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We've Never Been Where We're Going
15 September 2004

When I moved to California in 1979, my parents and I drove out together. We did the usual drive-by vacation, but as I sat in the back seat I watched the earth as we passed by. Oklahoma impressed me most, with soil the color of cherry pie. As we approached the Grand Canyon, I prepared myself for a quick stop. Sure enough, we stayed for 15 minutes or so at the North Rim pull-off. My father was too sick to get out of the car and walk around, and Mom was always tentative about doing things he couldn’t. My cat, Luna, was in her carrier in the back seat with me. I picked up the box and walked with Luna to the rim. I opened the door to her carrier. She stepped out for a moment, got the message that it was a long way down, and stepped back in again. I just stood there, luxuriating in the extensions of time and space in all directions. I would give a lot for a moment like that again. When I got back in the car, my dad said, “We’ve never been where we’re going.” All the while I was thinking, we’ve never been here, but I held my peace. He was right, at a metaphysical level. We’ve never been where we’re going. All of it – every time, every place, every day – is novel.

Tonight, I sit here biting my hands, wondering about where we’re going. When I freak out with my husband over the coming election, he assures me that it isn’t the end of the world if W. wins. But for me, there is just a yawning blackness where all sorts of nightmares are lurking. I see the fall of empires, the change of climate unabated because of human short-sightedness (hello, Ivan; hello, Hummer), the attenuation of personal liberty, the extinction of wild salmon, the falling of trees. Most of all I see the bad guys winning – the guys who lied to us, whose particular interests led thousands to their deaths and validated the rest of the world in their belief that Americans are greedy bastards who don’t care about global anything.

I asked a friend tonight, why do people want to reelect this guy W. and his gang? The wars have gone wrong – nobody got freedom or democracy, and a lot of caskets came home. The economy is not better – folks are still out of work and Medicare and Social Security are dead ducks for us Boomers. The terror threat hasn’t gone away – normal people in far places have transformed into radicals in response to their perception of our arrogance and meddling. The administration hasn’t become fiscally “conservative” – we have the highest deficit ever. Farmers in the heartland are planning to vote for the man who defends the interests of the companies that patent seeds and sue those farmers into whose fields they have drifted. Women sit in dread of the return of the rusty coat hanger as the way out of an unwanted pregnancy – one they might have avoided had sex education not turned into a lecture on abstinence. No, folks, it isn’t a Christian country – it’s a country where Christians came to find religious freedom. Constitutional conservatives should be biting their hands over the concatenation of (a very narrow flavor of Christian) church and state.

It’s a strange day when Justice Scalia is the voice of reason on the Supreme Court – and with three new appointments waiting for the next President, Scalia may well be the out-lyer – because he seems unwilling to compromise the Constitution despite the Administration’s claims to absolute ownership of the souls who wait in darkness at Guantanimo Bay and all the other prisons this regime has conjured up. Screw the Constitution and screw the Geneva accords, this is “wartime” (but of course, “wartime” was just the sort of extreme that made us put our ethics in writing in the first place). Prison abuse, disregard for habeas corpus, unwillingness to engage in the attempts of global civilization to hold up human rights or the health of the planet – these things seem to be making no difference to the American electorate. It’s hard to believe in America when Americans seem so obtuse.

Then there’s the Vietnam flap that has eclipsed everything else about our election in the American press. On the one hand, I just want to scream, “look at the issues!” On the other hand, I want to engage this argument, because I lived through it and I have an opinion. When I gave the commencement address at Cal State Monterey Bay in 2002, I alluded to the Vietnam war protests with some pride in the success of the American people when we finally made it stop. At the reception following graduation, the acting mayor of Pacific Grove bearded me. “I always wanted to meet Jane Fonda,” he sneered. I tried to explain that those of us who worked against the war were working for the troops, not against them. I wanted my friends to come home whole and I wanted my country to behave honorably. Then, and now, it was a hard and muscular thing to be a patriot. John Kerry knows this better than I do.

Many’s the time I’ve delivered myself of opinions on things I knew nothing about. But when I look at John Kerry’s attempt to speak truth to Congress after his tour of duty in Vietnam, I see somebody who knew firsthand what he was talking about. As history has worked itself out, he was right. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing in Vietnam. The boys were doomed to fight in a war with no plan to win and no exit strategy. When the choppers lifted off the American embassy – finally, after millions of us had marched in the streets – they left the corpses of a lot of American soldiers – a lot of my friends - behind. John Kerry spoke truth to power, and the powers that were are the powers that be, and the voice of truth is still trampled by their authoritative denunciations.

Give me a brave person – brave enough to show up and brave enough to speak truth about it – and I am content with that person’s courage and integrity.

I hear that most folks who are on the fence are afraid to change horses in midstream. I ask you folks, if any of you are reading this, how could it get worse? Could “reconstruction” in Iraq get worse? Could the hopes of elections in Afghanistan get worse? Could our fear of terrorism here get worse – especially if the structure and processes of the intelligence community continue to give us abysmal failures? Could our profile abroad or our ability to deal with the rest of the world get worse? And where is your tax break, exactly? I haven’t seen mine yet. And I have $53 bucks in the bank – not exactly one of “the rich.”

And what could get better with new leadership? Our economy? The effectiveness of our foreign policy? Our profile to those who are not Americans? The future of our aging generations? Our sense of hope? Turn off the television, read a few newspapers, and THINK a little bit - before you forget how. If public education continues on its current path, we can be fairly confident that that particular risk will be eliminated in the next generation. Critical thinking isn’t one of those things that our students are measured on by those great new tests. Critical thinking has no value in terms of today’s governmental measures of success. Are we surprised? Hell, no – critical thinking would be the end of the slick power of the media. Critical thinking would dismiss Carl Rove as a second-string Roman-Empire wannabee.

We’ve never been where we’re going before. But we have seen the faces of the current leadership of America. They are not going to change, and they are not going to help us scramble back up out of the chaos of the last four years, because they don’t want to. Why should they? They are taking care of their interests well with their existing strategies. People are scared enough to continue voting for them, and the petro-war economy continues to make them rich. The risk to our country is so much greater if we retain them than if we let them go. And the hope is so much greater if we start afresh with courageous, honest people at the helm.

A word about representative democracy. The key of it is, we don’t vote for a person for their particular opinions on every little thing; we vote for a person on the basis of their honor and the quality of their judgment. Within the checks and balances of the Congress and the Courts, we give ourselves unto the care of those we deem to be wise, brave, honest, and of good moral character. Hell, I might even forgive Arnold his Hummer because he’s shown pretty good judgment on things that matter – the environment, education, human rights. (I say, I might, Arnold – but you’d look so BIG in a Prius.)

If the current administration is re-elected, well, maybe it won’t be the end of the world. But I have the feeling that we will have passed some point of no return as a country, as an idea, as an empire. An empire goes down in arrogance, corruption, greed, and lies. The people awaken, if at all, when it is far too late to change the course of affairs. I don’t want America to be over.

When I was a senior in college in 1972 I got quoted in the yearbook from an editorial I wrote in the DePauw newspaper. That quote got me dissed by nearly everyone at DPU. It was a time when good friends were shipping out to Vietnam and some were dying, when I was working with lefty political groups that were not quite far enough left to be left enough, doing agit prop theatre about the war and voting for the grape boycott on the Student Senate. I and my cohort were trying in our own corn-fed Midwestern way to take our country back. Then, as now, it was hard to be a patriot. Can you guess my offending quote?  It was, “Believe in America.”

I still do.