Friday, 7 June 2013

To Protect or Sever: The New American Politics in its Teenage Years

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These teenage angst-ridden years of the twenty first century should go down as the decade when mistakes were made and hard lessons learned. ‘Stand up tall, son’ would be his words if the century had a keen-eyed father cut from the Henry Fonda cloth. ‘You’ve made an ass of yourself but you’ll be stronger for it.’ Cue a gnarled hand slapping a young shoulder before the father retreats to his makeshift mound and throws another pitch in this idealised tableau of the American rural homestead.

Except politics being politics, it’s hard to believe that any lesson will be learned from the current groundball fuckaround emanating from the White House. A secret spying programme collecting the phone records of millions of American citizens run by the National Security Agency, the phone phreaking, geekier and downright spookier cousins of the CIA: well, there sure isn’t a hell of a lot about that you’d want to emblazon on a t-shirt and wear to a wedding.

It seems that politics in America have suddenly been split into two camps: those that firmly believe that national security must come before individual liberties and those that firmly believe that national security must come before individual liberties. And for those of you not paying much attention at the back: yes, that’s right. Both Republicans and Democrats are slowly running their fingers down the same script and muttering identical lines.

The fact that President Obama is beginning to look as boot-on-your-throat authoritarian as any Republican comes as a surprise only to those of us naïve enough to think we were about to enjoy a four-year long dinner party served from the best china. We thought everything would be so much more civilised with a liberal sitting in the Big Chair at the head of the table. Except it’s usually at this point that History excuses itself and loudly breaks wind as if to remind us that Jimmy Carter’s presidency floundered playing GI Joe in the Iranian desert and Bill Clinton struggled to find and exert the right degree of muscle to supress the threat posed by Bin Laden. Before them, it was Lyndon Johnson who escalated the Vietnam War and John F. Kennedy who walked us to the edge of the nuclear cock pit with the Soviets. Fate rarely presents Presidents with an easy path forward or even allows them to stand on some ideologically firm footing and sometimes that means the facts don’t make easy reading for those partisan to either side.

We expect our Republican presidents to be as carpet-chewing crazy as a dog tied to a hot radiator. When they then unleash hell on some sabre-rattling on the other side of the world, they are merely conforming to the stereotype and Noam Chomsky gets another 1500 good words out of it. The notion of the Republican firebrand looks familiar when written down but the reality is that (rightly or wrongly) Reagan’s doctrine of ‘peace through strength’ is credited for ending the Cold War and (rightly or wrongly) it is said that Nixon’s realpolitiking with China eventually brought the troops back from Vietnam.

Alternatively, we think our Democrats are going to be so mortified by Liberal angst that they couldn’t nail a jelly to a pauper’s door and that every state in the world will soon be outmuscling America. Bill O’Reilly subsequently gets another sixty minutes of prolix and a book in the best sellers. Yet as Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and even Clinton proved, Democrats might not be happy to dance the military two-step but, like Roosevelt before them, that doesn’t mean they don’t know the moves.

Which brings us to the current incumbent in the White House, who should consider having the place repainted grey as he learns that there’s very little presidents do that can ever be considered whiter than white.

The elephant in the room since 11th September 2001 has, of course, been the three thousand lives lost to nineteen individuals who the authorities had failed to identify as radicalised goons in the pay of a psychotic villain. Most days, the elephant stands docile in the corner and Presidents can talk about doing the right thing such as closing Guantanamo Bay and ensuring ‘strong oversight’ over future drone strikes. But then there’s always that one day when the beast’s adrenal gland gets pumping so hard that you better be ready with something more than a handful of peanuts because he’s going to charge. Those are the days that would break the idealism of any President.

And you can sure it will break them because as much as America is a country self-consciously proud of its President, there are still greater forces in the darker places of the American psyche. One powerful force is the paranoid fear of government. Liberty is the biggest concept in the American consciousness and although it is often portrayed as an issue that obsesses the defenders of civil rights on the left, the right are even more paranoid. It’s not the placard wavers on the left who build fortified compounds in the woods and fill them with slavering tattoo-brained neo-Nazis looking forward to unifying the nation under the flag of gang rape and motorcycles.

Against this obsessive wish to be live free from government, the American public expect their government to protect them, making it an impossible covenant that any President signs when they enter office. ‘Love us but don’t look at us’ is what the citizens seem to demand. It accounts for the familiar cliché of retired Presidents speaking about the hard decisions they had to make during their time in office. Yet it’s also a cliché that shouldn’t invalidate the sense of relief, sadness, and profound regrets that most presidents ultimately feel. It is one thing to swear your life and loyalty to a belief or an ideal but it’s quite another to expect others to die for what you feel is morally right.

And that is the message brazenly tattooed on this foolish youth of a century and it might well still be there in its old age: Presidents will now accept the blame for any sin other than the one that left the country at the mercy to another attack like 9/11.

It is the nature of terrorism that they move among us. There is no high level satellite which can mark their convoy driving through a war zone. Governments have to find other ways to tackle the menace and no solutions is ideal. If the collection of metadata is the best way to identify the threats, then should the government collect the data or look the other way? To protect or sever? It’s both a no brainer and a ball squeezer. There is no right decision, just two different degrees of wrong.

Obama has been forced to make a hellish decision, placing his own reputation on the line rather than the lives of American citizens at some point in the future. Both the left and right will accuse him of cowardice, of spying on the American people, of breaking his promise to be a different kind of leader, but you can be also sure that will have regretted this decision even as he thought it the right thing to do.

Welcome to adulthood in the twenty first century. Leave your moral absolutes at the door, though you do retain the right to feel outraged.


Another piece the died an inglorious death in The Guardian's 'Comment is Free' inbox.

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