The Election Issue that cannot be Named

The race for POTUS is very tight. I remember after the 2000 election I remarked to some people that the tightness of the race told me that this nation was deeply split on its overall perspective of this nation. In other words, I didn’t think any one issue caused such a tight race. Rather, the vote reflected a general uncertainty about where the nation was at that time and its future direction.

I look at the polls.  I think about the candidates.  I think about Romney’s positions which are still empty of substance.  I think about Obama’s positions, which are only a few degrees more substantial than Romney’s.  I also think about the situation this nation faces and how neither of these candidates are really leveling with us.  I also have this impression that candidates over the years promised  to tell us the truth, but they didn’t.

Recently Todd Purdum published an essay in Vanity Fair in which he noted that as a nation we can’t face our own reality.  He wrote, “We mythologize ourselves as clear-eyed dwellers of a shining city on a hill, but the fact is: we can’t handle the truth. Because we cannot make peace with our eroding stat­us as the world’s sole remaining superpower—one whose economic dominance is now far from unrivaled in an age of globalization—we retreat to cherished notions of American exceptionalism and ignore all the ways, from educational achievement to social well-being to wise stewardship of resources, in which we are not so super at all.”

Essentially, the world has changed as have we.  Circumstances are different today than a generation ago.  The New York Times published an article last week about the stagnation of our standard of living over the last decade.  The article cited factors causing this stagnation, such as technology and globalization, as well as the closing education gap between this country and others.

Both articles link the deep divisions in this country to the economy.  While that is true, I believe this division encompasses more than the economy.  The best diagnosis I have read came from Walter Brueggemann’s book, Cadences from Home.  Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, wrote this book in 1997 for preaching.  Its subtitle is Preaching among Exiles.  (Note: Brueggemann published this book 15 years ago.)

Although intended for preachers, Brueggemann used Israel’s exile to Babylon in the fifth century BCE as a metaphor for our situation today.  He described exile as follows, “a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed.  Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral, and cultural (page 2).  Later on the page he wrote, “I suggest a cultural dimension to exile that is more ‘American’ than Christian, but no less germane to the pastoral task.  The ‘homeland’ in which all of us have grown up has been defined and dominated by white, male, Western assumptions which were, at the same time, imposed and also willingly embraced.  Exile comes as those values and modes of authority are being effectively and progressively diminished.  That diminishment is a source of deep displacement for many, even though for others who are not male and white, it is a moment of emancipation.  The deepness of displacement is indicated, I imagine, by the reactive assault on so-called political correctness, by ugly humor, and by demonizing new modes of power.”

The last sentence seems to reflect accurately some of the rage against Obama.  While citing policy differences, the degree of opposition as characterized by statements such as Sununu’s recent comment on Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama over Romney or the incessant drumbeat from conservative commentators that Obama is a Muslim goes beyond policy differences.  Most recently the Associated Press reported that racial prejudice seems to have increased since 2008.  It reported that in 2012 51% of Americans express explicit anti-black sentiments versus 48% from a similar survey in 2008.  Thus, the closeness of this race may not hinge on any specific issue, but over race, which is a terrible self-indictment of us as people.

The truth that we’re not told is the undisputed hegemony of the past is over.  Think of it this as a stage.  Within the context of power and authority in this nation, until the mid- to late-1960s, white men were the only ones upon whom the spotlight shown.  Over the years they have had to share the same spotlight with women, people of color, and immigrants.  Within the context of the international stage, the United States no longer stands alone.  Rising nations with growing economies such as India, China, and Brazil are becoming contenders for the same spotlight.  Furthermore, since the end of World War II, our wars have not ended decisively, thus raising questions about the efficacy of the most powerful military in the world. (Even Desert Storm had a limited outcome, Saddam Hussein remained in power.)

We also cannot ignore that technology and capital have erased national boundaries.  We cannot realistically think that we can dictate to the rest of the world for them to adopt policies which will deliver our desired outcomes.  Nor can we expect that we are immune from actions taken or situations arising in other countries.

The undertone of Romney’s candidacy to “restore” American hegemony in the world is clear.  It appeals to many people who want this nation to stand astride this world and “call the shots.”  The ongoing and incessant diminution of President Obama by the GOP and its surrogates sadly reflects a deep desire for a type of white, male restoration.  One might say that its undertone seeks to restore the empire.

The Democrats, however, don’t talk as much about restoring American hegemony, but they have been less than candid about the global situation this nation shares with others.     Regarding Obama, I believe his race constrains him to name white, male restoration as one source of his opposition. Realistically, they cannot bring themselves to raise either points.

Our inability to name our exile from our past has given rise to our angry political culture.  The disagreements we’re witnessing go beyond issues which we might traditionally characterize through a liberal or conservative template (more government or less government/ more spending or less spending).  We see two sides that implicitly know the past is no more, but have difficulty acknowledging it publicly.  We have to find a new paradigm to address a world that is very different than the one many adults in this country remember.  The death of what was has generated an unfocused aggression, which we’re witnessing in this election and what passes for political analysis.

As the American public, we need to acknowledge that white male hegemony and economic/political world hegemony are over.  And while white male hegemony has been part of our culture for generation upon generation upon generation, international hegemony has only been for a relatively short time in our Republic’s history – realistically, only a few decades since the end of World War II.  Our international situation today is what has been our normal for much longer.

We won’t be able to solve our very large problems without acknowledging that the spotlight shines on more than white males and upon more than this nation.  The emancipation Brueggemann noted cannot be turned back or contained.  The reality of rising economic powers like China, India, and Brazil, the obliteration of national boundaries by technology and capital, and our military’s inability to bring a conclusive end to the wars we wage should make us aware that what this nation had for a few decades was unique in our history.

The brief period of white, male dominance and economic/political international hegemony created a heady moment in time.  Unrivaled and indisputable power are intoxicating.  But all of that is over now.  What was is now truly past.  Believing that we can restore the past is unrealistic at best and ultimately destructive.

We have to end our worship of the empire.  I would say that we need to place our trust in God’s values (not the god who presided over our empire, but God whose peace and justice pushes us to practice mindful compassion to one another, to ensure all people have their daily bread, and to love others, including our enemies, as we love ourselves) rather than the corrosive values of the empire.

We’re at a crossroad.  Two poems describe our choice, Shelley’s Ozmandias:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Or Isaiah 65:17-25 (among my favorite verses):

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord– and their descendants as well.

Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.


About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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