Who are we?

Who are we? Who do we want to be?

 

History has shown that from time to time a society has to decide who they are and what they want to be. This is not something they do on purpose but are more often forced into it when things get really tough. It makes some sense as when things are going well, people don’t have the need for such thoughts. The United States has been in that position several times; just before and during the Revolution, the Civil War and during the Great Depression and World War II. As we enter the second year of the worst economy since the Depression and are entrenched in two wars, we find ourselves again at that point. These are not the only issues that beg these questions, however.

 

  • Torture: Does protecting our national security ever give us the right to use this? No, it does not. I reject the suggestion that we need to do away with our values to stay safe and believe when we turn our backs on our core beliefs we increase the risks we will be attacked.
    • Torture is the antithesis of everything we stand for. Benjamin Franklin said ‘Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither.’ He was right. There are a number of reasons for this. I am honestly torn about which I think it more important – the precedent with set abroad or the one we set at home? If we can torture others, we inch closer to the day when we can torture our own citizens. This isn’t just my opinion, it was that of several George W. Bush lawyers who opposed it. Moreover, one can see this in action when they see how long some American citizens have been detained for suspected anti-American activities. These are the very things our founding fathers wanted to prevent. There’s also the point that we see ourselves as a benevolent force in the world but not everyone else does. When we forfeit our belief in the rule of law as it pertains to others, we become hypocrites and pave the way for others to do as we have done.
    • Torture doesn’t work. Don’t take my word for it, read a little about how investigators get decent information. It is not through torture. Al Qaeda trains its people to deal with torture so they aren’t going to talk. Ask John McCain how much he gave up during his seven years in a POW camp. Plus, the people who would talk, generally would say anything to stop the pain so whatever intel they give cannot be relied on. Dick Cheney has said that we got good information through these methods but has never said if we could have gotten it any other way or if better information was missed because of what we did. In fairness, he probably doesn’t know and that is a whole different problem.
    • We follow the Geneva Convention to protect our soldiers. If we can find loopholes in the Geneva Convention, do we really think other countries won’t do the same thing? Really? Are we that stupid?
  • Social safety net: Our political debates tend to center around a few themes and one is how big our government should be. Do we want a small government with almost no taxes where we all fend for ourselves or do we want one that does for all of us collectively what we cannot do individually? I would opt for the latter. The irony is I know we don’t want to decide, we want both. Exhibit a for this theory is California, which has the closest thing to direct democracy in the US. The Californian electorate is confused about this as anyone. Because they can hold direct referendums, they prove they want it both ways. Prop 13 gutted the states’ ability to tax the citizens (yes, I know property taxes were crazy back then) but the same people vote for plans to expand health care and improve education. It seems we all want decent roads, a good military, an education system that doesn’t suck but you know what? Taxes pay for that. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, ‘Taxes are the price you pay for a civilized society.’ Who are we then?
  • Why do we care about places outside the US and even in space?
    • Foreign aid: When polled, people will consistently think that we both spend too much money helping other countries but then think we should be spending more than we are (their estimates are that we spend at least 10 percent of our budget on aid and should spend something closer to that but less while the real amount is less than three percent.) I think a huge chunk of this is that most people cannot find most other counties on a globe. President Clinton said that we should have a policy where we have more friends than enemies, and I agree with that. A first step would be to know more about other cultures. It is hard for us to ‘get’ the India/Pakistan situation if we do not know the history and/or cannot find either on a map. Africa is not only not a country but is much larger than Europe yet we learn a lot more about England than anything in Africa.
    • Spacedust: I attended an event this week where people seemed to think the space program is just not worth anything. They are not alone. At least a few Members of Congress have supported ending NASA and using that money for things closer to home. President Kennedy was right when he said we should go to the moon, though it’s too bad he didn’t live to see it. Studying the stars does more than waste tax dollars, it inspires innovation. It creates jobs. It teaches about who we are and why we are here. Plus if we don’t get global warming under control it might find us a new place to live… (no, I don’t think we will do that – at least in my lifetime)
    • The arts & humanities: Such an easy target and so important to our society. We may not always see the immediate value of either but should they go away we would see the impact of their absence.

 

Barack Obama’s victory in November was, to me, a sign that we want to go in a new direction. The course he has set for the country is one that I think we will make life better for all of us and inch us closer to being what we want to be. My hope is that we will not just look to him but to each other and start to openly talk about this and not just debate it.

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