Martin Luther King Day, New York
Growing up in England, my first images of America arrived in the form of letters emerging from deep within Daddy's radio. Alistair Cooke's Letter from America formed my first memories of a nation that would eventually become my compass, my home. Each week, Cooke's laconic drawl accompanied the sounds of Mummy's ironing and Daddy's architectural sketches, as I tried hard to play quietly with my blocks. Now and again, Cooke's gravely musings were punctuated by Daddy's chuckle, Mummy's murmurs.
Almost forty years on, letters and their unseen authors continue to fascinate me. I am one to follow my fascinations and now, somewhere in this wonderful world, I have a wise and clever friend who writes such letters too, "A man of letters whom I would love," as he was first introduced to me.
Each morning, he reads several newspapers, critically scanning their columns with his bushy-browed blue gaze. Daily, he puts pen to paper, focusing his passions, to contribute dialogue in the public space. Many of his carefully chosen words thus born of a bilious, yet unfailingly impassioned commitment to American ideals have been published in the columns of our nation's broadsheets. Some of you may already be following him and know of whom I speak. From time to time, he pens a missive that needs to be shared further. And so, with his permission, I share last week's letter from my anonymous friend, a man who in another lifetime might once have been named "Lance."
To most Americans, already struggling to make ends meet, our system of government seems broken. We are fighting two wars we should not be fighting, and have spent more time engaged in those wars than we did in WWI and WWII combined. President Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan was a tactical and political blunder, and will cost many more American lives and billions in treasure. America is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to purchase oil from governments that at best do not like us, and at worst are financing Al Qaeda and other affiliated terror groups. Washington DC is a place where powerful men and women can't seem to get along and their only agenda is self-promotion and getting elected or re-elected, whatever the cost. We can change the dynamic of American government, but it will take a monumental effort, and in some cases Constitutional amendments will be needed if we are to achieve good government in this nation.
First, we must end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bring all combat troops home safely by the end of 2010. We should be prepared to rebuild those nations, and that effort will likely cost as much as actually fighting the wars. U.S. Air Force personnel and unmanned drones should be available to protect our withdrawal and the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, and some soldiers should also remain to continue the training of Iraqi and Afghani soldiers, or to engage the enemy in the event of a major attack in either country.
Second, we must completely revamp the American electoral process, starting with the abolishment of the electoral college. As we have seen in recent elections, this system can be dangerous and extremely contentious. Then, by Constitutional amendment, we should change the number of years of both Senate and House terms to four years for each member, and limit any member of Congress to a maximum of three terms. The last piece to changing our system of selecting our leaders is to shorten the cycle of campaigns, and the cost of those campaigns. To start, we should have one national primary for each party instead of the agonizing process in place today, and campaigns should be financed completely with public funds and be no longer in duration than three months.
Last, America must become energy independent. We have got to use nuclear, solar, wind and bio-fuels to power our nation, and not only stop importing foreign oil, but wean ourselves off fossil fuels altogether. Also, now that the government owns the automobile industry, we must demand that by 2020 every passenger vehicle made and sold in America gets a minimum of forty miles per gallon. Not only will these measures drive down the cost of energy and create new American jobs, they will significantly reduce carbon emissions and give all Americans cleaner air and water, and a better legacy to leave generations to yet come.
I hear in my head Lance's soft, urbane voice, a curious mix of Oceanside Brooklyn and expensive, hard-earned elocution, gifted upon a treasured, tow-headed son. Even reined in on a tight cusp of tension and outrage, his playful voice teeters on the brink of a forgotten Broadway ballad, threatening to burst into indignant song. I recognized however, as I read, this was no ballad, rather much more a requiem for what may have been, if only anyone would listen.
In 2001 I had been in Riyadh, wondering if retaliation would graze me as the US cry for post-9/11 blood rose to a crescendo. I got out just as Afghanistan was pummeled with the schizoid barrage of cluster bombs and food parcels. By 2003, I was tucked up in my toasty London bed, on a bleak British morning listening to the BBC World Service announce, "We are now at war." I was surprised to find tears filling my eyes as Peace Time came to an end.
How did these wars eclipse the Great War, the World Wars in their duration and I fear, their implications? Why do we lack to the will to end them, even now almost a decade later? And where exactly in this messy, inexorable spiral had government gone from being mended, to actually seeming broken?
Instead of deescalating conflict we continue to witness its escalation and the expansion of privately contracted wars and unmanned drones. The recent decision to augment troops in Afghanistan came as a bitter blow, to me, to my anonymous friend and to my Pakistani family. I read the news in Glasgow as my friend did here in New York. That morning we had mourned the death of our year-old hopes of Change You Can Believe In, which seemed almost realized in an electric, breathless Grant Park only months earlier. A mutual friend captured the sickening pit in our cores that day, when she told us, first thing, "What a horrible world to wake up to," as we tried to adjust to the reality of our new War President.
Lance writes of the appetites for profit and the culture of resentment which bleed into one another. Blended, they congeal into the ugly, matted complexities between the oil-consuming West and the oil-producing Middle East. Somewhere in this clot fester the placental origins that birthed Al-Qaeda and countless other spawn nursed of deep gelatinous hate. Deep, shared contempt (the single most predictive emotion indicating the imminent death of any relationship) distills into a rancid disdain, one which penetrates, permanently scars national psyches on both sides of the divide. Even if we try, like Lady Macbeth in her obsessive parasomnia, we find such stains can never be washed away. Powerless to change their perspectives, both parties remain locked in an uncomfortable and ultimately broken embrace, unable to separate, unable to unite, enmeshed, deeply disordered.
Agreed, our problems with destructive patterns are at home too. Powerful men and women in DC too are caught in a futile, broken embrace of their own: torn between meeting their narcissistic ambitions, short term election goals and grotesque greed for immediate influence and ascendant power.
My brilliant friend Teddy observes America's current destructive political climate from the vantage of an expatriate American. He surveys the sad scene speaking on the telephone from the tranquility of picturesque Mittenwald. "It's nothing short of political cannibalism, Qanta," Teddy told me, describing our national paralysis over healthcare reform, our extreme polarization of right and left, our strategy in two ailing wars, our inability to corral big finance. Lance and Teddy describe precisely the same horrific vista: the monstrous autophagia of our domestic politic, our national spirit, a sight abhorrent and ghastly to behold, as we tear ourselves apart.
While ending the wars sounds logical and direct (just as Lance himself often does), I am beginning to doubt my friend and I will ever see this in either of our lifetimes, long or short as they may be. America has become inextricably engaged in these conflicts, defined by them in fact. These wars of folly and pride are breeding generations of anger, spawning a transmission of vertical hates, which infect us both here and in the theatres where these conflicts are enacted.
What is less discussed in this generational hate is not isolated to young Muslims in the Middle East, or Arab world. Equally deep and intense pockets of distrust and even Islamophobia are developing in the West and will be difficult to eradicate. Even the notoriously inert Swiss have been alienated, as their recent Minaret referendum indicates.
Yet what literal, physical destruction we can see executed on the environment and populace in these regional conflicts pales when placed against the destruction of confidence, allure, and hope that the United States once represented. Who will rebuild those tatters of our national identity? It is simple enough to rebuild a school, mend a hospital, pour an airstrip, but how will America rebuild itself, its capacity to inspire hope and goodness, ambition and progress? What is your prescription for these losses, dear Lance?
Agreed, our expenditure on these wars is beyond comprehension. In the wake of the economic collapse, jaded by near nine years of combat, we have lost all perspective when it comes to money. Today, we stare down an $800 Billion health bill without so much as even manufactured chagrin. I had never thought of the costs of unwinding these wars, which (it may emerge) contain the potential to eclipse all prior investment. Even if we amputate today, we may never be able to stem the losses.
Of all his prescriptions for bandaging a broken government, the last, of changing our energy consumptions, is perhaps the most challenging. Appealing for energy independence with voices like Lance's is our sole counterculture cry to grotesque cat-calls of "Drill, Baby, Drill" which fuels our fast-approaching legacy of running on empty.
A few weeks ago, I stood with close friends at a wonderful gathering. Marking the fast approaching close of the last decade, our host reminded us of the darkest day in the past ten years. I expected reminiscences of 9/11. Instead, Justy pointed out a day that this date had passed relatively unnoted: December 12, 2000, the day American democracy died; the day the Supreme Court certified the Bush Presidency as lawful.
In his amicus curae written ten years ago as heartfelt anguish to the result, Justy articulated what triggered the tailspin in which we find ourselves now, prophetically predicting what was to follow. Lance's appeals for electoral reform, while sounding sweeping, even grandiose perhaps, are striking not in their ambitious reach but in their remarkable solitude and isolation.
Like the famous line which Bono croons, "You gave me nothing. Now it's all I got," empty, finished, 'all outta gas' is what we currently stand to leave America's forgotten children. Forgotten, because right now, without putting pen diligently to paper every morning, without exercising the citizen's voices we were given, we are living only for the present, unconcerned for a future. That future, unless we enact what Lance's bluest, far-sighted eye can see, will no longer be there when we finally reach it.
Many of you will have observed a holiday for Martin Luther King's birthday. While we remember him, we are sobered to see we remain firmly on dire, dark course as MLK once foretold in one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century, a speech he gave a year to the day before his own death.
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
I put away Lance's thoughts to the editor and his hopeful prescriptions for averting our spiritual death. Outside it's raining. Yellow cabs slide and screech on slickened roads. I am a long way gone from my reverie of blocks and the murmurs of my once-young parents. I find we have wandered a long, long way from those first American letters I once heard, into an uncharted place of loss. Mending government is perhaps the only way we might find our way home to a place we, and those listening, watching and aspiring to be us around the world, once knew to be America. Instead, our country is now a place that feels as far from here as the America I first imagined as a small, British child, the void to reach it, now almost as cavernous.
In his frank, plainspoken, lilting lines, Lance captures the futility in our current path from which we must disengage, if we are ever to be whole, and home, once more. It is time to stir from our national slumber and each do what we can, whatever way we know how. Ask yourself this winter morning: If a once-young boy from Oceanside, now become a wry man, can speak these plain words for us, what says your voice today? What says your letter to the editor? Which prescriptions, your medicine to avert our rapidly encroaching spiritual death? What resolve can you muster as we strive to avert our nation's spiritual death?
What sound, my anonymous friends, the sound of your dissent?