The morning after

Column by George Sibley

Politics – December 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

SO THE ELECTION IS OVER– long over by the time you read this — but still very fresh in the mind as I write it. Well, maybe “fresh” isn’t the word for an election like this one.

But anyway, it’s over, and my worst fear — that we would wake up this morning-after and everything would be the same — did not materialize. To the contrary, as the morning after unfolded into the day after, it became evident that there is now some hope of restoring some balance — checks and balance — to our national governance. To call it a “Democratic victory” misses the point, I think; it is more of a victory for the still unfolding and unrealized ideas of governance our venerated forebrothers laid out in the Constitution.

“What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls of government would be necessary. But in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Those words of James Madison, trying to sell the Constitution to Americans in Federalist Paper No. 51, never loomed so large as they have during the last several years, as a run-amok president who claims to consort with angels has demanded ever more power for himself, and a gullible majority of our Congress has given him that, blatantly ignoring the careful system of checks and balances the forebrothers put in place to oblige the government to control itself.

This growing debacle culminated just weeks before the election with this Congress giving that president the license to suspend basic constitutional rights for whomever he decides, whenever he decides. But now the people have spoken on that pretty resoundingly (with our usual razor thin margin, of course). So–

Why am I still uneasy? And not feeling particularly celebratory?

I don’t actually have to dig too deeply to figure that out. First, the obvious question: How many of those newly elected Democrats will turn out to be weak sisters like the Brothers Salazar, our own Central Colorado Democrat reps in Washington, both of whom voted to give the president permission to run roughshod over the Constitution? One also has to keep in mind that the new Senate majority depends on Joe Independent from Connecticut, who seems to be a pretty shallow pond to float that big a boat.

But mostly it’s the feeling that there is really no sense of an alternate vision among the Democrats. They campaigned on “A New Direction,” but I think that was mostly because they read a poll that said the majority of Americans don’t like America’s current direction. So, voila: “A New Direction” is indicated as a safe, consumer-tested campaign slogan, countering “Stay the Course, right over the Cliff.” But slogans should never be confused with actual strategies.

And the terrible truth is that The Decider and his handlers are the only ones with a direction today — and it is a direction that, in their heart of hearts, a lot of the new Democrats undoubtedly agree with. Certainly the Independent from Connecticut does, and given the way the Salazars wrap themselves in the bloody flag, I’m sure they do too. And there is nothing new or visionary about that direction.

It is the direction most succinctly laid out in the now-famous and much-debated quote by George Kennan, one of Harry Truman’s policy advisors way back in 1948, when the United States was trying to figure out its direction in the World War II morning-after:

“…[W]e have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population.This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia.In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

WHOLE WEBSITES TODAY are dedicated to arguments about this quote (Google “George Kennan altruism”). Some say that Kennan was a better man than this quote suggests; others say that the quote is taken out of context (generalizing too much from an otherwise fairly specific analysis of foreign policy in Asia), et cetera.

But it strikes me as the diamond of truth in the middle of a multi-volume shoveling of govspeak coal on American foreign policy (Policy Planning Study 23, Foreign Relations of the United States). Yes, it is planted in a specific analysis, but it is a general statement, and the courage it takes to make such a bald-faced statement about national purpose and direction strikes me as extremely courageous of Kennan. He spoke truth to power: This is who and what we are becoming.

And it has now become who and what we are. It is what we Americans do in the world today, with an increasingly naked desperation: We do whatever we can to maintain our “position of disparity.” It is what we were doing in Vietnam; it is what we are doing in Iraq; it is what we are not doing in Africa. We have tried to cover it with a lipgloss of “altruism and world-benefaction” for 60 postwar years, with noble-sounding “ask not what” rhetoric up to and including the recent “spreading freedom.”

BUT THE REST of the world has not been fooled. The recent National Intelligence Estimate made news because it identified the Iraq foray as the second most important factor fueling the global spread of terrorism. However, the first factor was what it already was in the 1950s: those “entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice and fear of Western domination,” which inspire our ongoing war to maintain our “position of disparity.”

Did I ever vote for this direction? Did my father, a Norman Thomas Socialist who became a Roosevelt Democrat? I salve my conscience by saying that never, in 1948 or since, has Kennan’s choice been an explicit referendum put before us. But what would happen if citizens were given that choice?

“Will we Americans yield up some to-be-specified portion of our half of the world’s wealth, in order to advance the more equitable, just and environmentally friendly global society we preach?” How would “the greatest generation” have voted on that in 1948? How would we vote on it today?

Although we haven’t been asked directly, I have to concede that this has been an implicit referendum in every election. It has just been made easy for us to not really think about it, in that warm little cocoon of comfort and convenience that the George Kennans and Dick Cheneys have woven around us. But they know that, beneath our bluster and rhetoric, we are grateful. Aren’t we?

What to do about it? I don’t really know. I came to Central Colorado forty years ago this November, in full retreat from the America that George Kennan warned us we were becoming– not the special America of my high-school history, but just another out-of-control nation-state whose people were trading a remarkable birthright for mundane wealth. I am still in Central Colorado because the only vision I can see for the future right now is the growing probability that, as soon as the oil runs out, we are going to be starting all over again, trying to reconstruct a working society, known to be devoid of angels and thus perhaps more humbly “administered by men” and women. And down on the ground in Central Colorado strikes me as a better place to practice that than most other places today in Kennan’s and Cheney’s America. Or, as Robinson Jeffers wrote: “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.”

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he teaches at Western State College and serves on the board of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.