Saturday, September 11, 2004

Visions and Murals 

"For a bit over 200 years, the vision held by the majority of Americans and our elected officials was one of egalitarian democracy in a constitutional republic; government of, by, and for the people; and the belief that democracy was a contagious idea. In that, we've been proven right - the UN notes that in 1800 there were only 3 democracies in the world (none in 1775) and today there are 81 "full" democracies with nearly 100 other nations moving rapidly in democratic directions."

The Choice This Year Is Between Empire and Democracy
By Thom Hartmann

Thom's essay was written a few months ago, but it's worth reading as many times as it takes to internalize. If you haven't noticed, Thom is the only writer who has a permanent link on my blog. All of his essays are worth reading. He's the only political writer I know of who consistently - and masterfully - paints the big picture. For me, the best part is the factual detail that he imbues his expression with. Reading his work feels like putting glasses on my perception; he shows me the detail that I'm not able to discern unaided.

If you're familiar with my writing, you probably noticed that my perception is tuned for distance. Thom paints a big and beautifully detailed picture of democracy, but it's not big enough to satisfy my curiosity. It leaves me with the desire to look beyond the edges - to see what the larger context is. If you haven't read his essay yet, please do so before continuing.

From a distance, it becomes evident that Thom's picture is a detail of a larger picture - one encompassing the expanse of human experience, and showcasing the struggle for human progress.

The struggle is driven by the interplay between two opposing forces: one is human in nature, the other is animal; one is attuned to nurturing humanity, the other is attuned to resist it; one accepts the value of humanity, the other demands proof of its value. Since progress favors the human over the animal, I'll call the human force the "progressive force"; I'll refer to the other one as the "regressive force." The struggle between these forces is rooted in the human mind. The resulting gestalt is the building block of the same forces on a social level - ultimately contributing to a "gestalt of gestalts."

For most of our history, the regressive force was dominant. The progressive force developed slowly and painfully - one human sacrifice at a time. Over time, the human evidence coalesced and became a formidable counter-force. It developed into a social philosophy called "Liberalism" and found an ideal home in the New World. From there, it gradually spread to other parts of the world. Now, for the first time in our history, the progressive force is dominant. The evidence is in the trend favoring democracy that Thom describes - and in the unprecedented power wielded on behalf of progress.

Thom is correct that "the choice this year is between empire and democracy." He also notes: "empire and democracy are mutually exclusive - ultimately a nation must choose one or the other." In the context of the larger picture, the irony of this choice is more apparent - and its gravity is more evident. How did the progressive force get into such a regressive bind?

A look at the larger picture shows that the regressive force is attacking the progressive force at its roots - from outside, and from within. As a result of this attack, the progressive force is starting to wither. Thom describes this in some detail:

"Stable democracies are recoiling, distancing themselves from us as fast as they can. Evolving democracies are abandoning many of Jefferson's visions of democracy and becoming more repressive and less democratic, following our Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib lead. And dictatorships like China point to our shift toward authoritarianism and the conquest of a non-threatening but oil-rich foreign land as justification both for internal crackdowns, renewed threats against their neighbors (particularly Taiwan), and a huge military buildup in anticipation of the day when the Chinese Empire may well confront the American Empire for the world's last oil supplies."

If the regressive force manages to subvert the progressive force, the progressive force will reassert itself again at a later date. This cycle will be repeated as many times as necessary. Of course, it would be better to solve the problem here and now, and for all time. I'm not sure if the progressive force is up for the challenge though. Perhaps if people knew that the choice is between putting humanity on a grueling treadmill - and letting it finish learning how to run free...

The progressive force hasn't lived up to its potential for many reasons, but it's not too late to begin to correct that. Liberalism is fallible and incomplete, but it represents humanity's best hope for progress - and lasting peace. Progressives must revisit the history of Liberalism in order to develop a better vision for the future. Something along the lines of Thom's vision of democracy would be nice: "helping create a humane, multilateral, cooperative world while working for greater social justice at home."

Liberalism isn't dead. Conservatives haven't drowned it in the bathtub yet; militant Muslims haven't incinerated it yet; and "God" hasn't condemned it. Libertarians didn't give it a home (only to shoot it with a magic bullet and bury it in the back yard); Socialists didn't strip it of its identity; and "Neo-Liberals" - whoever they are - didn't buy the rights to the banner.

Liberalism needs to be revitalized, refined, and defended. And I'm afraid that this is exactly the problem that needs to be confronted. The history of liberalism is the history of humanity's progressive force. Without a meaningful connection to its history, the progressive force will flounder.

I would love to hear John Kerry say something like, "Yeah, I'm Liberal, and if you believe in the principles that this great country was founded on, then so are you." If he's doomed to fighting a defensive campaign, at least he'll have something meaningful to defend - and it'll be on his turf. It'll bring out the best in him, and he'll elevate the debate to a level where Republicans can't compete, (not to mention the opportunities he'll get to explain why Republicans hate government.)

But it probably won't happen because John Kerry may not have the vision (or courage) to throw a liberal lightning bolt at the regressive force.

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