Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Some things I learned (again) in 2006


Finger of remaining glacier near Kilimanjaro summit. Going, going, almost gone...

This better go up before we get any further into 2007. I'm feeling bloggishly sluggish. And there's nothing significantly new here, part of pushing 60 I guess. But they say that people who keep learning last longer, so here's what I learned, and learned again, last year.
  • In a binary system, you only have to be a little better than the alternative to be the alternative. Democrats proved this one and won an election. This is a very good thing and was worth working for, but when, oh when, can we get people and policies in power that we want, rather than folks we can at best nudge vigorously?
  • This country doesn't have an agreed moral story. Our politics reflect this: it is not a fault. It is a fact of our exploding diversity.

    Think about it from a campaign point of view: who could endorse a candidate and command the respect of a majority? Is there anyone whose moral authority reaches across enough people so as to help assemble a majority? If no, and the answer is usually no, the campaign becomes a project of niche-marketing and appeals can become and will be perceived as "untrue" outside their niches.

    In order to have a more edifying politics, the country needs some overarching agreement about what it is about -- then democracy can function as parties and candidates argue about their relative ability to offer a path to that agreed goal. We lack such a thing, so we get "dishonest" fluff.

    Getting agreement will be hard, because the great gain of the last 50 years has been the partial empowerment of out groups, folks marginalized by race, or gender, or immigration status, etc. Outsiders have learned to refuse to allow themselves to be erased from the national discourse. Propose a truth that erases any group and the fight-back will be vocal and disruptive, if not necessarily successful. That's a good thing, but it sure makes it hard to find agreed "truths."

    We are engaged in an experiment that will demonstrate whether such a diverse society (and a corporate capitalist one at that) can preserve democracy. This learning began as a comment here.
  • War is a crime against humanity. Any fool who had the decency to meet with the folks we met in Jordan and Syria last summer (see sidebar), or who took note of the 3000 U.S. military deaths just passed, would understand that. Unfortunately, we are ruled by people whose moral imagination has been cauterized by pursuit of power and wealth.
  • Concurrently, and for quite different reasons, losing a war is political suicide. Great crimes that lead to victories can be written off; crimes that lead to defeats inspire repulsion and contempt. The world may be fortunate if U.S. imperial designs are somewhat hamstrung following failure in Iraq.
  • U.S. civilization is an historical pipsqueak. Visiting Lebanon, Jordan and Syria last summer underlined this. (See sidebar.) Our European ancestors wiped out most of the longstanding indigenous residents and civilizations on the American continents and thought they could build something new under the sun. And we, the imported Americans, have built something new. Those of us in the north enjoy a standard of living unparalleled in history. But many places in the world have seen peoples and civilizations come and go and painfully acquired a wisdom that arises from a sense of themselves in history. We know nothing of that -- perhaps even less than people in the U.S. did 50 years ago when we had more of a unifying national myth, involving Pilgrims and Patriots.
  • Global warming, climate change, is real. If our society can't adapt to deal with it, most of what we think of as unchangeable certainties will be at risk. Both capitalism and democracy are up for grabs on this one. The Al Gore movie made the basic case. Anatol Lieven draws out some implications.
  • Damn it, I'm finite. I can't do everything I want to do or even everything I think I should do (not quite the same thing.) But on the other hand, I can still do a lot of things. Some of them are fun; some of them advance values I care about. I intend to keep on going places and kicking up necessary fusses in the interest of human freedom and human kindness as long as I can keep kicking.
Happy New Year.

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