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Who the Hell Do We Think We Are?

The Editorial Board
November 1, 2004

An Editorial
The thousand-plus young American men and women who have been killed in Iraq, dozens of whom are pictured on the cover of this issue of Jewish Currents, did not merely die “in vain.” It’s more tragic than that: They and their tens of thousands of Iraqi counterparts (of whom the Pentagon has released no portraits) are victims of the hubris, arrogance, and aggressive militarism of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of other armchair “warriors.” These are “leaders” who actually believe that the United States can and should shape the world through economic domination and military coercion. For three years, they have manipulated and lied to a country in shock and mourning from the September 11th attacks. They have led the public to conflate patriotism with support for the U.S. war machine, and the struggle against terrorism with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Rather than tending to our country’s needs and wounds, they have cultivated our fears, squandered the compassion and concern of our allies, developed a cult of militarism, and created new enemies to replace every Al Qaeda member who gets killed or captured.
As we write this editorial in mid-October, we cannot know whether the American people are going to learn the lessons of the madness in Iraq the hard way, by choosing four more years of stubborn aggression and incompetence, or heed John Kerry’s better-late-than-never warnings about this war. Whether a Republican or Democratic administration next confronts the folly, however, it must be chastened by an angry public outcry that demands: Who the hell do we think we are?

Who the hell do we think we are? In America, thirty-six million live in poverty, including almost one out of every four children. Forty-five million people lack health insurance, uniquely within the industrial world. Fewer than three-quarters of our teenagers (including little more than half of our Hispanic and African-American teens) manage to graduate from high school. More than two million people, seven out of every thousand, are wasting away in prison — the highest incarceration rate on the globe. The richest one percent commands income equal to that of the entire bottom two fifths (and wealth, as opposed to income, is even more unequally distributed). Are these qualifications for world leadership in the export of freedom and economic development?
In America, half the population doesn’t exercise the right to vote. Those who want to vote cannot be confident that their registrations will be processed or their votes fairly tallied. Electoral fundraising, which closely resembles bribery, assures the dealmaking power of corporate interests, while the winner-take-all system prevents smaller, less powerful interest groups from developing clout. Are these qualifications for world leadership in the export of democracy?
In America, the teaching of evolution is still a bone of contention, reproductive rights are eroding, and the right of sexual minorities to have access to civil liberties and civil protections is blocked, thanks to the influence of Christian fundamentalist forces that are intent on reshaping our society to hew to their narrow religious principles. A huge majority declares that belief in God is a critical aspect of American citizenship. Are these qualifications for world leadership against theocratic oppression and fundamentalist rule?
In America, less than five percent of the world’s people consumes more than a third of the globe’s energy resources. We struggle with obesity while millions starve abroad. We drive SUVs while refusing to sign the Kyoto treaty on global warming. We supply more than 50 percent of the world’s weapons and willfully violate international accords in our treatment of prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. We develop new nuclear weapons for battlefield use, declare non-proliferation treaties of yesteryear obsolete, and then ascribe evil, aggressive intent to countries that try to develop a nuclear deterrent force. We have a military budget larger than the combined budgets of the next eight most powerful militaries in the world. Are these qualifications for world leadership in the pursuit of peace?

“America is not just a power; it is a promise,” said New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in those heady days of the late 1960s, when even he was feeling the pull of social conscience in a landscape of change. “It is not enough for our country to be extraordinary in might,” he continued; “it must be exemplary in meaning. Our honor and our role in the world finally depend on the living proof that we are a just society.”
Uncle Sam, Spoiling for a FightSuch sentiments have been drummed out of the Republican Party over the past thirty years and have become very unfashionable throughout America since September 11th. Our country’s resurgent patriotism is less rooted in an appreciation of America’s marvelous capacity for social progress than in a “We’re Number One” triumphalism that under-estimates the world’s complexity and over-estimates our own power. It was this national mood that left John Kerry afraid to do much more than jingle his Vietnam war medals and charge the Bush administration with incompetence rather than with moral bankruptcy for most of the presidential campaign.
Those of us with less fear and more vision now face the challenge of creating an alternative statement about “who the hell we think we are” — an alternative vision of patriotism, prosperity, homeland security and international citizenship — with all of the creativity, passion, and communication skills at our command. We must go beyond a critique of today’s society to an affirmation of what might be: a vision of promise, not just power.