Citizen Barack Obama has spoken with bold clarity: "We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime" which is "due to an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington, D.C."
Everyone knows that economic collapse is looming. But the crisis is more fundamental than that. A "culture of 'anything goes'" has cut deeply into the ethos of democracy.
Opportunists conducted a war against opportunity. They made a mockery of America's greatest gift. This corruption must be repaired. Without that, no projects of recovery, however well-conceived, can succeed.
The diseases of generalized corruption are long-brewed. It takes a new generation to revive civic spirit. Yet the recovery must begin today. How?
Consider the formula of our disorder. During the last eight years, Americans suffered a relentless assault on common sense; this corrosive fact was multiplied by our fears; it was squared by our pathetic assignment of authority to celebrity and arrogance; the little remainder of wisdom was divided by obsessive official secrecy; the product was a shortage of means and moment for the exercise of judgment, that primary capacity of the citizen.
Leaders play a small but pivotal role in the cultivation of citizen judgment. Exactly on this point the Bush administration was a catastrophe. And, as day follows night, it was exactly on this point that candidate Obama breathed new hope into millions of exasperated Americans. He provided the example of judgment and cause for action.
Now President Obama has called upon us "to trade old habits for a new spirit of responsibility."
Will this mean the prosecution of public servants who lied us into war and created secret torture chambers? Or the private powers that bilked homeowners and consumers, destroying the financial structure and credibility of the United States? Such legal action is difficult to imagine; the Pentagon still claims the Guantanamo passes Geneva Convention tests and bankers are treated like royalty in the chambers of congress.
Elsewhere, when law and order have broken down, public acts seeking "truth and reconciliation" have pushed whole nations towards a new beginning. However, this sort of ennobling confessional drama, now brought to the table by Senator Leahy, also seems unlikely in America today, where we still live under the myth of the Nixon pardon (“it was good for the country”).
Whether or not the "new spirit of responsibility" can get a grip on the scoundrels, we should remember that the "old habits" also worked their effects on an altogether different class of persons.
Upright and decent citizens were punished during the Bush years just as the opportunists advanced unimpeded. It is about them that some effective truth can be spoken, and a small but inspiring reconciliation found.
President Obama can take steps to prove that responsibility matters. The nomination of Eric Shinseki for Secretary of Veterans Affairs was an example. A person who argued against the strategic error of under-staffing the invasion of Iraq thus returned to the military establishment.
This appointment has a subtle symbolic value. It says we had better respect those who, loving truth and the Constitution, tried to save us from monumental folly. While it mattered then that they failed, it matters today that many such citizens are still forgotten. Good people now on the job or taking up a new post, eyes and ears open, judgment tuned, will heed this message.
It is significant, too, that General Shinseki was an insider, and that while objecting to the means he supported the invasion of Iraq. How many people with less clout and cushioning suffered retaliation for speaking truth to power?
Consider the extraordinary case of John Brady Kiesling. Just weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kiesling wrote to his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, tendering his resignation after twenty years in the Foreign Service of the United States. He protested that
"...the policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."
Just as no one expected Shinseki to rejoin the Joint Chiefs, it may be too late to recall Kiesling and others like him to the nation's service.
But, Mr. President, there may be a quick and effective way to instill the new spirit of public purpose you claim to bring us.
Recall that it is always costly to tell the truth, to take responsibility, to tend to the common good. Call forth and proclaim the unsung civic heroes who stood in the path of neo-conservative militarism; find and extol those who said "no!" to the greed and opportunism that has brought our economy to its knees.
Show by your solemn recognition that if I am the sort of citizen you want me to be, I will not be cast aside. Let the prescient and courageous be vindicated by the respect of their country. Invest new meaning in citizenship. Let the President take the lead. Then, those with democracy in mind and heart can do anything.