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The Mandate of Heaven 2006: Getting America Back on the Right Side of History

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"T'ien Ming," the "Mandate of Heaven" is a central concept that stretches across millennia of Chinese history. In Confucian society, maintaining the Mandate of Heaven ordained a prosperous and peaceful Imperium. Losing it meant that war, bad harvests, earthquakes and dynastic turmoil were an Emperor's inevitable fate. In "Fire in the Lake," a 1972 meditation on the Vietnam War, author Frances Fitzgerald elaborated a Vietnamese version of the Mandate of Heaven as it applied to the 1963 overthrow of the Diem regime. It was Fitzgerald's contention that the communist victory was an inevitable result of the South Vietnamese government losing the "Mandate of Heaven" and a consequent evaporation of popular support.

Despite what is today's thickening institutional mindset, the U.S. is still far from being a Mandarin state. Still, something very like the "Mandate of Heaven" has always been implicit in the American self-conception. In its founding documents, American democracy presented itself to the world as something akin to a heaven-sent template for the democratic future of mankind. It was as patriot/polemicist, Thomas Paine wrote about the Revolution, "... if there has ever been a just war since the world began, it is this in which America is now engaged." For Paine and others, America from its inception would naturally be on the "right side" of history.

This was not self-adoring cant. In the late 18th Century, there was international acknowledgement that America was indeed a nation uniquely blessed. Even if, because of slavery, famous declarations like "all men are created equal" rang hollow, early 19th Century visitors including Alexis de Tocqueville came away convinced that the U.S. was a model for the future. It seemed, as German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck sardonically noted, God did indeed have a special place for "drunks, little children and the United States of America." In the early 20th Century, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh cribbed much of his Declaration of Independence from America's own. America was sadly not paying attention.

In the early 21st Century, belief in America's unique role in the world morphed into neo-con notions such as the idea that in Iraq and Afghanistan, American-style democracy could be the cure for ills political and social. Unfortunately, because of a basic misperception of the realities outside the U.S., and a fundamental misunderstanding of issues of personal freedom at home, under George Bush the sense of special national destiny has evaporated like a puddle of gasoline on hot asphalt.

Tolerated, even encouraged, under George Bush are activities most of us were raised to believe that America simply would not tolerate. "Waterboarding, "extreme renditions," "enemy combatants," "black sites," "Gitmo" and other similar phrases and places are part of a new perverse national vocabulary eating away at the American soul and weakening our sense of special purpose. Perhaps they are simply the "shrinking pangs" of a nation in decline. Perhaps they suggest that the U.S. has gotten itself on the wrong side of history, that we no longer operates under our own special Mandate of Heaven.

The 2006 election is one of the most crucial in recent national history. Anything less than a Democratic victory in one or both Houses of Congress will seal the message that Americans have acquiesced to one-party rule, to the loss of basic freedoms and to the doleful belief that America no longer need operate on the "right side of history."
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Richard Rapaport is a leading San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer.

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