You know you are in a perilous period in American history when the optimist and pessimist no longer vie with each other but eerily agree that the glass is neither half full nor half empty but is … shattered.
The question is: Should the country revert to business as usual and pick up whatever fragments it can manage? Or, must Americans out of necessity walk carefully through the shattered pieces in order to make a fresh start with a totally new glass?
The year 1776 was one of those rare revolutionary moments. It was a time in which the populace told themselves, as did their leaders and writers, that if a people were committed to practical hope and collective futures and believed that the idea of America was greater than the struggles over class, race and gender, which were sure to come, then the American people and its government would give definition and meaning to practical hope and the pursuit of happiness. It would become an idea that would be found individually and collectively through the common good that would reflect an economic bill of rights for all the people (all the more important in this touch-and-go economy) and constitutional legal rights such as habeas corpus for all who live under the flag of the United States.
Bloody as our history has been when we fight preventive and preemptive wars abroad and against ourselves in civil war and the ferocious destruction of the Native Americans, the United States can still be the place where falsity and oppression do not have to define our way of life and our government to ourselves or others. The pursuit of just laws and actions can be our 21st century covenant if only we will admit that:
Every day people from other nations wonder why we destroy the hopes that others continue to place in American society when we support corrupt, oppressive dictators for reasons of realpolitik. (Will President-elect Barack Obama continue this dubious — and immoral — policy?)
They wonder why the U.S. Constitution is treated like so much butcher paper to cover over the putrefying smell of an aggressive war foisted on the American people by a president (aided and abetted by many Democrats in Congress) addicted to lies around weapons of mass destruction and increased surveillance of American citizens. (Let’s remember that as senator, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, voted with the majority to give the ultra-secretive National Security Agency even greater license to spy on Americans without a court warrant. As president, how will he now treat and interpret the Constitution?)
They wonder how it is that the United States, when it fights wars, tells itself that it is not a warrior nation when its political problem is to recognize and overcome that very fact? (Obama certainly has the knowledge and intellect to do this.)
They wonder how President George W. Bush and his Svengalian vice president could escape impeachment and accountability before the Congress for subverting settled constitutional law and flouting international law for which there was no basis for the American attacks. Indeed, the Nuremberg judgment and American domestic law, had they been applied strictly, would have seen a number of the Bush armchair warriors in the dock. Yet it appeared that the laws were not self-executing; political will was necessary, and after the President Clinton impeachment fiasco, such will was not present in Congress.
Thus, it was easier for a compliant media to accept Bush’s argument that the United States was under attack from Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore had the UN Security Council’s blessing to make war when the council’s resolution plainly did not give the United States that authority on its own say so. Thus, these and other lies became truth in ways that would have astounded even George Orwell.
If Bush had qualms about any of these questions (and the deep wounds he has left on the American future that will not be easily healed by Barack Obama despite his profound victory), he never let on in public. Quite the contrary: his illegal, unethical, secretive, irresponsible, toxic policies actually became his great vision, the definition of national security and imperial democracy, the warped proof that he was a great man and a servant of God beyond anything President George H.W. Bush attempted.
One can imagine Bush II shrugging it off that his administration was more corrupt than Warren G. Harding’s and more uncaring of people’s daily lives and tribulations than any other in American history. His political task was to create a public relations illusion: The United States would remain No. 1 in the world, unchallenged and unchangeable because of our might and credibility. Iraqis and others would feel awe and fear, while we pretended to build something called democracy even as over 1 million of them were destroyed as a result of U.S. strategy and the civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites (and armed conflict within the groups) unleashed by an American aggressive war of choice. Our rulers convinced themselves (and for years, much of the American public) that Iraqis would bend to the United States as it held the prime place in obtaining Iraqi oil and other resources, while assuring ourselves preferred commercial status.
Throughout American history, from 17th century puritanical claims of building a Shining City on the Hill, to 19th century claims of Manifest Destiny, to 20th century “wars that would end all wars” and make the world safe for democracy (and American exports), Americans have accepted this special view of themselves and their nation. And to protect us and guide our ways, there was always God, who like a forgiving father or Dutch uncle, would light the way when leaders swathed themselves in the blankets and shrouds of Jesus, or the tallits for those paying homage to the Old Testament. Nothing has changed in the first decade of the 21st century; America is still a warrior nation sending bellicose messages that others had better shape up.
Such activities are not the province of one political party or as a result of a leader born into a high socioeconomic class. A long line of presidents before George W. Bush tailored the U.S. Constitution to suit their ideologies. At the very top of the income wealth pyramid we find that Bill Clinton, as president, was the willing instrument of the rich, whether it was tax breaks for them or announcing to the welfare poor with a Reaganesque flair, “welfare as we know it” was over. As commander in chief, Clinton presided over a bombing war in the Balkans without a declaration of war from Congress, reaffirming the docility of Congress and abandoning the Constitution. No wonder that some argue that the Constitution is irrelevant in modern circumstances. Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons and the creation of H-bombs thousands of times more deadly than “ordinary” nuclear weapons have not been inhibited by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Are there any clues for future generations?
Or suppose there is widespread starvation, pogroms and fratricide, rape, murder and civil war in parts of Africa, Asia or Latin America? What does our Constitution advise us to do? Are there any clues regarding linkages between individual crises and their multiple effects worldwide, like the interconnections of global warming and access to food and water — both of which are in extreme crisis — that result in hunger and malnutrition? Are there any clues regarding the distribution of energy and strategies for peace and disarmament that guide Americans in how they will have to live, and in what ways before there is an accumulated collapse in every arena? (With Obama, is America finally open to a new but better New Deal?) And are scholars, journalists, universities and think tanks able to readjust to what and how they think about this series of interrelated or sequential disasters that seem to lend themselves to quick fixes, but are only temporarily fixed at best?
In Plato’s Statesman, a guardian is successful if he leaves office with the same set of problems that he had going in — no better, no worse. The horror story of our time is that by any measure the nation, and most of the world, is worse off in significant ways than it was at the end of the Second World War. Yet Nazism was defeated and Fascism tamed, with oppressive empires such as the Dutch, French and Belgian destroyed through the active engagement of the United States in the process. But imperialism comes in new forms.
While Bush and an approving Congress were spending blood (over 4,100 U.S. troops killed, more than 30,000 wounded, 1 in 5 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression) and treasure (the true cost of Iraq will probably exceed $3 trillion) for our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, other powers were filling the invariable power vacuum. China, India, Europe, and Brazil are not as dependent upon us as they once were and no longer asking for our permission. Those we failed to beat in war, like Vietnam, and those some politicians and neocons foolishly thought we had overwhelmed in the Cold War, like Russia, no longer fear serious consequences from the United States. Thus, when Russia sent troops into Georgia in August 2008 to protect its sphere of influence in South Ossetia and Akhbasia — and to pressure Georgia to not join NATO — Bush blustered, then pressured Poland to accept American anti-missiles, further infuriating Russia. Poland backtracked, waiting for word from president-elect Obama, who cautioned against nuclear arming.
These episodes demonstrate that American foreign and national-security policies need retooling for what the reality is in the world and how the United States will live in that changing reality for the well-being of Americans and billions of other people. Reality need not begin by assuming the Russians are our enemies or that Russia is there for the taking by the United States and the West through organizing new strategies of encirclement.
This set of new conditions makes it all the more puzzling why Americans have yet to commit themselves to a planning and implementation process that will change our collective expenditures so that large-scale political, environmental and nuclear disasters (nuclear proliferation, smuggling nuclear material to terrorist groups, radioactive nuclear wastelands) do not have to occur as a result of our actions — or inaction.
War, starvation, disease, inflation, environmental spoliation and severe recession domestically and around the world possibly leading to a full-blown depression: these problems can only be ameliorated and resolved with popular citizen involvement and new citizen movements. Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that in a democracy a publicly elected servant was not a commander but a catalyst who moves people into action by giving them the public space to take action within new and democratically agreed upon frameworks. But FDR also urged us never to forget that “the ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
Some 133 million people voted in 2008 elections, a record. But if all citizens do is simply vote and walk away until the next election cycle, little will be accomplished, and the nation will continue to travel down the slippery slope of disaster. We must realize that like a person, a nation needs head, heart, hand and soul not just to survive but to endure.
The surprising excitement around the elections suggests that people were “sick and tired and not going to take it anymore.” With the rise of Barack Obama, there was a quality of democratic hope in which Americans announced that they were no longer passive. It seemed that they were saying that their intention was not only to judge the government, but also to participate in it.
If Obama was the first presidential candidate to truly harness the power of the Internet to win office, a new generation of Americans should be able to use the Internet 24/7 as watchdogs, not only to guard against future incursions on their freedoms by the Executive Branch and Congress, but to rollback unjust and illegal laws that have steadily chipped away at our freedoms — and in the case of Bush II, stolen some of them outright. Obama announced that he wants his presidency to be transparent. Using the Internet in all of its permutations can be an instantaneous way of holding his feet to the democratic fire.
After the Glass Shatters
Given the anxious state of the union, this is no time to settle for mere fragments of the shattered glass. We face, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “the fierce urgency of now,” by which he and we mean the unresolved American democratic problems of permanent war, economic hardship and unfairness, the fragility of the environment, class disparity, gender equality and identity, and, yes, race.
Which poses questions unique in American history: Will our first African American president, who did not run on the issue of race, initiate a national discussion to heal our racial wounds? Will the image and actions of this intelligent, charismatic leader continue to lift up African Americans and bridge the 400-year divide with white Americans when his election euphoria wears off from media overexposure and impatience with not quickly “fixing” the economy and ending the wars? Will Obama prove in his actions and words that the U.S. is in fact a human blending — that we are all one people? Or will a black man in the White House bring old wounds to a new and even uglier surface than the covert racism of the 2008 campaigns of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (with an assist by her husband) and Sen. John McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gove. Sarah Palin, who seemed to feed off slurs and threats against Obama and blacks from her white audiences?
The authors, “children of the Depression, war, the Cold War, surveillance and McCarthyism” no less worried about the future than our fellow citizens, choose to raise a brand new glass, brimming with fresh ideas, even ones mistakenly discarded, and new infusions of energy and hope for a changing and beleaguered world, and we offer a toast to this and future generations.