Headnote: Hullo. This piece was unfortunately first published (on August 28, 2011) before I realized that August-early September was the "silly season"of low readership. (See footnotes) Now it feels timely.
If you don't care about me, I don't want to be part of your democracy
I like the feeling of validation when someone else expresses my own beliefs about what citizenship could mean:
After 9/11, (unfortunately) “…We weren’t urged to study Arabic, to join the foreign service or international aid groups, to develop alternative sources of energy, to form a national civil reserve for emergencies—or even to pay off the cost of the war in our own time. Its burdens would be borne by the next generation of Americans, and by a few hundred thousand volunteer soldiers in this one.”
The writer is George Packer, a winner of the Overseas Press Club award, from his book The Assassins’ Gate subtitled America in Iraq. …As you know, Memorial Day is observed by Americans back at home, and in a chapter called Memorial Day Packer is writing the above paragraph about a citizen, Chris Frosheiser, who lost his son in Iraq. Two paragraphs later Packer writes:
“So the months after 9/11 were a lost opportunity—to harness the surge of civic energy and to frame the new war against Islamist radicalism as a national struggle. It should have been the job not just of the experts in the intelligence agencies and Special Forces but also of ordinary American citizens to wage it. And it should have been waged on many fronts, with many tools—not just military, but also intellectual, diplomatic, economic, political, cultural. This had been the vision of the architects of the early Cold War, whom Chris Frosheiser read about in a college history course and whom he came to admire even more after September 11…. Bush…His message to the public was essentially, “Trust me,” and the public slipped into a fearful passivity.”
A theme of my essay site is that democracy does not begin and end with voting. That’s too easy. Democracy begins with people and their neighbors feeling not as passive peasants but as citizens, together.
For me it took effort, I had to get off the couch, to be a young citizen-soldier. I remember a dewy morning when I risked my life walking through a grassy field to find unexploded bombs. Suddenly my leg got caught. I looked. There was a very fine yet surprisingly strong copper wire... ...No danger. This wire had been part of a wire guided anti-tank missile. Such rockets, naturally, require mid course corrections. Earlier, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, had envisioned a missile where you could sight on the target, click to show it to the missile’s computer, then click once more to send the missile on its way. Of course such “fire and forget” is only a fantasy.
I think part of the problem in the US, now, is the recent fantasy of “market fundamentalism.” In this ideology the public can relax and just let “market forces” do all the work. I think this feeling has spread… to people feeling that government “should not” require constant correction. When President Obama was proposing a national health care, like the splendid ones in Japan or my homeland of Canada, many Americans suspected that their own limitations, unfortunately, were just too great. They simply could not have a government service that would work nearly as well as in Canada or Japan or Europe, not if the relaxed lazy citizens wanted to just “fire and forget.” How queer for me to reflect that, within my lifetime, Americans used to be more democratic than Canadians.
The US citizens fired their white house experts off to Iraq, and then tried to forget that citizenship requires participation. "Nation building," to rework an old quote "is too important to leave to the generals."
Earlier in the first quoted paragraph was this
“…Joseph Biden wondered, “How urgent can this be if I tell you this is a great crisis and, at the time we’re marching to war, I give the single largest tax cut in the history of the United States of America?” The tax cut didn’t just leave the country fiscally unsound during wartime; their inequity was bad for morale. But the president’s failure to call for shared, equal sacrifice wasn’t accidental. It followed directly from the governing spirit of the modern conservative movement that his presidency brought to full power. After years of a sustained assault on the idea of collective action, there was no ideological foundation left on which Bush could have stood up and asked what Americans could do for their country. We weren’t urge to study…” (As above)
The next paragraph begins:
“Perhaps it was a shrewd political read on Bush’s part—a recognition that Americans, for all their passion after September 11, would inevitably slouch back to their sofas. It seemed fair to ask, though, how a body politic as out of shape as ours was likely to make it over the long, hard slog of wartime; how convincingly we could export democratic values when our own version showed so many sign of atrophy; how much solidarity we could expect to muster for Afghans and Iraqis when we were asked to feel so little for one another.”
I love that validation. In one of my essays I pointed out that it was a mistake to think we could teach the Iraqi’s to have democracy with just a quick sound bite, the implication being that on the home front Americans would need to reflect for more than just a single bite of time. But of course, events proved Americans just could not reflect, certainly not enough to develop some solidarity with Iraq. I think my parents knew more about the enemy during WWII than we do about our protégés, our allies, all those folks we mentored in Iraq.
In the Arab world, democracy is still a feared, loved, hated, strange and revolutionary thing. It was Emma Goldman who said, and you may have seen her bumper sticker, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” As for what the Iraqi’s wanted, (dancing?) judging by the US occupation authorities, and their bizarre dictates, no Ugly American cared enough to ask them. Not caring? Not working with? I ask you: Is this treating the Iraqi’s as “good enough to be citizens,” or merely as unwashed voters who would regularly change their masters? It cannot be denied: The US occupation authorities were embedded in the US culture, in a republic of people too apathetic to oversee them or correct them, let alone develop any understanding of the innocent Iraqi people. Here’s a bumper sticker for an Iraqi driving past a US headquarters: “If you don’t care about me, I don’t want to be part of your democracy.”
For various sound reasons, which would require a separate essay, I haven’t given up on the US. I still have hope. I realize how, for some people, hope is only felt when concurrent with action. At the end of my April 2011 essay Are Yankees Stupid? I was getting at this sort of thing, at action, citizenship and hope, when I addressed a hypothetical US citizen, one who claimed he was neither stupid nor irresponsible:
"At which I can only reply, as gently as I can, “All of my readers are responsible. And you, dear reader, may well prove me wrong. Go ahead: do the “citizen thing.” Go to your downtown library, or bookstore, and ask them to include a war on terror section. Tell them how your fellow citizens want to seek out new information, new concepts, and boldly put their actions where their commitment is… I am sorry to say I think you will fail… Then you may write a comment here to tell the rest of us what happened.”"
That was in April, and so far I've heard nothing back. I am an idealistic person, so if you have some hope, please feel free to comment.
~The 2005 quotes are from pages 386 and 387 of the Farrar, Straus and Giroux trade edition of The Assassin's Gate, with a new copyright 2006 Reading Group Guide and a new 2006 author's Afterword.
~Jerome Weeks of the Miami Herald, wrote "Packer's account is suspenseful, heartbreaking and infuriating, like watching a slow-moving bus accident... The Assassin's Gate is simply indispensable."
~As I recall, the heirs of President John F. Kennedy did not use their initiative any more than did the pals of Bush. No asking, "What can I do for my country?" As the bus started to slide down the hill the liberals stood watching with folded arms.
~Maybe it's the time of season, or maybe its the time of apathy, but this essay, with its clear title, is getting less than my usual number of hits.
~Update: It's taken a good while, but, cumulatively, now it is at a normal number of hits.