Restoring the American Spirit

or many Americans, it’s now possible to think of 9/11 as the past–a sad and unsettling memory. In New York, however, the tragedy is still part of everyday life, just like the rattle of subway trains and shouts of children in the schoolyards.

I realized this on a recent visit to the city for a conference titled “American Spirit, Values, and Power.” Strolling after breakfast one day, I passed the Squad 18 firehouse in Greenwich Village and remarked to myself how much younger firefighters look these days. Then–pow!–it hit me. I looked again and saw a plaque honoring seven American heroes. The young firefighters lounging on the sidewalk were filling the boots of men who died in the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Everything changed on September 11, 2001. That’s what we all told each other in the days that followed, and it has proven more true than I imagined. Our safe distance from the turmoil of an angry world has disappeared. And the shape of American politics has dramatically shifted. Minnesota, where I live, is being convulsed by the policies of a new hard-core conservative governor (our first since at least the 1920s) who was elected in large part for his vigorous promises to protect us from foreigners who might possibly be terrorists.

It’s hard to recall that two years ago on September 10, George W. Bush was struggling against surprisingly low poll ratings and the stigma that he “won” the election thanks to Supreme Court justices, not American voters. Democrats, not yet squeamish about criticizing the administration, were enthusiastic about their chances to take back Congress. Demonstrators opposed to corporate globalization were filling the streets in rising numbers.

That seems long, long ago. I’m not quite sure how he did it, although an unparalleled gush of media idolization helped, but when the smoke of 9/11 cleared, Bush the younger somehow emerged as a courageous, battle-tested leader. All the laurels and public devotion of a wartime president have been bestowed upon him, which White House strategists brilliantly capitalized on to win the 2002 elections and enact a bare-knuckled right-wing agenda on everything from cutting upper-income taxes to gutting environmental laws. Republicans’ opponents, no matter how timid their disagreement, have been effectively painted as not truly patriotic Americans.

It seemed appropriate to be in New York City, site of the tragedy that reshaped American life, to think about the future of our country. “American Spirit, Values, and Power,” presented by the City University of New York Graduate Center and the New York Open Center, was a vibrant discussion devoted to key questions of our time: Is the present political course what’s best for America? And if not, how do we change things?

“I’m shocked at the political turns post 9/11,” declared Don Hazen, executive editor of the Alternet.org news service. “And I know it couldn’t have happened without the media.”

He urged progressives to take time to consider how their ideas come across to working class people, many of whom seem reassured in these frightening times by Bush’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s “strict father” image. A surprising number of lower-income voters, especially white men, rally behind the Republican Party, even though GOP policies threaten their pocketbooks and communities. Hazen suggested emulating conservatives’ success at making sure their messages are clearly articulated to the broader public. “Everything needs to be said three times,” he advised. “You say you’re going to say it. You say it. And then you say that you said it.”

Hazen also proposed creating truth squads, which could expose all the ways that right-wing pundits mash, ignore, and completely fabricate the facts on whatever issue they’re debating. Despite the impressive reach of Fox News and talk radio bully boys, Hazen reminded us that progressive-leaning independent media have just as much potential to influence people’s thinking. A constellation of alt weeklies, neighborhood newspapers, zines, indy media outlets, culture mags, activist newsletters, community radio, feisty Web sites and blogs, along with countless green, women’s, labor, gay, spiritual, social justice, natural health, and youth publications, independent media enjoy an immediate grassroots presence in people’s lives and communities that highly paid right-wing media superstars can’t match.

Addressing the theme of American spirit, Ralph Nader noted, “Civic exhaustion is the biggest problem facing us.” Citizens are no longer motivated, he explained. They no longer feel they can make a difference. That may be what’s at the heart of the Bush team’s political strategy: to shovel so much economic and political clout into the hands of corporate executives that the rest of us feel almost powerless to change anything in our country.

How sadly ironic it would be if 9/11, a tragedy that pulled Americans together like nothing since World War II, provided cynical politicians an opportunity to stifle our deep instincts for trying to make things better. But Nader pointed out that throughout American history so-called conservatives (“They’re really corporatists,” he noted) fought every notable reform, from the abolition of slavery and voting rights for women to civil rights and Medicare.

That’s why I was moved at the stories of Charlotte Brody, a nurse from Virginia and co-chair of Health Care Without Harm. Since its inception six years ago, Brody told the conference, this grassroots organization of environmentalists, nurses, doctors, and other health care workers has witnessed the closing of 5,000 toxic medical waste incinerators in the United States. It has supported campaigns to ban fever thermometers using mercury, a dangerous pollutant, and seen success in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, Washington state, Michigan, and New Hampshire, as well as in Kmart and Wal-Mart.

Now that’s the American spirit: citizens growing aware of a problem and then rolling up their sleeves to do something about it. It’s what has always brought out the greatness in us, from 19th-century abolitionists to New York City firefighters. And I don’t believe that the Bush administration, no matter how brilliant its strategists are, will get away with quashing our deeply ingrained American optimism.

Nader Assesses the Democratic Candidates

Ralph Nader, whose 2000 Green Party campaign is blamed by some for electing George W. Bush, offered his thoughts on the Democratic presidential candidates lining up for 2004: “[John] Kerry could be a lot better leader if citizens mobilized around him. He has the capacity to expand. I think [Dennis] Kucinich has the best agenda and the best experience.” He did not reveal whether he was planning another run at the White House.

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