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If America ever was an enlightened country, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. Shortly before I was born, we had congressional hearings and blacklistings to destroy lives on the mere insinuation that someone believed in a particular political economic theory. During my childhood, we had the hippy movement that, while more hopeful and positive in outlook, almost immediately became just another pretext for a symbiosis of glassy-eyed and opportunistic human folly (even more so in the case of its progeny, the “New Age” movement). Then we (over-)reacted to such utopianism with the Reagan years, which put into place an astronomical bloating of the national debt (while claiming to represent fiscal conservativism), a renewed (self-delusional) sense of moral superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the world, a cynical promotion of religious fanaticism and cultural tyranny for political strategic purposes, a deregulatory frenzy that we are still paying for in numerous ways, and a set of policies that created more economic polarization in this country than existed in the 19th century “gilded age” of the “Robber Barons.” (As of 2007, 34.6% of net worth and financial wealth, 42.7 % of financial wealth alone, was concentrated into the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the American population. The bottom 80% of the American population were left to divide among them 15% of net worth and wealth combined, and just 7% of financial wealth alone. http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html).

After a brief respite under Clinton, we returned to insanity with redoubled enthusiasm. Like a reverse John the Baptist to Bush’s reverse Jesus, Newt Gingrich regaled us with his “Contract With America,” a grandstanding promise to be indifferent to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Then came George W. Bush himself, not merely an embarrassing dimwit, but the first president in American history to both engage in and try to advance as our national values the torture of prisoners, the pre-emptive military bombardments of other sovereign nations, the kidnapping of foreign citizens off of foreign streets on the barest wisps of evidence against them (a mere accusation from a neighbor perhaps miffed about some private dispute) and then holding them in secret compounds and torturing them, even after concluding that they’re innocent of any crime, or “rendering” them to other countries that will torture them with even less self-restraint. After eight years of that president who morally and financially bankrupted the country, squandering the economic surplus left by Clinton, catalyzing the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, we finally, in a rare glimmer of sanity, elected Barack Obama.

But sanity never lasts long in America. Since after a year and a half he has failed to erase the mess that Bush (and his Republican predecessors) created, since though he stopped the hemorrhaging of jobs (http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2010/02/a_very_revealing_chart.php) he has not turned around what economists almost universally admit no one can, since he has tried to address the disgraceful fact that the richest country in the world had the most expensive and least efficient health care system in the developed world (the only one that failed to cover a significant portion of the population), since he addressed the lack of financial regulation (insisted upon and advanced by all preceding Republican executives and legislators) that led to the financial sector meltdown in the first place, he is the devil incarnate (born elsewhere, foreign in every way), and we must return to the insanity that preceded him (and is reacting to him).

Yesterday, on “This Week” (http://abcnews.go.com/thisweek), Queen Rania of Jordan very eloquently and moderately captured the corrosive role of religious extremism, both at home (in the United States) and abroad, the multiple folly of opposition to the Muslim cultural center in Manhattan (which stands in opposition to the intolerance and extremism of 9/11, and which in turn is opposed by the parallel intolerance and extremism at home), and the need not to surrender to cynicism and pessimism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Such a voice of reason! So certain to fall on deaf ears….

After all, she is speaking to the America of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who felt that responding to the hopeful building of a Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan (not at “ground zero”, in fact) by threatening to burn the Koran was the epitome of what it means to be an American (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100907/ap_on_re_us/quran_burning). While many even on the right denounced him (only because they knew it would end up costing American lives), the ironic similarity of such intolerant ethnocentric escalators of hatred to the terrorists whose acts they abhor, and the dissimilarity to those who preach tolerance rather than interethnic hatred, is lost on them.

The Republican “Pledge to America”, which even conservative economists admit will further increase the deficit (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=534), is being aggressively and successfully marketed by the right as fiscal responsibility which no rational person could oppose (though virtually all rational people oppose it). And it imposes debt on future generations only to benefit the wealthiest Americans, rather than those who need assistance, or to improve our human or material infrastructure. We should incur debt only as an investment in the future, not as a redistribution of wealth, across generations, to the uber-wealthy of today.

At South Jeffco’s Summerset Festival the weekend before last, for instance, I had numerous encounters which drove home the zeitgeist. One pleasant young woman told me she was a Republican, and responded to my suggestion that we should all agree to be reasonable people of goodwill and build on that by saying, “yes, just look at health care reform, that ruined the best health care system in the world.” Was she referring to the same health care system that, by every statistical measure, underperformed the systems of every other developed nation on Earth, and did so at far greater expense, while managing to cover a smaller percentage of the population than any other developed nation’s health care system? And another woman insisted that illegal immigrants never pay taxes and are purely a sap on our economy, though many pay taxes, often for services they can never collect on, and by all economic analyses are either an economic wash or a slight benefit nationally. Truth is the first casualty of war, and there is currently a war being waged on truth itself in America.

Examples abound. There are the Colorado ballot initiatives, 60, 61, and 101, that even fiscally conservative Republican politicians in Colorado oppose (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16158190), but that have a chance of passing, and are defended by earnest pseudo-economic arguments such as those presented by Debbie Schum in yesterdays Denver Post (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16158191). This is what happens when insanity is cultivated, in the hope of it being harnessed for political gain. Those who cultivate it eventually lose control of it, and it is the insanity unleashed that prevails.

As I’ve often said, there are legitimate debates to be had, legitimate disputes based on the differing conclusions of sound reasoning applied to reliable data in service to mutual goodwill. But we’re not having those debates. Instead, public discourse and the political process that simultaneously tracks and exploits it, have been hijacked by the need to incessantly debunk the unsound reasoning, fabricated facts, and fundamental inhumanity of what is perhaps the most powerful social movement in America today. We are too busy fighting the sheer human folly incarnate among us to get to the legitimate debates, and the hard, information-intensive work of governing ourselves wisely and effectively.

I have long noted that, in many ways, America is Ancient Rome to Europe’s Ancient Greece, the more brutish inheritor of a cultural, economic, and political fluorescence. Unlike Rome, however, which coveted Greek slaves to tutor their children, America has come to disparage rather than respect the still more civilized originators of modernity across the Atlantic. We look at countries that have almost completely eliminated poverty, have universal health care, low infant mortality, a far more successful and higher functioning public education system, greater social mobility, and higher rates of self-reported happiness, and many among us dismiss them as “socialist” countries, which we arbitrarily claim, by definition, must be failures. (As one individual quoted in yesterday’s Denver Post said, health care reform is “a communist, socialist scheme. All the other countries that have tried this, they’re billions in debt, and they admit this doesn’t work” (http://www.denverpost.com/commented/ci_16175215?source=commented-news).

The western European countries have their defects, to be sure, and America has done better than them on some dimensions, but this absolute rejection of the possibility that we have something to learn from others, who have fared better than us on numerous dimensions, is the epitome of combined arrogance and ignorance, that unholy marriage that dooms any individual or social entity to self-destructive irrelevance. We are a country very much like the one we were when Elmer Gantry was written a century ago, a country of small-minded yahoos and those that exploit them, with the marginalized voices of sincere and well-informed analysts shouting desperately across the sound-proofed barrier that has been erected against us.

But the question remains: How do we defeat this persistent, deeply embedded insanity that has come to define us as a people? In a conversation with Adam Schrager (Colorado’s pre-eminent political broadcast journalist) last week, we both voiced our disgust that politics has become far too much about the acquisition of power, and far too little about the challenge of devising intelligent public policies. But I shared with him this thought: Politics is almost inevitably hostage to an evolutionary logic. That which works (in the competition of policies and candidates) is that which is reproduced, while that which doesn’t work is abandoned. As a result, politics has devolved into a competition of marketing strategies and raising the funds necessary to their effectiveness. It isn’t enough to bemoan this fact, because any attempt to reject it, unless embracing an alternative simultaneously less cynical and more effective (which, as much as we’d like to be the case, almost never is), is doomed to failure, and thus obsolescence.

The ironic challenge we face, then, is how to use what works to create a context in which it is no longer what works, or no longer an option. For, while extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the public good by political leaders are both admirable and meaningful, they are not a sustainable strategy. Ralph Carr (Adam Schrager’s favorite example), the Republican governor of Colorado during WWII, who refused to comply with Japanese interment, despite such refusal being political suicide, might be a great example to follow, but if universally followed by all reasonable people of goodwill in all instances, would succeed only in ensuring that only irrational people of ill-will ever remain in office once confronted with the choice to do what’s right or do what’s politically expedient. The somewhat empty admonition that elected officials (like the rest of us) should always do what’s right rather than what’s in their own interests does not get us very far, both because of human nature (one’s own interests are going to remain a powerful incentive, whether we like it or not), and because of the evolutionary logic of politics (to paraphrase a famous quote from Henry Kissinger, in politics, always doing what’s right rather than what’s politically expedient or strategically superior merely cedes the world to the less scrupulous).

We can afford neither to be “above politics,” nor to surrender completely to its dysfunctional logic. But here is the limit of my own cynicism: We most certainly can’t afford to make ourselves morally indistinguishable from those we oppose. We must find successful strategies, in pursuit of raw political power, but by finding resonance between our own better angels and those of the electorate, rather than bringing both us and them down by resorting to the same old political cynicism as a first rather than last resort.

People criticize Obama for having tried to take the political high road rather than jamming through whatever we could any way that we could, but I do not. He is looking at a longer-term agenda, and a deeper necessity, than his critics are. There is a balance to be struck between what reality demands of us, and what our ideals demand of us, and we must always subordinate the former to the latter in the final analysis. Health care reform may have been critically important to our collective welfare, but there are deeper and more essential reforms that should not be sacrificed in every instance to the exigencies of the moment. We cannot defeat our own ignorance by surrendering to a political strategic system that exploits and cultivates it.

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