"What the United States does best is to understand itself. What it does worst is to understand others."
- Carlos Fuentes
As another year begins, many of us are involved in contemplating not just the behavior and principles of our country but, indeed, its very fate. We wonder if we are too far gone down a fast-running river to ever get back to the spot where the view was glorious.
The elegant language of our constitution was written with the energy produced by British oppression. Unfortunately, after independence was established, we began our own history of oppression. The near genocide of Manifest Destiny gave us cultural, economic and racial control of the continent while we also set about the business of importing slaves to carry all of our burdens. More than a century passed before women were given the vote and the African descendants of those slaves were not afforded their full constitutional rights until almost two hundred years after their ancestors had stepped onto American soil shackled in chains.
As poorly as we failed our founding principles, America did, ultimately, change. Courageous individuals forced us to confront national hypocrisies. People voted, protested, debated, read, campaigned, and we reached an honorable consensus. Our democracy was alive and vibrant and, although it might take an absurd amount of time for achievement, we were heading in the direction of a just democracy. If we did not believe in the results we at least honored the processes that formed our society. We were involved and invariably the best ideas and candidates seemed to prevail.
Where are we now?
Our modern era of cynicism and disenfranchisement appears to have begun with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. All of our postwar prosperity and optimism took a shot to the head in Dallas but we pressed on through the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War. Sadly, we began to realize that our government and leaders could be quick and facile liars. Vietnam was a tragedy years before they acknowledged our misguided policies and meaningless deaths. Eventually, Watergate meant even the most sacred of offices was not averse to grand deceits and when President Ford pardoned President Nixon many felt the fix was in and justice was a ghost.
The ensuing years gave us Iran-Contra and the Tower Report, which was a voluminous white wash of what was almost certainly a guns for drugs operation used to illegally fund a group of thugs trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The lie about Monica seemed nearly precious when placed in the context of all the others we had grown numb to hearing. Almost every candidate for public office since World War II has promised to lower our taxes and still provide us great government services and we allowed ourselves to be convinced.
We have now stopped believing in almost anything. Our disenfranchisement has become nearly voluntary. The historic Iraq War and domestic spying lies of the Bush administration have spawned an era of cynicism without equal in our democracy. If they were caught, lying used to cause politicians their careers. Karl Rove has taught us all that it is presently nothing more than a conventional political tool. Anyone who gets caught simply lies in a louder voice without bothering to deny. Truth-tellers get swift boated and the liars win elections. We don't even trust the technology that delivers vote counts because we know that software can be manipulated by the politically ambitious. Americans are not confident they even know what happened in their recent past with either the elections or the wars. We have been spun to dizziness. Demographers, statisticians, and pollsters rant about how few people turn out to take part in the electoral process. Don't they understand why?
We used to be the people who the world counted on to do right and risk the consequences. The mistakes of our government were not reflective of the heart of our people. But the stars and stripes have been transformed from a symbol to a brand. Are we now nothing more than a business, a military-petro-chemical-political complex? Whatever we might be we find the U.S. citizenry as disengaged and cynical as it has ever been just as China is rising. They hold billions of dollars in Wal-Mart inventory, an almost incalculable amount of our debt, and maybe even our fate. Our wan dollar has reached historic lows as Wall Street greed mongers bundle bad loans and sell them to equally greedy investors in foreign lands.
We may know where we are now but do we have any idea where we want to go? Do we want to honor the language of our founding document? America was always more about becoming than it was being. In 2008, maybe we can raise our flag again guided by principle rather than political expediency. There might be a leader who calls us to serve and to sacrifice and heal, and who deserves our support.
The image is fading but we can still see it through the distant haze. As weakened as the colors are they still have meaning and value and we can know them again if we are sufficiently determined. Let's just go in that direction and find our flag.
Let's keep believing there's a star-spangled banner waving somewhere.