Friday, June 13, 2008

Difficult Times Ahead

Cheney/Bush and his Phony War on Terror (h/t to Ranger Against War for that entirely appropriate label) may well be the end of America as we have known it. Perhaps neither his criminal cabal nor catastrophic wars are each sufficient in itself to fundamentally change this nation but, taken together with other events and world trends, they portend difficult times ahead. Mired in a $100 billion per year war and saddled with about $1.0 trillion in non-productive military spending, American enters the 21st Century at a distinct disadvantage in a world of rising economic powers.

Like Mark Twain’s death, America’s decline has been predicted before. The closing of the American frontier in 1890 ended a driving catalyst for change in 19th century America: renewal by moving on. The Great Depression raised fears about the end of capitalism and American industrial might. With each prediction, however, came new opportunity—largely--due to this nation’s favored geographic and resource advantages—that renewed Americans’ hope. Even the end of our energy independence in the 1970’s did not to change America’s trajectory. Along with our geographic and resource advantages, the nation benefited greatly from a well-educated populace and individual initiative. Our good fortune has grown from the many times the nation has risen to the occasion and figured out how to make do in difficult circumstances. In the process, we have earned a reputation for innovation, openness and generosity despite our unfortunate racist and violent tendencies.

But now I don’t see America with many good options left. We are squandering our blood, treasure and reputation in a desperate attempt to stop history. I’m not just talking about the US here; I’m looking at North America as a whole in competition with the rest of the world. While Europe, Russia and Asia are emerging as economic powers, based on (you guessed it) economic, resource and geographic advantages, North America is composed of a massively debt-redden, hemorrhaging economy (US), a failed nation-state plagued by corruption and violence, unable to support its growing population (Mexico) and other nations that offer little hope for their people (Central America). Canada seems pretty stable but it is unlikely to serve as an effective counterweight to the US and the rest of the continent.

America’s challenges are not entirely unique—other nations and regions have their own problems of instability, economic injustice and violence. What IS unique is that for the first time in my experience America seems to have little beyond its military strength to fall back on—no frontier, no colonies, declining industries, a diminished currency. And whatever military advantage we still have is quickly eroding in the meat grinder of the Middle East where determined adversaries have turned our strength against us. “Bleeding America to to the point of bankruptcy,” in the words of Osama bin Laden.

Maybe I’m being too pessimistic; maybe America will find its place in changing world where our technology, initiative and innovation will contribute to sustainable economic opportunity and justice for all. But 60 years of an ever-expanding National Security State and especially the past seven years of Cheney/Bush crypto-dictatorship don’t offer much hope for me. The paranoia and militarism that have grown in America since the end of WWII have changed this nation for the worse. We turned much of our national life over to a military culture that spawned massively unproductive investment. Instead of roads, schools, health care and other social goods, we built weapons that rapidly became obsolete as adversaries developed effective counter-measures.

And, then the “all powerful” Soviet Union simply evaporated under its inherent economic contradictions and the end of the Communist experiment in Eastern Europe. Instead of seeing this long-predicted (George Kennan, 1949) collapse as a new opportunity to welcome a former adversary into a mutually beneficial world community, America’s leaders behaved like conquerors, demanding concessions and obeisance from a nation with a proud heritage of history and culture, strong sense of nationalism and a people who have endured more trauma than most Americans will ever know. A simple reading of history should remind anyone that picking a fight with Russia is a losing proposition.

Even more shortsighted has been America’s unwillingness to look to the future even as domestic energy sources declined. We’ve known about the limitations and vulnerabilities of our fossil fuel resources for decades now and done nothing beyond continuing to rely on the promise of more cheap energy, even if we must support repressive regimes or use military force to secure what we and our allies consider necessary supplies of that energy. In doing so, America has earned the enmity of the peoples whose resources we covet, giving rise to violent opposition to not only our actions, but even to the very idea of America.

None of this is new with CheneyBush. He is simply the latest in a long line of myopic and short-sighted leaders. The difference is that America has little in reserve to protect itself against the this catastrophic failure. The erosion of civil liberties and sweeping assertions of presidential authority are also not new but this administration has certainly given head to the executive’s natural inclination toward tyranny (that’s why the Framers limited presidential powers) in much the same way it has ballooned our national debt. At best, I see only a slowing of the trend with the coming change in administrations. Even if he wanted to, I doubt Obama has either the skill or experience to challenge the corporate-military state that CheneyBush has nurtured so much more than his predecessors. John McCain will surely keep it fat and happy.

As an American who inherited a dynamic but flawed society, I am embarrassed to leave behind the severely deteriorated polity that has evolved in my lifetime. I would like to think that this nation, which has offered much to the world, can still rise to the occasion, can still give life to the ringing words of our founding documents. I very much want to believe that. Current prospects make that belief a matter of faith.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The First Time

Rethuglican shills are attacking Michelle Obama for just discovering her pride in America, unlike the rest of us who have always been proud of America. Of course, the Obama campaign quickly rephrased her remark to erase the image that the wife of a very presidential candidate does not worship at the alter of the American national image.

Since I am not Michelle Obama, I won't even try to say what she was thinking. I can say that I believe she was mostly correct in her view of American history. She erred in not recognizing the many proud moments in our history (Declaration of Independence, Abolition, New Deal, Marshall Plan, etc) but in thinking of her own lifetime (beginning in the mid -1960's) about an issue that affects her and her family very personally, she may well have felt for the first time that the nation was rising above its inherent racism.

Of course,to the Rethuglican and wingnut mind, America has no flaws and anyone failing to recognize that fact, or worse, call attention to any flaws is clearly someone who hates America. Look for more of the same as the campaign progresses.

In my fantasy world, Michelle Obama would have said why she felt this pride for the first time, expressing here belief that America is changing in a profoundly positive way. (Remember, this is my fantasy so I can write her dialog here.) She needn't go on about why she has not always been proud of America but it would be wonderful to hear her remind the nation about the dangers of racism and her hopes for overcoming racism.

For my own part, I have not always been proud of America in my lifetime. I am not proud of Vietnam or my own part in it. I am not proud of the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor am I proud of American support for totalitarian and repressive governments that steal from own their people and attack others. I am not proud of the Central American wars in the 1980's. I am not proud of the our lingering racism. Looking at our history, I am not proud of the genocide that removed indigenous Americans from their land. I am not proud of slavery. I am not proud of Manifest Destiny. I am not proud of the America's brutal war against Philippine in surgents in the early 1900's.

It's easy enough to recite a litany of America's failures. (EEK! He used the "F-word"!). My pride in America tends to be more from history than my own lifetime. The Marshall Plan and I came into the world about the same time, so it counts although it's always felt like history to me. Same with the Berlin Airlift. I am proud of the nation's progress toward civil rights and am especially proud of the many Americans who risked their lives to end racial discrimination. I am proud of the many Americans who demanded an end to the Vietnam war and the (finally) courageous Congress members who ended the money that kept the war going. I am proud that Congress members of both parties forced Richard Nixon to resign because of his abuse of power. (Conversely, I am not proud of the current Congress that refuses to impeach CheneyBush for far, far more grievous offenses.) Closer to the present I find fewer points of pride but then I could just be myopic.

By now you should get the picture that my pride in America is not unadulterated. It's a mixed bag of hope, achievement and imperfection. This mixed pride does not equal disdain and hatred for America. I consider it to be realism, the understanding that human institutions will be as flawed as their creators, and the recognition that patriotism includes working to eliminate those flaws.

From my perspective, Michelle Obama spoke the truth. This is a good time, too, to remind my proud fellow Americans, that pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Some Things I Noticed

Saturday evening I went to a fish fry and dance west of town at the Prosperity Grange. The grange hall was next door to the Griffin Fire District fire station which sported a yellow flag. Just below the flag was the color coded terrorist threat level chart explaining that the yellow flag indicated a significant risk of terrorist attack on the community. West of Olympia. Not quite the boondocks but, unless al-Qaeda is specifically going after exurban crossroads, the threat notice seemed over the top.

Sunday riding my bike past the National Guard armory near my place, I came across what looked like a company from the 81st Brigade of the Washington National Guard shipping out for Iraq. The unit has been on notice for deployment since early this year. On this day, the soldiers were in formation with lots of civilians standing by. An Army bus was waiting at the curb and each soldier was holding a large envelope. It sure had the look of a company level movement. I believe these soldiers are making their second deployment.

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Appalachian Reflections

During the hiking season I often reflect on my 2002 AT thru-hike. As years pass, I remember fewer and fewer specifics--I used to recite the names of campsites in consecutive order as a sleep mantra; I can't do that now--but I can still pinpoint dates and times pretty well if I think about it. This morning I recalled that on June 9 I was in central Virginia walking through the geography of my youth, only a few days south of Rockfish Gap, very much part of Home. My trail log shows an 18.5 mile day from Cornelius Creek Shelter to the James River. I recall it as a pleasant morning followed by a hot afternoon with a spectacular view of the James from the top of a 2000 foot gorge. Here is where the James River cuts its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains, making its way from the Shenandoah Valley into Virginia's Piedmont and on to Richmond and Tidewater. It's about as dramatic a landscape as I've seen and being so much a part of my personal history, the overwhelming sense of home should not have surprised me.

It did, though. Not so much from nostalgia but rather seeing this river, this gorge and all that it connects, encompassed all the opportunity, adventure and satisfaction that I have been so very fortunate to experience in my life. Standing on that ridge, I was about the luckiest man on Earth.

The climb down to the river was, if not brutal, definitely tedious at the end of a long-mile, hot day. I and two hiking partners camped by the river that evening with time for a swim. Crossing the James the following morning was exceptional. The AT crosses the river on a 1000 foot footbridge built on the pilings from a former railroad bridge. I was out at first light, on the bridge by myself, passing over this great river that stretched away in two directions. The water was calm under a light mist. My boots echoed in the early stillness and all was right with my world. Even that climb out of the gorge was not a problem. Not now.

That evening we would camp at Little Irish Creek after another long, hot day. Two Trail Angels*, Tomboy and Renegade, served us grilled Polish sausage with all the trimmings, baked beans, salad and cold drinks from the kitchen they set up at a trail crossing there. After dinner Renegade drove three of us into Buena Vista to buy groceries and supplies. That's an awful lot of joy, wonder and luck in a very short time.

Now all these events are past. For me. For now. The cycle continues eternal, however, as a new year's hikers make their way north. The big cohort--hikers who started walking in late March-April--is in Virginia now, walking, like me, along the crest of the Blue Ridge, through Shenandoah National Park and into northern Virginia. Many are farther ahead in Pennsylvania. You can find their journals (and photos, I am sure) here and can see them at the Doyle Hotel. The names, faces and poses at the Doyle this year would fit right in with 2002.

* Trail Angel = someone who does something nice for hikers.