HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 7, 2008
From Liberty Street

Which Side?

John Turner


There is in America a big debate -- one I have no desire to enter -- over whether the United States is a beacon of light, liberty, and hope or whether it has moved over to the dark side.

Browsing on the internet recently, I came on a squib showing Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, asking a series of questions, such as, have we aided in genocide? have we killed thousands of innocent civilians? have we oppressed people? The answer to each, he said, is yes. But then he continued to remind us that we have done many good things also. His implication was that the good we've accomplished outweighs the bad.

This is foolishness. The only reasonable response to it is, so what? In the first place, we have no scale that can tell us what outweighs what. Our duty as citizens is not to assess the nation correctly, according to some celestial standard. It is rather to push it towards doing a greater number of good things and to work to reduce the number of bad things it does.

Any sensible person knows that a nation -- any nation -- is a mixed bag, composed of honorable, intelligent people, and horrendous people, and lots and lots of people in between. Furthermore, its government pursues some intelligent policies and some idiotic policies, both sets delivered to it by history. Why do we run away from the obvious?

In our political discourse, it is required to speak of the nation as being glorious. That's one of the bad things we do and we ought to stop it. The glory of the nation is not the point, and concentrating on it, for the most part, takes our minds away from how we should be shaping it for the future. Right now, the people who hype the glory of the nation are those who hurt it most, shove it most forcefully in terrible directions -- Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Bill Kristol and so forth.

We can, of course, take some pride in the good things we've done and pause, occasionally, to celebrate them. But celebrating ourselves is not a particularly effective way to address our problems. Our principal responsibility is neither to worship the country nor to despise it, but rather to improve it, to make it more intelligent and less stupid, more humane and less vicious.

Improving anything requires knowing what you start with. Answering who we are, right now, what we're doing right now, what we should change, right now is the foundation for transforming ourselves into a better people. To do that, there are two obvious steps we need to take first.

We have to remove from political power men and women who see the future of the United States as a militaristic empire rather than as a democratic republic. To advance American military power throughout the globe has been the principal goal of the Bush administration. It doesn't matter whether their goals were idealistic or not. Wanting to control the world through the use of military power is an evil aim. And, besides, it makes all the other people of the world hate us.

Second, we have to stop widening the economic gap between a small class of wealthy people and the great majority of American citizens. It is impossible to have a just society in which material goods are distributed in that way.

Furthermore, we have to recognize that these two ambitions -- unrestricted military power and immoderate wealth -- are joined at the hip, or, we might say, are simply different faces of the same thing. You can't have one without the other.

In the upcoming presidential campaign our main goal should be to elect a person who understands that alliance, and is not only opposed to it but who has the skill and the intellect to remove it from control over the nation's destiny.

We have now volumes of heated rhetoric about change, but I haven't yet heard anyone answer clearly what we're changing from and what we're changing to. If we were a better electorate, we would demand an answer, instead of cheering wildly for rhetoric that is supported by scant substance. And if we should become such an electorate that might not answer which side of the moral line we're on but it would, for sure, push us in the right direction.


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