Counting our blessings

Dec 24, 2003 at 12:00 am

Striving to be a well-informed citizen who tries to make sense of the world, and of what our government does in it, has many drawbacks. Nobody much talks about this, but one of the more aggravating things is … not knowing what to call ourselves.

For more than a century, going back at least to John Stuart Mill, people who tried to learn the truth and make sense of it all proudly called themselves liberals. But today, the term has been demonized virtually out of useful existence. “Liberals” are presented in the right-wing media today as people who secretly or openly hate America, God, heterosexual marriage, hard work and unborn babies. Not to mention Santa Claus.

What’s more, nobody ever challenges this horse exhaust. Nobody ever admits to being a liberal at all. Instead, men and women of good will are ducking for cover and trying to find a new name for themselves. “Progressive” was in vogue for a while, but it tends to evoke Teddy Roosevelt and a Bull Moose. “Populist” works for Jim Hightower, but not for anyone who doesn’t look good with a ten-gallon hat. “Those of the left” carries with it a faint whiff of the gulag, or at least of lines and shortages.

Which means those of us who aren’t content with a big-screen TV, a Barcalounger and George Bush’s vacant smirk haven’t even got a name. What I would prefer is that we take back the proud old name of liberal. But if there is too much baggage, we can, for now, refer to ourselves as the “common-sense constituency.”

And so what blessings can we count on the brink of this Christmas? Three years ago the nation was at peace and close to full employment. Now we have the prospect of war without end, a stagnant economy and state budget deficits that threaten to badly damage our university system.

There is a major assault on our civil liberties led by the attorney general. Few in either party think the Democrats, especially front-runner Howard Dean, have the ghost of a chance of beating George W. or of winning back either house of Congress next year.

Yet … all isn’t hopeless.

As a matter of fact, there are some hopeful signs that Sauron — oops — Shrub isn’t having it all his way. A year ago, the Bushies were gleefully at work on a Patriot Act II, which was designed to do to civil liberties what the second wave at Pearl Harbor did to our battleships. But such was the storm of protest that it never happened. More and more, even some libertarian-minded Republicans have been worried about losing our freedoms.

And now, for the first time, the Bushwhackers have lost in court — twice. Last week, two federal appeals courts issued major embarrassing slaps to the administration. In New York the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said the government was dead wrong in denying accused “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla his rights as an American citizen.

Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit in San Francisco said the administration lacked the authority to imprison enemy combatants indefinitely, and told the government it must, essentially, put up or shut up; show cause or let them go. Currently, in a scandal that should embarrass us before the world, there are 660 prisoners rotting in pens on Guantanamo, men who haven’t been charged or even been allowed to see a lawyer.

That’s not how a democracy ought to behave. That’s how we accuse Fidel Castro of behaving. One or both of those decisions could, of course, be overturned by the Supreme Court. But the more these issues are raised, the more people will be aware.

Finally — and this is something to be thankful for no matter what — there is a national election next year. Unless there is a sudden overpowering scandal in the next few months, it looks like Howard Dean will be the Democratic presidential nominee.

The reasons why are telling. He has come out of nowhere to be the front-runner precisely because he took a position on an issue — he consistently opposed the war in Iraq — and also because he seemed fresh and new and open to ideas.

Naturally, the establishment says he can’t win. Maybe they are right — though nobody thought the governor of Arkansas could beat President Bush in December 1991 either. But here’s something we must put pressure on any Democratic nominee to do:

Sharply define the difference between themselves and George Bush and Co. on all the key issues of the day. The war is only one of these. Health care may be even bigger, in the long term. The same goes for education. We should know how Dean or whoever sees our role in the world, and when and under what circumstances we might use our military in foreign adventures.

We need to know what any new administration would do, or try to do, about the disappearance of American jobs offshore. We need to know whether they have a plan to repair or replace our own nation’s decaying infrastructure and preserve the environment.

Then the trick for them is to stay on message — to have sound bites that at least rise out of coherent policies on two or three big-issue questions. The broadcast media and the Republicans will not like that. They will try to make this campaign another caricature, one that revolves around non-issues and innuendo.

Dean, or whoever, needs to avoid that at all costs. He may not win if he does what he should, though he surely will if people really listen. But he can put the nation on notice that there is an alternative to what we have now: military adventures that are lies and blank-faced corporate greed. We can still make that happen, which is a blessing. And may whatever you look up to bless us all this Christmas, every damn one.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]