found its way into my files.

Spears, the Pillsbury Madonna, said:

“Honestly, I think we should just trust our President in every decision that he makes, and we should just support that.”

I’d be kinder if she had kept her mouth shut. People can’t be held responsible for their faces nor even, I suppose, for the wasteland that often stretches just behind them. But a doughface book is one you can always tell by its cover, and no words of mine convey Walt Whitman’s concept half as forcefully as one glimpse of Britney Spears. A TV show, Access Hollywood, has named Spears “No. 1 Star of 2004,” based on the 119 stories it dedicated to her adventures. They used to say that the cream would rise to the top. Today we acknowledge that dough rises, too.

We can read a culture by its icons of the moment, by the gluttonous egos it chooses to feed. If Spears is sex, Howard Stern must be wit, Donald Trump must be wisdom. A doughface sees no reason why Arnold Schwarzenegger shouldn’t be governor of California–or why three Republicans with a combined 25 years’ experience as oil company executives (10 for George W. Bush, five for Dick Cheney, 10 for Condoleezza Rice) shouldn’t be president, vice president and secretary of state, respectively, while the United States raises military hell in the oilfields of the Middle East.

A doughface, like his singing, dancing, pop-eyed princess, doesn’t ask “Why?” A doughface lives in a dream of the present where neither past nor future casts a shadow, where everything that is seems familiar and suitable, as if it were meant to be. He’s a Sleeping Ugly who’s almost impossible to wake, with a kiss or a kick in the pants. One stubborn idealist who never stopped trying to wake him was the late Arthur Miller, a dramatist whose notion of a proper play was “grabbing people and shaking them by the back of the neck.” But in a more discouraged moment Miller conceded that most people know “little or nothing” about the larger forces that shape their lives.

At the end of his life, when most octogenarians rest comfortably on their laurels, this playwright was still raging against the mendacity of America’s leaders and the doughface gullibility that made it possible. Miller’s legacy is that commitment to personal responsibility, his conviction that “there were moments when an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling.”

The tall figures fade, in a nation losing traction, and tiny shrill ones multiply. Those of us who share Miller’s concern and frustration are sorely tempted to grab people, quite literally, and shake them by the back of the neck. After years of mellowing and acquiring tolerance, I suddenly find that the company of loyal Republicans is distasteful to me; I came within a heartbeat of using an epithet (“cow” is an epithet, right?) when a friend I trusted for years told me that she voted to re-elect President Bush.

You see, she’s a person who might describe herself as poor, or at least “low-income.” And there’s no such thing as a smart, poor Republican. That’s a self-erasing contradiction, like an old, slow rabbit.

Not all doughfaces are idiots. Some are just uninformed or misinformed, and too lazy to try harder. Sometimes it takes a Theodore Dwight Weld, or at least an Arthur Miller, to turn their lights on. Some can be saved. So I never laid a hand on my friend. But my God the exasperation. It reminds me of the New York journalist Jack Newfield, who died last December. During the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, Newfield looked out his hotel window and saw police officers beating antiwar demonstrators–and in impotent, reckless fury hurled his typewriter down at the police.

Jack didn’t kill anyone. If he had, a worthwhile career as a champion of the underdog would have ended at the age of 30. But the frantic, trapped way Newfield felt at that moment is the way I feel now, and I don’t imagine that I’m alone. What’s an appropriate gesture of dissent when you’re 60 years old as I am (too old to emigrate, too arthritic to join an armed insurgency?), and what appears to be a delusional, criminal government is dismantling the social contract as you understand it, and systematically emasculating and marginalizing the media where you’ve worked all your life? What action, what assertion of your conscience would be the equivalent of Old Rev. Ames night-riding with John Brown, or a defiant Arthur Miller refusing to betray his friends to Joe McCarthy? (Security was the excuse for trashing the Constitution in those days, too.)

I hope Hunter Thompson, who committed suicide last week, wasn’t making a journalist’s ultimate gesture of anguished protest. Thompson, who knew Bush, referred to him as an “imbecile” and “a baffled little creep,” and in an interview just before the election he said, “If this president is re-elected we are facing the total death of the American Dream as I know it.”

Those Buddhist monks who poured gasoline on themselves, I always thought they were taking it too far. But what’s an overreaction when inquisitors at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are torturing Muslim prisoners–some of them blameless–in our name? If we commit acts of civil disobedience, we’ll be prosecuted by an outlaw administration that treats the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the U.N. Charter, the U.S. War Crimes Act, the Geneva Conventions and most international treaties like junk mail–like toilet paper. Bush crony Alberto Gonzales, who offered the president legal strategies for justifying torture and suspending habeas corpus, who called the Geneva Conventions “quaint” and “obsolete,” has now been confirmed as Attorney General of the United States.

“The amazing thing is that we have been taken over basically by a cult,” says Seymour Hersh, the legendary investigative reporter who exposed the My Lai massacre and wrote Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. “Eight or nine neo-conservatives have somehow grabbed the government … they managed to overcome the bureaucracy and the Congress, the military and the press, with the greatest of ease. It says something about how fragile our democracy is.”

“There’s a tremendous sense of fear,” Hersh adds. “These are punitive people.”

Only a doughface could accuse us of overreacting. The “cult” Hersh refers to is closing ranks. By appointing White House henchmen (henchpersons?) attorney general and secretary of state, President Bush creates a closed circle of complicity. Now there’s no one at the highest level except those who told the lies, committed the blunders and authorized the crimes, and share the blood guilt equally. No post-administration exposés will be published by this coven, this brotherhood of the implicated. Colin Powell, who could never shake a “quaint” attachment to the Geneva Conventions, was an embarrassment to the inner circle.

We’ve learned everything we need to know about the Iraq fiasco. The administration blithely ignored what now seem to have been ample warnings of an imminent terrorist threat; after 9/11 they lied relentlessly to justify an invasion of Iraq that neocon cultists had been planning since the ’90s. (Lied, hyped, grotesquely overstated, you call it: In a speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, Bush warned Ohio that Saddam Hussein could attack the U.S. or its allies “on any given day” with chemical or biological weapons.) Then the Pentagon woefully underestimated the cost and pain of the occupation, and botched it tragically. Now recast as a quixotic struggle for “democracy”–Bush talks as if we joined forces with a popular revolution, instead of invading and provoking one–the Iraq war amounts to the most indigestible bolus of deceit and incompetence a president of the United States has ever asked its citizens to swallow.

Are you gagging yet? But Iraq’s old news. The burning question this winter is whether any more news will get through. Instead of accepting blame or even cutting its losses with some belated honesty, the White House brain trust took dead aim at that inconvenient First Amendment: We can parade catastrophe as triumph, they reasoned, if we simply cut off or drown out anyone who objects. It’s twilight time for the fourth estate.

“They’re waging a jihad against journalists,” wrote Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. “Even the Nixon White House didn’t do anything this creepy. It’s worse than hating the press. It’s an attempt to reinvent it.”

The junta’s latest edition of “shock and awe” is directed at the press. Paranoid liberals always said that the zombie army of right-wing “commentators,” who never deviate six inches from the White House line, must be on some Republican payroll, as Fox News chief Roger Ailes was for most of his nefarious career. So it was a surprise but not a shock to discover that several syndicated columnists actually are paid partisans, including a black conservative mercenary who pocketed $240,000 from the Department of Education. While that scandal was still sinking in–higher-ups knew nothing, as always–the comptroller general warned the administration’s propaganda machine to stop distributing illegal “video news releases,” pseudo-newscasts with pseudo-reporters that local stations have been airing without disclaimers. We began to see how the Bush administration had spent $250 million on “public relations” since 2001. Pseudo-journalism reached its nadir with the outing of Jeff Gannon, a virtual reporter for a virtually nonexistent right-wing Web site who mysteriously joined the White House press corps and spent two years tossing fawning non-questions at the president and the press secretary. Jeff Gannon turned out to be an alias for James Guckert, a gay prostitute with a personal Web site featuring nude pictures of himself (“military, muscular, masculine and discreet” is his come-on)–and disturbing connections to the dirty-tricks division of the GOP’s clandestine command.

What alarms me most about this war on the press is the impression that there’s an actual pogrom, an organized Final Solution for uncooperative journalists. Was everyone aware that Mary Mapes, the producer fired for airing a questionable story on the president’s National Guard service, was responsible for the CBS report on Abu Ghraib? Dan Rather, who essentially followed Mapes out the door, was already hearing footsteps in 2002 when he shared his fears about the “necklacing” (throwing burning tires around the necks of dissenters, a South African form of lynching) of recalcitrant journalists with a BBC interviewer: “The fear is that you will be necklaced here if you bore in on the tough questions. You will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck.”

The most recent necklaced martyr was Eason Jordan, the chief news executive at CNN, who was out of work in a nanosecond when right-wing bloggers jumped on his comment, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, that too many of the 60 journalists killed in Iraq were shot by Americans. “The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail,” wrote Steve Lovelady of the Columbia Journalism Review.

But any pogrom must be orchestrated by the White House Rasputin, Karl Rove, whose portfolio is power-maintenance in all its forms. His fingerprints will eventually be found on the Swift Boat smear of John Kerry, and probably on the dubious document that brought down Rather, Mapes and the better half of CBS News. Rove is a professional assassin, a Texas version of Chucky the Devil Doll. Now that he reigns supreme, no one mentions that George H.W. Bush fired him from the campaign in 1992 for going feral and firing a political bullet at Robert Mosbacher, the president’s friend and chief fundraiser. John Diulio, recently a White House domestic policy advisor, claims he overheard Rove screaming “We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him.” Diulio never caught the name of the victim-to-be.

In the past, Rove specialized in character and career assassinations. But I took a chill from the cause of death–apparent suicide–when I read an obituary for Gary Webb, 49, the prize-winning investigative reporter who accused the CIA of funding Nicaragua’s contra death squads through a cocaine cartel in San Francisco. Once shunned, the bloodstained old contra crowd–including the new security chief, John Negroponte–rides high again in Karl Rove’s Washington.

Dan Rather’s grim warnings are echoed by Bill Moyers, the most distinguished broadcast journalist of his time, who was edged out of network TV and is now retiring from PBS, where his independent voice sounded subversively “liberal” to the right-wing watchdogs. On his last program for PBS on Dec. 19, Moyers addressed what he called “the biggest story of our time: how the right-wing media have become a partisan propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee.”

“What they object to is not my ideology,” Moyers said in parting. “It really isn’t. It’s the fact that I’m doing journalism that isn’t determined by the establishment. You don’t get rewarded in commercial broadcasting for trying to tell the truth about the institutions of power in this country. You do not get rewarded for telling the hard truths about America in a profit-seeking environment.”

“We have to nurture the spirit of independent journalism,” he concluded, “or we’ll not save capitalism from its own excesses, and we’ll not save democracy from its own inertia.”

Inertia. What was the doughface response to a virtual Kristallnacht of attacks on journalists? A Knight Foundation survey found that only half of America’s high school students think newspapers should be free to publish without government approval; more than a third, reading the actual text of the First Amendment, felt it goes “too far.” Here was the raw material for a doughface revolution. “These results are not only disturbing–they are dangerous,” said Knight Foundation president Hodding Carter III.

Ignorance, apathy, intimidation. Naturally I hate to point to the rise of fascism between the European wars, but this is how it’s done; with the flag snapping smartly and the opposition disappearing discreetly, one by one.

If I had Jack Newfield’s typewriter, I’d launch it somewhere, but this thing with the hard drive is so much harder to replace. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Theodore Dwight Weld preached abolition every night for three weeks and converted a whole community of doughfaces. I’ve preached against the New Right for nearly three decades, and I’m not sure that I’ve converted one. And now they want to take my pulpit.

Is this still someone’s idea of a great country–the Pillsbury princess prancing in a star-spangled teddy, little no-neck Karl Rove braiding his nooses, naked prisoners wearing hoods, recruiters scouring malls for poor kids desperate enough to fight our war? Our doughface children selling off the Constitution clause by clause? (Why not swap the free press for a marriage amendment?)

Fascism, assassin, pogrom–such strong words. But when did such lethal fanatics rule America? They have no principles, no scruples, no regrets, no shame. Nixon gave us his plumbers, thugs and creeps, his contempt for fair play and the rule of law; the Reagan/Bush regime attracted right-wing screwballs and foreign-policy vigilantes. With George W. Bush we get all the worst of both, and many of the same faces. We get a fundamentalist Taliban, we lose Social Security, we lose free speech. What at last is our deal-breaker? What’s grounds for civil disobedience, for a political divorce? When will we know for sure that this administration is not only mean and crooked, but as raving mad as Rove?

I guess Iran would be the final test. Bush has begun to threaten Iran. Yet even without Iraq and Afghanistan hanging on our backs, the United States could never defeat or pacify Iran. We lack the money, the soldiers, the will. After the first surge–the Rumsfeld Syndrome, the military equivalent of premature ejaculation–we run aground in a nation of mountains and deserts that’s substantially bigger than Alaska, and home to 70 million furious Shiites. “Iran will turn into a scorching hell for the aggressors,” promises Iranian president Mohammed Khatami. And then, like Napoleon and Hitler when they invaded Russia, America begins to lose. Then, when the arterial bleeding starts, when it’s too late, when tens of thousands are dead, what do we do with our mad King George? What do our consciences tell us then?