Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How to listen to the Tea Party message--II

Our society, I pointed out in an earlier blog, has become so complex that individual citizens cannot understand, let alone manage large parts of it. Do you really understand the causes of the present economic crisis? Are you confident that you understand how that crisis could have been avoided or could have been remedied once it occurred?

The need for government regulation and protection is intensified by the system under which we produce most goods. Many of actions of the government have to do with different kinds of consumer protection. We must be alerted to unhealthy spinach or salmonella in eggs. The most careful consumers have no way of testing the food they buy in the grocery store. We need the government to inform  and protect us.

The same is true of many different consumer products. Automobiles today are immensely complicated machines. There are a lot fewer backyard mechanics than there used to be. Someone must warn us if a car has a serious defect.

And so it goes with any consumer product you can imagine, from cosmetics, to baby  pajamas, to food supplements, to the design of computer keyboards and screens. Wood stoves and kerosene heaters may give off carbon monoxide gas that kills people every winter because the gas is odorless. Building codes protect us against unsafe wiring and plumbing and unreliable construction. The hazards of asbestos are not perceptible to ordinary citizens.

Most, if not all consumer products are produced by private companies competing with others in a capitalist marketplace. Their efforts are driven by the search for greater profit; they try to undersell their competitors in order to increase their market share. In many cases that involves cutting corners, producing products that are not as safe as they might be, and ignoring safety hazards if they can save money by doing so.

The growth of government regulation and armies of bureaucrats who monitor the regulated products is conditioned by the growth of capitalist enterprises producing consumer goods. Competition between capitalist firms exerts a pressure on each firm to be less careful of consumer safety than they ought to, and in most cases, would like to be. Similarly, the pressure of competition often produces unsafe working conditions and only government inspections can force employers to remedy safety hazards in the workplace .

Here, once again, the Tea Party brings to the fore a serious problem. Being great advocates of individual liberty, Tea Party members oppose government regulation and cheer on the free untrammeled market and private competition. Most Americans would agree with this advocacy of capitalist economics.

But the Tea Party position reminds us that the capitalist production process carries a steep price of ubiquitous government monitoring, supervision, regulation.

People are bitterly resentful of the government mandate for all of us to carry health insurance. Do you also want to repeal the laws that demand of every driver that they have liability insurance? Should we abolish the rules of the road, laws against DUI?

Do you really want to stop the government from forcing recalls of dangerous baby cribs or tainted food? How many deaths from salmonella are you willing to allow to enhance your personal freedom?

The never ending, often fierce competition between capitalist enterprises would leave the consumer completely defenseless were it not for government agencies to look out for us, to insure us against the ups and down of the capitalist financial markets, to protect us against bank failures, and to keep an eye on high-flying speculators, not to mention very large agribusinesses whose products may make us deathly ill, or car companies whose products may kill us.

But, of course, all these regulations limit freedoms of individual citizens. While, on the one hand, capitalist economic systems appear to enhance individual freedom, they are, in practice, only workable if they are severely regulated. But these regulations, as the Tea Party reminds us,  restrict  individual freedom.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to listen to the Tea Party message--Part 1

In the recent primaries some candidates associated with the Tea Party movement won places in the November elections. They describe their electoral victories as "taking back the government" or "restoring American freedoms by working for a smaller government." These candidates are responding to a widespread feeling that the government has become too big, too powerful and thereby limits the freedom of individual citizens.

Their claims are widely rejected as confused and ill thought out, if not positively loony. But it is a mistake not to take the Tea Party very seriously.

The Tea Party anarchists raise a complaint that we have heard many times before, that our government has become paternalistic, that it interposes itself in situations where it does not belong: a few years ago Congress passed a law forbidding teachers to post students grades on their office door. Does the federal government have a place in the relation between teacher and student? For several years, seat belt laws and laws mandating wearing motorcycle helmets caused a great deal of controversy. Many consumer goods are plastered with government mandated stickers telling you not to step on the top step of the ladder, not to do this, or not to do that. Many citizens feel that government bureaucrats treat us like witless children.

And now, of course, there is the health overhaul bill which demands that every citizen buy health insurance, whether they want to or not.

If we reject as silly or inappropriate the complaints about a government, whose demands and control are everywhere,  we miss a very serious underlying problem: we live in an immensely complicated world that requires a lot of regulation in order to function smoothly. Regulations are made by an army of regulators whom we may well resent.

Our world is interconnected in complex ways. We are no longer living on isolated homesteads where we consume only what we produce. In that world, if we needed some goods not directly available -- salt, guns, --we entered some sort of barter arrangement with our neighbors. Money was not needed. Today we need money and a banking system.

On the frontier, the settlers invested their physical energy, their ingenuity and a lot of hard work to sustain themselves. If you want to be a business owner today you need capital up front to get you started and tide you over the initial period when your profits are slim. Our banking system must not only facilitate trade through money but it must also accumulate capital to lend out to entrepreneurs.

These financial systems need rules to be followed by all, if they are going to be effective. As financial systems become more complex there are more opportunities for malfunction -- as we are seeing at present. The system needs regulation and there must be protection for the system’s users in case of crisis.

A system of self-sufficient farmers may be attractive from the point of view of personal liberty, but it provides a poor and harsh living. Wealth begins to flow when people specialize. The division of labor increases output but it also makes everyone dependent on every one else.  Now I do only one job. Since I do that very well, I am very productive but I need to buy most of what I consume from other producers. That requires a highly complex system of transportation. The government makes essential contributions to that.

When trade is of the essence to supply everyone’s needs, an effective legal system is needed to cover the different contractual relations the economy requires. What is more, the laws governing trade must be enforced. The system requires a system of  investigators and prosecutors, of courts, judges and lawyers to smooth the millions of daily transactions.

Only 3% of Americans still work and live on farms. We have become a largely urbanized nation. We live on top of each other and are therefore more exposed to epidemics. Proper garbage disposal is important for public health. Street maintenance is a serious problem and so is public safety. Urban living is impossible without government services and government supervision.
We live well because our society is very complicated. The Tea Party protests remind us of a serious problem we face. There is a real conflict between running a modern, highly complex, highly technological society and individual liberty. When we laugh at Tea Party candidates, we are in danger of overlooking that problem.

Most Americans set a high value on individual liberty and self-reliance. But the individual, staunch self-reliance of our forefathers is no longer available to us in a society where our lives are dependent on the work of others and the goods they produce. As long as most people were self-employed and owned land to grow their own food, they were not really dependent on others, on money, on borrowed capital, on a system of transport, on a legal system, the courts and lawyers. They lived relatively isolated on the prairie. We did not need a government to protect us against system malfunctions or to protect us against our neighbors.

We must also admit that we have become less staunch in our desire for independence. If the homestead burned down or was destroyed by a tornado our ancestors rebuilt if they could or else moved on, or perhaps perished miserably. Today, liberals and conservatives alike demand that the government assist the victims of Katrina or of the recent oils spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the government that is asked to  help us out in life’s crises will also be present, looking over our shoulder the rest of the time.

The price of that protection is very high. The tea parties are aware of that. We need to listen to that warning even if we, and they, don't have at the moment have any clear idea of how to deal with these threats to our liberty.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Elections in Afghanistan

The Afghan  Election Commission has decided that the recent elections  of representatives were marred by corruption.

But nobody seems to have noticed that holding elections, American style, in Afghanistan is a complete absurdity. There are at least two good reasons for that.

In the first place the Afghan people have not chosen to hold elections. The American military imposed that political system upon them.

Is an electoral system adopted under duress a free political system? Democratic elections are a way in which the people can run their lives. Does forcing people to hold elections put them in charge of their political life, or does it force them to follow a ritual that makes very little sense in their cultural and political situation?

In the second place, a democratic system consists of a whole lot more than periodic elections. Most precious about our freedoms are not our elections but our liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Those liberties, in turn, are valuable only to the extent that our court system functions well and protects us when our liberties are violated by fellow citizens or, more often, by the democratically elected government.

Moreover, the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution are valuable only as long as citizens value them enough to be willing to fight the government when it threatens our liberties. Today there are constant arguments about our liberties, about the separation of church and state, about the limits of government efforts to benefit citizens  by forcing them, for instance, to buy health insurance.

Our freedoms are an important topic in our national life. American liberties will disappear when we are too busy or too preoccupied with other matters to complain about limitations on freedom of speech and religion, when we do not protest police interference with our liberties, when we no longer care about the violations of freedoms of other citizens.

How many of these conditions does Afghanistan meet? Do they have a functioning court system that defends individual liberties with due care and dispatch? Are their citizens ready and able to protest what appear to them to be threats to their individual liberties? Do they protest when they see religion and the government too closely intertwined?

The answers to these questions are clearly in the negative. The liberal sentiments that have animated American politics for more than 200 years are not a part of Afghan culture. How often do Afghans say to each other: "this is a free country"? That is not the way they think about themselves.

The lesson is clear: the elections in Afghanistan are completely beside the point. They are a forced imposition by the American military. They are imposed in an environment where periodic elections will not amount either to democracy or, even less, to a free society.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A new American Moment?

"Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton declared Wednesday that `a new American moment` has arrived in international relations, `a moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways.`"

That seems just more of the very old American jingoism. Why does America have to lead?

Are we more intelligent than anybody else? Do our leaders display more wisdom than the leaders of other nations? Do we understand politics and economics better than people in other countries? Everyone knows that the answer to            these questions is negative.

Is it because we have more money? A lot of people would be inclined to say that if we help out other countries, we should be allowed to tell them what to do. But that's a pretty unattractive idea. Imagine the Good Samaritan of the New Testament not only binding up the wounds of the stranger he finds injured by the side of the road but also telling that stranger what to do and criticizing him for making himself vulnerable to bandits. That kind of bossing around of the recipients of one's generosity does a great deal to poison the good feeling generosity otherwise produces.

Besides, having more money may only show that you are more lucky, or more ruthless than the rest. It doesn't show that you are any smarter.

Our money does not make us into automatic leaders of the world. What does?

Is it our large arsenal of nuclear weapons? To be sure, we could wipe out life on Earth, but North Korea and China, India and Pakistan, Iran and Israel, Britain and France could all set back civilization for eons. Does that entitle them to be leaders?

Sec. Clinton's answer to the question why Americans should be leaders of the world consisted of diplomatic gobbledygook: "the world looks to us because America has the reach and resolve to mobilize a shared effort needed to solve problems on a global scale -- in defense of our own interests, but also as a force for progress. In this we have no rival."

We should be leaders because we can. But can we? The world is full of war and conflict, much of it begun by us. The world needs peace and we have not shown ourselves to be very capable peacemakers.

The world economic system is teetering on the brink, largely due to the machinations of the Anerican financial sector.

Our traditional foreign policy has been to intervene in conflicts by giving weapons to one side as we did with Osama bin Laden when he was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Sometimes we gave weapons to both sides as we did in the bloody war between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and its neighbor Iran in the 1980s. We arm the people who we think will support us and often we regret these actions bitterly 10 years later. In recent days our government has announced that it will sell advanced aircraft to Saudi Arabia -- clearly because the Saudi's do not like Iran. Will we regret this, the next time we have a falling out with Saudi Arabia?

Sec. Clinton's American Moment is no more than a reaffirmation of the very traditional American foreign policy whose motto has always been "America First."

A more acceptable version of American leadership would be a genuine dedication to peacemaking. A first step towards that kind of American leadership would be to stop talking about our power, our capability, our resolve. We need to become less self-centered, less narrowly egotistical in our foreign policy. The Secretary of State should ask: `how can we help?` and stop asking:` what can we get for ourselves.`

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

About being an American.

This is the time to think about what it means to be an American. On the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks -- clearly attacks on America and what it means to be American -- it is important to ask ourselves what it is about us we value when we say "proud to be an American."

It is also the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  The experience in New Orleans was clearly confusing and full of ambiguity. There were white gangs roaming through the stricken city randomly killing black men and women. Instead of aiding victims of the disaster,  police and National Guard dedicated themselves to controlling "looters" -- for the most part men and women trying to procure essential supplies. In short, at the height of Katrina, our racism showed itself in its ugliest and deadliest form.

At the same time we saw many demonstrations of personal heroism helping those endangered by the flood and saving lives. There are many stories of strangers working together to support each other through this major crisis in their lives. Katrina brought out the best in some people and the worst in others.

Katrina reminds us of an important fact. When we ask ourselves: what it means to be an American we often tend to look for some characteristic that all Americans and only we have. But Americans are not all the same-- some of us are generous, tolerant, and dedicated to values of inclusion and mutual assistance. Others are deeply racist and murderous. And most of us have different sides and are better at some times, and worse at others.

The American identity is primarily a struggle between the different inclinations among us. As a nation we have struggled, and still struggle, over the issue of racism, overt distrust and hatred of people who are different, such as immigrants. We have struggled, and still struggle, over issues of inequality—over the difference between the homeless and working poor, on one side, and the people who get annual bonuses of several million dollars for selling mortgages which the poor buyers won't be able to pay back.

The American identity is a struggle between what is best in us and what is worst. But that does not make us different from any other nation. All nations have their ideals and their glowing moments; all nations have their dark sides. All nations struggle to conform to their ideals and against their brutal, hateful impulses.

What differentiates our American struggle to be as good as we can from similar efforts in France, in Bolivia, or in Tanzania? Each country has its own history and their struggles are shaped by that history. Many of our American freedoms were first learned from our English ancestors. But after several centuries and different conflicts we have come to think about the details differently. Americans, for instance, take an extreme stand on free speech. We allow extremely few limitations of that freedom. Witness the recent threat of a Florida pastor to burn the Koran. Other countries are willing to put tighter controls on free speech rights.

Americans take extreme stands on the right to bear arms. Other countries are prepared to limit gun ownership. Given that for many Americans the frontier with weak or no government is just a few generations behind them, the distrust of government, an irrepressible inclination towards anarchism, is a peculiar trait of American political thinking. Just listen to the Tea Party folks.

What does it mean to be an American? It is not enough to say that we love freedom because other people love freedom too. What is more we must always remember that we, ourselves, constantly betray this love of freedom. We are all for freedom of religion except maybe for Muslims. We are all for equality, except for the poor or, often, except for persons of color. We are all for rights to privacy and people running their lives as they please-- except for gays and lesbians. We are all for the free market but do not hesitate to subsidize our farmers, big banks, and General Motors. And so it goes.

 Being an American is to be in struggle with ourselves.

Our struggle is conditioned by our history. We are not better than other people. We are not worse. We live and struggle in the shadow of previous generations on this continent. Sometimes we come close to conforming to our ideals. At other times the ideals are distant and seem unreachable.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Who are the Homeless?

Who are the Homeless?

You see that tall gaunt gray-haired man who is panhandling at the corner? For many people he is the face of homelessness. We tend to think of the homeless as single men, beggars, failures.

But actually the facts are very different. 20% of the homeless are children. About 40% of the homeless are women who have finally managed to leave a violent husband or boyfriend. Another 40% are veterans.

These facts not only should make us reconsider our stereotypes of the homeless. They also tell us something very important about our country. Women– often with children – and veterans are victims of violence. Violence on the part of men breaks up marriages and forces women to flee. The violent choices of our leaders leaves behind generations of veterans deeply affected by the wars they were sent to fight.

Homelessness and its causes is one more reason for us to reconsider how prone we are to try to solve problems by violence. It is one more reason for us to consider becoming more peaceful.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why Do We Hate Them?

 Why Do We Hate Them?

Episodes of political hysteria are familiar in US history. The people of Massachusetts hanged witches in 1692, almost a hundred years before Independence. Today, we persecute Muslims .

These outburst of irrationality no doubt have many different causes. When war with Japan broke out, we feared a Japanese invasion on the West Coast and the internment of Japanese-Americans ensued. The hatred of black people had its economic sources: a despised minority can be made to work for less. One source of anti-immigrant sentiments is a sense of economic insecurity. In times of high unemployment one fears any competitor for one’s job. The uproar about gay marriage has its origins in sexual fears and religious beliefs. Some of these blind fears and aversions, such as anti-Semitism, are part of our European heritage. Our ancestors brought it with them when they came to the United States.

In recent years, these explosions of hate have been fostered by the mass-media. Before, they have often been carefully nurtured and manipulated by persons who stood to profit from them.

But these outbursts of irrational aversion and persecution tell us a great deal about who and what we are.

To begin with, the aversion and persecution is always of groups whom we perceive to be different from ourselves. Underlying these episodes are self-definitions of Americans: we are god fearing and not in league with the Devil; we do not practice witchcraft. Unlike Japanese-Americans, we are loyal to the United States. Unlike the Muslims, we are Christians (How many times have you heard it said recently that ours is a “Christian nation”?) and unlike some we are fiercely heterosexual. We speak English (and, in most cases, only English). We are hardworking, thrifty and plan ahead. In rejecting others--from witches in the 1690’s to the Muslims today--we assert our own identities.

But these identities cause us considerable anxiety. We cannot remain calm about the differences between ourselves and whatever “other” group draws our ire at this moment. There is great anger about the plans for an Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan. There is great anger at immigrants--especially undocumented ones.

The protests against the Manhattan Islamic Center reveal the core of that anxiety. People protest the “Islamicisation” of America. They fear that our culture, as they understand it, is about to be replaced by something else. There is a sense that who we are and have been, as a people, is in danger. Our national identity is being undermined. Every day there are more people living in America who are not like us, who are not really Americans.

But who are we, who have we been? One purpose of these fierce angry outburst at alien groups is to define who we are in contrast to the others. We define ourselves in contrast to the hated others. But these self-definitions are suspect because often the stories we tell about those others are false, they are made up. The people of Arizona largely support anti-immigrant legislation because they had been told that a large number of illegal immigrants were criminals. The facts do not support that. The Islamic Cultural Center opponents fear that America will became “Islamicised” and that Islamic law will replace ours. But that is clear fantastic. There is no such danger. The portrait of the Muslim opponents is distorted. It is a fiction. We define our American identity by telling lies about others.

We define our own identity by telling lies about others because we have become very uncertain of who we are. The great crisis revealed by the outbursts of hate against others is that we have lost sight of and lost touch with who we are ourselves.

On the surface the uproar about illegal immigrants, about gay marriage, and now about the threat of Muslims in America seem to have little in common except that all of them evoke violent emotions. But looking more closely at these different of uproars, we can see that they all manifest the same underlying crisis. Once again America has lost its way. We do not know who we are and what we stand for. Unsure of ourselves we manufacture a fictitious identity for ourselves by making up false stories about people who are different from us.

This is a common experience in our history. To overcome it we need to think very hard about who we are and what America stands for after several lost wars, overwhelmed by a major economic crisis and seeing our power wane around the world.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Restoring America's Honor

Restoring America’s Honor

Last weekend Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck managed to get tens of thousands of Americans to rally on the Mall in Washington in order to “Restore Honor.” Middle of the road reporters have, by and large, been content to make fun of this event but we must take serious all those  fellow citizens who feel that we have lost our honor. You may not worry about honor, but in a democracy citizens must take each other’s concerns seriously. In politics we are supposedly all equal and that means that no one’s concerns may be ridiculed and put aside without being considered.

The rally itself told us little about what Beck and Palin thought needed to be done to restore our honor. Beck talked a lot about turning back to God. It appeared that he had no more idea about restoring our honor once again than anyone else.

But what makes people think that our honor has been tarnished? What does a nation’s honor depend on?

National honor is often connected with military might. A nation’s honor depends on winning battles and wars. The last few wars we have fought – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – have, at best, ended in some indeterminate stalemate. We are now ending combat in Iraq but we can hardly claim a victory. In Afghanistan, the Taliban  remain strong and we have certainly not brought Al Quaeda attempts on America to an end. Our enemies in Vietnam are still in power over  there. Korea continues divided and North Korea threatens to acquire nuclear weapons.

If national honor flows from victory in war, our honor may well be  a bit threadbare right now. But can we remedy this?  After all, we are the most powerful nation on earth, we have enough nukes to wipe out human life on the planet.

But look, for a moment, at Russia. They also have a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons. Their country, like ours, is very large with many natural and human resources. But they are no any longer a powerful country. The client states they had around the world 20 years ago have all disappeared. Russia today is struggling.

And so, of course, are we. The time for military glory is past. If we want military honor, we are going to be disappointed.

But our loss of military honor may well secure for us an honor of a different kind. Today the United States is unpopular in many parts of the world because, frankly, we have thrown our weight around in the past. We talked big about freedom and democracy while pursuing a narrowly self-interested policy designed to benefit our country and our corporations. Many of our interventions were (and are still) to our advantage but did and continue to do serious damage to the countries affected by our actions. We have not been good neighbors. We have misused our power to damage weaker countries.

Honor consists of being honored by others, of being well regarded and respected. We have forfeited that kind of honor through our narrow minded, selfish and exploitative foreign policy. Losing military as well as economic power  may put us in a position where, no longer able to bully others, we will need to take a more cooperative stance and help others with our skills, knowledge and resources.

That may restore some of our honor.

Glenn Beck and Sara Palin are disingenuous and untrustworthy. But we should not be too hard on their followers. After all most of us have been followers of political figures who later turned out to be less impressive than we thought and to possess less integrity than we had ascribed to them. Very few of us can claim never to have succumbed to the temptation to exaggerate the merits of our leaders. We  should not be too critical of those who exaggerate the integrity of Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.

    More importantly, the people who attended the "Restore Honor" rally do understand something important about America. We are not the all powerful nation we seemed to be 50 years ago. We are not the champion of free institutions, admired by all the world, we were at the end of World War II. The followers of Beck and Palin may well understand something that Obama and his administration have so far not recognized.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Mosque near Ground Zero?

A Mosque near Ground Zero?

One of the great temptations that bloggers face, as do commentators, pundits, public intellectuals, so-called experts, politicians, and many others, is to have clear opinions about everything that happens in the world. The mosque controversy is one more example of that. A wide range of observers all have clear interpretations of the events connected with the proposal to build a Muslim community center and mosque two blocks away from ground zero.

We have the expert who understands clearly that this is a debate within US Christianity about religious rights. Then we have another expert who sees the same events clearly as the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiments promoted by a government that has been waging war on Muslim nations since 1991. Another commentator discerns one more wave in the rising tide of emotionalism and irrationality in the United States.

Resisting my inclination to provide another unambiguous interpretation of the series of events, I would like to stress the complexity of what we are seeing here. Obviously  there was an overwhelming anti-Muslim sentiment evident at the demonstration in New York City. But this anti-Muslim sentiment is not all of one piece; it is fueled by very different conditions and experiences.

For many Jews, Muslims represent enemies of Israel. Since Israel is the home for persecuted Jews, Muslims are a threat to Jewish security. For others, of course, the same experience -- the Holocaust -- leads to the opposite conclusion: Jews have for centuries been the victims of religious persecution. We do not want to continue against others -- in this case Muslims -- what has been done to us. Therefore we support the Muslim Mosque project.

According to various opinion polls, the anti-Muslim sentiment has greater resonance among older people. As we get older and feel less vigorous and less able to defend ourselves, to save ourselves when we fall, or retrieve things that fall under the couch, when our bodies become daily problems, we become more fearful. Thus we are more easily made afraid of any people who may seem to threaten us. Hence fear of Muslims among older persons.

For others, the opposition to Muslims is simply a different version of their racism and zenophobia. Muslims are different from us: they speak different languages, the women wear head scarves, they don’t go to church, instead they attend a mosque, etc. It is easy to lump them together with Mexican immigrants, with African immigrants, with all of the different versions of “those people” whom we do not trust and often fear. This comes to the surface in the fear of America being “Islamized” and protesters against the proposed mosque carrying signs with only one word --“Sharia.” There is no imminent sign of America being “taken over” by Islam or our constitution and laws being replaced by sharia. This protest is not about real dangers; it is a projection of shadowy and frightening `others.`

9/11 was a terrifying event, especially for New Yorkers, and especially for Manhattanites. It is easy to understand that some of them may be left with  PTSD which makes sufferers subject to states of fear, of rage and aggression. This Mosque project may well trigger these reactions.
Many Americans have feel humiliated by 9/11 as they have felt humiliated by the Vietnam war and, perhaps, by the unclear outcome of the war in Iraq and the continuing disaster in Afghanistan. They see 9/11 as a defeat, as damaging American pride. Building a mosque near Ground Zero is then felt to be rubbing in our humiliation. The Muslim Center near Ground Zero becomes a War Memorial for a Muslim military victory.

As everybody keeps saying, a lot of Americans are seething with anger -- anger that doesn’t have a clear target. Hence almost any event can trigger upset and irrational apprehensions. Some people latch on to the health reform, others to the mosque in lower Manhattan as a topic to release their anger. What are the different sources of this anger? Let’s be frank and admit that we do not know.

To some extent this demonstration was clearly orchestrated by some right-wing organizations. Their agitation against Muslims is part of the campaign against Obama. Rush Limbaugh regularly refers to Obama as our “Islamic president” and an astonishing 18% of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. So if you’re mudslinging against Muslims, some of the mud will stick to our President.

There are, no doubt, other sources of the strong sentiments against Muslims. Strong sentiments against unpopular groups are a fixture in American politics. Think of Japanese American internment, think of McCarthyism. Think of the uproar in the last twenty years about gays in the military or against gay marriage. Between the wars, going further back, it was anti-black racism and anti-Semitism and the strong sentiments against Catholics.

There is one more source of this upwelling of hatred and fear: we, as a nation, have not yet dealt yet with 9/11. None of our leaders has dared to raise questions about that event: what was the goal of this bombing? Are the accusations by Osama bin Laden and others against the US at least partly justified? Why do they hate us? Are we right to feel humiliated by the attacks of 9/11? What conclusions should we draw about ourselves, as Americans, from the Vietnam War and the wars in the Mid East? These are difficult questions and no simpleminded answer will suffice. But as long as we don’t ask them, we will continue to wallow in unexamined emotion, in anger, and in fear.

These are uncomfortable questions and politicians are not in the habit of making people uncomfortable. Every voter made uncomfortable is a voter lost.

Who will take leadership and begin this conversation?