Americans learn from the cradle up that their safety depends on their government “protecting and defending the constitution”. For their part, they are taught to pledge allegiance to the flag. Both groups are signed, sealed and delivered like packages to whatever schemes - and we learn of new ones every day - those in power have decided to pursue.
It occurred to me recently that I know of no other country that is based on these two cultural artifacts. I could be wrong, of course, and would welcome information to the contrary. But while learned books are appearing about how to fix the constitution, I’m not aware of any scholar questioning the appropriateness of having a political class that swears to uphold it, rather than do what is best for their citizens, with no preconditions.
Not that other governments eschew scheming. Not at all. It’s merely a question of context and extent. But citizens who have not been taught mantras are more likely to see through the scheming and, when necessary, take to the streets to stop it. We learn that this is a sign of inferiority, as the possible outcome that a new constitution will be written. But even constitutions eventually outlive their relevance, no matter how long they’ve been in effect (the familiar “it’s served us so well for so long”. But has it? Even to the extent that it has, life is change, and what served in one epoch may be counter-productive at another.
Of course, it’s not altogether surprising that this country should have been set up this way: after all, it was about becoming independent of the major power on earth at the time, which in fact soon found an ally (France) to threaten us via the Indians (we had to ward them off too and they were not in favor of a constitution that did little for them). So that formulation, protect and defend the constitution, was one of the things that ensured our survival as a nation.
But now? We are signed, sealed ad delivered to accept Halliburton, Enron, Blackwater, Cheney and his machinations, religious extremism at home and imperialist adventures abroad.
How can we say no if it’s not in the Constitution? (It IS in the Declaration of Independence, but guess what, that’s not what our leaders promise to defend...)
The latest trick legislation that goes under the sinister title of get this, “The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act’, sponsored by none other than the Democrat Jane Harmon, and passed in the house with only seven dissenting votes, is our way of laying the legal groundwork for doing what Musharraf is doing in Pakistan,such as dissolving the supreme court and arresting thousands of lawyers.
This Constitution that our representatives swear to protect, allows that, and explains why we continue to support Musharraf.
Even when it comes to more innocuous bills, legislators spend precious time and our money arguing about whether they would be constitutional. If the legislators cannot agree, then the argument gets kicked upstairs to the supreme court, where it becomes apparent just how much hay you can make with those split hairs.
The Constitution also seasons issues of states versus federal rights with extra salt to rub in the wounds of those who suffer abuse.
And on and on.
With elected officials committed in advance to accepting the constitutional straightjacket over every small matter, however trivial, and citizens taught to stand at attention and gawk at the flag as if it were he Madonna, how can we hope to change anything in this country?
How can we change how elections are held (the electoral college is sacrosanct)?
How can we get rid of lobbyists? They will evoke freedom of speech, as will fascist marchers, (even as we combat “islamo-facism” elsewhere);
How can we elect a congress that will consist of citizen legislators, there for a limited time to fix a particular problem that each one feels strongly about?
How can we transform our foreign policy in such a way that the rest of the world understands we know we’re part of the problem?
When we commit to defending a document that, taken literally, has no relevance in today’s world, we end up betraying the ideals it was intended to serve.
When citizens pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth, they don’t question what the piece of cloth represents, whether it be racial discrimination at home or abroad - (which is what our wars are about).
Let’s hear it for politicians who pledge to serve the best interests of their citizens, and citizens who view flags the way ladies in court viewed them in tournaments - as decorative representations of individual valor.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
I hate it when CNN repeats yesterday's news as though it just happened - they do that especially on weekends, not breaking news, of course, but still. Yet his weekend I was glad that the hour usually devoted to the ravings of Lou Dobbs ran large excerpts from the Democratic debate that took place the other night in Nevada, with Wolf Blitzer presiding. I think both Wolf and Musharraf need to go.
So used to treating interviews and news as spectacles, Blitzer had obviously very deliberately prepared a series of either/or questions, thus abetting the disunity that cries out for repair in the country, Several times, Obama, Edwards and Kucinic stood up to his stubborn insistence that they accept his dictates.
Blitzer was trying to play gotcha, asking the candidates to answer yes or no about drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants, merit pay for teachers (which the unions oppose), and targeted Kucinich with a question reminiscent of McCarthyism: “Is there anything the unions are for that you disagree with?” Kucinic didn’t lose his cool, and enumerated all the things he agrees with, starting from the fact that unions are crucial, and ending with something the unions wanted, (I don’t remember what it was) and which he most firmly disagreed with, adding “L’m no patsy.”
Others played Blitzer’s game, like Chris Dodd who sermonized that we needed unity, intimating that Obama, Edwards and by inference Kucinich, were trying to foment class war (the dirtiest word in the Democratic vocabulary). But if all he candidates were on the same page we could just pick straws to see who would be the nominee.
In other news tonight, the OPEC leaders met in an incandescently lit, humoungus - what to call it - a hall, a meeting room, there’s no word for it unless it’s oversize Arabian tent lit with huge gazillion kilowatt chandeliers - to discuss whether to ensure to the West that all of them hate a dependable supply of oil at affordable prices. No fools, they know their economies would collapse of ours did. Only the President of Ecuador, speaking also for Chavez, suggested OPEC levy a tax on consumption to further efforts to halt climate change. As with its attitude toward women, the oil monarchies didn’t get it.
This bring us back to Wolf Blaster, as Craig Eisendrath recently christened him in an original adn very successful interactive play about the nuclear danger. Like a child demanding his reward for eating his carrots (sic), Blitzer demanded the candidates tell him whether they considered human rights more important than security, and since the major players wouldn’t let him have his simplistic way he came back to the charge with “Security or democracy? Which is more important?” The palm for snidenss goes to Biden, who at one point quipped: “I know we’re not supposed to answer the question.”
Echoing the irony of the garishly lit conference not discussing climate change, the faithful elephant-in-the-room, John Negroponte, spent the weekend telling the dictator of the week, Musharraf, that he must consider democracy more important than security, because he is the one we trust to keep a firm military grip on Pakistan’s nukes - millitary which we hope against hope will finish off the Taliban on the border with Afghanistan. Meanwhile, we want him to let Benazir Bhutto run in “free and fair elections” to be prime minister, because she is a westernized figure, but we do not demand that he reinstate the supreme court judges he removed.
The ultimate irony is that all this is in fact about class war, and equity. If the world would only stand still for a day or two, I could write about that.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
This week’s Economist lead editorial starts by saying that Pakistan is prey to a “frightening extremist fringe”. it comes closer to the truth a few paragraphs later, when it confesses that “the cancer of extremist violence has spread from the lawless tribal areas” to the rest of Pakistan and beyond.
The problem in the on-going analysis of what to do about Pakistan lies in belief in the first statement rather than the second.
When we realize that a significant majority of Pakistanis are sympathetic to fundamentalist Islam, the problem of what to do about Musharraf is resolved: either accept the will of the majority of Pakistanis, while encouraging education and development that will eventually tip the balance in favor of the minority group of Westernized citizens, or realize that the “stans” should be left to their own devices, oil or not.
If you think I am exaggerating, any country that has a lunatic fringe also has a more or less significant population that relates to it. All you have to do is consider that France’s center right parties have for decades had to campaign in such a way as to discourage their voters from voting with the extreme right. The same is true of the situation of the Republican Party vis a vis our religious fundamentalists.
But the self-induced illusions that affect the analysis of America’s dilemma have a second cause. The left having for so many decades been considered beyond the pale, the majority of Americans who are steadfastly against the war in Iraq are referred to as “the anti-war left” or at best the anti-war ‘wing’ of the Democratic Party. Since this fails to accurately describe the American public reality, congress is like a blind man stumbling in an unlit tunnel.
Democrats need to finally abandon the cushioned recliner of “liberalism” for the straight-backed chair of progressivism. The price of failure is to leave America open to the same violence we deplore among lesser-developed polities; for revolutions occur when the progressive center fails the majority. (And history shows that revolutions are invariably led by members of that group.)
Only when congress as a whole brings out of the closet the fact that the majority of Americans want us to get out of Iraq and not to invade Iran, will it be able to behave like a truly representative body: standing firmly against the President and if necessary impeaching him. The fact that polls are not taken on the subject is similar to the misnaming of progressives as “liberals”.
Being mislead by the adversary’s words is bad enough. Being mislead by our own words is abysmal.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, addressing the joint houses of congress today, is likely to please those who, having claimed that Communism represented a “clear and present danger”, now use the same incantatory formula to describe “Islamo fascism”.
But if the new French president appears to be more supportive of US policy in the Middle East, Democrats would do well to focus on those essentials of French history that are likely to make him more nuanced in the implementation of his approach, Not only does France have a long history of cultural involvement in Africa and the Middle East, not even a right-wing leader can turn his back on a revolution which, though two centuries old like ours, inspired egalitarian reforms that, like our own New Deal, came into being before the second world war, but unlike ours, grew over time.
That is due to the essential difference between the French and the American revolutions, one based on liberty, equality, fraternity, which implies solidarity, the other based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which implies it’s each man for himself. These differences explain the difficulty we always seem to have getting other democracies to follow our impetuous lead.
Here’s an interesting exercise: consult the constitution of the Communist Party USA as amended in July, 2001, and compare them to the injunctions of the Koran as laid out by the eminent Muslim scholar Tarik Ramadan. You have to be blind not to see their similarities. Both are about equity, recommending behavior that improves the quality of life of the majority, building on what may be considered the secular ten commandments: thou shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness, or covet thy neighbor’s possessions.
Although the Greeks considered slavery natural, and India still retains a caste system, in the modern world it wasn’t until the notion of the survival of the fittest brought on the political idea of “natural selection” that the Protestant work ethic turned into a justification for inequality.
We’re entering a period of increasing confusion at home and abroad, when it will pay to keep one’s eye on the equity ball: What we continue to call “the Middle East” extends from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan, where tribal inequality is exacerbated by the presence of foreign boots on the ground.
Were there any doubt about the relevance of inequality to the present turmoil, the sight of supine lawmakers in both Islamabad and Washington should serve to convince skeptics that power and its exercise are distressingly familiar whatever the tribal customs or the regime.
By always keeping their eye on the equity ball, modern European governments such as President Sarkozy’s manage to maintain more decency in their relations with society than either we or those we disdain.
I will write more about the implications of this for the Democratic candidates in my next blog.
Monday, November 5, 2007
An astonishing TV commercial this morning forces me to drop everything and prioritize my blog. I believe it was a brokerage firm that came up with this:
“ 2000 bottles of the best wine in his cellar, but this man has never lost touch with his inner meatloaf.”
Maybe it’s because we have a president who says, when addressing the troops: “The best way to fight evil is to do good. The best way to fight evil at home is to do good, the best way to fight evil abroad is to send in the military.”
The look on Bush’s face as he uttered the last few words suggests that he may have realized the danger of his words once they were out of his mouth. But of course that won’t change anything. Turkey, Israel and Pakistan will continue to be supported by our meatloaf dollars, even when they can’t figure out who’s on who’s side.
And Lou Dobbs will continue to be allowed to insult the Governor of New York by calling him Prince Elliot, even as the airwaves tremble (figuratively speaking!) from the vibrations of nooses swinging in the wind.
Some commentators will mock those who, having claimed that Communism represented a “clear and present danger”, now use the same incantatory formula to describe “Islamo fascism”.
But if you consult the constitution of the Communist Party USA as amended in July, 2001, and the injunctions of the Koran as described by the eminent European scholar Tarik Ramadan, you cannot help but notice their similarities. Both are about equity, recommending behavior that improves the quality of life of the majority, building on what may be considered the secular ten commandments: thou shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness, or covet thy neighbor’s possessions. Although the Greeks considered slavery natural, and India still retains a caste system, in the modern world it wasn’t until the notion of the survival of the fittest brought on the political idea of “natural selection” that the Protestant work ethic turned into a justification for inequality.
We’re entering a period of increasing confusion at home and abroad, when it wil pay to keep one’s eye on the equity ball: What we continue to call “the Middle East” extends from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan, where inequality is exacerbated by the presence of foreign boots on the ground. At home, the wine drinking Democratic Party has allowed successive fears of clear and present dangers to muddle its commitment to equity, effectively echoing a famous historical figure who ended up on the guillotine, by leaving progressives to eat meatloaf.