Friday, October 10, 2008


Over on Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn discusses his dissatisfaction with the Nashville debate. “Imbecilic Tedium”, October 8. (

I don’t disagree. Not hardly.

But as I pointed out in the previous Post , there is no longer a functioning ‘social compact’, hence hardly a citizenry and almost not a People. There is no longer ‘The People’. Forty years of a non-shooting ‘civil war’ has pretty much fractured that.

But Cockburn not irrelevantly brought up FDR’s first Inaugural Address; the one where he said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”.

He also said that the task ahead could be done and won because “we are Americans”. And he went on about loving, and laughing, and facing the future with confidence as being part of what ‘Americans’ are.

Neither ‘American’ nor loving, laughing, and being confident have had much ‘play’ these past few decades. We have for all practical purposes not been ‘Americans’ but rather members of this or that Identity, and as such seek to wrest the controls of the government to wage vengeance war on out particular ‘oppressors’ – also formerly Americans but now ‘oppressors’. And rather than being Americans, far too many among the citizenry see themselves as ‘victims’.

The results of the foregoing being, among whatever else you wish to make of it, hell and gone from the ‘Americans’ of FDR’s day.

We have been designated as the world’s shoppers and the planet’s premier consumers in order to satisfy the corporate need both to keep Our cash and to keep Us distracted (curiously, in the old oppressive schemes, it was ‘women’ who were ‘shoppers’). And We have been designated ‘victims’ to keep Us from paying attention to the fact that Our cash was being played with by a bunch of high-rollers who are richer than almost any of the rich of the First Gilded Age, but have proven themselves far less competent, stupider even. And as ‘victims’ We are in the midst not of other Americans but of oppressors and enemies. Except for the rich – who are beings that everybody wants to be, and could for a long crazy while could pretend to be through the judicious gamble of piling up debt – mortgages 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, and credit cards, leases on cars like movie stars drive, and so on.

Now, as in Scripture, We find Ourselves left by the side of the road, bleeding and battered. Whether robbers or a trick-gone-wrong did this – Scripture has both versions. As ‘liberty is not for the nervous’ (Jefferson said that) so too Scripture is not for the faint of heart. You have to have courage to open yourself to it. More courage than it takes to just go and whack somebody else over the head with the several hefty pounds of your favorite version, bound in leatherette or otherwise.

Mark Twain once described a tombstone epitaph something like this: Sacred to the memory of John Jones – Go thou and do likewise. But dropping dead is not what FDR proposed to the citizens of this country. And on that score, possibly both of the candidates could agree.

But ‘playing dead’ – well, that’s the burning question of the day, isn’t it? What then is to be done? So asks Scripture. Don’t ‘play dead’. Pick yourself up and stand with the rest of Us as The People. Let the Beltway know that there’s still a marshal in this territory.

Perhaps the Beltway – even Obama – can’t be blamed – not completely - for the sorry performances of late. You leave a territory without a marshal, you leave a government without The People, and you’re going to get some serious skullduggery after a while. And after a period of some decades – well, things are going to look like the Augean Stables. But there can be no Hercules for Us; was it Emiliano Zapata who said ‘a strong leader makes a weak people’?

That would have been gall and wormwood to McKinley, who preferred to manipulate The People. And to Wilson, who felt that there is no American ‘People’ without a firm and visionary Leader (like Cheney leading the search for candidate Bush’s veep, he considered carefully and decided upon himself for this key role). And to Teddy Roosevelt, who had gone to all the trouble of making himself strong and vigorous, and hated to see it all go to waste sitting around the White House just seeing that the laws be faithfully executed.

None of them really ever understood the core ‘adventure’ of the American Experiment, as the Founders so vividly knew it was. The core adventure, and it demands and makes for some remarkable and honorable maturity, is to People the Republic as – in the marvelous vision of the black spiritual – ‘we are climbing Jacob’s ladder’. Rung by rung, loaded as each may be, until We “achieve a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.

This is not a game; not even a Great Game. It is not for kids and not for fakers and con-artists.

It is, rather, a great and a noble task, a laying of one’s hands upon the great beating heart of human life itself – building and grounding a common weal. It is, so to say, serious stuff.

One of the great tragedies of the Civil War generation (it did not seem to affect the Revolutionary War generation) as it got older was that they felt that it was only in their youth that their lives – in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s limpid phrase – “had been touched by fire”. William James, too sickly apparently to actually go and fight in the thing, later said from the bosky eminence of Harvard that he wished Americans could find some “moral equivalent of war” – some mission or task that would impart a vitality and a vigor, an exhilaration, but not involve killing and maiming; something that would contribute less awefully to the world, something that would let Americans inhabit their strengths without shedding blood. Jimmy Carter mentioned it as well (but by his time, the ‘military-industrial complex’ was thoroughly entwined in the nation’s viscera, and neither the Republicans nor Tip O’Neill were going to countenance any stretching forth of hands to ban arms – they knew whence cameth the thick, rich butter for to smear upon their Beltway bread).

What they all of them missed was that the task of The People, of Peopling this government, anchoring it in accountability to the best passions and ideals of its citizens, was pretty much of a maturity-making adventure all on its own.

Instead, wars against native peoples seeking their own independence, wars for bananas and for sugar, wars trumped up to end wars, wars trumped up to spread freedom through occupation; and then, increasingly, shopping sprees and the excitements proper to children and the young whose brains haven’t even reached mature form yet. Wars and shopping.

Is this what is going to define Us? Will this be Our legacy? Is this what We will leave to those that come after Us?

The world would be laughing at Us if Our monstrous failure weren’t already engulfing all the developed nations. This is the note We want to go out on?

We must not simply allow Our lives to be touched by fire now. We must embrace the fire – the fire of responsibility (you know, the responsibility everybody likes to see defendants accept when they’re sentenced to prison). We’re all prisoners now – of Our own consequences.

Well, who isn’t? It’s as good a time as any to take Churchill back from the odious latter-day neocons: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if [this country] lasts a thousand years, people will still say ‘This was their finest hour’.

It’s a lot to shoot for, I know. But it’s come to this. There is no other way.

Let them all know that there is A People here. And that We indeed are, as FDR said and hoped, Americans.

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