July 4, 2007

Redemption for America

This July 4, I will celebrate the idea of America and the knowledge that America once was as a great secular democracy. However, I cannot in good conscience celebrate what America has become. Long before George W. Bush, we sold our democracy to corporate interests. Fundraising has become the true test of a politician's suitability for office, making one's stand on the issues all but irrelevant. Shameless pandering to superstition and ignorance has largely replaced meaningful public discourse. We have abandoned our repeated commitment to provide international aid sufficient to meet the Millennium Development Goals, simply hoping the public will not notice or not care. And now, thanks to a foreign policy characterized by unilateralism, imperialism, Christian premilleniumism, and militarism, America has joined global terrorism as a major threat to the world's stability, security, and prosperity. And yet, I believe that redemption is possible.

The Bush administration has done more than any administration in our history to tarnish our reputation, threaten the values which made the idea of America so compelling, and jeopardize our place in the world for the foreseeable future. And yet, Bush did not invent the plagues of neoconservative or biblical literalism. He was not the first to question evolution, nor was he the first to invade sovereign nations unjustly. I bring this up not to relieve any of the blame Bush deserves but to encourage realism about the enduring nature of the problems facing us.

The Challenge of Redemption

When one examines all that America has become in the decades since President Eisenhower warned us of the military-industrial complex, turning the tide seems insurmountable. And yet, as Jeffrey Sachs reminds us in The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, one of a handful of books I believe every educated American should read, we once felt the same way about colonialism, slavery, and civil rights. Nobody said that reversing many of these disturbing trends was going to be easy, but we owe it to all who came before us and those who will follow us to try.

Uninformed Christians are fond of asking what drives nonbelievers, why we get out of bed in the morning, what motivates our good deeds, and so on. How about the desire to leave the world a better place than I found it? Is it really so difficult to imagine that one could be motivated by such a desire. I see things that are hurting others, and I'd like to change them. Do I really need a complex ethical explanation to justify my behavior? If I was suffering, I would hope that someone would come to my aid. Since I am fortunate enough to be able to do the same for others, I do so. (photo by takomabibelot)


The challenge of redemption is a national, if not global issue. But it is also very much a personal issue. It involves making a personal decision about the distance between where things are now and where they should be. It involves considerations of justice, fairness, and compassion. After all, individuals shape societies.

The Path to Redemption

Sachs outlines an impressive plan for ending extreme global poverty within our lifetimes, and one of his recommendation involves redeeming the role of the United States in the world. Although he is somewhat vague about exactly how that would be accomplished, I'd like to suggest some needed reforms along the path to redemption. I've adapted some of what he says in what follows and added some new suggestions that he does not discuss.
  1. Meaningful campaign finance reform and lobbying reform - The influence of corporate money on politics has been entirely too toxic. Politicians feeding on corporate handouts cannot be expected to make objective decisions about what is best for America.
  2. Increased U.S. participation in multilateral initiatives - The go-it-alone attitude and attacks on the United Nations which have characterized the Bush administration must be reversed. America can have a leadership role in a global society, but unilateralism is too destructive in the modern world.
  3. Leading by example - There is nothing wrong with America taking a leadership role on the world stage. But we must lead by example. If we want developing countries to do their part in reducing their environmental impact, we must be ready to do so. If it bothers us for certain nations to develop nuclear technology, we must be prepared to reduce our own arsenals. If we oppose theocratic societies abroad, we must make sure theocracy cannot take root at home.
  4. Increased commitment to funding public education here and abroad - If public, secular education is the antidote to mass ignorance and protects against the poisonous effects of religious idiocy, we must get serious about improving the quality of our own public education system and about joining multilateral initiatives to fund public education in developing countries. It is likely that doing so, as part of a comprehensive global aid package to reduce extreme poverty, will be highly effective at reducing global terrorism.
  5. Model reality-based government - By reality-based government, I mean that policy decisions are not made on the basis of superstition, ideology, or political appeasement, but on the basis of results. Policies are not only informed by data, but are modified and even abandoned on the basis of ongoing monitoring of their results. That is, a policy about needle-sharing programs to reduce the spread of AIDS is based on whether the program works and not on someones religious objections to the idea of it. We must hold our elected officials accountable by demanding evidence-based policy and rejecting the continued injection of religion into politics.
Granted, this is one of those lists that could go on and on. I view this as a starting point rather than any sort of finished product. Most importantly, I reject the notion that these goals are impossible or could never happen. It is up to those of us who care about such things to make them happen.

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