Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 9:07 pm

Things we don’t talk about when we talk about nation-building

Filed under: I want my country back. — Lex @ 9:07 pm

Athenae notes that in the past few years, as we’ve discussed nation-building as a key component of fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been a few things we haven’t discussed:

A few years back I did a story; can’t find it on the Southtown site now, about a group of ministers from the South Side neighborhood of Englewood (Ill.) who wanted to get terrorism prevention funds from the government, on the grounds that drugs and gangs and guns were killing more people in their community every year than supposed weapons of mass destruction elsewhere. It was a genius move, really; turn the conversation around. Naturally the downtown and national press yawned: How quaint. How silly. How naive.

They knew how the world works, you know. A lot of the disgusted commentary that comes from pundits who treat everything like a joke has this tone, like, “Oh, you silly idealists, you don’t understand.” They knew the only shot they had at getting their problems made a priority was to make the conversation what the powerful wanted to hear. It’s because idealists know how the world works that they know what can be fixed and how to fix it. It’s not a willful disregard of the facts, it’s a cold assessment of them: The only way anybody’s going to care about us is if we have the word “terrorism” attached to our problems. And for that sincere attempt to get something done the only way they could, they got laughed at.

The money never came. No army of nation-builders ever arrived to support those who wanted peace and fight those who wanted violence, any more in Englewood than they did in NOLA or Cedar Rapids or anywhere else struck by disaster in the past eight years. The debate continues about how much we should spend building a world half a world away. How much should we spend building a world right here? Our national conversation never comes near the question anymore.

There are a lot of things we don’t talk about as a country that we need to. We mention race — all the time — but do we really talk about it? We sure as hell don’t talk about class. We don’t, in fact, talk much about anything that has to do with relating to one another communally. There’s a lot of talk of individual responsibility and individual achievement and individual opportunity, some of which is desperately needed, some of which is common knowledge and some of which shades into crap like going Galt. But we don’t even presume the existence and function of human communities to the extent that national policy shows any emphasis on solving their problems.

That’s nuts on a very basic level; homo sapiens is a social species. But beyond that, it’s nuts in this particular country, especially at this particular time. For all the trendy talk about individualism, we are a country today because a long time ago a whole bunch of individualists saw the merit of pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for something bigger than themselves. Nobody bled at Cowpens or Kings Mountain just so that a decade or two later he could announce, “I’ve got mine, Jack; screw you.” No, the framers explicitly acknowledged that even beyond the basic powers of government, of which they were justly suspicious, we as a people have a common welfare, a tie that bound us then and binds us today and that, history shows, we have attempted to sever only at our peril.

And we are at peril. One of the reasons that backwoods farmers (like my ancestors) from the western Carolina wilderness joined up with the learned men of the metropolises of Philadelphia and Boston was that they knew that no individual, and no single state, was going to win independence. Our oppressors today may not wear long, red coats, but they are just as oppressive and just as worthy of being cast off as those of our ancestors, whether they are lack of education or lack of economic opportunity or lack of a secure future because the damn oceans are going to rise. They aren’t problems that an individual is going to solve.

So, yeah, let’s do some nation building, right here, right now. Let’s fix NOLA. Let’s fix the ghettoes. Let’s fix health care. And let’s fix the system that lets those problems get so bad in the first place and then keeps us from talking about them, or from talking honestly about them.

Among the many virtues of this approach is that there are so many different reasons to do it that we need not agree on all, or even all that many, to unite. One of my big reasons, though, is that I expect that some day I will die, and when I do I expect that I will be asked some questions, and one of the questions I really don’t expect to be asked is, “So, did you REALLY think that he who dies with the most toys wins?”


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