Thursday, June 26, 2008

America's Next Unaudacious Chapter

It was through "The American reawakening" posted by Andrew Keen on his Great Seduction blog that I discovered Gary Hart's Op-Ed contribution to The New York Times, entitled "America's Next Chapter." Now that Barack Obama is the designated candidate for the Democratic party and he has made a strategic decision about funding his candidacy, the one "resource shortage" he will not be facing will be the opinions of others. Hart is hardly the first to get this ball rolling; and, for what it is worth, he has "the wisdom of one who tried and failed." More importantly, he writes from a base of understanding far broader than Presidential campaigns; and his piece is worth reading simply for the appreciation of that base.

What he builds on that base is another matter. After stimulating us with a second paragraph in which he invokes (in his ordering) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Adams, when he finally gets down to the nitty-gritty of how Obama should move forward, his primary source is more populist:

Senator Obama has two choices. He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” ask, “What do we do now?” after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it.

It is not often that we see Redford (or, as in this case, one of his fictitious personae) as a negative role model; but this made for an interesting rhetorical flourish on Hart's part. The reader was thus "softened up" for the more substantive core of Hart's argument:

Noting the power of “custom and fear,” and “of orthodoxy and of complacency,” Schlesinger believed that “the subversion of old ideas by the changing environment” would give a new leader the best chance to create a new cycle of reform and innovation.

No individual can entirely determine the architecture of a historical cycle. But much of the next one will be defined by how we grapple with a host of new realities, ones that reach beyond jihadist terrorism. They include globalized markets; the expansion of the information revolution into places like China; the emergence of new world powers including India and China; climate deterioration; failing states; the changing nature of war; mass migrations; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; viral pandemics; and many more.

Senator Obama’s attempt to introduce the next American cycle should include, at minimum, three elements. National security requires a new, expanded, post-cold-war definition. America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one. And the moral obligations of our stewardship of the planet must become paramount.

Treating "cycle" as a synonym for "revolution," I am reminded of a quip that G. K. Chesterton once made about a farmer he encountered while on a walking tour in France: The farmer made the observation that the problem with revolutions is that they always take you back where you started. Peter Weiss expressed this more cynically in Marat/Sade: "The soup is still burnt." If Hart (or anyone else, for that matter) wants to open a conversation on a "new chapter," then it is just as important to be clear about what we are leaving behind in the "old chapter," as well as turning our gaze to "new realities."

The reason I feel there is too much "old chapter" (or "burnt soup") thinking in Hart's recommendations lies in the second of his "three elements:"

America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one.

The problem is that production supports consumerism as much as consumption does; and, as I have been trying to argue (again inspired, at least in part, by Keen), our prevailing "culture of consumerism" is the most dominant part of that "old chapter" that we need to put behind us. Put another way, a "transition" to production is more about whether or not we are drowning the world in unnecessary "stuff" than about whether we are the major consumers of that "stuff." From this point of view, there is a potential conflict between the second and third items of Hart's list, particularly when you factor in the need for the planet's resources to produce all that "stuff" in the first place! Furthermore, while the globalization of our addiction to consumerism may not be the primary cause of all of those "new realities" in Hart's list, I suspect that it still emerges for each of those realities, if not in a primary way then in a secondary or tertiary one.

If Obama really wanted to write an "audacious new chapter," he could embrace the premise that there is more to living a "good life" than economic growth, particularly when the only thing that is growing is the Gross Domestic Product! There are all sorts of other criteria we could choose for being a significant world leader: lowering infant mortality and raising the level of educational achievement (for both students and teachers) would make for a good start. Then, of course, there are criteria that are not country-centric, such as contributing to a more equitable distribution of wealth around the world. This last is the basic mission of the Growth Commission (which I have already discussed and provides about the only context in which I can utter the word "growth" without spitting). This is my idea of serious language about the "audacity of hope;" but I doubt that we shall hear much of that talk from Obama. Now that his staff will be counting electoral votes every day, I suspect they would muzzle him, even if he wanted to talk about it!

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