Friday, September 29, 2006

This is My Country!

America is not an idea. America is not an ideal. America is a country. The bill just passed by the Senate, is proof of that. What is appalling is not that the Senate would pass it; what is appalling is that anyone thinks it is a good idea.

But: this is not the America I grew up in? This is not "my America"? Of course it is. This is not my idea of America. But my idea of America has never reflected the reality of the country. This is the act of a country. This is what countries do. It's long past time we got past the idea that America is unique, special, extraordinary, or different from any other nation, empire, republic, or democracy that humankind has ever established. It isn't. This isn't the Shining City on the Hill. This isn't the Last Best Hope of Humankind. This isn't the Greatest Country in the World.

This is just another nation in the roster of nations. We are not an idea, an ideal, a hope, a dream, the "other Eden, demi-paradise, [a] fortress built by Nature for herself/Against infection and the hand of war," this is not a "happy breed of men, [a] little world, [a] precious stone set in the silver sea,/Which serves it in the office of a wall/Or as a moat defensive to a house,/Against the envy of less happier lands." Had you ever considered just how deeply our exclusionism and exceptionalism is rooted in our Anglo-Saxon heritage? Truly, we are no different from the rest of the world at all. This law proves it.

This is what nations do. This is how nations behave. This is why Jesus told his accusers: "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's." Because Caesar always demands his cut, and always demands it in the name of peace and tranquility and safety and morality. And it never guarantees or even establishes peace, or tranquility, or safety, and it is never, ever, moral.

But that is what nations do. That is what they are.

I have a fat new book on my desk, a gift of happenstance. It is titled Dissent in America: The Voices that Shaped a Nation. The quotes yesterday were taken from that book. Ever heard of the people I quoted? Not likely, unless you were a history major. Even "Mother" Jones would be an obscure footnote if someone hadn't named a magazine for her. It's the subtitle that intrigues me, there. "Voices that shaped a nation"? By her own admission, Mother Jones didn't accomplish anything for the children she marched to Oyster Bay. And she didn't begin to address the root problem of poverty and low wages that forced the families to put the children to work at the age of 10. Did the lies and the poverty stop because Pennsylvania raised the age for child labor to 14? And we still don't treat the original inhabitants of this country as if they were human beings. Ask Dee Brown. Ask Sherman Alexie.

"Ain't that America," too? Isn't that my country, as well?

Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for having a dream. But he was vilified for being against the Vietnam War, told by no less an august supporter than the Washington Post editorial page to, in essence, "shut up and preach." He died at a rally seeking economic justice for sanitation workers. What economic justice did they obtain, and how long did they keep it? Who in America today enjoys "economic justice"? I'd love to meet them.

I said this new book was fat. It runs to almost 800 pages, starts in the 17th century and runs to the 21st century. The only thing it lacks is a trenchant analysis, like this:

The temptation to disavow the responsibilities of human freedom or to leave human potentialities undeveloped usually assails the weak, rather than the strong. In the Biblical parable it was the "one talent" man hwo "hid his treasure in the ground." Our nation ought, therefore, not take too much credit for having mastered a temptation which assailed us for several decades. It was a rather unique historical phenomenon that a nation with our potentialities should have been tempted to isolationism and withdrawal from world responsiblities. Various factors contribued to the persuasiveness of the temptation. We were so strong and our continental security seemed so impregnable (on cursory glance at least) that we were encouraged in the illusion that we could live our own life without too much regard for a harassed world. Our sense of superior virtue over the alleged evils of European civilization and our fear of losing our innocency if we braved the tumults of world politics, added spiritual vanity to ignoble prudence as the second cause of our irresponsiblity. We thought we might keep ourselves free of the evils of a warring world and thus preserve a health civilization, amidst the expected doom of a decrepit one. This hope of furnishing the seed-corn for a new beginning persuaded moral idealists to combine with cynical realists in propounding the policy of power without responsibility.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1952), p. 131.

Niebuhr's point of reference is clearly World War II; but how difficult is it to update this passage to the 21st century? We still rely on our moral superiority but now, rather than retreat from the world, we take the lesson of the same war Niebuhr refers to as a teaching about power, and we exert it ruthlessly. Unable to stay free from a warring world, we now seek to remake it in our own image. Moral idealists like Paul Wolfowitz or George W. Bush combine with cynical realists like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and we have the new policy of power without responsibility, exemplified in Rumsfeld's latest denials of the conclusions of the NIE about Iraq. And our excuse is 9/11, which proved we were not impregnable; just as Iraq is proving we are not strong. But who in public office will admit that last lesson? Donald Rumsfeld jawboned us into war by denouncing "old Europe," and the only change in Niebuhr's analysis is that now we include Middle Eastern civilization in the equation, going so far as to look askance as the cultural treasures of humanity were looted in the first days of the invasion of Baghdad. We have been so irresponsible every step of the way that the battle cry of the Bush critics is "Accountability!" And yet the Congress has passed another law making us as unaccountable for our actions as possible. As Niebuhr says, this temptation usually assails the weak. But looking at the present situation, who but the willfully blind can say that this nation in its relationships with the other nations of the world, is strong?

This is our country. Today, the day after the Congress has approved torture and exempted CIA agents from charges of war crimes and given the President powers no President has ever had in US history; this is still our country. This is what countries do. This is what governments are about. The aggregation and use and abuse of power. And nothing in the system stops it, or ever has, or ever saves us. There is no savior who will do this for us. We only do it ourselves. That's what makes it our country, too, and not just theirs. This is our country.

And what do we do about it? The only thing we can do: we dissent. We lead the children in a march on Oyster Bay, and get ignored by the President, and take the children back home to the poverty they had known, but this time it's worse because the strike has been broken and the mill workers still have to work or starve, and if a few years later one state passes a law raising the minimum working age to 14, we call it a start. And we keep dissenting. Because we see a world that is wrong; or unjust; or unfair; or just so much unlike the kingdom of God we refuse to put up with it, and simply by living in the kingdom we are radical, and dissenting, and a squeaky wheel that must be greased, or a stubborn, demanding widow that even the judge has to listen to, just to make us go away. We get justice anyway we can, in whatever measure we can, and we go back and ask for some more. And when that's not enough, we ask for some more. And we never stop asking, because we never get enough. Because Niebuhr was right: institutions don't exist to deal in justice and fairness and equality: they exist to maintain the survival of the institution, of the group. Which means the situation is never good enough, and has never been better than this, and will only, at best, get marginally better than this.

And so we dissent. Because this, whatever the status quo is, is just not good enough. And because we can do better.

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