No, I don't think either of the stars of last Saturday's "Restoring Honor" gathering in DC will run for office this year. I do think that they have revealed a compelling narrative just in time for campaign season, however. The well produced plot -- funded by billionaires with an eternal grudge -- has primed the nation's political conversation. To "prime" an audience means to provide visual and rhetorical stimuli that will influence desired reactions. It is the long-game of politics and the potential mega-bucks payoff all in one. The rally's storyline is important because it will be the backdrop of discussions about society, culture and America's global participation through November -- and probably longer. Here's a Beck-Palin "restoration" recap:
- The world is a scary place.
- God loves all people, but rest assured that we're his favorites.
- God will solve these scary problems if you believe what I'm telling you.
- And if God doesn't get to it, the American military will.
- Its' true! Just look at how much we love everyone who wears a uniform.
- Love and guns will restore America and save the world.
They did a good job staying positive and aspirational: heart-tugging parents of soldiers killed, belated kind words for Vietnam veterans, Tinkerbell music and praise for civilian "heroes among us", charismatic gospel singers, nods to the MLK anniversary. There were no overt accusations that "progressives" or anyone else lacked patriotism or hated the military. Beck even crooned all mushy about the National Park Service and Congress in the same run-on sentence. Apparently coming to Washington has converted Glenn Beck into a fed-lover.
I say that's awesome.
Sarah Palin was far superior in her delivery of this urgent restoration message (note to Beck: borrow Palin's speechwriter, I am a dork-lover, but your dork-appeal did not cut it with the Lincoln memorial behind you ). Let's face it, Sarah Palin is a public relations dreamboat. Her simple framework, her use of individual soldier stories, her good looks reminds me of late-night Obama sign posting in New Mexico during campaign '08. Once we stopped at a 24-hour truck stop for a Klondike bar..Spying the signs, the disheveled single mom behind the counter announced that she loved Sarah Palin. No reason given, no reason needed. Since this woman and I had gone to the same high school, I understood perfectly: Bullies and popular kids are often the same people. Even if they beat you up and still take your lunch money, you keep hoping for an invite to swim at the lake. Beck and Palin are like an all purpose high school gang: the quirkily sagacious Honor Society geek and the homecoming queen who claims the ROTC kids as backup. Interestingly, the ROTC kids are never present to deny the alliance.
Now, I've taught at West Point and at the Air Force Academy and I've taught Peace Studies at Stanford. I pretty much worked with the same topics i.e. transnational threats, the imperative of teamwork, conflict prevention, persuasion and how credibility "platforms" like negotiation and confidence building are replacing hardware as the primary pillar of US strength.
That's why the saturation-level military cheerleading on Saturday was a cheap shot. Public servants? Yes. Honor and sacrifice? Yes. Fine professionals worthy of admiration? Yes. But more virtuous than other Americans? Full stop no. It is just so wrong -- at so many levels -- to choreograph and insist on extreme infatuation with our fellow citizens in uniform.
Beck and Palin claim to value the military, but in reality, their Tea Party politicians and policies pretty much lack military values -- which are all based on collective action and collective outcomes decided by the government. The rally noted the importance of public spirit repeatedly. But group sacrifice, national teamwork, internationalism, prevention, cooperation and meaningful economic inclusion are not part of any Tea Party talking points that I've heard. But they are military values. If restoring honor is what these folks really want, Beck-Palin 2010 candidates better step up with some FDR sized collective prescriptions.
Military optics aside, Beck and Palin seem to have missed out on a fundamental shift in our military's roles and missions over the past twenty years: the creation of social value. Social value is a concept which includes non-tangibles such as goodwill and credibility -- as well as measures taken to assure citizens' well-being -- voting, education and health care come to mind. Much of the US government's foreign policy apparatus works to facilitate social value in fragile locations. Our diplomats and our generals are singing in unison about this, but we severely lack non-military public assets. We simply haven't invested in them. If you don't believe me, start reading news about Afghanistan. Read the Army's counterinsurgency manual. Check out the West Point website, talk with a returned National Guardsman, ask your missionary neighbor (in 2009, humanitarians suffered 139 "security incidents" including kidnappings, assassinations, attacks and bombings). In today's world, security is about people, not borders. Everyone in the area is at risk.
The disconnect between Saturday's "restoration" choreography and what the actual modern military does should be exposed for what it is: the last flabby arm-flail of conservative principle. Real conservatives would never use the military as such a blatant political prop. Never.
The rest of us can craft a more compelling plot for this story, anyway. A plot that is both evidence-based and hopeful. Americans are uncertain, the economy stinks and we're going to be involved in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time. Individuals coming back from those places will tell a story of change. Lots of those Americans will be military veterans, but lots of them will not be. We need to to provide a sympathetic ear and a way forward informed by their experiences. The story for us this fall is that these volunteers' idealism and public service is inspirational and should be praised inside and outside of government. The story for over there is that the use of force doesn't work most of the time, so we need to figure out different ways to achieve security. This conversation doesn't need to happen on the National Mall. It might, however, be just the right topic for the dinner table.