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The character of much of what passes for debate in the United States signals that the nation has become the moral equivalent of Tobacco Road, a backwater of civilization.

Humankind has traveled a long journey since the time when some folks walked out of Africa, and others decided to stay. Yet at the American center of the Earth’s material wealth and military power, human progress has been short-circuited – smothered – by a ruling group bent on dragging the rest of the species down a social and moral dead end.

This hyper-aggressive group maintains an iron grip on both the mechanisms and the terms of civil discussion, retarding the rest of the citizenry’s ability to think and speak like other humans privileged to live in the developed countries. American political conversation is becoming nonsensical, divorced from the very purposes of life.

Measured by the most minimal standards of the modern, industrial world, only two of ten Democratic candidates for President passed civilized muster at the September 25 debate in New York City: Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton. The rest of the field, to varying degrees, fail to even comprehend modern assumptions of what it is to be human, living among other humans.

The civilizational divide

Why do we work? What is the purpose of industry and commerce? Do other peoples have rights that stronger nations are bound to respect? Only Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton appear prepared to take part in the evolving global discussion on the central issues facing humanity, Americans included. Other nations have begun fashioning answers to these questions, to the moral, material and physical betterment of their inhabitants. They are reaping the benefits of a long and sometimes bloody debate over humans’ obligations to one another, and the proper uses of wealth and power.

In the U.S., Sharpton and Kucinich must shout to even broach these subjects. Kucinich is labeled a kook when he argues for “health care for people, not for profit” – although this is the premise on which all the other wealthy societies begin their discussions of health matters.  Rev. Sharpton’s platform calls for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing quality health care as a right, and seeks universal, single-payer coverage in the interim. “I would rather have no bill and fight for something real,” he told the Pace University crowd.

The mind-shrinking corporate media snicker and sneer, focusing instead on the other candidates’ partial schemes based on the concept of “affordability” – barbaric constructions in which the lives of fellow citizens are endlessly devalued. (Candidate Carol Moseley-Braun favors single-payer national health care, but reveals her barbaric side in other matters – casting doubt on the moral grounding of all her positions, as we will explain, below.)

The “top tier” is oblivious to the obscenity of their Social Security retirement age debate. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is in trouble for having once suggested that the age be raised to 70, to ensure the continued “solvency” of the system. However, Dean’s sin is worse than the rest of the media-favored pack only in degree – they all discuss Social Security retirement in insurance company actuarial terms, morbid calculations that fail entirely to address the basic questions: why are people expected to work hard for much of their lives, and what is the value of life after one’s time in the workforce is over? These are the logical, natural and civilized questions with which societies grapple once there is enough wealth to provide acceptable standards of food, clothing, education and shelter for all. It is at this point that human populations can envision the larger possibilities of existence, as individuals, as nations, and as a species.

Western Europeans treat time not spent on the job very seriously – and have arranged a social contract that finds many of them in the Caribbean for long stretches of the summer. They debate ways to implement national goals for progressively shorter work weeks and earlier retirement ages, so that the collective nation can enjoy its wealth and become – more interesting! The United States is even richer than Western Europe, but the debate over Social Security is confined to formulas that leave concentrated wealth untouched. In this sense, U.S. Social security is not a “national” program, at all, since the futures of citizens who have outlived their usefulness to employers is not financed as if it were a key component of the common, national mission. Longer life spans, the greatest benefit that society can convey to its members – and the reason humans band together to create societies – becomes a “problem,” or so it is treated by the leading voices of the two American mass political parties.

Dennis Kucinich promises to restore the retirement age to 65. He is, at least, peeking through the window at civilization.

Non-thought processes

Americans have been trained to cheer when the stock market goes up. They don’t know why. Nowadays, the closing bell on Wall Street is likely to be tolling for their jobs. No matter – the Pavlovian conditioning is general: up is good. “Trade” has also become a positive mantra to be chanted rather than debated, even when what is being traded away is millions of jobs and the industrial capacity of the nation. None of the top tier Democrats can find the words to directly address the vast dislocations and suffering that other, corporate Americans are inflicting on their fellow citizens and the world. Better to bash China, instead.

Kucinich is made to seem hallucinatory, when he points out that U.S. government policy is facilitating the impoverishment of America. “We need to cancel NAFTA, cancel the WTO, which makes any changes in NAFTA…illegal.”  But even “staunchly” pro-union Rep. Dick Gephardt cannot bring himself to “challenge the underlying structure of our trade,” as Kucinich puts it. Dean and Kerry make just enough noises about workers rights and such to convince wishful thinkers that they are really listening.

Rev. Sharpton also opposes NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. “I disagreed with NAFTA when Clinton was in, and I think that we have come to see that that disagreement was correct,” said Sharpton, following up on Kucinich’s broadside. “I think that we cannot have trade policy that overlooks labor, overlooks workers' rights, overlooks environmental concerns. We can't act like just because something is trade, that also that makes it right. African-Americans are here on a bad trade policy.”

Now that’s breaking it down in civilized language. The slave trade was fantastically lucrative, a centuries-long commerce that shaped every society in the Americas south of Canada and allowed Europe to assume its unnatural position of dominance in the world. “I'm here on a bad trade policy,” said Rev. Al. “So just because it's trade, doesn't mean that it is good and it is something that we should support.”

The largely conservative audience and the Wall Street Journal and CNBC hosts got a good laugh out of that one. No doubt they considered Rev. Sharpton’s remarks gritty and homespun, a kind of comic relief. In fact, he is by far their superior in both intelligence and civilization.

Trade in what, and on what terms? Business and commerce for whose benefit? These are the burning questions, the stuff of national and global debate – except in the United States, where substantive discussion is confined to the bottom tier of the out-of-power party. (Were conservative Democrats in power, as in the Clinton years, we would likely hear even fewer challenges to “underlying structures.”)

“No choice” candidates

Wars, and war profiteers, require money. No funding, no war. Occupations can be even more expensive. The entire cast of characters running for the Democratic nomination – including Lieberman – now claims to be opposed in some fashion to Bush’s Iraq policy. But only two propose that Bush’s policy be de-funded.

Howard Dean: “…even though I did not support the war in the beginning, I think we have to support our troops.”

Joe Lieberman: “…we have no choice.”

Bob Graham: “…whatever is required for the troops in Iraq.”

John Edwards: “I will vote for, what's necessary to support the troops.”

"We have no choice” is also the Kerry and Clark position. Thus, the entire top tier sees no alternative to funding a policy that they so loudly oppose. They denounce the madness – and then hand the madman a check.

Kucinich: “I will not vote for the $87 billion… I say bring the troops home unequivocally."

Sharpton: “I would unequivocally vote no… Real patriots don't put troops in harm's way.”

It is eminently logical to withhold funding from adventures that one opposes. In a sane society, Kucinich and Sharpton would be thought neither courageous nor kooky for following the logic of their stated positions. However, voices of reason and logic are forced to the margins of American discourse.

Possibly hoping to somehow escape from marginality, Carol Mosley-Braun revealed that in the final analysis she, too, is a creature of barbarism. Moseley-Braun has opposed the war for nearly as long and as fervently as Kucinich and Sharpton but, like Lot’s wife, at the critical moment she looks back – and is lost.

Braun: “…it is absolutely, I think, critical that we not cut and run…” In the end, the former U.S. Senator cannot escape the imperatives of Manifest Destiny. By her moral compass, demonstrations of U.S. resolve are more important than other people’s national sovereignty. The Black woman from Chicago cannot imagine that she is talking like a barbarian, that such patterns of thought are the principal threats to the survival of the human race – in short, that she is warring against civilization.

Seconds later, Moseley-Braun waged war against English as a coherent language: “…it's going to be important for us to come up with the money to make certain that our young men and women and our reputation as leaders in the world is not permanently destroyed by the folly of preemptive war.” It’s not so much Moseley-Braun’s fault that this sentence makes no sense. The logic of barbarism does not mesh with the realities of an inter-dependent globe. It becomes difficult to communicate in civilized company – the essence of George Bush’s problem at the UN, last month.

Civilized language

Americans think they are guardians of civilization. In reality, they don’t even live there. The proof is plain for all to see in the statistics on wealth and public service disparities, infant mortality rates and, most damning, incarceration levels that certify the U.S. as the world’s gulag (25 percent of the planet’s prisoners). This is barbarism writ large, since these conditions exist as the direct result of public policy, rather than as a consequence of general deprivation or factors external to the nation.

The U.S. evolved as a nation without a real “social contract” – merely an agreement that white males could pursue riches without too much interference from the state. The contract for Indians and Blacks took the form of bounties for scalps and bills of sale for slaves. Now a relatively small elite comprised of a few million millionaire households and led by piratical corporate politicians, have seized the state. The people – the whole people – face a multitude of disasters, and desperately need to forge the beginnings of a real social contract, but they have few national historical references to draw upon. The dramatic exception is Black America, which has been compelled by history to value justice above all else.

Sharpton and Kucinich bring social justice to the national political conversation, for which they deserve our deepest gratitude. The Black activist preacher and the white leftist congressman speak to civilized values, without which the United States will become a failed nation. At a pace that corporate media cannot comprehend and, therefore, cannot convey, the world recoils from the backward model that the U.S. presents in domestic as well as foreign policy. There is nothing surer than that the U.S. will in coming years be shrunk to normal size in the community of nations. When that day arrives, Americans will only prosper if they have learned to speak to a world of equals, in civilized language.



October 2, 2003
Issue 58

is published every Thursday.

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