Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 July 2009

Independence Day


[For comment on Sarah Palin’s discordant swan song, click here.]

The Fourth of July is an odd holiday. Unlike Thanksgiving, it is not a day of quiet contemplation with family and close friends. It is a day of excess—of fireworks, of too much sun and grilled meat, of bombast, of self-congratulation and (in the worst of times) of breast-beating and jingoism.

Perhaps the time of year makes a difference. Thanksgiving comes at the end of fall, when failing light and warmth remind us of our human vulnerability and mortality. The Fourth comes in the heat of summer, when life seems easy, at least for the moment. The harvest is not yet in, and hot weather can stoke unfounded hope, ebullience, hubris and irrational exuberance.

In a way, that’s too bad. We have never needed quiet contemplation more. For we could be on the cusp of great renewal or greater decline. Our collective attitude will determine which.

This year we have more than the usual number of blessings to count. We still have our Declaration, with its promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and its assurance that “all men are created equal.”

This year those glowing words gleam more brightly than ever. We have a member of a once-enslaved minority in the White House, and he seems our wisest, smartest and most competent leader in many years. More than any words, those two facts prove the power of that promise of equality.

Today we sing the Star Spangled Banner. Its words recall the improbability of our experiment in democracy and justice. Its most indelible image comes in the chorus: our flag, tattered but still waving, in the dawn after a night’s fierce bombardment. Like that flag, we have enormous resilience as a people. Other societies endure paralysis and social stagnation. We pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, renew ourselves, and do what must be done.

Like that flag, we have just survived a devastating bombardment of our own stupidity and greed. We seem to have avoided the worst, a complete economic collapse. We have learned the Great Depression’s lessons well. We turned to much-disparaged government to repair the excesses of an immoral and profligate age. We will probably need another stimulus, and we just may have the good sense to provide it.

Our anthem’s images of war recall other trials and sacrifices. This year we are on the way out of our second unnecessary war in two generations. We may even have turned that disaster into a partial success.

More important, our national trial taught us an enduring lesson. At last we have accepted Von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means. We learned that killing the “enemy” is less important than protecting ordinary people and gaining their support. We understand that changing minds is both more right and more effective than destroying the bodies that house them.

Only days ago we began testing that truth in Afghanistan. We tasked our 4,000 marines in Helmand Province not with devastation, but with building communities.

That strategy is self evidently the right one. Why it took a nation founded on respect for the common person so long to discover it is a mystery of history. Whether we have the will, skill, patience and resources to follow it to a successful conclusion remains to be seen.

But what about here at home? How does our own ordinary citizen fare?

For forty years, we have abused our common citizen so that a small class of elite could grow richer and more powerful. And we have done so in a uniquely American way.

With advertising and so-called “public relations,” we have created human history’s most powerful and effective propaganda machine. By means of seductive calls to slippery abstractions, we have convinced whole swaths of ordinary people to vote against their own economic and social interests, again and again, year after year. And we have done so so subtly and earnestly that most of them don’t even know it. We have made Caesar and Goebbels look like pikers.

But abuse is abuse, and oppression is oppression, no matter how subtle they may be. In the richest and most powerful nation on earth—and the one conceived with the best intentions—common people are more insecure, more vulnerable to adversity, less healthy, less wealthy (compared to the elite) and more confused than many of their foreign peers and than they themselves have been in the last half century. Our massive propaganda apparatus has got them to believe lies that impair their health and threaten their future every day. Although massively discredited by recent history, still the propaganda machine grinds on.

And that’s why we find ourselves on the cusp today. We can turn away from the myths and propaganda. We can believe in ourselves again, incur the temporary debt we must, restore our middle class, repair our badly broken health-care system, and build new industries to save our planet and restore our industrial might. Or we can heed the propagandists, do nothing, and let the self-seeking paper shufflers drive last best hope of mankind into accelerating decline.

The choice is ours. We like our popular President, his easy manner, his brains and his good humor. But we have not yet accepted fully his wise leadership. The last forty years’ myths and propaganda still hold us in thrall. We know the path we have been on leads to ruin, but we blanch at stepping from the familiar into the unknown.

If we can take that hard step—if we can have the faith in ourselves that has always distinguished Americans—we will earn an independence that we sorely need. We will be independent of self-interested propaganda. We will grow independent of foreign oil. We will become independent of fear about our health—to the extent that the world’s greatest medical technology permits. And we will restore the pragmatism and common sense that have characterized us as a people since De Tocqueville’s time.

Now that would be an Independence Day to cherish forever! Maybe next year.

Sarah and Sonia: A Post-Fourth Note

There is one more thing we’re now blessedly independent of that I didn’t mention: Sarah Palin.

Mareen Dowd nailed it today. Palin isn’t planning some secret political cabal for 2012. She hasn’t a trace of the brains—let alone the discipline and stamina—of an Obama or a Hillary Clintion. She failed to gain national glory in a single year, so she’s taking her marbles and going home. Good riddance!

It’s a mystery how “conservatives” could have considered Palin for national public office for more than a microsecond. She’s everything true conservatives detest. She’s an ignoramus who scorns education and expertise. She knows nothing about history or our national values. She has no persistence or perseverance; she expects instant success in everything she does. She’s an “American Idol” sort of American.

Like an eager but unprepared ingénue, Palin got “discovered” for her big break. But she found the path steeper after leaving a state with fewer people than (as one blog commenter put it) a good concert in Central Park.

Those who think Palin is a champion of the Second Amendment should think again. Most Alaskans don’t shoot for sport or self-protection; they shoot for meat. A moose or caribou can feed a family for an entire winter, at the price of one bullet if you shoot straight.

Most immigrants to Alaska didn’t go there to make the world better; they went there to escape it. For those of us old enough to remember, the fringe that Palin personifies recalls an earlier fringe forty years ago: the hippies. Except for the fundamentalist religion and right-wing ideology, it’s all the same: the narcissism, the escapism, the boundless ignorance, the unfounded moral superiority, the lack of discipline, the irresponsibility—even saddling kids with odd names that will haunt them the rest of their lives. If you visited San Francisco’s infamous Haight-Ashbury District in the sixties, you’ve seen it all before.

Palinites are hippies with Bibles and guns. If history runs true, they’ll lead the Republicans over the same political cliff and into the same forty-year political wilderness as the hippies led the Democrats two generations ago.

Conservatives, indeed! True conservatives, from Alexander Hamilton to Teddy Roosevelt, would convulse with laughter or terror at the thought of Palin in the White House. Probably even Barry Goldwater would. (Reagan the Actor I’m not so sure about. He cut his teeth on show business, and he wasn’t very bright.)

If you want to see a woman who has lived conservative values, look at someone else much in the news lately: Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Raised in a housing project by a single mother, she kept her eye on the ball. She excelled in school, got herself into Princeton and Yale Law (the nation’s most selective law school), got experience in prosecution, corporate law, and civil rights and only then took a seat on the bench.

Unlike Palin, Sotomayor paid her dues. She delayed gratification for decades of serious study, hard work, patience and discipline. She didn’t look for glory in a single year.

Judge Sotomayor has gotten lots of flack for her “wise Latina woman” remark. But I think I know what was on her mind when she made it. When she first went to Princeton, it was mostly male and lily white. She was all alone and alienated, feeling the homesickness and insecurity that every freshman feels. But there was a difference: there was no one like her on campus to share her stories and her pain.

No doubt she called home and friends tearfully may times during that tough first year. I’ll bet dollars to donuts some wise Latina woman—probably her mother—told her, “Stick with it, kid! Don’t quit! Make something of yourself!”

Anyone one who’d prefer Palin as a role model to Sotomayor is smoking something awfully strong. Maybe that’s being “conservative” today, but it’s not what the word meant when I was growing up.

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