Monday, September 14, 2009

on the anniversay of 9-11

[I meant to write this on Friday – the eighth anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 – but I got distracted by the whole Joe Wilson matter. And it was 87 degrees in Seattle so I didn’t really feel like sitting around writing. The glorious weather continued through the weekend, and when you live on a houseboat in Seattle you don’t take good weather for granted. So I have lost a bit of the timeliness of my theme. But better that than having it go the way of most of my thoughts – transitory and undocumented.]

It is worth recalling the anniversary of 9-11 if for no other reason than to contrast it with the national mood today.

Those attacks brought the nation together. Despite the fact that Bush didn’t do much of anything immediately in response – other than to fly around the country on Air Force One trying to evade would-be attackers – his approval rate among the American people jumped to 90%. In contrast with President Obama, who won the presidency decisively, Bush had lost the popular vote by 500,000 votes and only squeaked through with an Electoral College win thanks to a partisan 5-4 Supreme Court vote (in the worst Supreme Court decision in my lifetime). If any president deserved to be treated as illegitimate, it was Bush. But the country supported him because the attacks of 9-11 reminded us that we are all, in fact, Americans. Not just autonomous individual consumption machines – but part of a larger collective. A community. A nation. And, for better or worse (worse, as it turned out), President Bush was the country’s leader.

Flags sprouted everywhere. As if the National Anthem wasn’t enough, “God Bless America” was added to the displays of patriotism at the beginning of sporting events.

Red state Americans even embraced New York City – previously viewed by many as a den of iniquity inhabited by liberals and scary brown people – as the spiritual focus of this new national unity. The Congressional vote on the Authorization For The Use of Force in Afghanistan (
420 to 1 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate) was only one vote away from being unanimous, and the vote on the “USA PATRIOT Act” (357 to 66 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate) was overwhelming for such a sweeping and controversial piece of legislation. The country, to a degree unseen since World War II, was united.

Alas, Bush decided to take the power that a united country gave him and use it for narrow partisan and ideological purposes. Karl Rove even publicly articulated a strategy for the 2002 mid-term elections built on turning national security into a partisan “wedge” issue. It is not unfair to acknowledge that Bush was the first sitting president in the country’s history who actively sought to divide the country during a time of war (actually, two wars, which continue to this day). Incredible. The nation’s leader at a time of war actively seeking to divide the country for partisan gain. For that alone, Bush will almost certainly go down as the worst president in history.

Those attempts to divide the country succeeded. Many of the most ardent “patriots” in the aftermath of 9-11 are today, against all rationality, insisting that our democratically-elected leader is not even an American. They are taking guns to public meetings held by our elected officials and even by our president. They are equating our government to the worst regimes in the history of mankind. Even some governors are talking nonsense about “secession.” (I’ve been taking to quoting Gail Collins a lot lately. I loved her
line last week that, “there are some patriots who love the country so much that they would like to see their state secede from the union.”) Every day, it seems, new lows of incivility and outright craziness are reached. It is hard to attribute that to the prospect of extending health insurance to most of those Americans who currently lack it. Rather, I fear it is a new tribalism based on political party, ideology, and even race. Instead of a nation “indivisible” we are at risk of becoming a collection of warring tribes.

I attribute much of this to an anti-government ideology that has gripped the country for the past 30 years, metastasizing like a cancer. Government has its limitations and potential dangers. We need to guard against its excesses just as we need to be cognizant of the limitations and potential excesses of the market and concentrated corporate power. Neither government nor the market are inherently good or evil. They are both means not ends. Like any instrument of humanity, they can be used for either good or evil. But this notion that the government of the United States of America is our enemy is unhealthy and destructive. I fear it has increasingly undermined our ability as a society to achieve great or even basic, necessary things.

A Republican friend recently sent me a collection of anti-government quotations from Ronald Reagan with the subject line of the email, “Do you miss this guy?” (with the implication being that we should). There was a time (maybe while reading Ayn Rand as a college sophomore) when those quotations might have seemed wise or at least amusing. Now I find them … well, sophomoric.

And, then, there was the definitive anti-government quote from Reagan:
‘Government is not the solution to our problems; it is the problem.’
Well, Reagan may have thought that government was the problem, but a year ago when the global financial system was melting down, it was the only solution. Ignoring the lessons learned during the Great Depression and dismantling financial regulation to free the “animal spirits” of Wall Street didn’t work out too well.

Eight years ago, we were all proud to be Americans. Our neighbors were our fellow country men and women. Today, right-wingers profess their hatred of our government. But it was that government that won World War II and the Cold War. It was our government that built the interstate highway system and the Internet. It was our government that harnessed the power of the atom and put a man on the moon. It was our government that brought about rural electrification and built the Western water projects that made it possible for millions of people to live in deserts like Southern California, Nevada and Arizona. It was our government that created the first national parks (the subject of a
new 12-hour Ken Burn series), setting aside special places like Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon for future generations to enjoy (and those were controversial decisions at the time, as “conservatives” thought the government had no business putting such places off limits to exploitation – the Seattle Times recently had a good column on the bitter fight to create Mount Rainier National Park).

It was the GI Bill after World War II that sent a generation to college and allowed them to own their own homes and laid the foundation for the post-War prosperity and the creation of a broad middle class.

And, yes, our government enacted revolutionary social policies like universal public education, the 40 hour work week, repeal of child labor, the minimum wage, Social Security, and Medicare (the latter two allowing Americans to grow old without fear of living in abject poverty with no health care). We also gave women the vote and passed laws making it illegal to discriminate against minority groups and women. The Civil Rights laws had to be enforced by the Federal Government against states that had institutionalized racial discrimination. (The result, as we know, is that the Southern states went from being solidly Democratic to being solidly Republican because many citizens of those states resented – and to this day still resent – the federal government forcing them to stop their apartheid policies.) We also passed laws to clean up our air and water – something “free markets” left to themselves can’t do because individual and corporate polluters don’t bear most of the costs of their polluting activities. (Yesterday’s New York Times had an
epic piece of journalism on the degradation of our nation’s drinking water and the lack of enforcement of our clean water laws over recent years.) All these things were opposed by anti-government “conservatives” at the time. Yet most Americans couldn’t imagine going back to the way it was before these government-led social reforms. (Indeed, much of the focus of anti-government protests this summer was to “keep the government’s hands off our Medicare.” Only in America could the defense of a major government program against any changes become integrated into anti-government ideology.)

I am proud of all these things (I’m sure you could think of a lot more). The “government” of the United States of America is not my enemy. The anti-government ideology that has taken root over the past 30 years is the source of much of the cynicism and hostility toward our government that has made it almost impossible for us to collectively tackle big problems – like extending health insurance to the tens of millions of Americans who currently lack it. Imagine someone proposing the interstate highway system today. (A comparable contemporary equivalent might be a massive effort to wean ourselves from carbon-based fuels in favor of renewable sources of energy. Or even something more modest like a national system of high-speed rail. This is hardly cutting-edge stuff. Japan built the first “bullet trains” in the 1960’s. Even Spain now has
trains that can run at over 220 miles per hour as part of what will become a network of 10,000 miles of high-speed rail lines. But we have our anti-government ideology and a lot of worthless mortgage-backed securities.)

This anti-government ideology may have reached its most extreme manifestation four years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those images of New Orleans are what it looks like to be “on your own” with an anti-government crony in charge of disaster relief.

Imagine proposing universal public education today (one of the best bits of
President Obama’s speech on health care last week was his defense of a “public option” for health insurance by citing the fact that “public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities”). There is no way you could enact Social Security or Medicare in today’s ideological environment.

I recently saw a Vietnam vet wearing a t-shirt with an eagle and a flag that said, “Freedom Isn’t Free.” I thought that would make a great bumper sticker with the addition of the phrase, “That’s why we have to pay taxes.” Whenever I receive an email urging us to honor the sacrifices of our service men and women I’m tempted to reply, “That’s why not whining about paying your taxes is, literally, the least you can do.”

On the anniversary of 9-11 it is worth recalling that the firefighters and police officers we celebrated as heroes as were government workers (and unionized government workers at that). The victims of the Pentagon attack we mourned were “federal government bureaucrats”. And when we pledged allegiance to the flag it was to “the Republic for which it stands.”

There are a lot of important things that we can’t accomplish solely by us all acting on our own as autonomous, selfish little consumers. President Obama has inherited huge problems. Not everything he does will work out well. But that is true of all human endeavor. Growth and change are what makes a person, an organization or a country strong. The government of the United States of America is our government. It is a means for accomplishing a lot of things that couldn’t be accomplished any other way. If we are blinded by ideology to its potential, we sacrifice much of our potential as a community and, yes, even as individuals.


Gilmoure said...

Thank you. Very well said.

DoctorB said...

Very well said. I am going to use your additional line for "freedom isn't free" the next time one of my "conservative" friends whines about taxes.

Let me also say that I was initially pointed to your site by David Brin's blog. I have found your discussions to be well-thought out, provocative and educational. Please keep it up.

Christian Fulghum said...

Well said, Russ. I also think the "Freedom isn't free..." addition is too good not be a bumpersticker.