Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Our America

President Obama is on my TV as I write, the big Afghanistan speech. It’s near the end, and he’s talking about our country. “We . . .” he’s talking about us, and our country.

Peace Corps volunteers got a nice mention, as part of America’s effort to spread an idea around the world. Mr. Obama is a Democratic President, and it is important to note that his “idea” of America is still a little different than the Republican’s idea.

We hear a lot of complaining these days, people who say that the two parties in America have been joined into one. Ok, there’s been some confluence there. But when the Republicans talk about America, they still mean American power as represented by the Armed forces, the big multi-national corporations, and rampant free-market clepto-capitalism, the gangster America. For the Democrats, there’s some of that, with more reference to ordinary American workers, small business, families, our freedoms, and our better natures. The difference may have become blurred, but there’s still a difference.

I remain a committed Democrat, a Yellow-Dog-Blue-Collar Democrat, although it is a little frustrating sometimes. All politicians suck up to The Money these days, but the Democrats are the “big tent” party, more tolerant of diversity and eccentricity. They are the party that more accepts the world’s process of growing with time. They are much more reality based than their Republican counterparts, who seek on one hand to maintain privilege and on the other hand seek to return to an even more privileged past. (Privilege for rich white people, which even rich white people should reject, if they know what’s good for them. Remember the guillotine.) Resisting progress is juvenile, counter-productive and stupid. As Salvatore Dali said, “never attempt to be modern. It is the one thing that you cannot avoid.” Modernity happens. So I’m still a Democrat. Diversity and eccentricity are facts, no use resisting those, and the world grows with time, and that’s ok.

When I talk about America to the foreigners who surround me, or to my classes, I talk about the America of my dreams, the American Dream, the middle class America where families (and others) are free to pursue their happiness, which usually means working some kind of job and living a modest lifestyle. Where the government, out of fairness, provides mechanisms to level the playing field, to mitigate the vagaries of luck. I speak lovingly about the Constitution, and the Separation of Powers, Equal Protection, Due Process and all that. I imagine the America of my youth, in a simpler time, the post-war decades before, let’s say, Watergate. Sure, there were problems, you remember them too, but a lot was still in order. The New Deal covenant between business and labor was still sacred: you do our work, and make us prosperous, and we’ll take care of you. Doctors, and lawyers, and accountants, were professionals, and that meant exercising self restraint and working towards an idealized common good, the full flowering of fiduciary duty. It’s a beautiful dream.

So now we have President Obama, saddled with all of the baggage that the Executive Branch has picked up over the last few decades, the “unitary executive,” bloated with emergency powers, and huge bureaucracies, for fighting wars and the Soviets, topics for another time. And he still finds time to mention the Peace Corps as an important part of our efforts to bring our great American Idea to the world. I hope that it is still an idea that we can be proud of.

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