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Ask Auntie Pinko

December 1, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

Assuming that the Republican Party will complete its work of self-destruction in the next year, and that thereafter the American people don't elect another Republican administration for a few decades, how long will it take us to restore any kind of credibility, trust, and goodwill in the world? If it's possible at all?

Morgan
Sun City, AZ


Dear Morgan,

Cleaning up the mess left by Mr. Bush's administration won't happen overnight. Lying us into a war that has killed thousands of civilians and devastated hundreds of thousands is not on the same scale as a clumsy foreign policy speech or a poorly conceived international trade treaty. Ignoring multilateralism, using chemical weapons (white phosphorus), singular ineptitude in assisting our own citizens affected by a natural disaster, using questionable interrogation systems (and trying to cover up the most discreditable ones) - all carry varying degrees of odium and there are many people with long memories in the world.

Mr. Churchill once observed, "Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted the alternatives." The number (and malignancy) of those alternatives has greatly increased since Mr. Churchill's day, however, and the world may be wondering if it can survive while America muddles through the entire list. The ineptitude of our current martial adventures does not diminish the sheer frightfulness of our military's total arsenal. And the diminishment of our economic potency carries its own potential disaster, like an overloaded 18-wheeler speeding recklessly down a crowded highway as one tire after another shreds and disintegrates. The world can hardly be blamed for turning its attention from America's capacity as a constructive force to the terrifying spectacle of the sheer destruction we can wreak.

You don't convince people by talking at them, by wagging fingers, by chastising. You may change behavior that way, but you can't change conviction. Convictions change when people have a chance to observe what you are and what you do, and when they are favorably impressed by the results. We have been telling the world "pay attention to what we say and ignore what we do." We've called a whole medley of tunes, and told the piper that he should be honored just to play for us, without expecting payment, for heavens' sake - but we take others to task when they cannot pay.

So I think it will take a very long time, indeed, for America to be trusted again. We will need to stop acting offended and hurt when others question our motives and actions. We'll have to be willing to discuss our decisions and policies openly, to listen to others respectfully, and even to subordinate our wishes to the needs of others on occasion. How quickly we can restore trust will depend on how quickly we can implement a new transparency and honesty in the conduct of our public affairs.

It is part of America's self-image that we are independent, that we do what we think is right without the "yea" or "nay" of others. We see this as integrity, and indeed, it is a central component of integrity. But only when it is coupled with good judgment! There is a difference between Atticus Finch sitting at the door of the jailhouse to prevent a lynching, and the bullheaded, purblind, even arrogant conviction that we know what is best and others should just go along with us. Americans have elected far too many leaders who confuse the two - and they're not all Republicans, either. Our neighbors around the world have good reason to question our electoral judgment!

But I don't think the case is hopeless, Morgan. One reason is that there are just too many individual Americans who are basically decent, caring people. We are not always wise in how we act on our impulse to do the right thing, but that impulse remains a strong part of our national character. We're stubborn and bullheaded about the wrong things, sometimes, but once that is overcome, we throw ourselves energetically into devising creative solutions to vexing problems - and we very often succeed.

We are discovering the limits of our self-sufficiency in a world transformed and shrunk by technology and commerce. Few people respond happily to unpleasant reality checks, and Americans can be more cussed than most, that way. Yet once we do come to terms with an unpleasant reality, we are capable of incredible self-transformation to meet our challenges. There is a younger generation of dynamic, thoughtful leaders coming along to help us, too. It won't be easy, and it will probably take longer than we (and our friends in the world) would like.

It will happen faster if Americans who profess all ideologies ask the painful questions, take responsibility for the answers, and commit ourselves to doing what we can to make the changes needed. It won't happen faster if we put our energy into blaming "those other Americans," exonerating ourselves, pointing self-righteous fingers, and wallowing in 'payback.' Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Morgan!


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