Monday, August 15, 2011

Oh, let's not talk about it.

…earlier, those who worked — and almost all the women and men worked very hard — could make a modest but respectable living for themselves and their families. …But all that has been destroyed in the past 30 years, as the big-capital governments encouraged and inflamed the economic jungle laws of grab as grab can.

Don’t these words perfectly describe the current condition of our United States?  In fact they are from an August 2 Haaretz essay by Amos Oz.  The eminent Israeli writer was commenting on the state of life in Israel where tents of protest have sprung up across the country.  There have also been a series of Saturday demonstrations, the largest on August 6 when an estimated 300,000 citizens took to the streets in Tel Aviv.  That’s an astounding number for country of Israel’s size — the equivalent of 13 Million of us marching in an American city.  For sure the specific issues facing the Israelis and us are somewhat different, but what strikes me is an underlying commonality. 

Frustration and a lack of proportionality — that very few have it all while very many have so little — is what’s making ordinary people angry.  I’ve been waiting for the Arab Spring, the power of peaceful citizen protest, to infect the Palestinians.  Instead it comes to Tel Aviv, which tells how universal/catching it is and as both Gandhi and King demonstrated in their day, how potentially  powerful.  That’s especially so for the young who drove the Tahrir Square uprising and are playing a considerable role in this protest.  As Oz put it, …this protest…was born out of the devotion and enthusiasm of hundreds and thousands of young people who swept in their wake the best people in the country.

Interestingly these protests in Israel (joined in by Jews, Muslims and Christians) are coming from, or at least attracting the attention of, the country’s left.  It’s too early to tell, but that may suggest a long overdue reawakening for the once dominant but recently dormant political ideology eclipsed for years by the right and far right.  Sound familiar?  Significantly this rebellion seems the polar opposite of our rightist Tea Party, a movement characterized by self-righteous anger.  Just look at the joyous protest exhibited in this YouTube video (brought to my attention by Gadi Jacobson).

In an August 5th NY Times report correspondent Ethan Bronner opened with these words: The tent protest movement dominating Israel for three weeks focuses on the cost of living but is really about something deeper — the nature of the country’s social contract.  That may be the case, but I would suggest that for Israelis and indeed for Americans, the issue facing us today transcends social contract.  It goes to the very heart of national identity.  Who are we and what do we want to be?

For Israel, as articulated by Oz and others, what’s on the table includes specifics like Israeli-Palestinian peace, West Bank settlements and the government’s financially underwriting the Ultra-Orthodox who have contempt toward the state, its people and the 21st-century reality.  You might accurately call them the enemy from within and we surely have some of those as well.  Among our issues are: a commitment to unwinnable wars that drain our spirit and treasure, a growing imbalance in income and standard/quality of living, the allocation of shared national resources, the relative importance of deficits at the time when even qualified millions can’t get a job and, I might add, a still unresolved role of religion — specifically a particular kind of religion espoused by Rick Perry types — in our local and national public life.

These questions are of a time as much as of a place.  Similar ones are confronting countries throughout the developed world, especially in the West.  European countries once ethnically and religiously homogeneous societies are facing pluralism, natural to Americans (or so we tell ourselves) but alien to them.  This identity crisis has hit especially hard in the most open and progressive societies across Scandinavia, but they are hardly alone.  Even in China there is the obvious disconnect between the economic miracle that makes for headlines and the political stagnation that is kept out of them — unbounded entrepreneurism vs. authoritarian rule.  It is a dichotomy yet to be faced, at least openly. 

Just as the protests in Israel are exposing major flaws in that society and an urgent need to address more than the immediate symptoms, so too is it with our current and surreal debate about deficits and spending.  Any economist or political scientist, regardless of ideology, can tell you that there is noting more revealing about a society and its values than how it spends, or doesn’t spend, its resources.  The allocation of funds is a window into our national soul as reflected in our priorities, even those dictated by the inevitable circumstances beyond our control.  Not every nation answers terrorist attacks by launching major wars.  Not every country will unquestioningly spend money it doesn’t have to save victims of natural disasters, even those knowingly living on a flood plain.  When spending on defense continues at extraordinary levels and beyond what seems reasonably required while funds for education are cut to the bone, it tells us a lot.

But the details of any of these things, however important — and they are — is not the issue at hand.  In fact, I would suggest they are a distraction, often a purposeful one.  Dealing solely with the immediately pragmatic, even if it requires inventing a crisis (like the debt ceiling fiasco) to keep our mind fixed on the wrong target, is all that counts.  We simply don’t want to face, much less talk about, the underlying fundamental issue of identity.  Nowhere is that more evident than in watching an American election season unfold.  Nowhere is talk more laden with silliness, obfuscation and non-sequiturs then on the campaign trail.  Presidential debates tend to be everything but.  Instead of engagement, dare say the discussion of anything really serious, these performances are nothing but canned speech making, posturing and, whenever possible, headline grabbing punch lines.  Most striking, as seen in the current Republican field, candidates exhibit an astounding level of like-mindedness, each one assuring the audience that she or he tows the party line, whatever that may be at a given time.  I believe in God, oppose all taxes, hate government spending or in the case of Democrats will protect and defend Social Security and Medicare, regardless of cost.

Recent polls suggesting the low esteem in which our government is held are usually read in political terms.  Who is likely to win in 2012 and what especially are the implications for incumbents including the President.  I look at them differently.  To me these low numbers and the declining trend line of which they are part indicate there is little we can hope for from our politicians.  I hesitate to call them leaders.  It isn’t just this year but perhaps for much of our history that the last people we can expect to think big thoughts or to articulate anything but pabulum, or today vitriol, are those we elect to govern.  Who is up and who is down, who is a real American and who is not, who favors this or that is all we get.  Who are we, where are we going and why?  Let’s not talk about that.

People say they are very disappointed in President Obama.  He gives far too much ground in negotiation, he fails to inspire enough, he should be more of a fighter…you know the conventional narrative.  I’m not sure that he is anything other that what he promised to be (if we were really listening): a conciliator more than a partisan, a person of change, yes, but pragmatic change in the spirit of Teddy Kennedy who ultimately went with what could be accomplished.  But that’s really another conversation.  What’s important here is the even from one of the most thoughtful and articulate Presidents in our history, a serious discussion about our identity seems too much to ask, much less expect.  Matters of fundamental import are just way beyond the pay grade of any political figure, regardless of party or ideology.

The problem is that they seem to be above everyone’s pay grade, that includes you and me.  It’s just not a conversation that we are having on any meaningful level, if at all.  Perhaps such talk is heard in the academy, but if so it’s a strictly private conversation conducted in whisper tones and shared with others only on a need-to-know basis, if that.  And it isn’t a matter of silence because there is probably more, or as much, spoken (or digital) noise today as at any time in history.   It is that our discourse and subject matter, regardless of who is engaged, tends to be largely parochial, if not outright self-serving and petty.  What does it mean to ME right at this very moment.  So if we ourselves aren’t having this conversation, how can we fault others?  In truth, much as we’d like to deny it, those disdained people measured in the polls mirror the very citizens who put them in office — both the voters and perhaps most especially the non-voters.  But again, that isn’t the point here.  This issue of identity isn’t partisan or even political.  It is a matter of the group’s — in our case Americans — collective human purpose and consequently condition.

It has been suggested that in the end it seems to matter little which individuals get elected in America or which party is in control.  They’re all the same.  I don’t really buy that broad and simplistic conclusion, but again that’s another conversation.  The sad fact is that on one important level — concerning the matter of identity — they are the same.  Who are we?  Let’s not talk about it.  Even Amos Oz isn’t really addressing transcendent fundamentals, not talking about that.

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