Dreaming of a Great World

Lower Lewis River Falls, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington Cascade Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It was a warm, humid summer night, just the kind of night I remember my parents taking us kids to see the Lincoln Memorial.  I wanted Erika to have as her first memory of this place that same stunning vista of Lincoln looking at the brightly lit obelisk of the Washington Monument and illuminated dome of the Capitol. We parked and approached from the north.  Walking close to the American parthenon, I sensed the weight on many ghosts.

On this steamy August evening the monument steps were teeming with fellow tourists.  As we walk out on the full vista of the mall Erika is suitably wowed. Inside the crowd was flashing their cameras at the statue, whose uncanny aliveness has often been noted.  His face, posture and half-clenched hands evoke a sense of the implacable, taciturn, resolute. Standing off to his right, did he just give me a wink?

The Lincoln is my favorite place in the capital.  George Washington may be the father of the original United States, but Lincoln is very much the progenitor of the modern American republic, the one I know.  A sectionalized nation referenced in the plural before the Civil War, “The United States are . . . ,” became a singular nation.  The continental republic, joined by railroad, telegraph and a civic ideal of equality burst out of the war with the energy of an industrial revolution fired by the demands of the Union Army.  The homestead and transcontinental railroad subsidies blocked by southern legislators before the war were enacted in their absence, setting the pattern and building the links for settlement of the west.  The coast-to-coast American nation, modern, industrial, urban, was born with Lincoln.  He is the father of the Second American Republic.

Lincoln did save the United States from much unhappy history, from a fractured continent of contending European-scale states that would almost certainly have warred against each other again. Perhaps a more frankly colonial U.S. would have competed with the Confederacy for colonies in Latin America, Africa, Asia.  Perhaps a vengeful U.S. would have seized Canada. A breakaway Texas republic might have sought to expand to the Pacific and throughout the west.  One can imagine being drawn into the emerging competition between Britain and Germany, with World War I battles taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.  It is likely that the continent would not have developed so quickly, or that the continental superpower would have emerged.

That is the other side of the coin.  Lincoln’s legacy.  The unified, rapidly industrializing republic spanning a greater territory than Western Europe would by sheer bulk almost inevitably rise to overwhelming global power.  Energies not absorbed in a competition among American states would be devoted instead to internal consolidation and expansion.  While European states were assembling overseas empires the United States was developing an integated continental empire, turning its warfares almost immediately to subduing and colonizing the remaining Indian lands of the interior west that had been leapfrogged in the thrust to the Pacific coast.  The job was barely proclaimed complete by Frederick Jackson Turner in the 1890s before the U.S. was thusting out into the world, seizing the Spanish empire’s island colonies so strategically placed to secure trade routes from Latin America to Asia.  The colonies went away, but the strategic network, the “empire of bases” noted by Chalmers Johnson, is larger than ever.

So Lincoln’s success bears its consequences, as would have his failure.  These are the legacies with which we live.  America continues to be the greatest global power, even though on a more equal basis with other powers.  It is really too important a country in global history to behave like an empire, consumed in its own interests to the exclusion of others.  The fundamental facts of a world so tightly knit as ours is that the only way to serve ones own interests ultimately is to seek and preserve the common good.  America’s greatest leadership in the world will only come when we acknowledge our national shortfallings.

We led the world into the age of mass automobility, the power grid, mass consumption-based economies.  Now we must pioneer mobility, energy, goods and services that cycle within loops of the global ecosystem, the economics and technologies that foster living both prosperous and sustainable, something we can indeed pass on to our children.  We led the world in military technology from the first industrialized conflict, the Civil War, to nuclear weapons to the information-technology based “Revolution in Military Affairs.”  Now we must lead in acknowledging the limited capacities of weapons and warfare to achieve decisive results or solve underlying problems, limits paradoxically rising from the very power and spread of weapons technology.

This involves us rediscovering what it means to be citizens of a republic.  We have greatly prospered from our power and leading position in the world.  Now we must grapple with the meaning of that power, become as Eisenhower called upon us in his farewell speech, “alert and knowledgeable citizens.”  That was to control the rising power of the military-industrial complex, but the same is needed for the range of our powers, technological and insitutional.

I take Erika to look at the great words inscribed on either side of Lincoln.  While crowds mill in front of the statue, the side alcoves devoted to the words are virtually empty.  That expresses part of our problem as citizens.  We are entranced by imagery and not so drawn to the difficulties of substance.  But the words at the memorial are at least as important as the statue.  They are why in essence the statue bears significance.

To Lincoln’s right, the north side, is the Gettysburg Address, words I can never read without deep stirrings within.  The unforgettable words that begin his two-minute speech to dedicate the cemetary at the battlefield always resound: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Within a mile or two of where Lincoln spoke those words, now marked by a stone with the address in his handwriting, thousands had died in a battle and war that was the great test of that proposition.  Walking the battlefield, as I have, gazing down from monument-studded Cemetery Ridge, it is difficult to envision the meat grinder that covered these gently rolling, peaceful, green hills.  This is where Lee made his gamble for a military victory deep in Union territory with a desperate charge against Union lines on July 3, 1863. It is even more amazing to stride across the Little Round Top a mile or so down and realize that is Union troops had not secured this at the last moment, the Confederacy could have gained a high-ground position from which to shell Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, improving Lee’s situation immeasurably and perhaps shifting the tide of war.  Both Lee and Lincoln realized that a southern victory at Gettysburg had the potential to so demoralize a North that had already suffered a string of defeats, that the militarily inferior south might have gained a political victory.

The survival of a unified republic was a close thing, and it was secured by a relative few. Not the dedication ceremony at which Lincoln spike ennobled this ground, but, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” They call on us “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work . . . to the great task remaining before us . . . to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”  Lincoln calls out that cause, “a new birth of freedom . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Somehow we must rediscover an American citizenship, an alert and knowledgeable citizenry focused on the Res Publica, the public thing.  “Freedom” is a word that is tossed around so much, with so little context in meaning, that it can become almost useless.  Lincoln, deep in the fires of “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” knew with specificity his definition of freedom, the public thing he sought to preserve, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  This was a world where reactionary monarchies still ruled much of Europe, in which democratic ideas were only beginning to take root around the world.  America was still something rare, an explicitely democratic republic.

Can we rediscover this sense in an era of mass-scale institutions and mass media manipulations?   Can “government of the people, by the people, for the people” become more than an evocative phrase but a living, breathing, vital reality for which we are willing to struggle?  I have two keystone conclusions in this regard.  One is about place, the second about planet.

First is that ecological citizenship, devotion to the public thing of a local and regional ecos, is the foundation of a devotion to the larger public thing that is the national republic.  A continental nation composed of dynamic, self-aware places acting to build vital polities and ecological economies, with the fine granularity of distinct regional places, is inherently stronger than a system where decisive action is choked down to a limited number of centers.  The deep difficulty of the American political system in resolving longstanding problems tracks to this sclerosis. We can generate a rebirth of democratic freedom at a national, continental level, if we generate it in city halls, state houses and new institutions of cooperative regional endeavor, city-states, megaregions, bioregions, watershed compacts. This is the necessary ground for a new national citizenship.  And if we cannot build this ground then we will not have leverage points to influence national insitutions.  Democracy is rebirthed from the ground up.

My second keystone thought is that America possesses such a huge global footprint that to be good citizens of the planet we must rediscover what it means to be alert and knowledgeable citizens of our nation.  So much that will determine the fate of our world will be decided in the context of American political and civic life, that it is hard to conceive of good outcomes at the planetary level without a reborn government of, by and for the people in the United States.  So even as we turn to our cities, states and regions to ground this new birth of freedom, we are called to act with the world in mind, to understand the natural unity of place and planet. We must discover the global in the local, even as we create local and regional levers powerful enough to move the national and global.

After considering the Gettsyburg Address Erika and I moved to the opposite alcove, to his second inaugural.  Has any president given a speech richer in spiritual paradox?Referring to the combatants, Lincoln noted,  “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

Lincoln quotes Christian scripture refering to the crucifixion of Christ. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” He seems to consider the war similarly fated, and himself wrapped in barely comprehensible forces.

“If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”

Lincoln is playing out that central, Zen-like paradox at the heart of Christianity, predestination versus free will.  In which we make choices, set directions, and yet these choices are part of a larger design that carries us in unforeseen directions.  A sense of tragic necessity infuses Lincoln’s words. He frankly confesses that at the start of the conflict, the Union government only sought “to restrict the territorial enlargement” of slavery.  Yet the war of unexpected magnitude and duration had already brought about its abolition. The result was “fundamental and astounding.”

Lincoln concludes with a vision that embodies reconciliation and healing, necessarily grounded in the context of our limited comprehension, that sets the ultimate goal for the war, and the American nation.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

But of course the work was not completed.  By the 1890s much of the southern African-American population had been virtually re-enslaved by sharecropping and segregation.  This would require another redemptive work, accomplished in a time of cold and hot wars, by the African-American people themselves.  Another inscription at the monument commemorates a seminal event in that story.

It is the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech.  I took Erika out to find it, a bit hard at in the dimmer light of night but still evident. Erika almost jumped back from it as she saw it.

“Whew!” she said.

I had that same instinct when I first found myself standing on that spot, one day in 2003 on a climate policy trip to the capital.  Looking down I recalled the story about the inscription being made.  I virtually lept off of it, feeling not quite ready to stand on such a sacred ground.  I would not until another policy trip when I again visited my favorite place in the capital.

It was February 15, 2008. I  was reading a book about King and the seminal 20th-century struggle for African-American freedom that he led, sitting on the ledge by the steps leading up to the Memorial, the temple of the original Great Emancipator in the 19th-century struggle for African-American freedom, the greatest president because he made the United States a singular nation, no longer divided between slave and free, or North and South. I visited a few days before Lincoln’s birthday, and Abraham’s sitting place was garlanded with bouquets from Illinois, Kentucky and elsewhere honoring this native son and historic great.

Sitting about 25 feet across from the inscribed place where King addressed the culminating expression of the 20th-century struggle, the 1963 March on Washington,  I try to mentally picture the crowds lining the reflecting pool down to the Washington Monument. People stop to look and stand at King’s inscribed spot, African-American and white.

I had been accumulating the Taylor Branch America in the King Years trilogy waiting for the right time to immerse in it.  Early 2008 was the time. Tracking from Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, I had reached the concluding volume, At Canaan’s Edge. That February day, my muse of books had brought me to the point where tensions between King and Johnson were breaking out over the Vietnam War.  Branch recounts a White House Civil Rights Conference nearly cut short because of them, and one of the early great peace rallies at the Washington Monument, towering over where I am sitting and dominating the perspective. These events took place in the wake of the battles of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, the first major engagement between American and Vietnamese troops with heavy U.S. casualties, but far heavier Vietnamese. Branch gives a detailed account of the battles in a passage I had read earlier in the day.  The repercussions were still sounding in my mind, Westmoreland planning an attrition war based on the asymmetric body counts of the battles. The American side of that attrition war is inscribed in the dark wall I can see outlined by trees off in the distance.

Branch recounts King being interviewed calling the war for what it is, an unwarranted and destructive expression of national pride.  He noted “a very practical problem that runs the gamut of history . . . and that is face-saving . . . we have got to get rid of our pride.”

As I read the heavy thump of a military chopper flying above the treeline on the opposite site over my shoulder caused me to turn my head.  It was Marine One, carrying that president to Andrews Air Force Base on his way to his first trip to Africa, George W. Bush near the end of a term marked other interminable wars in Asia, with their own regular body counts and face-saving imperatives.

The journalist then asked King whether his death would serve the movement.  The question had a special cogency.  A was protestor had recently immolated himself outside the Pentagon, just across the Potomac River from where I was sitting. King had no doubt given the question a lot of thought.  In fact, he had earlier been attacked by a knife-wielding assailant and, as Branch relates elsewhere, often expected to be assassinated.  I would not have wanted to be Martin King in those days.  His agonies, trials of the spirit, conflicts within the movement as elements spun toward violence, and his own fears of death, fill the pages of Branch’s trilogy.

“I wouldn’t take my own life, but I would willingly give my life for that which I think is right,” King responded.   “And I am convinced that when one does this honestly, that death can have redemptive value.”[1]

At that memorial honoring two men who “gave the last full measure of devotion” for the cause of emancipation, King’s words stirred the depths.  I was ready to go stand on the “I have a dream” spot. The day was sunny and cool.  Gazing out over the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument overlooking the scene, I was spontaneously moved to speak my own dream.  King ad libbed the most famous words of his speech, Branch recalls, and I  would let my own words emerge the same way.

“I dream we will make a great world for ourselves and our children.  Out of the greatest crises that the human race has ever faced, we will find in ourselves our better angels, rise to the challenges, and make that great world.”

Now it was a year and a half later, and I was standing at the same spot overviewing the reflecting pool and white obelisk at night.  Once again I feel impelled to state my dream. This time I had to summon up every bit of inner faith I can find.  For I had been spending the summer digesting some of the latest science about the closeness of climate tipping points, of self-reinforcing feedbacks. For example, polar ice melts, blue water appears in the summer Arctic Ocean gathering more solar heat, melting more ice, and releasing carbon stored on northern tundras and peat bogs that dwarfs human emissions, further ramping up the heating of the planet, melting more ice and helping dry out and burn down rainforests as well, releasing more carbon, and so on.  The odds for leaving a world sliding into climate hell are all too good.

I looked over at Erika, who was gazing out at the vista of the nighttime mall.  My own investment in future generations is standing next to me.  There is no other option but to exert some faith. So once again, freshly reminded of the gravity of our global situation and the profound necessity to act with foresight and a dedication to the common good, to complete our own unfinished work, I silently repeated my dream that we will out of this unprecedented crisis summon our better angels and make a great world.  And again I turned to Lincoln and quietly intoned, “Better angels, prevail.”

Now it was time to walk down the stairs to take the next steps of our civic pilgrimage.  As I always do when I come here, I walked the wall of the Vietnam Memorial, this time with my daughter.  I explained to her how this wall reflected the national split over Vietnam.  It both honored the soldiers who gave their lives there, and placed this respect in the form of a wall showing, as I told her, “War is death.”  And those deaths, the memory of them, did create a wall against unlimited overseas military engagements breached in part over recent years. I wonder what the memorial to the Iraq and Afghanistan War dead will look like.

Erika was amazed by the number of names and the length of the wall, representing at that time tenfold greater deaths than in the current wars.  I told her about seeing people come to still honor their fallen friends and family, witnessing grown men break down at the sight of the name of one of their fallen comrades.  Several wreaths placed at the base of the wall underscored my point.

I pointed over to the Washington Monument where I participated in protests against the war. I opposed it and make no apologies for that position.  We could have avoided the war by reconciling with the anti-colonial revolutionary leadership, who despite their Communist identity were the disaffected professional class of the country, as Stanley Karnow well documents in his Vietnam: A History. They were not the poor and working people, but the mandarin class seeking a return to power in a country taken from them by the French. The mandarins were primarily interested in independence and doing business on their own terms.  Nothing testifies to this better than the active economic intercourse that today takes place between the U.S. and Vietnam.

My war opposition does not lessen my respect for people who put themselves in harm’s way in service of their country.  In fact, that respect fortifies my opposition to sending soldiers to die in wars fought on ill-conceived and fraudulent grounds, whether saving face or preserving a fossil fuel pipeline that we should be replacing.  Going to war is the ultimate act of governance. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, we institute governments to secure “certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  When we send soldiers into battle, it should be genuinely to secure these rights.  Calling upon them to risk life and limb for anything less, call it “regime change” or “nation building,” does not honor or respect them.

We walk across the mall and down toward the World War II Memorial.  Though it was feared the memorial would wreck the mall, in fact it nestles below the ground line in a way that preserves the mall’s integrity.  Putting it at the centerpoint of the mall is appropriate, since the Second World War sits at the historic pivot point that that transformed the United States from a continental into a global nation inextricably linked throughout the world.  If the Civil War birthed the American Second Republic, the combination of the 1930s depression and 1940s war initiated the Third Republic, the one we know today.

This was my second time to the memorial, the first when the fountain is on and the first at night.  On the humid D.C. night, Erika and I take a welcome and refreshing break sitting down and cooling off by the pool. Dancing waters played amid the lights between the opposite towers commemorating the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, in front of the gold star covered wall honoring the 416,000 American service members who died in the war.

On my first visit here, back in 2003, I had stood at the Pacific Tower and contemplated the meaning of the memorial.  This was a time when finally we saw a common threat, fascist tyrannies intent on carving the world into autarkies shaped in the service of “master races.”  But this only came after years of rallying an isolationist American public by a determined FDR, and even at that, it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to wake people to the danger. When we did, we rose to the challenge and fought to victory.

Today Americans seem similarly asleep to the world-threatening crises confonting us centered around energy stress and climate disruption.  These twin challenges are at the nexus because they are consequences of creating the first high-energy civilization in history.  The globally interconnected system offering greater mass prosperity than any time in human existence is a product of energy technologies.  The world now strains to keep the motor running while it chokes on the pollution and its ecologically destabilizing impacts.

The threats embodied in this twin climate-energy crisis are if anything greater than those posed by the fascist tyrannies.  They threatened only to end democracy and human freedom.  The new crisis, if we let it run away, could end those as well in a kind of global emergency management regime instituted to deal with overwhelming social and economic disruptions.  But the new crisis could also sweep away civilization itself, as well as the biosphere as we know it.

Yet our politics seems quite reminiscent of the 1930s, when many Americans were complacent about the fascist threat, and indeed when many leading corporations saw German rearmament as a growth opportunity in a world seeking to climb out of depression.  Ford, General Motors, Standard Oil aka Exxon Mobil, they were all there, investing in and selling to the German market.  Others believed we could afford to defer response to the fascist challenge to the future because grappling with it immediately would be too costly, too burdensome.  Evasion was the order of the day.

Of course, if we had waited, the tyrannies would have grown unbeatably strong, and so will our global challenges if we punt to some future decade.  Climate change will have become increasingly a runaway train, feeding itself.  Energy shortages will multiply as petroleum and natural gas production peaks, and even coal and uranium deposits will be under strain.  All this will be taking place in a world with growing populations and other ecological resources, particularly water, hard-pressed to keep up with accelerating demands.  The synergies of all these meshing crises will propel the apocalyptic horsemen of war, famine and disease, and resource scarcities always have.  Under stress, our hominid species can become quite nasty, as history abundantly records.

So as our earlier generations did in the 1940s, we must rally to address the range of global survival challenges, natural and human.  Learning to concentrate the diffuse energies of nature, from solar light and warmth, the motion of wind, waves and tides, the heat of the Earth itself.  Learning to employ energies in elegantly designed systems that make more with less, from machines and buildings, to whole towns and cities. Learning to work with soils and plants to absorb the carbon overburden of the last 250 years while sustainably growing abundant food, fiber and fuels.  Learning to operate economies as ecosystems that translate the waste of one element into sustenance for another.

The scale and scope of what is required, and the rapidity with which it must be accomplished, call for a commitment no less than the allies made to win World War II. For instance, it is a rule of thumb that energy systems typically require 50 years to transition to a new phase – waterwheels to coal-fired steam power,  steam engines to petroleum-fueled internal combustion.   In order to avoid tipping toward points of no return, unstoppable avalanches where climate change slides beyond any possibility of human control, the world must make similar transitions in 10, 15 or 20 years.

Just as that inner voice said standing at the Pacific tower, sometimes we just need to struggle.  Facing the adversaries in the 1940s, we had to struggle against racially-driven fascist totalitarianisms determined to impose their will and stamp their patterns on others.  Today we must struggle with elements that arrogate their own narrow interests over those of the common good, immediate gain over the long-term health and functionality of human communities and nature’s systems.  We can find those narrow interests in institutions of all sorts, public and private.  And we can find them in ourselves.  Better angels prevail.

This is a peaceful struggle, in the spirit that motivated Brother Martin when he invoked his dream and those who gathered at the mall that day in 1963 to hear it.  It is calling to the best in us, speaking truth to power, bearing witness to that which we understand as true, calling out deceptions and evasions.  For ultimately, this is about a mental understanding that yields a spiritual change.  The revolution, if it is to take place meaningfully anywhere, must first break out in the mind.  As it is, fundamentally, a revolution in relations, it must embody relational wisdom as its means as well as its ends.  It is the revolution of respect, for our new and immesely powerful position vis-à-vis others and the planet on which we stand.  From this standpoint, we will make the needed political, economic and cultural changes to make a great world, for ourselves, and for our children.

That is my dream.


[1] Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2006, p.395-6

This first appeared on The Raven.