Vol II no. 9 April 29, 2003  
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Needed: A New Vision for America

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.


    Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
          Proverbs 29:18

We're living in a fearful America. Especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001, we have been told again and again that the world is a hostile place, full of "foreigners" who hate and envy Americans for no better reason than that we are good and they are evil – actively evil, or on the side of evil: if you're not with us, you're against us.

Let me deconstruct that observation:

Told again and again: This is a simplification. The drumbeat of fearful tidings is more than a matter of simple repetition. The American public is the target of a masterful public relations campaign to fan the flames of generalized anxiety about our precarious position in a dangerous world. In such a world, whimpering liberals are outmatched by our enemies, and only the realpolitik of combative conservatives can save us.

Especially since September 11: but it did not begin with those terrorist attacks. Conservative policies have always thrived on a climate of fear and distrust, and the far right has a history of conjuring wicked enemies since the emergence of labor unions over 100 years ago -- anarchists, or "Reds," or the Comintern, or the Evil Empire, or drug addicts (they're evil, not sick), or anti-Christians of various descriptions, or, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Muslim terrorists.

With us or against us: Conservatives employ a rhetoric of extremes to charge public opinion with glandular energy that can never be matched by the cold reason of Adlai Stevenson liberals. One of the reasons Clinton was so resistant to conservative body blows was his intelligent but often deliberately crude come-backs to less intelligent and more crude affronts. As revival tent preachers and rock musicians know – and to the dismay of pipe-smoking liberals – an idea gains considerable force if it is shouted at the top of your lungs.

For many conservatives, the authentic American heritage is a story of realistic, rugged individualism confronting an idealistic, craven collectivism. They believe that the people who can't hold their own in the rat race want to level everyone downward, to the lowest common denominator. Only by upholding traditional standards of excellence can they prevent the fall of civilization. This is an ancient view of the people as the mob, and its contemporary conservative manifestations are not new models, just the latest versions.

That's putting the best blush on it. But as their policies play out in real life, and seem to turn against the helpless and the hopeless, the "least of these," they realize that their program sounds selfish and, well, unChristian. It flies in the face of all the stories we heard in Sunday school, and the homilies that decorated our primary education – the generosity and the largeness of spirit and the tolerance and the grace that we were all taught lay at the heart of the American way of life. Their crabbed, small-minded, inward-turning, nasty view of the human condition can be justified only as a hard-edge realist's response to serious threats to our way of life.

The "Homeland Security Advisory System" – the color-coded terror alert scheme – has never settled below "Yellow," or "Elevated," which indicates "Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks." It's pretty clear that the whole point of this system is to perpetuate – and raise to a formal, legal status – a permanent state of anxiety. (Follow the money: watch for insurance companies to call for rate adjustments based on different levels of risk.)

Fear for Every Occasion

The strategy of fear is ready for application to just about any item on the conservative agenda. Drilling for oil in Alaska? We need that domestic oil to make us less dependent on the Arabs. Tax cuts? It's the only way to bounce back from the economic impact of 9-11; Osama wants you to pay higher taxes. Draconian drug abuse laws and enforcement? Drug abuse is no longer a victimless crime, it's providing aid to terrorists. Crackdown on immigrants? How else to confront the alien threat. Looser restrictions on police and prosecutors, tougher criminal penalties, longer sentences, the death penalty? Terrorists and potential terrorists have no rights. Trashing gay rights, abortion rights? Terror is God's scourge of liberal sinners. Political criticism of our commander-in-chief? Whose side are you on?

The climate of fear shows up in some unlikely places. In "Conscience, A Newsjournal of Catholic Opinion," Jennifer Block writes about the "severe gutting" of the fact-sheet on condoms issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before Bush took office, the CDC advocated condoms and advised on their proper use, but now instead stresses abstinence.

"This agenda is so ruthless," Block says, "that members of several domestic sexual and reproductive rights and health organizations speak of a pervasive 'climate of fear' created by the Bush administration; a climate in which entities on various levels, from non-governmental HIV/AIDS prevention groups to high schools and even epidemiologists at the CDC, are being pressured to toe the party line."

In what was arguably our country's darkest hour, Franklin Roosevelt asked us to shake off our anxieties: "The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself."

During World War II, Winston Churchill entered legend as the indomitable optimist who inspired a nation of plucky islanders by refusing to live in fear of what seemed to be an irresistible German juggernaut.

Despite the horrors of the Great Depression, Americans and moviegoers the world over sang along with Walt Disney's, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"

But the Bush administration nurtures fear and anxiety. Where there is no vision – where no one has provided a counter-narrative to the bad tidings of human demise and decay – the people perish.

The Philosophy of "As If"

Hans Vaihinger was a German philosopher (1852-1933) who proposed "The Philosophy of 'As If'." Since we are never able to be certain that what we perceive is real, we find it useful, even necessary, to create fictions (including scientific theories) which we then use as fundamentals of our reality. That is, we act as if they were certainties, until these suppositions break down under closer observation. For example, all matter is composed of earth, air, fire and water. Or gravity is a distortion of space. Or, there is a hell where we may be punished for our sins.

"As if" plays a role in our personal life. Vaihinger influenced Alfred Adler, who wrote that "every person acts and endures according to his individual teleology which, to the person who does not understand this, seems like fate." Even the most rational among us must operate on a set of assumptions which, we recognize when questioned closely, are more articles of faith than assured realities.

We are, each of us, a personal story, made up of "fictions" – not to say untruths, but compositions – which give our lives meaning. Think of the story you tell your children, about how you two met, and why you married your spouse instead of the other one. You can play with this concept until you understand your very self as a story. This is why it's so important that we tell our own story rather than let someone else tell it for us.

Our personal stories are wrapped up in larger narratives. At their core, they are synonymous with our concept of self, of personhood, of self-esteem. As they fit into those larger narratives they gain added meaning in the telling of the story of our family or community or social heritage, our national story, the Story of Mankind, or what you will. It is in the telling of our collective story that the concept of vision becomes especially important.

The polemicist Christopher Hitchens seems unaware of Vaihinger when he writes of "as if," in his Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001). He is talking about the "years of stalemate and realpolitik" following the turbulent heyday of the Sixties radicals, when "a number of important dissidents evolved a strategy for survival. In a phrase, they decided to live 'as if.'"

"I'm never certain which author can claim the credit for this mild-sounding but actually deeply subversive and ironic decision," Hitchens writes.

    Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realized that "resistance" in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living "as if" he were a citizen of a free society, "as if" lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, "as if" his government had actually signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights.

Hitchens also comes up with other examples:

  • the historian and philosopher E.P. Thompson, who proposed that "we live 'as if' a free and independent Europe already existed."

  • the "People Power" moment of 1989, "when whole populations brought down their absurd rulers by an exercise in arm-folding and sarcasm."

  • the "snap election" called by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to buy him credibility among Western creditors – "the voters decided to take him seriously," writes Hitchens. "They acted 'as if' the vote were free and fair," and voted against him in overwhelming numbers and (though he stole the election), his legitimacy, credibility and credit were ruined.

  • Oscar Wilde who "decided to live and act 'as if' moral hypocrisy were not regnant."

  • Rosa Parks who "decided to act 'as if' a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of a day's labor."

  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who decided to "write 'as if' an individual scholar could investigate the history of his own country, and publish the findings."

"By behaving literally," writes Hitchens, "they all acted ironically."

Hitchens warns that there's nothing easy about "as if," which Havel called "The Power of the Powerless" for good reason: there were "many dreary years when the prospect of victory appeared quite unattainable."

    On every day of those years, the "as if" pose had to be kept up, until its cumulative effect could be felt. Many of the greatest "as if" practitioners – including Thompson himself, and men like Frantisek Kriegel in then Czechoslovakia – did not live long enough to see the grand production for which they kept up the optimistic but phlegmatic rehearsals.

From 'As If' to a Vision of Change

Hitchens's letter calls to mind two stories that activist preacher Jim Wallis tells in Faith Works (2000), to illustrate the power of hope: "believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change."

    Perhaps my favorite story of the power of hope comes from a memorable moment shared with Desmond Tutu in South Africa… A political rally had just been canceled by the white government, so Bishop Tutu called for a worship service inside the cathedral. The power of apartheid was frighteningly evident in the numbers of riot police and armed soldiers massing outside the church. Inside, all along the cathedral walls, stood more police openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak, the atmosphere was tense indeed. He confidently proclaimed that the "evil" and "oppression" of the system of apartheid "cannot prevail." At that moment, the South African archbishop was probably one of the few people on the planet who actually believed that.

Jim Wallis had slipped into South Africa without a visa, and was jetlagged at the end of his first tense day. He had come to the beautiful St. George's Cathedral straight from the airport outside Cape Town, and was now among the anxious throng who looked to the Anglican cleric for leadership.

    I watched Archbishop Tutu point his finger right at the police who were recording his words. "You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God!" And the God whom we serve, said Tutu, "cannot be mocked!" "You have already lost!" the diminutive preacher thundered. Then he came out from behind the pulpit and seemed to soften, flashing that signature Desmond Tutu smile. So – since they had already lost, as had just been made clear – South Africa"s spiritual leader shouted with glee, "We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!" The whole place erupted, the police seemed to scurry out, and the congregation rose up in triumphal dancing.

The other story Wallis tells is the one about Martin Luther King, President Lyndon Johnson, and the Voting Rights Act.

    The U.S. Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act in July of 1964. Six months later… Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to see Lyndon Johnson. The civil rights leader told the president that the country now needed a voting rights act… But the consummate politician from Texas told the nation's moral leader that a new voting rights act was impossible. Johnson claimed he had just cashed in all his political chips with the Southern senators to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress and that he had no political capital left. But Martin Luther King Jr. persisted; without the right to vote in the South, blacks could not change their own communities. Lyndon Johnson was the master of political realism. The president said he was sorry, but insisted that it would be five or ten years before it would be possible to achieve voting rights. But King said the nation couldn't wait that long.

That was in early 1965. King focused his campaign for change on the little town of Selma, Alabama, and the brutal confrontation with sheriff's deputies on "bloody Sunday," March 7, rattled the conscience of the nation and the world. The following week, the president submitted his Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress.

    On March 21, the famed Selma-to-Montgomery march took place with the whole nation watching. The nation's religious community mobilized as never before. Hundreds of ministers, white and black, from many denominations across the country, joined civil rights workers and the courageous people of Alabama to make the historic trek. Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched shoulder to shoulder with Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. The dramatic scene flashed across the nation's consciousness, and the whole world was moved by the moral struggle for political freedom in the American South. Within five months, Congress passed the historic Voting Rights Act. What was said to be impossible suddenly became possible.

Jim Wallis advocates a formula of "faith-hope-action-change." Ultimately, social change comes only through organized action. But effective action is possible only when there is genuine hope that improvements will result from all that hard effort – otherwise, why should any of us get up off the sofa? Hope requires a narrative to show how we get from the beginning, through the middle, to the end – in other words, how we accomplish the journey. To conjure hope out of hopelessness requires faith, but that's another part of the story.

At the moment, I'm taking faith for granted, and concentrating on hope – that is, on the vision of a better America, which we will need to describe convincingly if we are to provide an alternative to inspire the imagination of Americans who are presently cowering in a deliberately conjured fear.

© 2003 Alton Miller
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