Dreaming a New America: Peaceful Regime Change in 2004

Our dreams are the North Star by which we navigate. In hard times, they should get bigger rather than smaller. I think of the first enslaved Africans in America, standing on auction blocks, someone's dirty thumb checking their teeth as if they were horses. They dreamed of freedom, and passed that dream to children and children's children until some modicum of freedom was achieved.

Today we face another freedom struggle. It's time to retake, and remake, American democracy.

There are no inalienable rights and no self-evident truths. We live in a time when our government erodes civil rights daily, not just those of black and brown Americans, immigrant or poor Americans, but all Americans. We live with relentless Orwellian doublespeak. President Bush argued that the war on Iraq would promote "liberty and peace." A classified State Department report said it would increase Middle Eastern anti-Americanism, and that certainly seems to be the case.

All of this is being done in the name of patriotism. But in the words of Benjamin Franklin, one of the few Founding Fathers who neither owned slaves nor condoned slavery, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Instead of feeling comforted by America's military posturing, many of us feel neither safe nor free.

The financial costs of the government's actions are staggering. The 1991 Gulf War cost $61 billion. The recent invasion of Iraq will likely cost $100 billion. That just buys the military campaign, not the peacekeeping and "nation-building," which will cost just as much or more. Meanwhile, we are embroiled in a series of wars at home that could make America a shell of itself.

Take the War on Education. In January, the Republican-led Senate passed a spending bill that cut $29 million from after-school programs, $13 million from programs for abused children, and $61 million from child care programs. To put this in context, a single Tomahawk cruise missile can cost up to a million dollars.

The lack of federal support for schools is having deep ramifications. A veteran Oakland, Calif. schoolteacher wrote me: "The district sent out letters to 1,000 teachers as notice of possible layoffs, San Francisco sent out almost 800. California is a disaster and George wants to go to war."

It's not just California. Portland, Oregon has had to shorten its school year by five weeks because of a budget shortfall. The state of Oklahoma cut education funds by over $100 million in 2001-2002, leading to thousands of staff cuts each of the past two years. In Baltimore, where members of my family teach, there is lead in the schools' drinking water and so few substitutes that when a teacher gets sick, students are split between other classes.

In the face of this, I dream. I dream an America that is a democracy and not a kleptocracy, where we bail out the schools before the airlines.

I dream technology that increases our freedoms rather than curtailing our liberties. The merging of private and public databases for Soviet-style spying on citizens is now doing the latter.

I dream that every single American votes, and we collectively decide our future.

I know a lot of people share my dreams. How do we make them real?

The best hope is to awaken the sleepers, the 100 million Americans who do not vote in presidential elections. How can anyone claim to know the will of the people when half of Americans have given up on politics? After the debacle of the 2000 elections, more may abstain in 2004.

The anti-war movement provided a blueprint for mapping constituencies, some new or long dormant, who can collaboratively restore democracy. It would be a shame if the National Council of Churches and American Muslims, the hip hop activists and the suburban anti-war moms lived through this war, then never met on common ground again. We must find a way of convening Americans with an interest in peaceful regime change at home -- what we call an election -- and make plans for 2004.

I mentioned slavery not simply because it illustrates not only the power of dreams, but also the ways in which our struggles are linked. America has always suffered from a crisis of belief in mutual advancement. This country has always tolerated exploitation in the name of personal gain, whether of slaves, immigrants, or Enron employees. Our fear that we will move from being temporarily secure to suddenly exploited keeps us silent on some of the most important issues of our time. The opposite is also true. My belief that improving my life does not require diminishing yours lifts my spirits. Hope is contagious.

Our struggles are not the same, but they are linked. Whether we are worried about the economy, education, privacy or civil liberties, we have a vested interest in working together. We must devote the coming months to building connections between grassroots coalitions, building independent media, holding politicians accountable for their actions (like the White House's secret meetings with energy companies), and entering our concerns into the policy debates. And we must increase participation in one of the most simple and critical aspects of democracy, voting. If we join together, to quote President George W. Bush, "The tyrant will soon be gone. The day of ... liberation is near."

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

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