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Today, Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times Op-Ed page (you need to subscribe to Times Select to access the link) is devoted to Barack Obama. Herbert is at least the third Times columnist to have done this in the past week. Preceding him are David Brooks, who urged him to run for President (why is it that the conservative columnist who doesn’t agree with Obama on a good range of the issues acts like his biggest booster?) and Maureen Dowd who tried to skewer him for not knowing whether Obama wants to be a celebrity unto himself or a pol in the spirit of Harry Truman – give ‘em hell. It’s hard to blame Obama for basking in the limelight, but given that rather naïve ethics everyone seems to trumpet these days, if he’s really going to make a run for the presidency then the other pay seems a deal with the devil and surely he can’t have it both ways, can he?
Herbert cautions that Obama should choose his own timetable for making these decisions and not be forced into something too hastily because the 2008 elections are looming. That makes sense. But I wonder if we sports fans of liberal (er, I mean middle of the road) American politics can get beyond the cult of personality here and into the core issues that we’d like to see our fearless leader bring to pass. So the rest of this post is on the issues.
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The absolute most basic thing that needs to happen is to re-establish a sense of shared sacrifice in one and all in this country. And here, sacrifice means sacrifice, not some two bit commitment that one can blow off on a moment’s notice.
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
(The above is the first verse from Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.) Given Iraq and the Bush tax cuts and the rest, we Americans as a people are ripe for shared sacrifice. We need it as a tonic to the hedonism and lack of real meaning in peoples’ lives. We need it because we want to solve hard problems, like our dependence on foreign oil, like the apartheid in the inner city schools that Kozol describes, like that fact that we want to shop at Walmart (and hence have the stuff at Walmart produced in low wage countries but we want high incomes for ourselves. And we know the hard problems don’t have ready answers and if not shared sacrifice, then there will just be lip service about the problems and no solution whatsoever.
But we know there is a problem with this shared sacrifice stuff – apart from some limited in time episodes in the nations past where there has been real grass roots shared sacrifice, it just hasn’t happened on it own. So we need to the government to help, to make it a fair deal, to encourage universal participation. But as of late the government knows only one way for individuals to make sacrifice – join the military.
The military is not the solution. Indeed, as the Iraq-Vietnam parallel gets more and more play, we’re going to see calls for peace from all quarters. I can imagine Down By the Riverside (obviously not written by Dylan but appropriate nonetheless) as the new (old) theme song for the movement. This particular version shows just how moving that song can be and how apt its message is for the present time.
So we need a mechanism or a set of mechanisms for shared sacrifice but that don’t involve the military. Unlike the Peace Corps and Vista, at least as they were depicted in the ‘60s, we need the burden to be more broadly distributed, both income-wise and age-wise, and not just rest on newly minted college grads. And then I would take one aspect of military service that should be embraced in this new arena and serves to cement the social compact – having done a full stint of such service, the individual would be entitled to medical benefits akin to what Veterans are entitled to. We might not get to universal health care coverage this way, but we could come awfully close, especially if non-military service to country became the norm.
To me, this seems like a pretty good basis for a domestic agenda. We could openly talk about our problems because we actually might have a way to address them. And we could increase a sense of shared purpose and responsibility in the process.
In the 60’s the stereotype was that the hard hats couldn’t get along with the hippies. I’ve no clue whether conservative Republicans (or liberal democrats for that matter) could embrace the idea of sacrificial service toward the country that is not militaristic service at all, but rather in support of the internal social fabric, especially if the other did so embrace. I can only hope.
Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashingFlashing for the warriors
whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
From Chimes of Freedom.