Last year John McCain said that Hillary Clinton’s health care plan was the same as what was rejected 15 years ago, “you can’t put lipstick on a pig” and get something different, he noted. I don’t recall too many people accusing McCain of calling Hillary Clinton a pig. The other day Obama used that same phrase (one I’ve used many times as well) to describe McCain’s claim of being the candidate of change. The Democrats want to argue that McCain is more of the same, and that McCain’s new “change” mantel is just make up. Yet suddenly the McCain campaign was accusing Obama of calling Sarah Palin a pig. I mean, huh? The campaign had reached a surreal depth even more strange than Democratic outrage over a supposed subliminal reference to them as “rats” eight years ago.
Of course, the Obama ‘war room’ shot back, and we were subject to a lovely debate about who should be outraged, which campaign is smearing the most, and if choosing Hillary would have been smarter for Obama because it would create more balance. Discussions of policy are probably taking place somewhere in candidate appearances, but to watch the media, the main issue on the minds of Americans is that of lipstick wearing pigs.
Yet seven years ago the US was hit by a terrorist attack that changed people’s perceptions about the kind of world we face. While anyone paying attention to terrorism knew it was a matter of “when” not “if,” far too many Americans were blissfully ignorant of things taking place in their world. The world did NOT change on 9-11-01, people just woke up to what kind of world we’re in! To be sure, that attack was in objective terms rather minor. The World Trade Center was brought down, but we’ve done far more property damage in each of our recent wars (Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq), and the deaths of almost 3000 people is paltry compared to the number we’ve killed, including the number of innocent women and children who have died from American weapons. In fact, car accidents kill more in a month than were killed on 9-11.
But terrorism isn’t about actual damage. Terrorists use that method — a rational, if an immoral one — because they do not have the capacity to mount a real military assault. How on earth can a group of fanatical religious folk in Afghanistan hurt the US? They don’t have an airforce, they don’t have ships, and the US spends half the world’s military budget. The US is, in essence, invincible by any kind of traditional military attack. Terrorism is the logical recourse for a committed, but weak, foe.
Terrorism is designed to incite fear, and cause people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. For Bin Laden and al qaeda there is one fundamental goal: to weaken and if possible bring down the western economy. It’s no accident that the “world trade center” was targeted, or that rumors of future terror attacks include assaults on Saudi oil facilities. From the stand point of al qaeda, the US is a military giant with a glaring Achilles heel. We are dependent on oil and cheap foreign goods for our lifestyle, and our economy has some glitching problems. As I note in future uncertain and the economic storm, it wouldn’t take a lot to create a severe crisis or depression.
Seven years after 9-11, the panic of that day seems a distant memory. We may be a bit embarrassed by the hyper nationalism that briefly hit the stage, silly music about sticking a boot up the ass of foreigners, or condemning the Dixie Chicks for saying things about President Bush that are mild compared to the kind of criticism he’s gotten recently from even Republicans. Yet terror networks are patient. Bin Laden declared war on the US in 1991. The first attack on US soil came in 1993. The second was eight years later. In between there were foreign attacks, as there have been the last seven years. All it takes is one event, something which still could happen at any time.
All this makes the surreally silly and nasty political campaign a sad commentary on America in 2008. Rather than really having a debate about the kind of change needed, we’re fed slogans, we see gotcha games to catch the other candidate in a brief verbal lapse (e.g., McCain’s houses). I don’t think it’s the candidates’ faults either; I suspect from their background both Obama and McCain would prefer an issues oriented discussion. McCain prefers town meetings to talk with folk; Obama prefers organizing at the root level and inspiring folk. Yet both candidates have substance. The dynamics of American politics today push towards this kind of marketing campaign. The country is too big, power is too centralized, and the media too willing to go for sensation over substance.
I noted in “America and the Troglodytes” the fear that the US political culture is moving away from a functioning democracy, and this kind of mass politics, or politics as sensation/war, is bad for the country. The fact we spend more time on gotcha games and personality politics rather than thinking about how to fix our very vulnerable economy, or deal with deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, a ‘war’ that the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said we can’t win just be increasing military involvement, is troubling. In fact, the GOP convention hardly mentioned Afghanistan at all, the Democrats only talked about it as an example of Bush Administration failure. Yet warnings come out daily that we’re losing time and Afghanistan could easily be lost. Who’d have thought that seven years ago?
In my “first year seminar,” Italy through the Ages, we spent a good deal of time this week reading about ancient Rome, and making comparisons, both culturally and politically, to modern America. While we found a vast number of similarities and numerous differences, one point stands out. Rome seemed too big and powerful to fail. Its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic diverse population interacted in a way that wasn’t just Romans dominating subjected people, but developing shared cultural norms. But fall it did. Despite linking much of Europe with paved roads, and supplying water with aqueducts, it collapsed from within, slowly. The Roman Republic gave way to Empire as leaders became corrupted by wealth, seduced by expansive power, and believed in their own invulnerability. The public moved away from initial virtues towards being spoiled and decadent. Despite great accomplishments and great learning, nothing could stop the slide.
We aren’t there yet. But we are at a point where our choices will determine whether or not we’ll be able to handle the challenges facing us. Maybe we need to cut government, decentralize power, become less aggressive on the world stage, be more cooperative in dealing with global issues. I’m not sure — there is no clear answer about what needs to be done. But one thing is certain: talking about lipstick wearing pigs and engaging in politics as smear and gotcha games is NOT the way to go.