26 December, 2009

American - It is not just a nationality

“I went to sleep with the hope that made America famous. I had the kind of a dream that maybe they're still trying to teach in school. Of the America that made America famous...and of the people who just might understand that how together yes we can create a country better than the one we have made of this land. We have a choice to make each man who dares to dream, reaching out his hand a prophet or just a crazy, dazed dreamer or a fool - yes a silly fool.”
What Made America Famous
by Harry Chapin

Reaching back at least to June of 1968 and perhaps to January of 1961, America has been battered by political and cultural winds of change. In 1961, optimism soared and citizenship became a calling for many especially among the youth. In response to President Kennedy’s stirring Inaugural Speech, many Americans sincerely pondered the question, “What can I do for my country?” For me, that question led to Vietnam and ultimately, to a trial by fire that seared into my consciousness that the Cong were right – “We are all Americans!” The differences that seemed to mean so much, for so long, to so many, faded into insignificance in the heat of battle. On Flag Day 1968 in a sixteen-hour battle, we protected a hamlet the Cong wished to punish for cooperating with the Americans. They did not succeed on that day. We had believed we were invincible and invulnerable; we were half-right. All gave some and some gave all.
Years later, I learned about the My Lai incident and it struck me that some Americans had slaughtered defenseless villagers only months before we had risked and in some cases lost our lives to protect them. It reinforced my admiration and affection for those who fell and reminded me of these words from America the Beautiful. “Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife; who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life” this connection solidified for me the supreme importance of citizenship. It also clarified the meaning of this concept as a commitment up to and including the point of dying. From the day we are born until the day we die, we are citizens of the Republic. It is our most enduring, essential role, and our highest and finest honor.
Fortunately, most of the time, most of us do not live amidst the horrors of war. We live normal lives filled with daily routines. For many people much of the time life is going well even if various improvements can be imagined. We are lulled into a comforting complacency and immersed in our personal concerns. Our roles as parents, employees, friends, family members and individuals come to the fore and our role as citizens is obscured. Nonetheless, Lincoln’s message to Congress in 1862 still applies today.
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Robert F. Kennedy updated this when he declared, “Since the days of Greece and Rome when word 'citizen' was a title of honor, we have often seen more emphasis put on the rights of citizenship than on its responsibilities. And today, as never before in the free world, responsibility is the greatest right of citizenship and service is the greatest of freedom’s privileges.”
As Ben Franklin said in 1787, the Founders had given Americans “a Republic if we could keep it.” This was a true challenge because there had been only two precedents in more than 5,000 years of human history. By the time of the Civil War, there were only five republics on the planet: the United States in North America, Switzerland and San Marino in Europe and Liberia and the Boer Republic in Africa. All the other governments in the world were Empires or Kingdoms. This is why Lincoln spoke of government of, by, and for the people perishing from the earth.
Freedom as the saying goes is not free and it remains a constant struggle. As President Obama stated on January 2, 2010, “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” Our economy is stalled or even stumbling. The tone and content of the political discourse is petty, hostile, discouraging and discordant. Therefore, we live in anything but tranquil times. Today America is dividing along economic lines. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The rich are also getting lighter and the poor are getting darker. A new segregation is rising based on economic status, but showing distinct shades of difference as well. “One nation, indivisible”, is splitting into two Americas. On March 18, 1968, Robert Kennedy declared, “I have seen this other America. I have seen children in Mississippi starving…. I don’t think that is acceptable in the United States of America. If we believe that as Americans we are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must end the disgrace of this other America. But even if we end material, poverty there is another great task. We must end the poverty of satisfaction – a lack of purpose and dignity that inflicts us all. Too much and too long we have surrendered community concerns and community values to the mere accumulation of material things.”
Thirty-eight years later, Barack Obama said in the Audacity of Hope, “the essential ideas behind the Declaration of Independence that we are all born into the world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that no person or state can take away without just cause; that each of us must make of our lives what we will is not only the foundation of our state, it is the core of our common creed. These values form our inheritance and make us who we are as a people. We can make claims on their behalf so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fact and experience, so long as we recall that they demand deeds as well as words. To do otherwise would be to relinquish our best selves.”
Furthermore, as Dr. King said on December 5, 1955, “We are here on serious business. In a general sense, we are here first and foremost because we are American citizens determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.” The Constitution, is the thin paper Dr. King is referencing and it reflects these ideals and principles, but for it to be effective, “We the People” must perform our civic duties and meet our responsibilities. Committed, informed citizens are essential to the proper functioning of our constitutional system. Government of, by, and for the people cannot survive without active participation by an informed, principled citizenry. We will not keep our Republic if we choose to shirk our duties and abandon our role as citizens.
Therefore, I am asking everyone to take the role of citizen seriously and to resolve to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. I am asking everyone to learn how to transform democracy from thin paper to thick action as we live our lives under the auspices of the Republic. We must not allow the children for whom we are responsible to be deprived of their most precious inheritance. Nor must we betray our most solemn trust. We must not betray them. We must encourage, enable, and empower young people to learn the whys and ways of effective citizenship and we must make a firm commitment to preserving this heritage and ensuring this opportunity for our posterity and ourselves. We must answer the trumpet's summons and keep the Republic for our children. We must nobly save, not meanly lose the last best hope of humankind. This is a crisis like that of 1776. We, and our children, despite their tender years, live in truly turbulent times. Their youth neither protects nor excuses them from the honor and challenge of citizenship. Our other roles and the pressures we face clearly do not excuse us from the duty to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and transmit the Republic to our posterity.
The rights and responsibilities of citizenship are the core of patriotism. In addition, the whys and the ways of government in the United States at the national, state, and local levels are too vital to be left to the politicians and the appointees. All citizens share this challenge and all are called upon to be effective and principled in responding to it. In an alarmingly brief interval, the nature of our country and the quality of our children’s lives and our lives will heavily depend on the caliber of citizenship practiced persistently by us all. Neither ignorance nor indifference will serve nor save them or us.
It has been said, “Children are the future just as sure as the future is change.” As Barbara Jordan, in her Keynote Address to the 1976 Democratic National Convention, stated “… now we must look to the future. If we do not, we not only blaspheme our political heritage, we ignore the common ties that bind all Americans. Many fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices are never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work and wants, to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces -- that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual, each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good? A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. … We must define the "common good" and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.”
Now the trumpet summons again. Since this nation was founded, each generation has been called on to give testimony of its national loyalty. Though not all are in the armed forces, all are still in a war: the eternal war against prejudice, greed, ignorance, hatred, distrust and poverty. All of us, children and adults alike, need to unite against these forces and protect and defend the Republic. Let us enlist our neighbors, our relatives, our children, and their friends, in this historic and noble effort. “The energy, the faith, the devotion we [and they] bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it --- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Nearly forty-nine years ago, the youngest President ever elected advised millions of other Americans to “Ask what you can do for your country”. Let us ponder that question daily and do so as long as we live. Now, let us recall the question. Now let us realize that the cause endures, the work goes on, the need persists, the hope surges, and the dream refuses to die. Let us resolve that though we may not have it all together, together we may have it all.
In November 1863, President Lincoln made a pledge of “a new birth of freedom”; in August 1963, Dr. King expressed his dream “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed”. Finally, in June 1968, as he lay dying, Senator Robert Kennedy asked, “Is everybody else all right?” Now, we the living must respond to the mystic chords of memory with the better angels of our nature and in a rising chorus of unity, fully redeem the pledge, truly fulfill the dream, and definitively answer the question. We the people must create an America as honorable as its founding premise and as splendid its fundamental promise. Finally, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we must understand that now together, yes we can, create a country better than the one we have made of this land.

25 December, 2009

Like a Rock: Recalling and Reasserting One's Best Self

If we are ordinarily fortunate, each had a time in our life when we were at our best. If we are extraordinarily fortunate, we will have another time when we can recall the courage of our convictions and reassert our best self.

Youth is not only a period of time it is also a state of heart and mind. In the best sense youth is when we were at our best physically, philosophically, and intellectually. “We do not have a care and are lean and solid everywhere – like a rock.” Our hands are steady; our steps quick and light and we hold firm to what we think is right. We are strong as we can be and something to see. We are unencumbered by the weight of various hustlers and their schemes and most preciously and profoundly, we still believe in our dreams. If there is a blessed period of our lives, youth as heretofore described is it!

If we outlive this period of amazing grace, life itself may wear on us. Perhaps, we may know and mourn the death of our heroes as happened to me in once 1963, and thrice in 1968. Though these losses do not show on our bodies or faces, they mark and mar our inner selves; life imitates art and reverses the transfer of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

When JFK was assassinated in November 1963, I was 18. President Kennedy had inspired me to ask what I could do for my country in 1961. That question and the search for an effective response dominated my thoughts for the next seven years. In 1968, I was in Vietnam sincerely doing what I could for my country. I felt I had found and answer for JFK even though he died before I could show him. In the holiday season of 1967, the Vietnamese in the village that was my principal responsibility had put together a banner saying “Thank you for coming to fight for our freedom!” My squad and I were truly touched. Despite the protests raging in the world, we believed in what we were doing. As hard as it would have been for those back home to believe at that time and in that place all of us were ready to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. We held firm to what we thought was right; we still believed in our dreams even amidst the threat of death and dying.

In the spring of 1968, my world began to turn from one of youthful optimism to one of chronic loss. In April, Martin was murdered in Memphis. The consummate dreamer was dead at the hand of person distinguished only by his marksmanship and his misanthropy. America exploded in justifiable outrage on the part of Blacks and acute anxiety on the part of Whites. Only in Indianapolis did some measure of calm and civic unity prevail. This was due largely to one man, Robert F. Kennedy. Pondering the tumult from thousands of miles overseas, I consoled myself with the thoughts, “We still have Bobby. Martin may be gone, but the Dream lives on.”

Almost exactly sixty days later, while I and my squad were still doing our duty and facing hostile fire, we no longer had Bobby. On June 6, 1968, the last clear voice for the future of my country was silenced for ever. Years later I learned Bobby’s final intelligible words were, “Is everyone else all right?” If I had heard the question at the time, my answer would have been, “No Bobby almost nobody is all right now that you are gone.” I did not, however, know of his question. I only knew of my answer. Unscathed in battle in Vietnam, I was being severely wounded by the war of jealous greed and vicious hate raging in the country I believed I was defending at a distance of 11,000 miles. I was no longer” Unencumbered by the weight of all these hustlers and their schemes” and my dreams were not merely dying, they were being assassinated.

As bad as things were at this point, they were soon to get worse. On Flag Day 1968, near the close of a sixteen hour battle, my dearest friend and closest brother in arms, Sunny, died in my arms. Although I was still seemingly unmarked, my true self was almost mortally wounded. By the end of June, I was out of Vietnam; by the end of August, I was out of the military. I returned to civilian life and entered college. I went from fighting in Vietnam to fighting against the officials in Washington who had sent better men than they to risk and often lose their lives in a conflict the officials had no intention of winning and no good reason for waging. Such energy as I could muster to serve my country was expended battling my government. Through all this with a heavy heart and a battered, but unbowed spirit, I believed I was doing what I could for my country. My eyes were not quite so clear and bright; my steps were not quite so quick and light; something had gotten to me. That something was to continue getting to me for forty years.

Where did they go, forty years, I don’t know. I would sit and I would wonder sometimes where they had gone. Between 1968 and 2008, I was without question alive. I had met and married a wonderful woman who is still my wife and the love of my life to this day. She and I have two sons and as the song goes, they are my joy and have been my salvation as far as I had had salvation. In August 2008, however, the moon came “calling a ghostly white” in the guise of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Like the actual moon, this moon went through various phases. The glow of this moon bathed and soothed my wounded spirit. Joe Biden, speaking of his upbringing said:

"My dad, who fell on hard times, always told me, though, "Champ, when you get knocked down, get up. Get up." I was taught -- I was taught that by my dad.

And, God, I wish my dad was here tonight. But I thank God and I'm grateful that my mom, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden is here tonight. Mom, I love you. You know, my mom taught her children -- all the children who flocked to our house -- that you're defined by your sense of honor and you're redeemed by your loyalty. She believes that bravery lives in every heart, and her expectation is that it will be summoned. Failure -- Failure at some point in your life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable."

Because for 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women - students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors - found the courage to keep it alive.

We meet at one of those defining moments - a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more.

23 December, 2009

I hold these Truths . . . .

America's birth announcement began with the words, "We hold these Truths...." Therefore, authentic patriotism for the American Republic should begin with a declaration of the truths upon which it is based and from which if flows. Furthermore, these truths cannot be snatched from thin air, they must be grounded in the founding documents and enduring saga of our nation. This grounding is achieved by continual, committed citizen action.

The Republic is not a thing. It is not a place. The Republic is an ideal. It is a font and a force. The Republic creates a field of equality, freedom, and justice in which people, as citizens, unite to do together what they could never do separately. So long as the Republic holds its rightful primacy in the minds and hearts of the people, all problems are ultimately soluble and all wrongs may be rectified. While “We, the People”, remember where our loyalties most properly lay, the “better angels of our nature” have the power to impel us to fulfill the last, best hope of humankind. The Republic exists insofar as it does exist in the minds and hearts of the citizenry. If these minds and hearts ever become estranged from the Republic, if the actions of the citizenry fail to animate the Republic for a prolonged period, the Republic will die. Any enduring forms, such as political offices and routines will be no more vital than fossils and artifacts.

Feed the Fire of Authentic, Principled Patriotism

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Samuel Johnson supposedly made this famous pronouncement that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel on the evening of April 7, 1775. We don't really know for sure what was on Johnson's mind at the time.

However, Johnson was not indicting patriotism in general,but only false patriotism.

For more of Samuel Johnson's thoughts on patriotism in general, go to the patriotism page.

Undertanding that much conspicuous and flamboyant patriotism is of the false or superficial varieties, does not diminish the crucial role authentic patriotism must play in preserving, protecting and defending the American Constitutional Republic from all enemies both foreign and domestic.

Since my junior high days, I have been inspired by and committed to the ideals so the American Constitutional Republic including the foundational ideals expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence. As President Obama declared in his inaugrual address:

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebearers, and true to our founding documents." America has carried on because of true patriotism found on and faithful to the ideals of of the founders as expressed in our founding documents. True patriotism is not a matter of symbolic attire or superficial gestures, it is a matter of authenic conviction and active commitment to create and sustain a social and political order that finally rises up and lives out the true meaning of our professed creed.

To succeed in this noble endeavor we must "forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind" We must join in this historic quest and bring energy, faith, and devotion to this endeavor which will light our country and all who serve it. And allow the glow from that fire to truly light the world.

Then, relentlessly, we must Feed the Fire!

We the People

Since November 2008, the role of "We the People" has been claimed by various groups and alluded to by various spokespersons for these groups. After the election, the actions of the electorate and the electoral map were decried and denied by those who resented an Obama-Biden victory and the attendant Congressional consequences. In some ways, this reaction to the election of November 2008 resembled the reaction to the election of 1860. While sufficient, competent evidential matter was conspicuously absent, fervent, frantic assertions of election fraud and abuse filled a portion of the blogs and cable news shows. Some legitimate periodicals also publicized strident allegations that something serious but spurious had taken place. The Democratic Party's triumph was feverishly contested by citizens and officials all claiming to "want their country back!"

More than a year has passed and the frenzy persists. There are several relevant and important issues related to this observable feature of contemporary American Civic and Political life. First, why is this the case? Second, what purpose does the furor serve for those stoking and sustaining it? Third, what do those who participate in the protests, demonstrations, and general clamor gain? Finally, what can patriotic Democrats do to effectively respond to this tumult and advance the process of governance in service to the purposes stipulated in the Constitution and implicit in the ideals of the American Republic?

As to the first issue, I believe the fundamental cause is that the citizenry and the politically contenders are actually divided into two broad blocs although these blocs are not commonly labeled as such and largely do not recognize themselves as cohesive opposing political alliances. These blocs are not conservatives and liberals; they are not Republicans and Democrats. They are definitely not simply Right and Left. In a sense, they are rival "no name" squads aligned and affiliated by their attitudes, actions and aspirations toward, in, and for government and society. In my thinking, I designate these squads the Authoritarians and the Constitutionalists. The Authoritarians seek to rule; the Constitutionalists seek to govern. In regard to the spark that ignited the fury subsequent to the November 2008 Democratic Party triumph, the frustrated, but fervent desire to rule inflamed the Authoritarians. They almost spontaneously combusted. In the elections of 2000 and 2004, the Democratic Party who at this juncture in history is more in the Constitutionalists' squad, acceded to the outcomes even though there were genuine questions about the legitimacy of both. Strikingly, in the election of 1860, the Constitutionalists were more powerful and prominent in the young Republican Party. The Authoritarians were a force within the more mature and long-standing Democratic Party. The frustrated desire to rule in this instance provoked secession in the extremist south and ultimately brought on the Civil War. In April 2009, a vociferous Authoritarian, Rick Perry of Texas, suggested his state might need to secede. The fundamental and driving factors in the Authoritarian mindset persist throughout the centuries and are undiminished by disastrous socio-political experiences. For Authoritarians, the enduring principle is "Rule or Ruin". The preceding eight years of a Republican Presidency committed to the idea of a Unitary Executive had accustomed this particular throng of Authoritarians to the Rule option in Rule or Ruin. Having lost this opportunity convincingly, the core Authoritarian corps of the Republican Party, emphatically chose door number two -- Ruin.

To understand the second issue "the purpose this furor serves for those stoking and sustaining it" one must reflect on the rule or ruin premise animating the Authoritarian squad. Because the Constitutionalists intend to govern, furor and frenzy impedes and impairs their efforts to advance and achieve this intent. This impairment and hindrance makes Constitutionalists seem inept and ineffective. As Vice-President discovered during the Bork nomination hearings when he was a Senator, Authoritarians do not want government to serve the people; they want government to be a weapon allowing them to do what they want. By obstructing the Constitutionalists' efforts to implement responsive governance, Authoritarians foster frustration and doubt among the citizenry. In so doing, they hope to reverse the results of any elections that placed Constitutionalists in positions to govern. If they succeed in this insurrection [so called because it amounts to a disloyal, rather than a loyal, opposition], the Authoritarians regain the places and levers of power. Once they reclaim dominance, the Authoritarians revert to their preferred option, Rule, rather than Ruin. The bad news for the ordinary citizens and the country in general is that Authoritarian rule is ultimately ruinous. Every Authoritarian regime in history has ended in either unforeseen disaster or protracted degeneration and final collapse.

Now we must consider what those who participate in the protests, demonstrations, and general clamor gain? Simply put, many of the ordinary participants do not actually gain anything of substance. As Thomas Frank observes in What's the Matter With Kansas", "People getting their fundamental interest wrong is what American political life is all about. This species derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests." Due to this disturbing, but documented, tendency in America's recent political process, Authoritarians have captured all branches of the Federal government for extended periods and numerous governorships and state legislatures. This derangement as Frank calls it, shifts the political discourse toward Authoritarianism and enervates those who aspire to government and the institution and practice of government itself. Despite this anomaly the foot soldiers and shock troops of the Authoritarian squad, for example today's Tea-Baggers, birthers, militia and neo-confederates, get potent and habit-forming gratification from their participation. This is evident by watching them during their participation and by considering the resources they invest in their participation. They almost certainly do not realize they are engaged in self-destructive behavior, but most of us, regardless of which squad we adhere to explicitly or implicitly, fail to recognize that what feels so good can eventually do so much harm. As an historic example, view and reflect on the ordinary participants in the Nuremberg Rallies. Many if not most of them were rapturous. Nonetheless, they and their country were embarked on the path to catastrophe. This historic phenomenon and the general pattern indicate that although Authoritarians pursue a strategy of Rule or Ruin, it actually amounts to a process of Rule and Ruin. Unfortunately for thousands of common citizens who end up as literal or figurative cannon fodder, the nation and the rest of us the reality of the Authoritarian subterfuge is often not apparent until it is too late. Some transitory thrills and petty reprisals are all the rank and file Authoritarians ever secure for the blood, sweat, treasure and tears they willing [at least in the beginning] contribute to the gaining and retaining of power by the Authoritarian tricksters who incite, command, and exploit their credulity.

What can liberal, patriotic Democrats do to effectively respond to the Divide and Rule strategy now so energetically deployed by the reactionary Authoritarians? First, we must emphasize the Americans are one people and America is one nation. Then, we must highly resolve that this indivisible nation shall have a new birth of freedom and government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. Make no mistake, this is precisely what the stakes are. The founders gave us a Republic and it is our solemn duty to keep it. We must not allow Authoritarians and their duped shock troops to transform the Republic into a Realm. Patriotic, Liberal Democrats and all Constitutionalists with or without factional identities, must profess, promote and practice responsible governance and preserve, protect and defend a responsive government. In short we must proclaim: "Power to the People!"