January 4, 2006
Good morning. Ann has asked me to talk about what is coming in the new year, and I am honored to be invited. Thank you for making me think.
Today, at the beginning of 2006, our republic is going through one of its greatest trials and one which gradually begins to appear classic, or dangerously similar to trials of other republics in historic times. Julius Caesar and the old Athenian Psistratus come to mind. Our situation may be that critical. Let us therefore speculate on some of the deeper causes for this dangerous condition, that is, causes more fundamental than the current president.
It is interesting to look at issues which the last two presidents have put on the agenda which have resisted solution: health care, immigration, social security and the war against terror. What makes these issues so troublesome for democracy is that none of them has an easy non-violent, or process solution. None of them lies within an ideological framework that suggests a straightforward answer. None of them comes with a communist or a capitalist template to follow. None of them comes with a formula solution for labor or for management, or for liberals or for conservatives. That is, none of them is contained within the formulas that summarized the choices of the last 100 years of American politics. The net result is a massive policy soup, filled with foreign vegetables and local onions, no ideology, no story to sort them out, and therefore we are a population gorging on uncertainty and chaos.
We might put that in another way: health care costs, immigration, AIDS, poverty in Africa and tragedy in Asia, continuing threats of terror, are subjects dominating the news as we begin 2006 and yet none of them fits within, or is solved by, the jargon of democrats vs. republicans, or labor vs. management, or north vs. south, or black vs. white, or capitalism vs. communism. None of the current news making issues is one for which we are ideologically prepared.
Now it is true that there are other issues, the rising gap between the very rich and the rest of us, the exploding national debt, the loss of hard-earned union pensions, cutting back on Medicaid, excessive reliance upon guns at the expense of butter in foreign policy, the despoliation of the environment and global warming which have been the subject of difference between conservatives and liberals in the past and still are points of difference today. Looking back at the election of 2004, however, it seems clear that merely reciting these old issues did not serve to overcome people’s concern with, and confusion about, health care, terror, and a general sense of fear; fear of immigrants, fear of AIDS, fear of the unnamed, inexplicable tragedies wrought by nature. So the traditional rallying cries of difference or of democrats v. republicans did not catch up and galvanize the country in 2004.
One of our last two presidents was good at dealing with complexity and the other is not, but neither was able to muster a national consensus concerning, say, immigration, or policy to deal with terrorism, or health care. So the solution is not just having a smarter president. We had a smart president and that was not enough. We now have a very decisive, ideological president, one who clearly distinguishes black from white and right from wrong and he has not done even as well as the smart president. Instead of making the world safer for democracy he appears to have made it less safe; there are fewer places in the world today to which an American can safely travel; instead of making the world safer for Christians, of whom he is one, he appears to have made it less safe. Instead of making the world safer for US oil interests, of which he is a part, he appears to have made it less safe. And while Bill Clinton was more facile in manipulating trade policy and health care issues, and while Bill Clinton’s intervention in Bosnia was far more surgical than George Bush’s sledge hammer in Iraq, neither has been able to mount the intellectual power, the emotional power, the economic power to defeat terrorism at its source, at the level of schools and morals, at a level to counteract stories which feed war, jihad and imagined salvation. Neither has been free enough from his own story to organize a new story around which the world would rally. The result of the last years, since the decline of the Soviet Union, has been a world in storied chaos.
I say “storied chaos” because all the markers of politics are markers of progress along the road of some story or other. For Marxists, there was the story of the ascendance of the laboring masses, their inevitable final rise to power and the withering away of the state. For Jeffersonian democrats it was the rise of the popular state, the agrarian-based, healthy state of small farmers. For conservatives today it is the rise of the business state without government intervention, the freedom of the individual, or corporation, to do what he or she, or it, pleases, so long as the action does not overtly harm others.
None of these traditional stories provides much of a candle in the darkness to masses of people today. Instead of some sense of national purpose which transcends personal interest we have a national purpose which seems to promote self interest above all, and while self interest galvanizes us to go to the mall and to shop for new cars and refrigerators, it does not galvanize us to pay taxes, or to tithe at church, or to mobilize our resources to re-build the city of our shattered brethren in New Orleans, or to send helicopters from Afghanistan to devastated villages in Pakistan. The story of self interest is hollow at the core, or at least hollow if the purpose is to build and maintain a democratic republic, or a government of high public goals, or a society which holds aloft the common good and community welfare.
Self interest as our governing story does not promote community and without community or a sense of common purpose, government inevitably becomes the enemy, and when government becomes the enemy it seems to many that it is all right to cheat that government, to cheat on taxes, to cheat on environmental regulations, to cheat on campaign finance, and for those of us at home, to cheat the government of our attention by not voting and by not caring. The tree of democracy which is planted in the soil of self interest, which evolves into indifference toward others, is a tree that will not grow.
We are, that is, in a time of moral and intellectual chaos, without any organizing endeavor to rally us to our highest calling, to call us to sacrifice beyond ourselves. It is true, and to the contrary, that Americans have risen to the call to sacrifice twice in this last year, in very great amounts, to help victims of Katrina and the Tsunami, and it is true that our poverty of public spirit is not simply that we have gone un-generous, or that we have not any longer got compassion in our souls, or do not respond to suffering. We have not gone evil, we Americans. We have not gone hard-hearted. But we have not had some other critical ingredient, beyond innate generosity and compassion, to lift us up to seek the common good for every American.
It may be that the missing ingredient is that we have not found the framing narrative, the spiritual myth (in religious terms), or the theory (in scientific terms) that will bring order out of this chaos, make sense of this confusion. Further—because the republic may not come through these dangers intact—we are as pilgrims at a crossroads, unable to discern which road leads to salvation, which to destruction, and we have not the storied star to guide us.
In these past years, therefore, and in the year up-coming, we have been living through, or surviving in, a climate of moral ambiguity, in a time of disintegrating and competing minor stories without any grand story. The result has been a callousness toward law breaking in government, toward torture, toward exaggerated presidential power, toward stock scandals, financing scandals and massive acts of greed.
And this state of turmoil and moral confusion, is the state of the union, really, in 2006.
As to the specifics for this upcoming year, I believe we have not got sufficient health care, and will not get health care in 2006, because we have not got a story which requires that we take care of our people and the current story of the governing class is that poverty and debt are the fault of those who suffer from them.
I believe that we will not get immigration reform or progress in dealing with masses of illegal immigrants because we are a divided nation and have not got a story which explains some long term strategy. There is a curious tactical alliance between the poorest workers who come in across the Rio Grande river and the wealthiest corporations like Wal Mart who want them to come and want them to remain illegal so that, if by chance they request fair labor standards, overtime wages or health care, they can be deported. This alliance between the powerful corporations and the poorest immigrants does not settle down within the confines, or into the traditional ideologies, of American political parties and therefore there is no political combination which currently will rise to make immigration legal or describe a future path. By the same token, there is no sufficient story of the purity of the English language, or the right of the privileged to remain immune from the cries of the poorest which is strong enough to support building fences across Texas and New Mexico and Arizona.
I believe that there will be no progress in the war on terror because democrats will continue to fail to articulate a new story of world purpose which makes it apparent that the war in Iraq is a mistake. It is a mistake, not just politically, or militarily, or because of faulty intelligence, but much more deeply a mistake of purpose, a mistake for a democracy, a mistake for a free people to try to impose their political religion on another free people with a different political religion.
Democrats today tremble at internationalism, at the risk of being soft-hearted, or genuinely compassionate, or to pick up the banner and to support today as they once did, the export abroad of libraries and schools, dams and irrigation, cotton gins and tractors. It is obvious, however, to almost anyone that suicide bombers and terrorists have a story of salvation which appeals more powerfully to them than the power of school, of science, of literature, of music and dance and all that we might include as the riches of modern civilization. People who live without hope for these civilized riches must follow the dream of a future life, a future paradise, and are willing to get there as fast as possible. Every explosion is therefore a scream of desperation, a horrifying, heart-breaking, mind-rending cry against their current helpless, hapless conditions. The disenchanted will continue flying into trade towers and blowing up busses so long as our story is that they are evil terrorists and not humans screaming for help. Or, to put it another way, the problem of terrorism is not a conflict of armies, or bombs, or militias, so much as a conflict of histories, or views of civilization. If we are going to compete in these terms we have work to do on our story and must bring an end to our confusion about what can be accomplished with compassion and what can be accomplished with a gun.
We will not address the cry of the poor in 2006, and so long as we do not address that problem we will continue to debate whether to leave Iraq in June this year or June of some future year, but never address the pain and suffering which spawns the cry. Where there is no grand story to help us decide whether we should destroy Fallujah in order to save it, where there is no grand story for democratic candidates to use in 2006 which explains to the American people what we are doing on this planet and why we are here, for some greater purpose than to go to the mall, we shall not end terrorism, or the insurrection. Without some larger view that includes time and culture and brotherhood or sisterhood, the parade of those who would just as soon go on to paradise immediately will continue. So long as democrats or republicans fail to achieve a new statement which includes the promise of history, some promise beyond the slogans of freedom, the current debate will remain over inconsequentials and not touch the essentials and things will remain more or less the same.
This is not to say that the elections of 2006 will not be important, or that all is hopeless. Creativity and new stories do not come from satisfaction and complacency and so in that sense it is good that we are into this crisis. A time of chaos is also, of course, a time of maximum possibility.
The reason, however, that this is a crisis and not just another election opportunity, is that one response to uncertainty and ideological confusion is the temptation to try to clear up everything militarily. This is a response that attracted citizens of ancient Athens in the 6th century BC or the Senate of ancient Rome in 32 BC. Our disgruntled public faces that temptation today and is being lured into support for empire and militarism. Consistently, the president claims war powers for a war which he himself can declare, without formal declaration of congress. He argues that under Article II of the Constitution the commander in chief, after he has declared his own war, can undertake surveillance of Americans and do so in direct contradiction, as an intentional override, of an act of congress which explicitly limits such surveillance. If a president can overrule congress at any time when he may unilaterally choose to declare war, there may be no limit to the wars he may thereafter declare and the powers he might thereafter claim.
This is so important it bears repeating. If under the general terms of Article II, presidential fiat can overturn formally adopted legislation, then the founding fathers’ legislative check on executive power has been nullified. If, further, the president can assume such plenary powers in any case when he himself declares war, without congressional declaration, there may be no practical restraint on whim or personal political interest of the incumbent president. One wonders if such powers could not also flow from the ‘War on Drugs,’ which was also declared by presidential fiat. Could such powers flow from ‘the Cold War’ declared by a Briton, Winston Churchill in his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1948? And could such war powers not be maintained indefinitely, for so long as the president (and not the congress) may choose? And if one president could claim such powers for one purpose, could not another president choose such powers for another purpose and is this any different than Julius Caesar declaring unto himself the powers of the Senate of Rome? And is the end result for the republic any less predictable?
There is nothing inevitable here. The Senate and House may resist this temptation to turn our democracy into a military state. But there are huge pressures, untold numbers of lobbyists urging the cause of empire and American self interest in the Middle East and who seem to be urging that our interests be accomplished militarily, just as Julius Caesar did, or for that matter just as any modern dictator might. America’s modern militarists claim to be idealistically urging the cause of freedom, or of Israel, but the practical effect of their policy is to turn a blind eye to the dismantling of democracy at home. There is no end to the money to be made in the military business and therefore no end to the constant lobbying pressure in congress to succumb to this temptation. In our day it is not therefore just one Caesar who is pushing for the dissolution of presidential restraint, it is the lobbying army of the whole military industrial complex.
Whether in 2006 the military story, the Article II story of all power to the president, prevails, or whether the civil story, the story of American decency and restraint, of equality of opportunity and compassion, prevails, will depend upon those who are not in politics to set the stage or create the climate for those who are in politics. It will depend upon those who sing and dance the dignity of human nature in the pursuit, not of property, but of happiness, not of dominion, but of community. They will have to do their work in advance of the politicians, because that is always the way. Whether the civil story is to survive will depend upon the power of some new articulation to pull us away from the lure of violence and excitement of bombs exploding. It will depend upon those in the pulpits leading us, not to self satisfaction and isolation, but to community engagement and sacrifice. It will depend upon community activists who turn their anger to positive deeds and singers who turn their sorrow to hymns of praise for the courage of Kathy Kelly and Rachel Corey and nameless other heroes of a new kind. It will depend upon scientists standing up for science and poets speaking truth to power and playwrights searching out the modern-day likes of Macbeth and Lear and Iago. It will depend upon all of us to weave the tapestry of the culture we want and not just react against the culture we don’t want.
The picture of the year to come is, therefore, more in the hands of all us civilian weavers than in the hands of the politicians, who—it must be said—so often live in whitened sepulchers, or are still led by blind guides. It will depend upon teachers willing to fashion not only the deconstruction of modern icons, but who, like the Galilean of 2000 years ago, fashion the construction of a gentler, nobler story of our purpose here on earth.
Perhaps as much as at any time in our history, the state of the union in 2006 will be determined by acts of conscience and kindness, reverence for the law, community norms and traditions of our past, and at last upon the courage of people like you and me who will take out our lamps from under their bushels, seize the initiative in a hundred, hundred ways, and do what we know how to do, nor wait to be told what we cannot do. From all these acts of conscience and from those who sing the dignity of the human spirit will gradually emerge the new narrative, the new myth, the new theory and story of civilization.
It is said that gold is tried in the crucible and goodness in the fires of adversity. And so it is that we have come to our adversity and this would be an ideal year to make good use of it.