The determination of the Republican congressional majority to destroy the country’s legacy of what once was known (in religious circles, at least) as social justice is being accomplished amidst the ignorance of the vast majority that such a thing ever existed and was defended, in the 1940s and 1950s and even after, by what were known as progressive Republicans. Not only has that breed been stamped out but so has the memory that such a movement existed under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover (a humanist, if a credulous economist), Dwight Eisenhower, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, and even under the demonized Richard Nixon.
What has replaced it has been an ignorant and repressive socio-political ideology that rests on assumptions of class and individual privilege devoid of responsibility. The United States has experienced this before. It might in Rumsfeldian idiom be called one of the known knowns of American history; and that history would indicate that it will eventually be brought to an end by electoral choice, after voters have experienced its consequences. When this will happen is an unknown known.
This ideology in its modern American version is a “conservative” attack on the popular rights proclaimed in Europe in the nineteenth century by such genuinely conservative figures as Prussia’s Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (in 1883-1887) and Pope Leo XIII, in his 1891 Encyclical Letter “Rerum Novarum,” intended to liberate people from a condition in which “the rich had in effect enslaved the poor.” The Encyclical demanded the guarantee to workers of a minimum wage, the right to form unions, to bargain collectively, and to possess individual property. Bismarck, “against violent opposition,” created national sickness, accident and old age insurance, limits on child and women’s labor, and fixed working hours for laborers.
The contemporary rationale for oppressing the poor is national debt and deficit, which could otherwise be relieved only by raising taxes on the rich and requiring corporations to bear an equitable share of the national tax burden, which in the Republican party, and a part of the Democratic party today, is unacceptable (and plausibly thought politically suicidal, in view of the current alignment of available political funds and of the legislation governing campaign practice – quite possibly irreversible, since this alignment would seem automatically to disallow reversal).
There is another possibility for ending national indebtedness which is rendered impossible by the power of cowardice. That possibility is to end the country’s two trillion-dollar wars against “terror,” and its futile effort to maintain what is seen as a crucial strategic domination of global affairs, an increasingly expensive, steadily deteriorating, and seriously unreasonable undertaking.
The irrationality of trying to rule the world is widely sensed, even in Washington. The effort is cumbersome, horrendously costly, and everywhere unsuccessful. Even Barack Obama, the Chicago community organizer innocent of experience in international affairs, who took office with advisers who convinced him that Afghanistan was the “right war” and that Pakistan with its nuclear weapons had to be brought under decisive American influence, now has turned wary of further engagements.
He backed off from the Libyan intervention as rapidly as possible, even though he insisted, while doing so, that he would not hesitate to use American military power unilaterally not only when American interest were at stake but when its “values” were threatened. Conventional international opinion and neoconservative Washington interpreted this as a move by his administration towards “disengagement” and “isolationism.” Would that it were so.
He and others lack the courage of their doubts or criticisms, fearing still another American ground engagement in the Islamic world, but afraid to condemn the ones to which the United States is already committed because they fear electoral attack as “surrendering” to terrorism, “betraying our soldiers,” inviting the Taliban and al Qaeda to install Shari’a law in American courtrooms, and humbling America before the new caliphs – all of which is utter nonsense. People claim that “defeats” in the Middle East or Asia would create “terrorist lairs.” A terrorist lair can be created anywhere that is sparsely populated and has airstrips, or better yet, is heavily populated and inadequately policed. The major terrorist attacks on America, Britain and Spain were ultimately mounted from within those countries.
James Baker and Henry Kissinger have recently [in the Washington Post] said that the foreign policy choice between realism and idealism is “false,” proposing a substitute policy they describe as “pragmatic idealism,” since “our values impel us to alleviate human suffering; but as a general principle our country should do so militarily only when national interest is at stake.” In their next sentence they add that “Libya is arguably an exception to the rule.” Even they are afraid to offer more than equivocation.
Global war has silenced and numbed America. The national deficit is moral. The people pay in deprivation, indigence, ill-health, insecurity, the humiliation of men and women who cannot find work, support their offspring or properly educate their children in what it should mean to be an American.
WILLIAM PFAFF is the author of The Irony of Manifest Destiny, published in June 2010 by Walker and Company (New York) — his tenth and culminating work on international politics and the American destiny. He is a regular columnist for the International Herald Tribune. He can be reached through his website.