And I even think that's a somewhat fair assessment. But I also think there are some good reasons for such a negative cast to our rhetoric, at least if we're talking about the last three decades or so, and especially the last insufferable eight years.
One explanation for the largely critical nature of progressive political commentary is the defensive crouch we've been in during this period. Let's be honest, folks, progressives and progressivism - let alone plain old honest decency - have been under assault during this era, and it hasn't been pretty. More to the point, though, when you're fighting for your very existence, you have to fight for your very existence. You don't have the luxury of debating which of the various proposals for the model society are best. And if that's what you're doing, people will ignore you anyhow. They'll think you've got your head in the clouds, largely because you do.
Second, it was crucial to be critical of the incredibly destructive policies of the regressive right these last decades. Indeed, one of the major reasons they were as successful at implementing their noxious plans as they were is because of the almost complete absence of criticism from both the so-called opposition party and the from the so-called free media. There should have been a lot more criticism, not less. You can only get away with telling incredible whopper lies if no one calls you on them. George Bush is still doing it to this day, in his pathetic attempts to recast his presidency as he walks out the door. After a dozen or so interviews, I'm unaware of anyone who has yet asked a hard question. Indeed, I'm unaware of any 'journalist' who even called Bush when he trotted out one of his monster lies, like how the Iraq WMD intelligence was 'wrong', or how Saddam 'kicked out' the inspectors.
Having said that, though, we are surely at the dawn of a new era in American politics. I don't know yet whether progressivism is part of Barack Obama's DNA, or whether - even if it isn't - events will force him in that direction anyhow. What I do know is that, regardless, he will be light-years ahead of what we've been suffering through for the last eight years.
And that means we can now start to think again about the society we want, rather than just giving our everything to avoid the society we cannot abide.
I'm not sure exactly how to express what's on my wish list this year - if it's not too late, Santa - but perhaps the following compare-and-contrast formula will at least start the process.
A positive progressive agenda for America? Okay, you betcha. In no particular order, I'd say:
MORE HONESTY, LESS DECEIT. We have just come through what is undoubtedly one of the most deceitful regimes in American history, epitomizing one of the most dishonest of political agendas. They had to lie, because what peasant ever wanted to be a victim of kleptocracy? So they did. Incessantly. This has to end, and will end, but the lies in American politics run so much deeper. There is so much - about foreign policy, about military spending, about the polarization of wealth, about religion - that can't even be talked about in this society. As we plunge headlong into a series of simultaneous crises we made for ourselves, the first order of business is to be able to discuss these things honestly.
MORE PEACE, LESS FIGHTING. To say that the United States is a bellicose actor on the world stage is to risk understatement of laughable proportions. Everyone, it would seem, knows it, except us, and even we have begun to get the hint. Yes, it's true, there are bad actors out there (unfortunately, we're among the worst), and some of them are implacable. But it is also true that if we ratcheted up our commitment to justice and to just talk, and cranked down our tendency to pull out the six-shooter every five minutes, there is a huge array of problems and threats that could be ameliorated significantly. Peace through diplomacy. What a concept, eh?
MORE RESPONSIBILITY, LESS DESTRUCTIVENESS. There's a common and scathingly shameful theme that underlies many of our problems-fast-becoming-crises, ranging from Iraq to national debt to crumbling infrastructure to global warming. And that is that we've been willing to be incredibly irresponsible as a society, sucking away whatever we wanted from others, even our own children if necessary, in order to live high on the hog now. Sometimes we actually like the destructiveness, though sometimes it is inadvertent, simply the inevitable byproduct of living irresponsibly. Either way it is embarrassing on a good day, and wholly shameful otherwise. We have to start living responsibly and sustainably.
MORE OPPORTUNITY, LESS RESTRICTION. Americans believe - indeed, it is a key part of our mythic ethos - that this is the land of opportunity. Historically, there was some truth to that, but today we lag other comparable societies in social mobility, and, of course, your race and sex and class and region still determine far too much of your opportunity in life. There is much to be done here, but if we had even the remotest inkling of a real commitment to equality of opportunity, we would begin by equalizing per-pupil revenues allocated to schools. Funding schools based on property taxes - producing wildly disparate spending ranging from the ghetto to the suburbs to the elite private campus - is as dead a giveaway as imaginable that this society is not serious about equality of opportunity, let alone equality of results. In this respect and countless others, we need to give people the opportunity to realize their full potential.
MORE EQUALITY, LESS PREJUDICE. Sometimes we get it right, and it should be acknowledged. Just over the course of my lifetime alone, we have witnessed remarkable changes in the ethos of equality in America, and in the pragmatic effects of changes in both policy and attitudes. The lives of women, blacks, gays and other out-groups are considerably improved over the last half-century's time, and it's hardly a news flash that the election of Barack Obama as president is a very big deal in this respect. But, of course, it has taken far too long, and there is far too much yet to be done before this job is complete. The good news is that Obama phenomenon is indicative of a spreading new attitude of indifference toward such primordial categorizations among younger Americans, for many of whom your race or sexual orientation is becoming about as consequential as the color of your hair. Legislation is important and necessary, but in the end this is the ultimate antidote to prejudice.
MORE RATIONALITY, LESS DOGMA. This country's Founders, the epitomization of Enlightenment thinking on this side of the Atlantic, would be aghast at today's America. In the last several decades, the regressive movement has indeed regressed this society badly - away from rationality, empiricism and analysis. None of these are perfect tools, and they have been known to create disasters of epic proportions when taken to extremes. However, they are always better than dogmas, which are of course human-made anyhow. In this world, there are no verities. We either make it up out of whole cloth, or we uncover it through painstaking observation, theorizing, and the testing of our notions, which can then be revised as demonstrated necessary. The latter is infinitely better. And America will be infinitely better once it gives up on false catechisms and remembers how to take cold looks at hard problems.
MORE COMPASSION, LESS SELFISHNESS. Noting the existence of astonishing disparities of wealth in our time, both domestically and internationally, and their exacerbation in recent decades, history is unlikely to judge us as a particularly generous people. Folks can rail against taxation and government programs all they want, but what those ultimately represent is a full societal commitment to taking care of each other, rather than leaving individuals to the mercy of hit-and-miss family relations or charities. We not only need to translate greater compassion into more generous government programs, we need to knock down the hyper-individualist ethos that has long been a key thread in the fabric of our political culture, and has long prevented us from taking care of each other properly.
MORE DEMOCRACY, LESS PLUTOCRACY. The dirty little secret of American politics is how much elites run the society, and the degree to which they do so for their own benefit, not for pursuit of any national aspirations. What was once a snobbish, Eastern Establishment, refined upper class, discretely listing toward benefitting the already benefitted, has now morphed into a full-blown kleptocracy. Government today, in the hands of regressives, has become little short of a cash cow to be gored at every opportunity. This country needs a political housecleaning, and a rebirth of its democracy. The anger on the street and the rising levels of voter turnout are a good and encouraging start.
MORE FREEDOM, LESS REPRESSION. America remains among the freest of societies when it comes to the public discourse, and yet the actual discussions in the mainstream media often sound as though they were describing another planet. The corporate self-censorship of information in this country is astonishing, as most recently displayed in the kid-glove treatment given to Sarah Palin (and the uproar on the right caused when she was asked the most innocuous of questions) and George W. Bush as he desperately tries to rewrite history on his way out the door. Fortunately, the advent of truly free mass media on the Web and the comic irrelevance of the mainstream are today combining to save the First Amendment from de facto destruction. All we need now, is to take the mainstream out of the mainstream media.
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