While working on the novel today, I recalled a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series from the late 1990s called “Win At All Costs.”
It’s well worth a read in these days of the global war on terror, in and of itself, and also because the Justice Department rebuttal (scroll down) was written by Eric Holder.
The mentality exposed by the Post-Gazette series, I suspect, did not just flourish and the wither in the ’90s. It was probably present well before then, independent of which political party was in control of Congress and/or the White House and thus in a position to hand out Justice Department and other positions in the bureaucracy. It is probably still present in the 21st century. Why? Because people are human and power corrupts.
Too, because – first for the greater good, and then for fairness so that the many public employees needed to administer various programs of the Great Society and all that came afterwards would have the same rights as workers in the private sector – the US has moved beyond the days described by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address (yes, I went to Lincoln because of the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War):
By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.
As I understand it, he was at that time trying to reassure Americans in the South that abolitionists and this new-fangled Republican “revolution” that had brought him to power couldn’t use the government to force their will on the South. Unfortunately, Southerners didn’t believe him.
Today, though, Lincoln’s words are striking for their possible application in times that he could not have known or predicted.
The Post-Gazette series doesn’t address such things. It is, in fact, a demonstration of the people’s vigilance that they published that, responded to Mr. Holder’s rebuttal, and did not retract anything they reported; as well, they continue to make it available online today. That’s wonderful!
As for me, well, I don’t think the people have lost their virtue. The people are probably just trying to find a way to live through strange times. I remember, as I approach 60, something someone said to me in my early 20s: “It’s all just too big.” This woman, just a little older than me, was talking about life in America generally. I didn’t understand her. Now, I do.
After World War II, America turned into a behemoth, the “Good Guy” superpower to the Soviet’s “Bad Guy” superpower. Then after the Cold War, we became the only superpower, but it was okay because we’re good.
What does that mean, “we”? I think it means that “we the people” went along with our government because that was the most efficient way to go: the various branches of government and the military had the tools, the organization, the manpower to do all that “Good Guy” stuff. Basically, we the people subscribed to the idea of a superhero called “America.”
It was a feel-good, kind of no-brainer way to go. And we won, in the sense that in recorded history there have never been as many democracies as there are nowadays.
It is in the nature of tyranny to rule openly and without regard to the opinions of either the world or the opinions of those ruled, and there are very few such tyrannies in the world today. This would not be the case if America hadn’t felt called to step up to the plate during the last century. People tend to laugh at idealism, but it can have positive, world-changing effects.
However, justice involves more than just the absence of tyranny, and too, most of today’s democracies are flawed. In brief, superhero America’s wins in the 20th century were real but limited.
Today, our greatest chances for success and for changing this world can be found within our own borders. However, it’s difficult to see all that because superhero America is in the process of changing back to ordinary-person mode.
Over many decades, it has taken a lot of Americans to manage the great “we” from which that superhero drew its power: some worked in presenting the country to the world, others in managing the country itself to ensure its productivity and civil society; and still others defended it from external threats.
That is to say, “we the people” gave public servants much “power for mischief” as well as the money to make it all work. Now it’s all coming back to bite us and we have no historical reference to use as a guide for action.
Simple times don’t last
It’s not the time of Lincoln any more. There is no big Southern power block in Washington that might be appeased by such words as Lincoln used in 1861. The war and emancipation ended that permanently.
The 19th century Republican revolution ultimately did lead, in the 20th century, to exactly the sort of interference in local affairs that pro-secessionists back in the day had feared, but Americans today consider it justified. That struggle was exactly the sort of “great idea” one would expect from a “great society.”
It was all so clear back then. Is it today? Of course not. And this also can and should be said about every idea and suggestion you might hear offered as a solution to any given perceived problem.
Everything is just too big and today there are no simple solutions.
Justice for all
Which is why I wanted to bring the Post-Gazette’s “Win At All Costs” series to your attention. It’s still worth thinking about during times like today when, for example, emotions can run high or when unlikeable people are charged with heinous crimes.
Do you let the prosecutors “cheat,” as per some of the allegations in “Win at all costs,” because otherwise that [insert your favorite derogatory word] bum will beat the system and get off with a light sentence or nothing at all, or do you support the system that makes this country great, even though it means running the chance that the bum might escape conviction and punishment?
That’s an extremely difficult question, no matter what case you look at. But the results of refusing to consider it are even worse: mob rule, factionalism, anarchy, despair, economic slowdowns or even collapse. History has many examples to choose from. When you come right down to it, America is great precisely because it is so challenging for all its people.
There’s hope for America
There are no quick and easy answers. Anything important requires thought, especially when it’s a matter where thinking is painful and it would be much easier to just go with the crowd and opt for a solution that makes one feel morally superior and invincible.
We all like to feel better than everybody else, and we all like to punish those who frighten us. But, fortunately, our justice system is established on a better foundation. It isn’t perfect, but when you think about it, it does manage to be unfair to the fewest possible people, and it has mechanisms so even those people can appeal injustices done to them.
In short, America basically has a good system. When you look at how hard it is to operate this society and keep it working the right way, it’s less surprising that some other democracies have run into severe difficulties. We’ve got over 200 years of experience, and very good foundations, working for us, and that is something to celebrate!
Thought and decision
Regarding the Post-Gazette series, they didn’t answer any of these questions, but they got me thinking. I suspect Holder was a little bit right, and so was the newspaper.
There are many ways to look at it. It’s a good example of something important that has to be thrashed out in public and requires everybody to make a decision about what is just and what is abuse. That’s harder to do these days, when superhero America is changing back into citizen America in a very big and often unfriendly world; when all of our people – those who manage America in superhero mode as well as “we the people” – are trying to find our way during strange times.
It’s even harder to do in a post-9/11 world, especially when the charge even remotely involves terrorism. We have come a long way since 2001, but there is still a long way to go before we completely recover our intuitive sense of fair play and love of justice.
Just thinking about something before we react to it is the best way to guarantee the terrorists will never win. It will also help us eventually find our way through the difficulties we inherited after the wars of the mid to late 20th century.
I think we will eventually get back to good ground here, but this point is so far in the future, it seems, that I can’t expect to be around when times change back to something more normal and non-superhero-like.
Today I present something, a series by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in the hopes that it will stir somebody to think a little bit more deeply than they might otherwise have done.
It can get to be a habit, you know.
And in just such small stirrings are avalanches born.
Categories: Random thoughts