I have noticed a strange tendency ever since I expressed how upset I was with the false election of George Bush, who, to my mind, has fulfilled my fear of being the worst president in modern times. What I noticed is that the right wing (such an odd notion, that we as a country have a two-dimensional understanding of politics — left and right) attacks the minute it feels wronged, whereas the left grumbles and walks away.
Each side truly believes it is working from a moral base, but only the right seems to feel that it has grounds to attack those who don’t share its definition of morality. I believe there are reasons for this, mostly having to do with the left’s inability to deal with the fact that tolerance is essentially a passive position in a world that demands active, dynamic response. But that is not my concern today.
What I have been championing is a re-envisioning of the American mission, and what I am getting back from the right is an attack on any phrase, any inkling I might give, that there might be something amiss in the way our country is operating today.
The blindness is disconcerting, but the anger is truly frightening. We need to take a step back and look at the foundational principles of this country. And I don’t mean comic book notions of freedom and flag. What I mean are the wise thoughts of men like James Madison in the Federalist papers, the insights of outside commentators like Alexis De Tocqueville and Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, the observations of George Washington in his farewell address. Then we need to listen to the voices of those we have wronged, like Sitting Bull, Frederick Douglass, and so many others.
We need to hear criticism and thoughtful insight, then use this knowledge to reshape, rearticulate, and rededicate ourself to a national vision.
This is where someone like Bill Clinton went so tragically wrong — so smart, so charismatic, yet so unwilling to stand strong for a vision. Every one of us knows that our health care system is killing us. We can’t afford it, it doesn’t work, it turns doctors into gatekeepers and paper shufflers, it invites abuses and leaves most of us living in terror that we might lose this desperately necessary element of life.
Like it or not, Hillary had a vision. And she put it forth. Now, I don’t want a million emails from people raging against her ideas. That is not my point. My point is that she had a visionary notion to provide us something we all desperately need — health care — and she got savaged by her opponents while her husband — the most powerful man in the world — checked the polls, smiled and glad handed, and tried to assay the fallout of his wife’s initiative.
Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have done this. After all, he was a man who charged his people with the outrageous notion of building a missile shield over the United States and wouldn’t hear of opposition to the idea, even though it was a Hollywood cartoon.
Clinton had a caring vision placed in his hand, and he didn’t have the moral courage to fight for it.
Carry it forward. Al Gore sees clearly what we are doing to the planet, yet was too weak-willed to stand up for his carefully researched understanding until after he was politically interred. John Kerry was a true war hero, and he let himself be manipulated and bullied by a campaign of lies promulgated by the media machine of an apparent deserter without even raising a hand in opposition.
Again, I beg you to understand that my concern runs far deeper than my politics. My concern is with our nation’s vision of who we might be. New Orleans founders, our people sit at home without health care or jobs, our children are manipulated by an avalanche of media images and vacuous television shows, anger is celebrated as assertion, whether it is embodied in right wing tirades or glowering athletes, and the rich grow richer while the poor grow poorer.
This is not who we are or who we should be.
We need leaders who can rise above the political drek. We need people like Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, maybe even that strange fellow currently trying to reshape Venezuela. We do not need to share their politics, but we need to learn something from their vision of what it means to be a leader.
I think back on the days of Anwar Sadat in Egypt. What kind of man had the courage to go to Israel almost on a dare from the Israeli government, shake hands with the leaders of a people who had been his nation’s sworn enemy, and say, “Come, let us reason together to make a better life for our children”?
Where is that leader for us today? Where is the man or woman who will go to Cuba and say, “Mr. Castro, you are in poor health and not likely to last much longer. We do not agree with what you did to your country, but your people have survived and thrived, and we want to help you and them shape a workable future”?
Where is the leader who can go to France and say, “This ‘freedom fry’ thing is an embarrassment. Your position on Iraq had some virtues, though we didn’t see them at the time and still feel you were a bit too accommodating. But our nations looked to each other as brothers and sisters in search of a common freedom back at the time of our founding, and we see your wonderful gift of the Statue of Liberty every time we look out into New York harbor. Let us get our friendship back on track”?
And on the home front, where is the leader who will say, “We all are afraid to get sick, we all worry about how we will get old, we all want our kids to have a healthy and hopeful childhood and we want their air to be fit to breathe”? And then say, “I am going to get these things for you, or fail trying.”
That is the key notion: to be willing to fail trying. We should be fixing New Orleans or fail trying. We should be fixing our health care system or fail trying. We should be doing a hundred things, and doing them together as a country. And we should not be afraid to fail because our vision was too grand and full of dreams.
Pick your agenda. Pick your challenges. But make them hopeful and growthful, not riven with fear, arrogance, and righteous anger.
We are the nation of Reconstruction, the Marshall Plan, the trans-continental railroad, the knitting together of nationalities and political entities into a common union. We can do what we set out to do, but we need to have a vision. Poll watching, righteous thundering, chasing enemies real and imagined, and being lapdogs to economic and political interests is not the way to find such a vision.
Forget your disagreements or agreements with me. Instead, devote your heart and mind to articulating a vision — for your life, your community, your nation.
I go back to a phrase I used in Letters To My Son fifteen years ago: “Strength based in force is a strength people fear. Strength based in love is a strength people crave.”
Somewhere in the world of politics and governments, there has to be room for love. If there isn’t, we become a heartless nation.
We all hope for and deserve better.