When the NSA surveillance programs were revealed a few weeks ago, President Obama acknowledged that they raised the issue of "striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy." And he declared further, "I welcome that debate."
I wonder why, if the president thinks that "it's good we're having this discussion," he waited for a whistleblower to bring the issue to national attention. My suspicion is that he had been intimidated by the unelected powers behind what some call "the surveillance state."
Be that as it may, I'd like the president to lead the way now. It should be part of presidential leadership to see that the issues are aired in a way that enables the American people to come to a considered judgment on the right trade-off between security and liberty in this new age we've entered.
Profound technological changes have compelled us to rethink the proper boundaries of privacy. Email, internet and other technology changed the ways ordinary Americans communicate with each other and their world. Technology, such as the government's Prism program, has enlarged the government's means of surveillance.
It's a new game. We need new rules.
In order to validate the general thesis of this series -- that the spirit that's damaging America today is a re-incarnation of the spirit that drove the nation into Civil War -- it's important to perceive accurately the spirit at work in each of the two eras, a task made more difficult by the false picture presented in each case.
Let's begin with a proposition concerning the nature of the conflict in the era of the Civil War. This proposition is controversial in America but should not be, because the evidence is clear: The root of the conflict was not states' rights but slavery.
Here's a relevant passage from an article in the April 12, 2001 issue of the New York Review of Books, written by one of the foremost historians of the Civil War, James McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton:
As a people, we remain intensely involved in that time in our history, though we do not have a clear understanding of it. As a nation, our relationship with that war is unhealthy.
We Americans tend to celebrate the Civil War. We tend to romanticize it as with Ken Burns' Civil War series, using the hauntingly beautiful "Ashokan Farewell," played on the violin, and as with films like "Gettysburg," with its uplifting music accompanying the slaughter of Pickett's Charge.
But that sentimentality tends to obscure the reality that this conflict was a national nightmare -- perhaps the ugliest event in the civilized world in that period -- killing more than half a million American men out of a nation of 27 million. It inflicted wounds that have still not completely healed, as anyone can tell who lives in the South and sees the role played even now by the Confederate Flag.
One way we avoid confronting the darker meanings of that national trauma is by thinking of the coming of that war as a given, as if somehow it was inevitable, that it had to happen. We don't bother to ask ourselves: Why did this issue of slavery get dealt with so poorly, at such disastrous cost? Why didn't they work it out? Is one side more responsible than the other for the calamity?
Taking that war as a given obscures how something dark and dangerous, at work in the political culture, drove us toward catastrophe. It wasn't just because of objective circumstances, rationally considered, that such carnage and national wounding came to pass.
Since, as I maintain, the same dark and dangerous forces are at work in America today, it is important that we peel away the mythology and the sepia-toned gauze and look harder at that war and why it happened.
A good place to start will be looking at what the war was really about, a subject that the South has obscured with deception - and self-deception - for a century and a half.
Though the circumstances and the particulars have changed, there's a pattern -- a spirit - that has moved through time.
Abraham Lincoln's Address at Sanitary Fair, given in Baltimore, April 18, 1864, helps show a parallel. Here's an excerpt:
"We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name-liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names-liberty and tyranny.Southern slaveholders (the wolves in Lincoln's fable) insisted that liberty required that those in a dominant position (over slaves), be allowed to maintain their domination, and to advance their own interests at the expense of the interests of those whom they had subdued.
"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the process by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty [abolishing slavery in the state]; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf's dictionary, has been repudiated."
Liberty, as it is pushed by Republicans now, has the same kind of meaning. Republicans fight for the right of people of wealth and power to do whatever they want.
What's better for democracy? Focusing on issues that divide us, and will likely always divide us, or focusing on values and goals that we share?
Anyone who believes that we're better served by focusing on what we can accomplish together rather than on what makes us fight each other should be outraged at what the Republican Party does with the issue of abortion.
Even if one agrees with the policies that Republicans are pushing, one should recognize that the way they have used the abortion issue is destructive, and a disgrace.
During these years when our country faced its deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, abortion has been nowhere near the top of issues that Americans wanted their leaders to address. But here we are fiercely embattled over abortion in a number of states - Virginia, Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and in a number of others. What these states have in common is that they are now under the firm political control of Republicans.
We've got plenty of issues that could bring us together, plenty of goals that could unite us.
What should one make of the fact that some of the same Republican politicians who make a major issue out of "protecting the unborn" also are eager to cut the food stamp program (SNAP) that keeps millions of American children from going hungry?
If a person had it in his heart to care about unborn children, would one not expect that same heart to show compassion for the plight of children already born?
If one is truly moved at the need to protect "innocent" life in the womb, would one not be moved equally by the need to protect from hunger the more than 1 in 5 children in America who, through no fault of their own, live in poverty? (At a time when America is still suffering from the severest economic downturn since the Great Depression, even a great many of the parents of these children are facing hard times through no fault of their own.) Are these children not equally "innocent"?
Can there be any good reason why a person would care about the unborn but be indifferent to the already-born?
I make a distinction these years between the average people who involve themselves in the cause of opposing abortion rights and the politicians who push this issue into the spotlight. I'm inclined to grant that the average anti-abortion activist has some genuine feeling about what they see as the innocent human life in the womb.
But the effort by so many Republicans in Congress to gut the food stamp program, particularly in these hard times, shows pretty clearly that a lot of these politicians don't really care about the unborn.
Clearly they must be using the abortion issue for some altogether different reason.
The president faces a dilemma. He is being pressured to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline because of the need for energy and because of the huge moneyed interests behind it. He is being pressured to block the pipeline because of the project's potential contribution to climate change and the fierce opposition to Keystone in much of the environmental movement.
It is likely that President Obama will approve the pipeline. This would be unfortunate because the issue of climate change deserves far more weight than it gets in our political process, and the fossil fuel industry should have far less clout.
However, there's a way the President could mitigate the political damage he would suffer from either side while helping to direct our public conversation to what needs to be done to prevent climate change. The president should say:
"I will approve the Keystone XL pipeline, but only as part of a comprehensive package of measures to deal with the problem of climate change, a plan about which our children and grandchildren could say, 'They did what we needed them to do.'"
The president is often held hostage by his political opponents. Two can play at that game.
By reframing the argument, the president would move the spotlight from himself to Congress, pressuring it to deal responsibly with a clear and present danger.
Approving the pipeline in isolation would be irresponsible. Approving it in conjunction with only what the president can do about climate change by himself would be weak. Approving it as part of a good overall plan would be responsible. And good politics.
The difficulty of winning these seats, paradoxically, presents an important opportunity for Democrats.
In the short run, the political battle in America is over who will hold the offices where laws get made. In the long run, the battle is over shaping the public consciousness that determines to whom the people will give power.
For the latter purpose, Democrats in very red districts can make an important contribution in the battle over the country's destiny. It's an educational role that is especially vital because our politics are broken, and while most Americans see there's a problem, not enough Americans see where the problem lies.
A candidate in an unwinnable race can focus on moving hearts and minds, at least incrementally, toward recognizing the paramount political truth of our times: The force that's taken over the Republican Party is being consistently destructive and irresponsible.
The immediately visible problem in our politics is that nothing is getting done. Last year's Congress accomplished less than any in memory. This year's Congress is no better. And it's clear why.
It is well-documented that even before President Obama took office, congressional Republicans decided that their top priority was to make him fail. If nothing can get accomplished, the Republicans figured, the people would blame the president and throw him out of office.
That approach didn't gain the Republicans the White House in the 2012 elections, but obstruction remains the Republicans' main political strategy. And their control of the House and the use of the filibuster in the Senate, enable them to cripple our governing process.
Helping people see that our governmental dysfunction is a deliberate choice the Republicans are making is a good starting place, building as it does on the concerns of citizens -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- over the stalemate in Congress. But that's just one piece in a very big picture that Americans need to see.
Yesterday I had occasion to articulate how important is the difference between Democrats and Republicans today. It was in exchange with a reader on the generally lefty website, www.OpEdNews.com .
This reader took the position, which I've been encountering for years on that website, that there's no real battle between Democrats and Republicans, that the two parties are both merely arms of the money power, that there's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties, and so people in the know shouldn't worry about the outcome in the contests between the two.
Here's why that lefty dismissal is a fundamental misunderstanding of what's happening in our politics.
1) It is in the political arena that it gets decided whose hand will be on the helm of America, making the decisions about what kind of society we will become.
2) We have two major parties, and our destiny will be in the hands of one of those parties. There are no other players in contention. If the American people are going to have ANY champion fighting for them, it will be one or the other of the two parties.
The very fact that this question could be asked by a generally excellent news magazine is yet another indication of the sickness in the American body politic.
On the basis of both its competence and, even more so, its moral quality, the Bush presidency was a devastating disaster for the United States.
It left this country -- our economy, our military, our international standing, our political discourse, our Constitution and the rule of law -- in shambles.
It inherited the prospect of budgetary surpluses as far as the eye could see, and then enacted a tax cut that transferred huge wealth from the middle class and from future generations to the richest Americans, and doubled the national debt.
It oversaw a great widening of inequalities of wealth and income between the richest fraction of one percent of Americans and the rest of the population.
It shackled our financial regulators and helped precipitate a global financial meltdown when toxic mortgages, sold as high-grade debt, exploded like time-bombs in banks around the world.
It launched two wars of choice, one under false pretenses, and botched them both.
The Bush presidency was, according to the conservative Reagan jurist, the most lawless presidency in American history.