This is a guest post by Jeffrey Stacey, an international engagement officer on contract with the Office of the Secretary’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization at the U.S. Department of State. Previously Stacey taught Political Science at Tulane University, Fordham University, and Columbia University, where he obtained his Ph.D. He has also worked for the British Parliament, the European Parliament, and the Open Society Institute and is author of “Integrating Europe” by Oxford University Press.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.
The Coarsening of a Country
Recently in Washington we memorialized a legend no longer living, the great Richard Holbrooke, diplomat extraordinaire and larger than life to the end, when heart failure took him from us. He was that rare breed who not only thought big thoughts but did big things, all on the grandest of international stages. The man who ended a war and brought peace to Bosnia–saving thousands of lives in the process–was indefatigably working for peace in Afghanistan when death came knocking. He was passionately, unswervingly committed to using American power for good, for restoring faith in our diplomacy, for John Wesley-like doing all the good that he could, as long as he could, whenever and wherever he could.
But who within our country is making a Herculean-Holbrookian commitment to restoring honor and civility to our political discourse. Who will stand up fearlessly and call out demagogues for their hateful speech? Who will go to the wall for what is best in America and stand on it til what is worst gets altered, transformed, or utterly spurned by the great mass of American citizenry? Who has the character, the mettle, the fire in the belly to be a socially responsible citizen and effect a changed America, down the block or up on Capitol Hill?
Because while this is the America we love, those whose love is true know its soul is torn. And that making it whole again will take more than points of light in the thousands. What is now required will involve nothing less than leading lights to embrace the humility of Copeland’s fanfare, and struggle to bring to fruition what Martin saw from the mountaintop.
We have been poorly served by this generation of leaders, too many of whom countenance a four-star general bad mouthing the commander-in-chief, a member of Congress crying out “You lie” during the State of the Union, a Supreme Court justice crossing the sacred political line, a senator calling for the President’s Waterloo, a vice presidential candidate coming close to inciting violence in her campaign speeches, and on-air bloviators in triplicate calling the sitting President everything under the sun but a nigger. Normally the Rubicon gets crossed only once in living memory, but the crossings of late have been too numerous to enumerate.
It wasn’t always this bad. True enough, this country has known a time when no one was free, a time when indigenous peoples were massacred, a time when people were brought from elsewhere and enslaved, a time when one gender did not have even basic privileges on par with the other. But during these times and others, there were always stirrings in the land, normal citizens and elites alike who took action, from Jeffersonian violence to Ghandian civil disobedience. Wholesale change has always been hard fought and incomplete, at the same time that many other things in America were worth a nation’s pride. Part of that pride has always been a penchant for pushing on toward our mythical promised land.
We average citizens must muster once again the ability to hold our leaders to account. Instead we are sleepwalking through history. When I was young my father used to explain to me that large scale change was so difficult to accomplish that normally one of two things was required to vanquish our biggest problems: either someone figuring out how to make money from a solution or a sizable crisis. At the time I thought this was too pessimistic, but over time I found him to be right–a testament to how difficult transformational change really is. Yet, it could be and was on occasion achieved. But seemingly no longer.
We have had two of the biggest crises imaginable–the Great Recession, which we gave the world, and 9-11, which the world gave us. I lived in New York City when the Twin Towers were brought down, having climbed a hill uptown and watched it happen with my own eyes. Talking heads at the time said everything would be changed asunder, but they were wrong. We aren’t any safer and the world isn’t any more peaceful. More recently our financial wizards wreaked havoc on our livelihoods, setting off widespread hardship here and abroad. Yet the alchemists on Wall Street are mixing their concoctions anew, and their Merlinesque protectors in Congress aren’t yet immune to what wafts all the way down to Washington where I now live.
What’s it going to take? Is this country so set in its ways that two current wars can’t shake us from our slumber? That economic misery far and wide can’t provide the smelling salts to wake us to action? Or how about a nearly slain Congresswoman who essentially predicted her own near assassination while a handful of average Americans went to their graves, including a 9-year old too innocent not to believe in the country’s essential goodness? Will this, finally, shake the great tree of our American democracy?
So far an incipient change can be detected, but few of us are holding our breath. What is the standard for judging our leaders in the wake of this tragedy? There will need to be measurable progress in three areas: our political discourse, our culture of violence, and how we care for the mentally ill among us. It is too soon to tell, but is anyone anywhere confident that average people will push for change and our leaders will respond by crossing partisan lines to build coalitions for enduring achievements in these and other areas that ultimately will help the American soul to heal. Where is our Great Society?
Where is our shining city on a hill?
For American society to aspire to its better angel, we need something out of the book of miracles, something magically to be pulled from our great big societal hat. It is difficult to conceive of what this will take. One hopes it won’t take more tragedy to stop us right in our tracks and force us to reflect meaningfully on how better to achieve the collective good. But surely it will take at least a handful of leaders to step out of the shadows and not shirk from calling for a new American way, even in the face of a torrent of political abuse. And even more assuredly it will take a large number of average citizens, each on their own at first, and then with others heading their examples, to stake out a new radical almost apolitical territory in American politics.
Let us hold ourselves no higher than our ideals. It is no job for the tremulous. The road will not be short. But our country needs us, our communities crave us.
As Cicero pronounced it and Bob Dylan sang it, we gotta serve somebody.
— Jeffrey Stacey