Justice and the National Debt

President Obama got it right about Egypt.  In his speech following the collapse of the Mubarak Regime, he said: “Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence.”  The only problem is, as it always seems to be with Americans these days, we don’t listen to our own speeches.  He continued: “For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence— not terrorism, not mindless killing … that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”  What Obama failed to insert into his short list of actions that fail to achieve justice was the simple phrase “not war.”  And why would Obama forget such a phrase?  Because America has a long standing addiction to war as a pathway to justice.

Immediately, I think of the much-ballyhooed platitude to all challenges to military action: “It’s a dangerous world out there.”  And, to be sure, the world is dangerous, as I’m sure the Egyptian protesters will attest.  But the fact that we live in a world wrought with danger does not justify our seemingly unquenchable thirst for a larger and larger military.  And I do not make these statements because I harbor moral objections to military action.  I recognize that violence, or the threat of violence, can sometimes stop worse crimes against justice from happening.  What I am asserting is much more practical.  The use of military violence does not move the world closer to achieving justice—either moral or economic.  More seriously, it also diverts much needed attention and resources away from the pursuit of justice.  One need only look at recent American history to see this effect.

Only nine and a half years ago we were dealing with our budget problems.  The government had a surplus; we had a world without a competing superpower; we had Republicans in control of government (the party supposedly in favor of smaller government); and we had begun the difficult job of reforming the Welfare State.  Then a small group of men, being directed by an even smaller group of men living in caves in Afghanistan, carried out a bold and improbable suicide mission.  They flew airplanes into buildings.  Then we, behaving like so many of Pavlov’s dogs, lost our collective minds.  The National Security State ballooned, the financial sector acted like it had no future and no ethical limitations, and the American people shopped, be it for expensive homes, huge SUVs, or just one more happy meal.  And now, we as a nation are on the verge of bankruptcy.  Yes, I’ll say it.  The United States of America is on the verge of bankruptcy.  And Osama Bin Laden must feel oh so close to victory.
And why?  Because we cannot accept the simple reality, which we are always preaching to others: violence cannot achieve justice.  We have built the largest, most expensive military industrial complex in human history; yet justice slides ever further beyond our grasp.  It’s like what we parents preach to our children about the pitfalls of magical thinking.  We so want our children to understand the consequences of their actions, even as we, the parents, engage in magical thinking all the time.  We want our leaders to deal with the nation’s looming deficit; yet, we don’t want to reduce the cost of healthcare except rhetorically.  We want our leaders to slash discretionary spending; yet, we do not want them to put the largest discretionary spending programs, i.e., the military, on the table.  We want our country to have a huge National Security State capable of protecting us from all possible threats, but we don’t want our taxes raised to pay for it.  As a long time teacher of high school students, I am more convinced than ever that the magical thinking engaged in by young people has been taught to them by the adults in their lives.  In other words, we adults are excellent teachers: we are a nation of magical thinkers.
It’s time for all Americans to get real.  To save this country from ruin, we are going to have to cut the federal budget, starting with the military.  We are going to have to raise more revenue, starting with the wealthiest among us.  We are going to have to stop looking for a handout, starting with those who can take care of themselves.  And we are going to have stop blaming the other guy or gal, starting with whomever is standing on the other side of the aisle.

Letter sent to our leaders

Dear Sir:

Republicans and Democrats continue to argue about the size of government and the cost. The bottomline is this, however: the end of the Clinton era demonstrated that a government that operates within its budget is a good thing; a government that does not continue to rob from social security is a good thing.  Another simple historical truth is this: after 9/11 this country lost all sense of perspective. We have let a group of Islamic radicals dictate government policy, getting us involved in two wars and spurring us to create a huge National Security apparatus with massive increases in defense spending and the formation of Homeland Security.

We are in a budget crisis. We are also, however, in a psychological crisis. Even as we created a budgetary nightmare, we want to pretend that our ideologies can not change. We pretend that we can continue to spend on everything, cut taxes for everyone, and shop.

It’s time for our leaders to get real. It’s time for our leaders to cast off the magical thinking that has gripped this country for the last decade and beyond. Yes, we need to cut spending. Yes, cutting spending will cost jobs. Yes, there are alternatives. We need leaders who are willing to redefine America. A Global Empire is unsustainable. In other words, it costs more than in creates.

People everywhere want their freedom. They do not want to live under the shackles of empire, no matter how wonderful that empire is or thinks itself to be.  It’s time for a change we can believe in, but that change must begin with the assertion of a different belief in ourselves.  It must begin with a redefining of ourselves, our purpose in the world, our mission in the world. If non-violence is the truth for the Egyptians, then—by God—it’s the truth for Americans as well.

Let’s change.

Sincerely,

Robert Michael Oliver