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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/17/2001
Volume 2, Number 20

I will not continue this week with the short story I promised just before the hijacked planes crashed forever into our lives and consciousnesses and brought us gasping into stark wakefulness. Perhaps next week, we can pause and read that story, called THE GIRL ON THE OLIVE OIL CAN.

At the moment there is little I can add to the great wealth of commentary that has flooded the nation and its media since the terrorist tragedy of the past week. I would highly recommend to those seriously considering the problem, Paul Krugman's Op-Ed piece in today's Sunday Times, (9/16) in which he discusses what amounts to a kind of national stinginess with respect to the way we allocate funds as though the need to shrink the size of government were the major consideration, above airport safety and appropriate investment in public protections of various kinds, including health. But Krugman says it all except that he might have added how that stinginess also extends to the way we apportion aid to those nations and people in desperate need, and even our in-again, out-again system of paying our dues to the United Nations. Americans are anarchists at heart in their suspicion of government, yet no nation has a greater fear of anarchy as a movement than ours.

Assuming that all this stinginess is not part of the practise of the truly anarchic congressional boondoggling that allocates everything it can for its own districts, regardless of overall need. This is a corrupted evolution of that leftover tradition of the American Revolution that always feared allowing any government so much leeway that it would again threaten our individual freedom. This fear has also created our gun culture and the deep resentments that still linger over exercises of government power as at Waco, which, whether mistakes were made or not, would probably persist. I won't even bother at this point in mentioning the dozens and dozens of self-appointed militias that claim to be the guardian of our liberties against government. But the reality is that too often government is regarded as the enemy of freedom. And, indeed, there is a swing back and forth, but within very narrow parameters where government behavior seems to threaten or impinge on constitutional rights, the First Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment particularly...

The problem is, those suspicious of government take too absolute a position when such swings are normal and the countervailing forces also work within normal parameters. Nevertheless an overall equilibrium remains. We will surely know when we get too far from equilibrium, since there will be vast consequences , such as the Civil War. But the memory of that one rare occasion in our history beyond the Revolutionasry War takes up far too much room in our national psyche today. Especially when it is allowed to shape election issues, and means of dividing the electorate using states rights questions to a degree in which the Federal role becomes so muted and de-sovereignized (to coin a word) that it must always yield too much to such pressures, inhibiting any real leadership until outside events break through our constant political games as did the terrorist acts of last week.

Gone suddenly is all talk of a missile defense shield, or going it alone without our allies, of abrogating arrangements like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty unilaterally. Even Kyoto got caught in the general tide of abrogatrion this administration brought with it. And the burden of indebtedness it had incurred among yesterday's powerful industries to the extent that it found itself fighting the new non-despoiling energy and production visions of the future in its so-called new energy and tax policies.

Suddenly reality intrudes and imposes totally different demands, and the smoke and mirrors that the Bush administration started with have all vanished along with the World Trade Center.

So perhaps now is a good time to rethink the whole idea of freedom and how that idea relates to government, in the real sense.

We have always somehow tacitly assumed that freedom increases our choices, or our ability to do mostly what we please. That's not actually the case. Freedom has to do with the particular way in which we choose to limit choice. It is a constant balancing and improvisation. People not free cannot improvise and are usually locked within a narrow pattern of activity. In the name of freedom, we have been locking ourselves into just such a pattern.

From now on, let our thinking be more flexible, less bound to such rigidities as libertarianism, for example, or its cousin, fear of obtrusive government. We must remain free enough to be able to limit our choices as the situation demands. Freedom is precisely that, the proper, sensitive and intelligent use of limitation. Freedom has meaning when it is for something, and not merely an end in itself, which is anti-community and, in the end, self-indulgent. Yet none of these things are bad in themselves at the right time. Every condition has its time and its importance. And is dependent for its exercise on the challenges that confront us along with the means we have for expressing them. The exercise of choice at this moment in history has, for the time being, shaped our current perspectives. We are at war, and it is only common sense that this is a moment when we must choose to limit our choices to the demands that war makes upon us.

--Alvin

<< 09/10/2001 | 09/17/2001 | 09/24/2001 >>

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