Thursday, April 28, 2011

Who are we, anyway?

We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.  It’s not hard to imagine whom President Obama had in mind when he spoke about the release of his birth certificate.  But let’s not limit that to a group of right wing fringe activists and potential presidential aspirants, one in particular about whom Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker.  The press, as Hertzberg’s piece illustrates, has played a significant role here.  While the Times suggests that included a large measure of debunking and that a viral Internet was at play, print and broadcast News organizations continued to cover the lies as news, and with greedy (ratings) abandon.  I for one think the whole matter is a national disgrace in the ongoing saga of demonizing the Other about which I have written before.  That’s not only our first African American president but anyone who isn’t like us — wrong color, accent, sexual orientation et al.  Let’s not even get into that no other president has been subjected to such questions or that this particular one is the product of a biracial couple, still frowned upon in some circles of prejudice.

Some Republicans who have happily either given voice to the so-called Birther nonsense or have remained audibly silent throughout were quick to denounce the timing of the President’s remarks.  According to CBS, the RNC…sent an email mocking the notion that Obama has "better stuff to do" than worry about the birth certificate issue.  Indeed, in the face of a still weak economy, turmoil overseas and an allegedly out of control deficit, it would seem so.  But I’d suggest the birth certificate lie is very much related.  All of them, most particularly to raging deficit debate, speak to who we are as a nation.

None of us had to read the results of a recently reported CBS/New York Times poll to know that few Americans are very happy about the way things are going these days.  That poll focused largely on matters of political consequence.  However, important they may be (especially for the prospects of both major parties in 2012), to look at our unhappiness as a narrow who’s up and who’s down or even in a broader partisan context is essentially to miss the point.  What makes us unhappy these days is not only that our politics has become both shrill and dysfunctional or that most Americans (employed or not) are losing not gaining economic ground.  It’s not that we find ourselves in three wars and can’t really understand why, not to mention if any sort of victory is even remotely possible.  It is something far more profound than the moment — the news or election cycle.   America stands at an identity crossroad.   It’s not so much as a world power in the face of emerging giants like China or a shifting Middle East — though that is also the case — but in the most basic sense of who we are and who want to be at home.

In a recent Op-ed, Paul Krugman characterized the budget proposed by Paul Ryan as ludicrous and cruel. Ryan’s effort has been widely hailed by others in the press and elsewherre as a courageous start on an important debate, finally a serious look at all those third rail entitlements.  Krugman sees it differently.  His critique may be right on substance and even on intention.  That said, we shouldn’t be distracted by the details in and of themselves, nor by the intentional distractions of whether Planned Parenthood or NPR make the cut.  Cliché or not, follow the money remains sound advice.  That means not just the numbers but what the numbers express.  You can argue, and some do, that the whole deficit discussion is overblown.  Perhaps, but I see it as an important opportunity, not to be missed. Rather than dismissing the Wisconsin congressman, we should welcome the Pandora’s box he has opened.  So, too, should we welcome Tea Party and Religious Rightist attempts to introduce those narrow ideological distractions into authorizing spending for the remainder of the fiscal year.  I totally disagree with their point of view, but they are absolutely correct: it’s not only spending, but also how we spend and on what.

For as long as I can remember all of us (left, middle and right) have done a lot of talking past each other and around the edges of what should be a real conversation about who we have been, who we are today and who we want to be in the future. Yes George HW, the vision thing.  It is very easy for liberals such as myself to demonize those on the right, to cast them as in Krugman’s words as ludicrous and cruel.  So is it for conservatives to look at us as bleeding heart taxers and spenders.  It is also simplistic to say that those who are concerned about deficits are politically motivated or, in the case of the President, are simply caving in.  There may be some truth in both of those assessments, but just as it’s hard to deny global warming so is it undeniable that sheer demographics and the trajectory of non-discretionary spending, without significant changes, is unsustainable. 

With that said, we dare not move ahead and will be destined for certain failure, unless we at long last discuss the who we are question before we address the numbers themselves.  To do otherwise, which I fear we will again be the case, is to put the cart before the proverbial horse.  Structuring a budget, or for that matter a financial plan of any kind, requires first deciding what you want that plan to achieve and why.  Defining the objectives and setting priorities is actually the hard part.  The numbers will follow, a relatively easy task.  And there is no mystery here about the content of the discussion we need.  Sure it relates to the role of government in our society, but more importantly it is a matter of how we see our national community.  For starters we could begin by asking if this nation is a community, a word that implies shared interests, aspirations and responsibility.  The choice is not merely whether we should be business or people (whatever is meant by that) oriented, but whether even within a Capitalistic society the disparity between those who have everything and those who have relatively nothing should be so wide.  That isn’t just the question of whether CEO and worker pay should be so far apart — the first getting obcene annual increases while the other’s remains either in place or only marginally enhanced — but what we as a nation think is right.   These are moral questions, not religious but human morality.

It was true under President Bush and so it is now under President Obama.  A growing number of Americans think we’re headed on the wrong track.  That of course speaks to the big hole we’re in and how hard it is to dig ourselves out.  But it mostly speaks to that crossroad, to the uncertainty about who we and where we’re headed.  What exactly is it that our birth certificates imply and what road will we take going forward?  Without answering that question, we’re doomed.  We have a choice.  Let’s take it.


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