Vol II no. 7 April 1, 2003  
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Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.

When Worse Comes to Worst

Out of every crisis, every tribulation, every disaster, mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge, of higher decency, of purer purpose. Today we shall have come through a period of loose thinking, descending morals, an era of selfishness, among individual men and women and among nations. Blame not governments alone for this. Blame ourselves in equal share. Let us be frank in acknowledgement of the truth that many amongst us have made obeisance to Mammon, that the profits of speculation, the easy road without toil, have lured us from the old barricades. To return to higher standards we must abandon the false prophets and seek new leaders of our own choosing.

Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major American parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today. Republican leaders not only have failed in material things, they have failed in national vision, because in disaster they have held out no hope, they have pointed out no path for the people below to climb back to places of security and of safety in our American life.

The preceding two paragraphs are from the acceptance speech of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the summer of 1932, when he won the Democratic Party's nomination as their presidential candidate. He spoke those words at a low point in American history.

There's an old truism that things will have to get worse before they can get better. Well, they just got a lot worse.

An optimistic minority of observers, myself among them, honestly believed that America's war on Iraq was not inevitable. In fact, we believed, it was far more likely that our leaders would take credit for having achieved our ends without a war.

After all, our unpublicized bombing raids during the previous year had methodically denuded southern Iraq of defensive weapons and laid the land prostrate before any high-tech assault we might choose to mount upon their cities. Saddam knew he was defenseless.

Then we had forced him to understand "Open Sesame," had put an international team in place, and denied him any modesty in our strip-search of Iraq's most private places: more credit to Bush's resolve.

Our allies were on board, in their support of a U.N. resolution that neutered Saddam without firing a shot. He was effectively isolated. Even other Muslim regimes were openly or covertly supportive of our aim of humbling Saddam, a brilliant triumph of diplomacy backed by military might.

Of course we knew there were insistent voices in the Bush administration, and among the lobbyists, who wanted war, who had been advocating for just this war for over a decade, and who used 9-11 opportunistically to finally advocate their proposals in official councils. But we had also heard that the Pentagon's military leaders opposed these plans. The cynical optimists among us believed that in the end Bush would follow his political instincts and avoid war. The optimistic optimists believed that reason would prevail.

I mean, it was obvious to anyone who could read (though perhaps not to those who get their news from Fox) that war on Iraq was a counterproductive response to the atrocities of 9-11. That an invasion would inflame the populations of even moderate Arab nations and greatly increase the danger of terrorist attacks. That world opinion, even among our best friends, would run strongly against us and thus further weaken a unified response to terrorism.

That the doctrine of preemptive war – the ideology of empire – was surely a trial balloon that had been whipped away by the gales of global opprobrium. That an invasion without U.N. validation would be seen as a flagrant violation of international law, no matter how many lawyers could be fielded to argue otherwise.

That the money costs of war would be astronomical, both in terms of direct funding (which would, one would think, threaten the administration's proposed new tax cuts) and in terms of the impact on oil supplies, Wall Street anxieties, budget deficits, and other collateral economic damage.

We were further encouraged by the fact that the administration's efforts to sway public opinion had become tangled in contradictions. The shifting rationales for war, the bungled evidence (including outright fraud), the erroneous assurances that our allies were on board, together constituted a cacophony of clearly unsupportable claims – claims that history will treat unkindly, once the mendacity is sorted out of the mindless rhetoric.

Those of us who spoke out against the war believed that we could make a contribution, we could help tip the balance, by keeping these facts at the fore of the debate.

Well, we were wrong. Things went from bad to worse.

The idea that the anti-war voices should now be stilled is, of course, as un-American as you can get. In a war billed as the liberation of Iraq, we are shedding blood specifically to allow Iraqi men and women to gather together with placards and bullhorns and, in the words of our Constitution (as amended), to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Patriots will, naturally, support the same rights here in the "homeland."

Anti-war protests were always factored into the planning for war. The consultants told Bush that it was simply a matter of getting over the hump, that once the war began there would be an automatic surge of popular support to drown out the demonstrators. Soon, unpatriotic protests would end altogether. American public opinion was thus just one of a list of political challenges to be finessed, probably not as important to war planning as public opinion in Turkey.

For war protestors to shut up now would be to play into their cynical scenarios. Those who continue to protest the war – the killing of innocents, the devastation of cities, the use of depleted uranium munitions, the promulgation of a go-it-alone "national security" doctrine, the insults to European allies and the menacing threats to neighboring Muslim nations, and all the other consequences of the overweening hubris on the Potomac – those Americans who match the outrage expressed in every other capital (with the possible exception of Kuwait City), will cause the consultants to think twice before advocating their next war. Now is the time for Americans to speak out more clearly than ever.

Now, before things go from worse to worst.

Meanwhile, as we perhaps knew all along, things would have to get worse before they could start to get better. Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" would probably never have been possible without the scare of the Great Depression. Here he is again, from the same speech:

    There are two ways of viewing the government's duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small-businessman. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.

    But it is not and never will be the theory of the Democratic party. This is no time for fear, for reaction and for timidity. Here and now I invite those nominal Republicans who find that their conscience cannot be squared with the groping and the failure of their party leaders, to join hands with us; here and now, in equal measure, I warn those nominal Democrats who squint at the future with their faces turned toward the past, and who feel no responsibility to the demands of the new time, that they are out of step with their party.

    Yes, the people of this country want a genuine choice this year, not a choice between two names for the same reactionary doctrine. Ours must be a party of liberal thought, of planned action, of enlightened international outlook, and of the greatest good to the greatest number of our citizens.

Those words, which Americans were so hungry to hear in 1932, would not have resonated in the mid-'20s, an era to rival the go-go mid-'80s and the dot-com euphoria of the mid-'90s, all of which decades had in common an obscenely growing gap between the rich at the top, and everyone else.

While the fortunes of war continue to unfold in the deserts and devastated cities of Iraq, we should be especially attentive to the fortunes of the political conflict here at home. We have an opportunity to be heard in quarters that have been closed to us. The arrogance, dressed in cliches and euphemisms that mock genuine concern for democratic process, is as overreaching on the domestic front as it is in foreign affairs. People notice these things, and are becoming ready for alternatives.

Rarely has the adversary of the Common Good been so clearly identified, self-identified, as the advocate of individual prerogative over community interests.

We don't need to be partisan to make our point – I prefer talking about liberals and conservatives, rather than Democrats and Republicans, in part because many who voted Republican prefer the style of George Bush over that of Al Gore, but do not see their interests aligned with his; in part because Democrat conservatives are complicit on most issues that matter; and in part because the Democrats, as a party, have become infected with the same type of consultant that has steered the Republican party out of politics and into marketing.

The horrors of the war have awakened us to the power of political rhetoric as it plays out in policy. They have reminded us that we have a whole clean slate freshly inscribed with clear-cut alternatives to choose between. There are issues to be joined, and in the process of mobilizing to meet them, we have the opportunity – the necessity – to get our act together.

We have the national scandal of health care, a complex of issues affecting perhaps a majority of Americans, in particular the 60 million with very inadequate medical coverage, including 40 million with no coverage at all.

We have the outrageous state of education in America, with ramifications ranging along one axis from the decline of Head Start-type programs to the attack on affirmative action in college; along another axis from inequalities promoted by reliance on property taxes, to disappearing college loans.

We have the crisis at the heart of capitalism, represented above all by Enron. Unlike the BCCI and S&L scandals, which have escaped down the ratholes of U.S. media oblivion, we still have at least the tail of the Enron scandal in our clutches.

We have the growing threat to civil liberties represented by a range of issues in our criminal justice system, now exacerbated by emergency decrees and "patriot" legislation in the wake of 9-11, with the even more serious threats posed by "Patriot Act II" now in the works.

We have the truly terrifying prospect of economic disaster to rival that which gave FDR his springboard. No one wants "better" enough to wish for that "worse." But when a bunch of Tories like the Committee for Economic Development warns George Bush that "a fiscal crisis threatens our future standard of living," it's time for little guys like you and me to pay attention.

We have the continuing devastation of the environment, affected by elements as visible as SUVs and Alaskan oil wells, and by deep-down structural issues that reach into every corner of our daily lifestyle – all driven by policies for good or ill.

We have what I hesitate to call the problem of resociation (a word I prefer to "resocialization," but I'm leery of both words because they ring with overtones of reform school – or cult transformation). That refers to what Cornel West indicates when he says we need to "reexamine and reconstruct the institutional setting in which association thrives. Reforms in labor law, local government law, and federal tax law can help renew the force and democratize the scope of associational activity in America." We need to relearn to be small-d democrats.

We are called to arms on all these fronts, not least because the Tories in power are putting everything we own at risk. I mean that literally, if the fears are well-founded that the American economy is seriously threatened by the financial and foreign policies of the Bush administration. That's a potent force to rally citizens to their citizenship.

"My friends," said FDR, "you and I as common-sense citizens know that... publicity is the enemy of crookedness." That's the kind of common sense that a growing number of people are ripe for. In our public advocacy it is as true today as it was then, that "the people of this country want a genuine choice." We are ready to provide an agenda for the crisis of our times, as he did for the crisis he faced: with liberal thought, planned action, enlightened international outlook, and a working concern for the greatest good to the greatest number of our citizens.

© 2003 Alton Miller
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