Ira Chernus

Why tearing down the gender dam benefits everybody

Ira Chernus: Tear Down the Gender Dam

In all these years, one of the good things about TomDispatch for me is that it’s so often proved a learning experience. Today is a perfect example. Longtime TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus, who last wrote for this site five-and-a-half years ago, returns from retirement to discuss his drag-queen son and our growing world of gender-blending. On this subject, let me not act knowledgeable. I’m anything but “woke.” I’m an old guy and an editor who’s found himself stumbling over the very idea of a single person being “they.”

Normally, the sort of binary opposition I’ve dealt with and opposed at this website has been the urge of our government officials to consider those they don’t care for as a full-scale “them,” nothing but an enemy to fight. (If you want to know what I mean, just check out Michael Klare’s most recent piece on the Pentagon and China.) But the truth is that, even at my age, it’s a good thing to encounter those who, dealing with binary oppositions of quite a different sort, relating to the possibilities that exist in all of us, have the urge to meld them.

Honestly, in my youth in the 1950s and 1960s, things were all too painfully binary and, thinking back, I never felt comfortable with it. The caricatured and aggressive maleness of the planet I then found myself on always put me off, especially when I encountered it as a college student at Yale (not exactly my favorite experience in life). Looking back, I don’t think I ever felt even slightly comfortable as one of thosemen, even though at the time I never truly imagined alternatives either.

Still, one of my close friends at college was gay — he would later die of AIDS — and that, at least, was eye-opening for me. So, given my life, given what’s mattered to me, and having now spent time with Chernus’s piece, I feel I should indeed open myself more to the way young people are questioning the binary nature of our world and exploring the true complexity of us all. Let him introduce you to his experience of it and see what you think. Tom

Who Will Speak Up for My Child, the Drag Queen? And the Non-Binary and Transgender Folks Among Us, Too

What makes a good society? Is it a guaranteed right to pursue happiness, as our Declaration of Independence proclaimed? Perhaps, as Gandhi said, it’s providing the poorest and most vulnerable among us with the means to control their own lives. But what happens when it’s the pursuit of happiness that makes someone most vulnerable?

Let me introduce you to my child, my one and only. They — and, no, it wasn’t as hard as I expected to get used to the gender-neutral plural pronoun that they prefer — are brown-skinned, Mexican-American, secular-Jewish, and gay-married. In a country where Donald Trump is still admired by some 40% of the public, don’t imagine for a second that my child, with all those identities, isn’t horrifyingly vulnerable.

Lately, however, the Trumpian movement (with the full support of the future president’s assumed Republican opponent in 2024, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) has targeted its most intense hatred on another part of my child’s identity. They are a gender-non-binary (and highly successful) drag queen, bringing happiness not only to themselves but to their cheering audiences. That’s where their right to the pursuit of happiness is most threatened at the moment and what makes them most vulnerable.

My child has been safe from attack — so far. Others haven’t been so fortunate. The murderous shootings at a drag club in my home state of Colorado are just the most notorious in a string of hate crimes directed at drag shows. More than 120 of them reportedly experienced protests, were threatened, or even attacked in 2022. Some transgender folks have come to believe that it’s no longer safe to live in this country. Others are thinking they might be better off taking leave of life itself.

In such a world, what’s a proud, concerned, on-the-edge-of-frightened father to do? For me, a first step is to come out of retirement and try to write some helpful words.

It would be easy to simply denounce the spread of right-wing bigotry as misinformed, misguided, and unjust, but what good would that do? Right-wingers live in a Fox News-mediated world of their own, where their bigotry seems to make perfectly good sense to them, while otherwise reasonable arguments fall on deaf ears.

So I want to write for a different audience. I’m inspired by the words Martin Luther King, Jr., penned while sitting in a Birmingham jail. “The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” was not, he said, the out-and-out racist. It was “the white moderate, more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Of course, there are big differences between the Jim Crow South of his day and the gender-identity-biased world of today. Still, I’ve talked to people who would never countenance discrimination, much less violence, against any minority, yet offer, at best, the most lukewarm acceptance of drag queens, non-binary, or transgender folks. They tell me they aren’t quite sure how they feel about such people. Some admit to just not being comfortable going to a drag show and finding themselves surprisingly unnerved around anyone who claims to be transgender.

Often, their understanding of what’s going on in our world couldn’t be shallower. They may even refer to my child as transgender because they haven’t grasped the difference between that and non-binary. To put it all too briefly: a transgender person has a specific gender identity different from the sex assigned them at birth; a non-binary person doesn’t identify exclusively as male or female, but as both, neither, or some combination of the two. Acquaintances who do know the difference have said to me that it’s still not clear to them what category my beloved drag queen fits into. (In fact, drag queens come with all kinds of gender identities.)

Since many people of good will remain uncertain and confused on issues like these, they don’t raise their voices to protest such discrimination. To my mind, that hesitation holds the key to understanding the problem in a basic way — and also to reducing discrimination and violence, and so moving this society in a more just direction.

Reinforcing the Wall of Gender Separation

Why are many thoughtful, well-educated people so ready to lump drag queens, non-binary, and transgender people in a single rejectable category? I suspect it’s much the same reason that leads to attacks on all three from the bigoted right and the same reason media stories often lump all three together: they all challenge the traditional division of humanity into two simple categories, male and female. They seem to blur that line or even dissolve it. Think of them, then, as gender-blenders. And because of that, they threaten our sense of social order, which, as King pointed out, may be more important than justice, even to many well-meaning people.

In my professional field as an academic, the study of religion, we have often explored how people create order in their lives by translating the world into sets of binary opposites with firm values attached: up is better than down; God is better than the devil; our God is better than their devil; we are better than them. Religion is often remarkably devoted to shoring up the boundary lines that keep those opposites apart.

These days, scholars are more likely to stress the ways that religion can actually help people blur and cross boundaries, because most of us grasp the danger of maintaining a separation between categories that naturally blur in the real world. Doing so is a first step down the slippery slope to creating ever more extreme hierarchies, which all too often end in injustice, oppression, and violence. The quest for order, in other words, has a way of transforming itself into a license to suppress or even ultimately eliminate “those people” on the other side of the line.

One recent analyst of the right wing’s hatred of gender-blenders, Nathan Robinson, explains that it comes from “a visceral distaste for that which is different.” And behind that distaste lies “a devotion to traditional hierarchies.” Trumpublicans hope, writes Amanda Marcotte, “that they can return men to some imaginary glory days when the line between the genders was thick and inflexible, and women’s role was unquestionably that of subservience to men… If people start questioning what gender even means, then the whole right-wing system of power allocation begins to crumble.”

To paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is about a bigot that does love a wall, whether it’s between Mexico and the U.S. or men and women. How appropriate, then, that the legendary beginning of the gay rights movement in this country was a 1969 police raid on a gay bar named the Stonewall Inn. Consider it an irony, then, that there is now a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, in part because they are seen as maintaining (or even reinforcing) the clear difference between male and female.

Despite the bill Florida Governor DeSantis passed — dubbed by its opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — the reactionary right-wing has largely lost the battle against gay and lesbian rights and is now turning to a more popular target: those who blur, or even dissolve, that gender boundary. And the bigots fight all the more fiercely because they’re not just defending a particular boundary, but the very existence of social demarcation itself.

Today, the appropriate metaphor for it may not be a wall at all, but a dam. Martin Luther King put it aptly so long ago, indicting those “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” because order without justice is a “dangerously structured dam that blocks the flow of social progress.” And a New York City politician proved King’s point all too well recently. Condemning schools and libraries that bring in drag queens to read books to children, that Republican (after mouthing the usual, totally unfounded charge of “sexual grooming”) revealed her deepest source of anger — that it’s “a program teaching little children about their gender fluidity.”

Fluids, of course, may dissolve whatever they touch, whatever kinds of boundaries we create to give us a sense of social order. If so, the satisfaction we get from believing those lines to be immutable will begin to dissolve, too. Hence, the fierce desire to attack “gender fluidity.”

There surely is a big difference between the right-wingers who actively hate gender-blenders and the moderates or liberals who offer lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding. The latter earn the title “people of good will” because they’re not seized by the urge to maintain boundaries or strengthen hierarchies that give them power and control over others. They won’t, in other words, actively demand unjust laws and policies.

But neither will they take a strong stand for justice, because those binary categories and boundaries still offer them a sense of order in their own lives. Somewhere, somehow, they want our fast-changing world to remain stable, simple, and familiar. As a result, they do share with the bigots, though obviously to a lesser degree, discomfort at seeing that classic boundary between male and female, which used to feel so immutable, disappear before their very eyes.

If we look in the mirror honestly enough, we’re likely to recognize that all of us have some boundary lines that are truly important to us, even if it’s only “us well-meaning liberals against those nasty Trumpsters.” Each of us has our own bottom line, the place where the blurring of lines does indeed become disturbing or even intolerable.

For a lot of people, however unconsciously, the distinction between male and female may be the hardest one of all to surrender. No wonder, then, that even people of good will regularly offer only lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding to their fellow Americans who are gender-blenders.

Tear Down the Dam, It’s Good for Us All

Make no mistake, though. Those same people of good will may hold the key to freeing the gender-blenders from oppression and violence, if they can be roused to active support.

Every successful movement for social change needs just such a broad base of support. That’s why Dr. King called those lukewarm white moderates the great stumbling block to his own movement’s success. Doug McAdam, a prominent scholar of the civil rights movement, notes that it had to “compel supportive intervention by liberal northern allies… to the point where sympathetic media coverage and broad public support for the movement could be mobilized.” He quotes famed civil rights leader Bob Moses: “When the interest of the country is awakened, the government responds to that issue.”

America’s laws now demand that schools, parks, restaurants, and the like be open to all. Even virulent racists no longer call for those laws to be repealed. That’s because things do indeed become unthinkable once a large enough chunk of the public views them that way. Just as no one talks openly about reinstituting Jim Crow laws anymore, nobody urges that the vote be taken away from women either.

How can we make the right of gender-blenders simply to be who they are an equally unquestionable part of American society? Perhaps the key is to persuade well-meaning but confused and hesitant Americans not merely to tolerate them, or even simply to speak out for their safety or rights, but to appreciate how they actually enrich life for us all.

How we treat the most marginal and vulnerable among us determines the quality of life for the rest of us, too. A good society takes care of the most vulnerable by assuring their safety and the means to sustain their lives, along with their liberty to choose their own unique paths in pursuing happiness. If some find happiness by blending familiar categories, or even erasing the lines between them totally, supporting their choice could make a better society for us all.

The famed poet Walt Whitman suggested that there are “two main constituents for a truly grand nationality: first, a large variety of character, and second, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.”

Gender-blenders serve us by bringing us closer to that ideal. They are a model for a truly free society where we don’t feel compelled to fit ourselves into narrow binary categories, where everyone can accept themselves and explore who they really are, safely and without shame.

If the gender-blenders are provocative, all the better. Then they’ll provoke us to think and talk more freely about individuality, acceptance, and true community. Why wouldn’t we want them teaching our children? Even a 10-year-old can see that drag performers are “the most encouraging thing ever.” Openly non-binary and transgender people can be similarly encouraging.

Just to speak for myself, I’m so proud of my child, and the many thousands like them, claiming and proclaiming their right to pursue happiness by tearing down the old gender walls. To me, they — and in this case I mean all of them — are heroes because, as Whitman put it, they “walk at their ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits them not.

I will be equally proud of my country when enough of us stand up strongly for the right to, and value of, gender fluidity — so strongly that this innocent and socially constructive pursuit of happiness will never make anyone vulnerable again.

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Gallup polling, for instance, shows Obama making small but significant gains in every kind of state (red, purple, and blue) over the last two months. At the same time, Obama's world tour -- the one McCain and the neocons practically egged him into taking, with all those online tickers showing just how many days since he had last been to Iraq -- left the McCain camp in full and bitter gripe mode. In the imagery of advisor and former Senator Phil Gramm, they had become a campaign of "whiners." Meanwhile, the Berlin bounce finally showed up in the polls.


While Obama was wowing the Europeans, McCain managed to get an offshore-oil photo-op in the Gulf of Mexico wiped out by a somehow overlooked advancing hurricane. Instead, he ventured into a grocery store aisle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, prepped on rising food prices, where he met a "shopper planted by the local Republican Party" and experienced an unfortunate "applesauce avalanche." (The Daily Showversion of this is not to be missed.) Not surprisingly, by week's end he was decisively skipping the "issues" and heading for "values" -- that is, directly for the throat in the style which Republicans have, in recent years, made their own.


Earlier in the week, he had practically declared his opponent treasonous for supposedly putting his political campaign ahead of victory in Iraq -- "It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign ... " -- and launched a classic Republican campaign attack on Obama's "character." His latest ad, which attacks Obama for supposedly going to the gym rather than visiting wounded American soldiers in Germany, typically ends: "McCain, country first." (Versus ... uh ... Obama, country last?)


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Obama and McCain Offer Two Very Different Kinds of Heroism

Americans have never been very eager to turn war heroes into presidents. George Washington did not set much of a precedent. Only five of the 42 who followed (Jackson, W.H. Harrison, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower) made their reputations in war. In the 20th century a few could claim minor war heroics (Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, George H.W. Bush), but at the century's end a onetime war protester, Bill Clinton, handily defeated two veterans of "the good war": a onetime fighter pilot, Bush (even though he'd waged a successful war in Iraq), and a permanently disabled warrior, Bob Dole.

Now we are at war again, and the stock of war heroes seems to be on the rise. Although the war is unpopular, the candidate whose main claim to fame is wartime heroism has a chance to win in 2008, or so the polls suggest. The same polls say that John McCain trails Barack Obama on nearly every issue except war, national security and "strong leadership." Never underestimate the polling power of a war hero, or the power of a hero to whip up public support for a war -- especially if that hero is the president of the United States. That's why the question of heroism and its appeal matters to all of us.

Conservative cultural critics have been lamenting the decline of heroism in America for years. Their argument is at the heart of the McCain campaign. It goes like this:

People become heroes -- they muster the courage it takes to suffer and risk all for others -- by strictly controlling their selfish impulses. By demonstrating self-discipline, heroes prove their superior character. And that earns them the right to wield political authority. Only people with such strong self-control deserve to be in charge of controlling social boundaries. Only a hero's example can control the impulses of the unruly mob and maintain the social order.

But, the conservative argument continues, in our postmodern society everything is just image -- including heroism. Few of us can distinguish any longer between real heroes like Sgt. Alvin York or Audie Murphy, who risked genuine suffering or even death, and fictional ones like Ironman or Indiana Jones, whose risk and suffering is all make-believe. As the fictional heroes become the models for all heroism, we come to believe that the impossible can be done effortlessly, with no need for the enormous self-discipline that is the essence of real heroism.

We are blind to real heroism because we take it as nothing but image. The success of "Swift boating" in 2004 showed how readily the public will accept an advertising campaign in place of the historical reality of heroism.

The worst effects show up among America's young people. Having grown up in a time without real heroes, they know about heroism only from screen-image substitutes. So they fondly imagine that they, too, can achieve great things without strenuous effort and self-discipline. They expect to "do their own thing," "let it all hang out," blur all cultural boundaries and still somehow lead successful lives. And when they are presented with genuine heroes, the young turn cynical and refuse to be guided by their betters. They may even refuse to follow the authorities into war when our nation's very existence is at stake.

This year Republicans find the demise of heroism tragic not only for American society but for their party, because they think they've got an authentic hero as their candidate. And it's no coincidence that he gained his laurels in war. War has always been the prime arena for the kind of heroism that most Americans have prized. It all started with the Minutemen (or so the story goes): ordinary farmers who knew evil when they saw it, picked up their guns to defeat it, and then went back to their ordinary, everyday lives. They mustered the courage to do extraordinary deeds, to risk suffering and death, because they knew that democracy was worth every sacrifice.

That's the uniquely democratic brand of heroism that the McCain campaign boasts of: ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights by controlling their selfish impulses in order to hold the line against an evil that threatens from beyond our borders. Recognizing that line and defending it at all costs is the essence of heroism, American-style.

Or at least it was, until the United States tried to act out the old Minuteman story once more in Vietnam. By the time that war ended, many of us had learned to be skeptical of anyone who claims that all goodness is on our side of the line and all evil on the other side. That's another big reason heroism has fallen into disrepute -- and another big reason conservatives want so desperately to restore its reputation.

It's all part of the same package, McCain supporters say: loss of heroes, questioning of war, cynicism toward authority, skepticism about rigid lines separating good from evil, glorification of impulse, and the decline and fall of America as a morally healthy nation with a stable social structure. It all hangs together. And it all started in -- you guessed it -- "the '60s"!

Republican candidates started running against "the '60s" 40 years ago. They are still doing it because, more often than not, it has worked. The trick is to tweak the campaign by giving the attack on "the '60s" a new symbolic image and new code words from time to time.

Four years ago, the key symbolic words were "homeland security." Although George W. Bush never suffered or even fought on a real battlefield, he campaigned successfully as the heroic leader of a global war on terrorism, holding the line against evil everywhere. John Kerry suffered not only from the advertising attack on his heroism, but from his youthful change of heart. After leading his crew in numerous battles against the enemy, he returned home and crossed over to the other side, supporting the peace movement's protest against the government's simplistic story of good vs. evil. That refusal to hold the symbolic line may have cost him the presidency.

Of course it's equally possible that the Vietnam War years had little to do with Kerry's defeat. Perhaps we have indeed put Vietnam behind us. Perhaps the American people want a new kind of hero not related to war at all.

The McCain campaign is betting heavily against that possibility. It's doing all it can to make this election another referendum on the '60s and the Vietnam War by asking voters to endorse the enduring value of war heroism. By coupling McCain's Vietnam heroics with his "No Surrender" stand on Iraq, it is trying to make the election a broader referendum on the cultural meaning of war itself.

Today, the key symbolic code words for the pro-war, anti-'60s campaign are "patriot" and "hero," both prefaced by the adjective "real." The McCain campaign portrays its candidate as the ultimate citizen-soldier, an ordinary human who rose to a superhuman level by courageously enduring superhuman suffering.

Why could he do it? Because, according to his campaign, he was so dedicated to serving his nation by maintaining the boundary between good and evil. McCain's job was to drop bombs on people because their nation was supposedly on the wrong side of the moral line. Had he not been shot down, who knows how many years he would have spent at that task? He became a hero, the story tells us, because he had the courage to do whatever it takes to stop evildoers.

In fact, McCain was not just "an ordinary guy." He was born into Navy aristocracy, raised among upper-echelon officers who were not likely to suffer even during wartime. Even now, though he did suffer terribly and is permanently disabled, he makes sure that in the public eye he never looks like he is suffering. He has worked hard to cultivate a mild "common man" image that masks the aggressive face of the warrior hero (though the mask sometimes cracks in private, we are told, under the pressure of his terrible temper).

If there must be suffering, McCain's face seems to say, I will take it meekly upon myself in a Christ-like way, as I did so many years ago. Yet don't be fooled, his words say. Behind my gentle demeanor lies a God-like wrath that will be inflicted surely and swiftly on evildoers who threaten our nation.

That's exactly the kind of heroism American culture has always valued most, the kind that seemed in danger of disappearing in a cloud of '60s pot smoke. In a post-9/11 world, where symbols of holding the line seem both so outdated and so necessary, a rebirth of heroism wrapped in the flag is a message many voters may find hard to resist. How many? With most polls showing McCain trailing, but usually within or near the margin of error, it is impossible to predict.

The Obama campaign is watching those polls, too, and it is certainly not ignoring the power of heroism. But since its candidate has never been to war, and he won the nomination on the strength of his stand against the Iraq War, it presents him as a very different kind of hero -- not an Andrew Jackson, not an "ordinary-man-does-extraordinary-things in war" kind of hero, indeed not an ordinary man at all. Obama appears as the reincarnation of Lincoln: another self-made man from Illinois who rose out of ordinary surroundings to reveal the extraordinary gifts he was born with.

In this story, the innately extraordinary hero grew up in a humble setting. He might almost have been born in a manger in a stable. Now he chooses to work in the same kind of humble setting with ordinary people like us, to take on our sufferings as his own, to share his transcendent gifts with us all.

Unlike McCain, who often looks like he has donned a mask of tranquility to hide his suffering, Obama often has a slightly pained look on his face, as if he wears a mask of suffering while the true self behind it transcends all earthly cares. His look of suffering speaks of his continuing care for, and contact with, the suffering underclasses he once served as an organizer. It speaks of his continuing commitment to use his extraordinary talents for the good of ordinary folks everywhere.

If you haven't seen this kind of heroism in Obama, watch some of his public appearances and commercials again. Look at the way he sounds, the way interacts with people, the way he carries himself, with an eye out for the imagery of a transcendent savior who has come down to serve us all. Make up your own mind if it's there or not.

If it is there (as I'm pretty sure it is), Obama's success suggests that a large portion of the American people may be ready for a truly elite leader, as long as he or she is outwardly clothed in the Lincolnian narrative of the common person. The American people may no longer want a war hero, but a peace hero.

A war hero inspires by having exercised, in the past, a superhuman self-control that offers us a model for restraining our own natural impulses. A peace hero inspires by who he or she is in the present. By merely doing what seems to come naturally, a peace hero offers a model for releasing the natural goodness within each of us.

A war hero is a mere mortal who protects the rest of us by preserving the boundary lines between good and evil against every threat. A peace hero seems more than human, because he or she has the courage to cross boundary lines -- lines of race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion -- and therefore ultimately crosses the line between human and superhuman.

A war hero comes to seem more than human by treating enemies as less than human and raining death down upon them. A peace hero comes to seem fully human by treating all others as fully human and giving them the fullness of life.

Obama is perfectly suited to be a peace hero because both his transcendent gifts and his mortal being symbolize the union of opposites. He bears the very visible mark of his human origin, which crossed the most sacred of American boundaries, the race line. In his life he has spanned the class spectrum, seeming to be equally comfortable with all from the top to the bottom. Uniting such profound opposites in his genetic makeup and his biography, he can symbolize the uniting of all opposites. And he can symbolize the pressing need to bring enemies together because he seems to stand so far above the merely mortal fray.

Many Obama supporters are not looking for a hero at all. They are skeptical about the idea that one person could be somehow superior to the rest of us. They are suspicious about any person who claims to have authority over others. The skepticism and suspicion are healthy. But they can be pushed too far. They can cost Obama a lot of votes.

More importantly, they can allow the right wing to keep the control it has had for four decades over the idea of heroism, just as it has controlled the idea of patriotism, the flag and all the symbolic trappings of "America."

The Vietnam War cast the meanings of all those symbols radically in doubt. The 9/11 attack might have done the same. But since the '60s the Left, rather than fighting to capture those symbols, has turned away from the symbols and the fight, letting the conservatives win tremendous cultural victories by default. That makes it easier for them to continue their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and start new wars elsewhere.

So despite all the valid reasons for eschewing the whole idea of "an American hero," those of us who want to dampen the public enthusiasm for future wars would do well to consider promoting Barack Obama as an extraordinary American peace hero. Obama offers us a precious opportunity to separate "hero" from "war" and give heroism in America a new meaning that's in many ways the opposite of the old war heroism.

We might well be thankful to have a hero who appears to descend from above us. For too long we have lived with the myth that our presidents, like our war heroes, must be common people who are now empowered to rise above us and do whatever they like. If we want to restore some measure of genuine democracy to our political life, we might be better off with a president whom we view as extraordinary.

Then we, the people, must bring that president down to our own mundane level by subjecting him or her to all the political pressures we can bring to bear. A hero brought down from on high may be less dangerous, and less likely to lead us to war, than a hero raised up from below -- as long as we are ready to keep the pressure on from day one.

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our writers are their own.

How McCain Stays Popular Despite Supporting Disastrous Wars

A majority of voters reject John McCain's positions on the two most important issues of the campaign, the economy and the war. Only 27 percent of Americans say they are Republicans. Yet McCain continues to run a statistical dead-heat with both contenders for the Democratic nomination. In some polls he shows a slim but consistent lead. Who can make sense out of it?

Of course who ever said that American politics makes sense? Voters' choices depend on a host of irrational factors. Even those who try to choose rationally have to gather their information from an ever-changing kaleidoscope of facts, spin and images, thrown together seemingly at random.

But sometimes that very randomness holds clues to a pattern hidden beneath the surface of the media deluge.

In the always-darkest hour before dawn last Sunday I called up the New York Times website to find this intriguing headline in the lead: "Iraqi Offensive Revives Debate for Campaigns. " Clicking the link took me, not to the article, but to a full-page ad with the tittilating title "Scoring Drugs Is Easier for Teens Than You Think." Just a random coincidence, I figured, as I hastily clicked on "skip this ad."

That click did take me to the story headlined "Iraqi Offensive Revives Debate for Campaigns." But rather than the text of the article (which came below), I saw a photo captioned: "Senator John McCain greeting a local official on March 16 in Haditha, Iraq. He says recent Iraqi efforts are a sign of strength." There was the Republican candidate, looking younger than his 72 years, dressed in a red baseball cap and a sport shirt covered by a flak jacket. Behind him blond Americans and swarthy Iraqis beamed equally broad smiles. Apparently everyone is happy in Iraq, as long as John McCain is on the scene -- "a true American hero," according to his latest TV ad, ready for battle. The photo might well have been produced and distributed by the McCain campaign (though in fact it was taken by a Department of Defense photographer and distributed by Agence France Press).

Debate for campaigns ... teens scoring drugs ... McCain the war hero scoring political points by touting Iraqi war "strength." Already I was wondering if there really are any coincidences.

I moved on to the article, following Noam Chomsky's rule for reading the mainstream media: If there's anything important, it's usually at the end of the piece. So I jumped to the last paragraph, a quote from former State Department Middle East advisor Aaron Miller. If the current fighting "comes out well," Miller opined, "it will play to McCain's strength, his argument that the surge is working." But "if it comes out in a gray area and things start to unravel elsewhere," it will be all to the Democrats' advantage. "It's very much a question of what the ending is and whether it is clear cut."

I would have tossed this off as an obvious banality if I had not first stumbled on "Teens Scoring Drugs." But now I saw how it all fit together. McCain is offering us the war in Iraq just the way Ronald Reagan offered us the war on drugs. Both are wars that can never be won in any practical sense. But it's not about winning. It's about keeping up the fight. Because in both cases the "war" is theater. It's a show of moral clarity and certainty. And the show must go on.

The "war on drugs" has been going on for decades now. Every year it claims thousands of jailed victims and several billion of our tax dollars. No one who looks at the evidence can seriously think that all this will actually stop people from using drugs illegally.

In fact a whole academic industry studies the evidence seriously and pretty much proves that it's not really about stopping drug use at all. It's about lots of other things: keeping the drug-fighters employed, getting votes for "tough" politicians, diverting attention from more pressing problems, perhaps masking the real drug-related crimes so that they can continue unobserved. All these factors may also point to reasons that the Iraq war continues.

But the most sophisticated analyses of the war on drugs explore its deeper cultural role. As theater, it acts out a dramatic spectacle pitting good against evil. The point is not to put an end to evil, but to reassure ourselves that there is a clear and definite difference between good and evil.

How could we know that evil really exists unless we fight it unceasingly? And if we could not be sure that evil exists, how could we be sure that good exists? More importantly, how could we be be sure that we alone are the champions of good? But this show can go on only as long as evil persists, as long as "crimes" are committed. So the show must, and does, propagate the very crimes it's supposed to stop, in order to preserve our sense of moral clarity.

There's nothing new or radical in this kind of analysis. Every graduate student in sociology knows it all by heart.

What they and their professors may not yet have figured out is what the coincidence on the Times' website showed me: The war in Iraq -- and perhaps every war the United States fights -- is just as much a staged spectacle as the war on drugs. Most Americans are not interested in the complexities of Iraqi political infighting. As Aaron Miller so rightly pointed out, they just want a clear-cut ending, where good triumphs unmistakably over evil. They want to know: Will the good guys -- that's us, America -- win the day? Do we still have the ability and the will to succeed? Is America still, as the motto behind McCain in that latest TV ad claims, "a nation of courage"?

McCain and his campaign strategists understand (either consciously or just intuitively) that war is theater. They know how to write a script that evokes the mythic scenarios that have framed the discourse of American identity since colonial times. It's more than merely a script about good against evil.

It's about a particular kind of good: America as the embodiment of hope for Iraq, the Middle East, and the whole world; America freeing the world of the old chains of despotism, opening the way to a new, fresh life of democracy and abundance, American-style. It's about America as the land of the frontier, the nation of endless fresh starts, of perpetual youth and -- above all -- of innocence.

Which leads us back to teens scoring drugs. Why has the script of the war on drugs always focused on the threat to our children? It's not enough to depict drugs as a threat to public morals or worker productivity or whatever. The "war" gets strong public support only when it is all about the youth, the innocent victims who are the future of America, still needing our protection because they are too weak, too unformed, too impulsive to make sound, rational judgments on their own.

That's just the way the Bush administration, McCain and our mainstream media talk about Iraqis, of course: They can't possibly create a democracy, or any kind of stable government, on their own. We have to stay there until the job is done, or else leave them to suffer their own brand of adolescent chaos.

But for many Americans, the fate of Iraqis is not really the issue, just as the fate of our children and teenagers is not really the issue. These are just plot devices that allow us to act out the drama that really matters, the one that provides moral clarity: a clear-cut battle between the "better angels" of American society -- our frontier courage, our refusal to quit in the endless struggle against evil -- and the darker side of the American character, which takes the path of selfish ease, cutting and running when the going gets tough.

When McCain "says recent Iraqi efforts are a sign of strength," it sounds like he is talking about the Iraqis' strength. But in the larger context of the mythic drama, the question that drives the story is about America's moral strength. It's the same question at the heart of the "war on drugs" drama: Will the young and innocent have the strength to resist the path of selfish indulgence? And who is grown-up enough, mature enough, wise enough to protect them from that temptation?

The McCain campaign depends on keeping alive the first question, with the Iraqis playing the role of "our youth," so that it can supply the answer to the second question: Only John McCain, the war hero who turns old age into a political virtue, can summon our "better angels" and lead us courageously in the struggle against evil.

Before you laugh it off or shrug your shoulders in bewilderment and turn away, look at the puzzle of the polls. How to explain that some 60 percent to 70 percent agree with the Democrats that the war was a mistake, nearly all of them agreeing that U.S. troops should be withdrawn soon, yet only about 45 percent (give or take the margin of error) are willing to say they'll vote for Obama or Clinton rather than McCain? How to explain the recent poll (PDF) that asked the all-important independents which candidate they trust most to handle a national security crisis? Answer: Clinton 14 percent, Obama 13 percent, McCain 42 percent!

McCain's appeal may be even more irrational than most of what unfolds in our political arena. But the show will go on. And if we don't understand why the script packs the audience appeal that it does, we have no hope of changing it.

The Race John McCain Will Run

Nothing in Mitt Romney's campaign for president became him like the leaving of it. In his swan song, delivered to the Conservative Political Action Committee, Romney trotted out all the cliches that right-wingers love to hear. He warmed up the crowd with their perennial favorite villain, the "60s: "The threat to our culture comes from within. In the 1960s, there were welfare programs that created a culture of poverty. The attack on faith and religion is no less relentless. And tolerance for pornography, even celebration of it, and sexual promiscuity."

But the culture war no longer sells the way it used to, as Mike Huckabee is finding out the hard way. And despite Romney's obligatory praise of private enterprise capitalism, Republicans can hardly expect to win by running on economic issues. Even Barack Obama would be glad to hit the campaign trail asking, "Are you better off now, after seven years of conservative rule, than you were when Bill Clinton left office?" Case closed.

So Romney hastened through the economic gauntlet to get to the main attraction, the only issue that John McCain has any chance of winning on: "The greatest challenge facing America, and for that matter facing the entire civilized world: the threat of radical, violent jihad." They hate us and we hate them, Romney declared. So "we are a nation at war. We cannot allow the next president of the United States to retreat in the face of evil extremism."

But what if the next president were a black man or a woman? For conservatives, Barack and Hillary are equally frightening symbols of '60s culture, peace movement and all. They "would retreat, declare defeat," Romney solemnly warned. "And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child's play. About this, I have no doubt. I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

How inspiring! A superpatriot, putting country above self, quits the race so that we can all rally around the fighting maverick, the war hero who never says die, the only man who can save the civilized world: John McCain.

McCain's campaign strategists will put up one big sign in their headquarters: "It's the war on terrorism, stupid." They will do their damnedest to make the election a referendum on America's strength and resolve to achieve what Romney called "the burden of liberty to preserve this country." McCain will carry a banner inscribed with Romney's words: "By the providence of the Almighty, we will succeed beyond our fondest hope. America must always remain, as it has always been, the hope of the Earth" -- no matter how many bombs we have to drop to do it.

The McCain campaign may try to paint their opponent as the "peace candidate" -- the '60s liberal Democrat, too weak-willed, too relativist, too morally promiscuous to keep America strong. McCain's writers will surely insist that "victory" in Iraq is the litmus test of America's strength and resolve everywhere (though they'll never tell us exactly what "victory" might mean). What other script can they write and hope to win?

The last thing the Democratic strategists want is to let their candidate be backed into the "peace" corner. The Dems want the campaign to be, once again, all about "the economy, stupid." That's their sure winner. The more talk of war, the less the Dems can control the campaign debate. So they'd like to see the war remain where the foreign policy establishment has put it in recent months, on the back burner.

They've got another reason, too. Despite their somewhat different approaches to foreign policy, both are committed to maintaining American military preeminence (some dare call it empire) around the world. Specifically, they are committed to keeping a massive U.S. troop presence in or near Iraq to prevent (or so they hope) Iran from gaining more power in the Middle East.

So neither Clinton nor Obama have any interest in running as a genuine peace candidate (a la George McGovern in 1972), mobilizing the millions who want to reverse decades of U.S. imperialism. A president who gains office on a real peace platform would be beholden to the peace movement. That would be the foreign policy establishment's worst nightmare.

The departure of Romney, and the words he used to bid farewell, shine a clear light on the fundamental issue of the presidential campaign. Like all campaigns, it will boil down to a contest between two grand narratives about the meaning of America.

McCain's story is about America as the great avenger, dedicated to waging endless battle against evildoers who threaten civilization. The Democratic candidate will tell a story about America as the land of abundance, where some four-fifths of us deserve to live in material comfort, while we reach down to pull the submerged one-fifth up, at least a little bit.

(If Obama is the Dems' standard-bearer, he'll dress up that story in a larger narrative about America as a land where diverse people come together in harmony. He may have told Maureen Dowd he doesn't think about mythic narratives, but I don't believe it. Every winning campaign is built on a mythic narrative, as he surely knows. His own myth is too good, and he tells it too well, for it to be unintentional.)

In other words, the McCain campaign will strive mightily to turn the campaign into a referendum on George W. Bush's post-9/11 myth of America's battle against evil. The Democrats will try to make that myth a secondary issue. Both sides will run daily polls to see which way the political wind blows.

The fundamental (albeit unasked) question the public will have to answer is this: Did 9/11 really change everything? Do we want to remain in an endless war, full of endless tales of heroic glory and patriotic pride? Are the emotional satisfactions of enacting a cosmic drama of good against evil worth the exorbitant price in blood and treasure?

Or will we set 9/11 aside and act as if it were 1992 all over again (especially if Hillary is the candidate) or even (if Barack is the candidate) 1960? Will we treat the post-9/11 war fervor as a brief interruption in a long post-cold war turn from obsession with national security to obsession with material prosperity?

Here's what it comes down to: Do we want to emulate the post-World War I generation and return to "normalcy"? Or do we want to emulate the cold war generation and embrace what Dick Cheney (borrowing from an Eisenhower administration staffer) called "the new normalcy" of a permanent global battle? Among the many issues at stake in this fall's presidential campaign, that may turn out to be the most important of all.

Which creates quite a dilemma for those of us who have labored long and hard to end the war. If we continue to insist that the war is the nation's most urgent issue, though we are opposing McCain's stand on the war, we are endorsing and broadcasting the narrative he needs to win. If we decide that McCain must be defeated at all costs, we have to lay low and help the Democrats set the war issue aside, at least until after election day. Politics creates strange bedfellows. In that bed there are rarely any easy answers.

AlterNet is a non profit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our writers are their own.



The Theology of American Empire

Note: This is part of FPIF's new Religion in Foreign Policy Focus. for more, visit www.fpif.org.

American foreign policy is built on a deep foundation of Christian theology. Some of the people who make our foreign policy may understand that foundation. Most probably aren't even aware of it. But foundations are hidden underground. You can stand above them, and even take a strong stand upon them, without knowing they are there. When it comes to foreign policy, we are all influenced by theological foundations that we rarely see.

For example, few Americans have read the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential American theologian of the 20th century. Many have never even heard the name. Yet Niebuhr's thought affects us all. In the 1930s, he launched an attack on the liberal Christianity of the Social Gospel, a movement that powerfully influenced U.S. foreign policy in the first third of the 20th century. The liberals were starry-eyed fools, Niebuhr charged, because they trusted people to be reasonable enough to resolve international conflicts peacefully. They forgot the harsh reality of original sin.

Niebuhr wrapped that traditional notion of sin in a new intellectual package and sold it successfully, not only to theologians but to the foreign policy elite. Since the 1940s, foreign policy has largely been reduced to an endless round of debates about how to apply Niebuhr's "realism." Policymakers who still tried to follow the Social Gospel path have been marginalized and stigmatized with the harshest epithet a Niebuhrian can hurl: "unrealistic.�

It’s a Jungle Out There

Many policymakers, like much of the public at large, have come to find a strange comfort in the world as Niebuhr described it. They see a jungle where evildoers, who are all around, must be hunted down and destroyed. Though frightening, this world can easily become the stage for simplistic dramas of good against evil. And the moral certainty of being on the side of good -- the side of God -- can provide a sense of security that more than makes up for the constant terror. That was not what Niebuhr had in mind. But as he found out so painfully, once you let ideas loose in the world, you can't control what others do with them.

Niebuhr would have been pained to see what the neoconservatives have done with his ideas. Their theory starts out from his own premise: All people are born naturally selfish and impulsive. The godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, was (like most of the early neocons) an intellectual -- a teacher, writer, and editor -- and (like many of the early neocons) a Jew. But he turned to Christian theology to describe his Niebuhrian view of human nature: "Original sin was one way of saying this, and I had no problem with that doctrine." Selfish impulses, when they get out of control, can tear society apart, he warned. To preserve social order we need a fixed moral order. We therefore need a clear sense of the absolute difference between good and bad, strict rules that tell us what is good, and powerful institutions that can get people to obey those rules.

According to this worldview, organized religion has been the most effective institution to promote moral absolutes and self-control. Religion now needs to be strengthened to stave off a rising tide of moral relativism that, along with secular humanism, is breaking down the bulwarks of social order and threatening to release a flood of selfish impulse to drown us all in chaos. A favorite neoconservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, complains that American mass culture, dominated by skepticism and pleasure, is an "engine of social breakdown." The best antidote would be a "self-abnegating religious revival." Since that is not likely to happen, Krauthammer admits, the best place to recover moral discipline and will power is in foreign affairs: America must find the will to exercise its strength and become "confident enough to define international morality in its own, American terms."

Original Sin Goes Global

When neoconservatives apply their views to international relations, they deviate from Niebuhr's teaching. All people may be sinners, they imply, but not all nations. They assume an (often vaguely defined) hierarchy of nations. At the bottom are the enemies of America, consistently described as chaotic, irrational monsters who are incapable of self-control and bent on provoking instability and evil for its own sake. Above them are neutral nations and then U.S. allies near the top of the pyramid. At the top is the United States, in a class by itself because its national motives are good and pure, somehow untainted by original sin.

Neoconservatives insist on this hierarchy, with its dramatic contrast between the good United States and its evil enemies, because it gives them the sense of moral clarity and certainty that they rely on to hold back the relativism they fear. They bolster their sense of certainty by reducing international affairs to simplistic myths: black-and-white tales of absolute good versus absolute evil. (Here I use the word "myth" in its religious sense of a narrative story that expresses a community's worldview and basic values.) George W. Bush tapped into this mythic world when he said that the war on terrorism is "a monumental struggle between good and evil. But good will prevail." The outcome is certain, according to Bush, because "we all know that this is one nation, under God." But Americans must do their world-ordering job pretty much alone, since other nations and international institutions are too selfish to be trusted. The United States must rely primarily on military might, since the only language that the sinful evildoers understand is force.

The neoconservatives did not invent this myth. It goes back to the Puritan belief in "the new Israel" and Americans as God's chosen people, with the special privilege and responsibility of bringing order to a sinful, chaotic world. Most Americans are still likely to see their nation as the global hero fulfilling that sacred task. Only the United States, they believe in a great leap of faith, is moved by an unselfish desire to serve the good of all humanity by spreading ordered liberty.

Throughout the Cold War era, across the political spectrum, there was no doubting the name of the threatening evil: Communism. After a decade of drift and uncertainty in the 1990s, the September 11 attacks, despite their horror, allowed the nation to breathe easier, at least in terms of the theology of foreign policy. Once again, it seemed that everyone agreed on the name of the monstrous sinners, the source of instability. Rudolph Giuliani could have been speaking for most Americans when he explained that the cultural payoff of the war on terrorism was moral stability: "The era of moral relativism…must end. Moral relativism does not have a place in this discussion." That crusading tone of certainty gave Bush and the neoconservatives a very free hand in the early post-September 11 days, when they launched the invasion of Afghanistan. The administration then invaded Iraq with the approval of 75% of the U.S. public and nearly all the foreign policy elite.

Iraq War

The myth of U.S. moral and global supremacy -- Americans as the world's chosen people -- went largely unchallenged until the U.S. venture in Iraq went sour. The myth says that the good guys are supposed to win every time, because they are good. When the myth does not get played out in reality, people start to complain. If you look at the current debate about Iraq from the standpoint of myth and theology, the complainers fall into three broad groups.

First there is the mainstream of the foreign policy elite, made up of Democrats and more moderate Republicans. They complain that the Bush administration is pursuing the right goals but using the wrong tactics. That's because the elite still hold on to some shreds of the old Social Gospel view. They give most of the world a bit more credit for rationality; they fear the impulses of original sin a bit less. So they see military strength as one of several ways to secure America's global hegemony. They are more willing to take a multilateral approach and use the carrot as well as the stick � to pull diplomatic and economic levers before calling out the troops.

But these differences, though they can be very important, are largely ones of degree and tactics. Across the board, members of the foreign policy establishment, even the liberal Democrats, still give a very respectful (sometimes slavish) hearing to the great theologian Niebuhr. But they apply his "realistic" view of original sin only to other nations. The liberals among the elite, too, want their sense of moral clarity and certainty reassured by seeing it played out in a global drama of good against evil. So they make a huge exception for the supposedly pure and innocent motives of their own nation, the chosen people. They believe that the U.S. has a higher moral standing, which gives us the right and duty to rule. That's how they can justify the most ruthless policies against anyone who stands in their way.

The bipartisan elite may not value the display of American strength as an end in itself, the way neoconservatives do. They are willing to risk a short-term appearance of weakness in one place in order to bolster long-term U.S. strength everywhere else. But long-term strength (including a long-term military presence in Iraq) is still crucial, because they feel a sacred calling to enforce "stability" -- their favorite code word for a single global order that protects U.S. interests -- everywhere and forever.

The second group of war critics is on the right. A growing number of traditional conservatives criticize the administration and the bipartisan establishment for betraying genuine Niebuhrian "realism." These hard-core "realists" want the United States to recognize that it too is a sinful nation, limited in its goodness as well as its resources, all too likely to overreach and eventually destroy itself if it doesn't scale back its hubristic dream of enduring empire.

Thus the right-wing "realists" become strange bedfellows with the third group of war critics, the left-wingers, who, starting from very different principles, arrive at the same anti-imperialist conclusions. Though most of them don't know it, what makes leftists leftist is that they still champion many of the basic values of the Social Gospel movement. They do not accept the doctrine of original sin; they don't think people are inherently doomed to be selfish and unreasonable. They assume that the vast majority of people, if treated decently and given decent living conditions, will respond by being decent people. For the left, order and stability are not as important as human growth, creativity, and transformation. The key to a better world is not strength and dominance, but sharing and cooperation. And leftists often assume -- or at least hope -- that the long-term trend of history is leading to that better world, a view that is rooted in the biblical hope for redemption.
In Middle America

Leftists who are consistent extend their Social Gospel view to its logical conclusion: There are no monsters -- no inherently bad people -- only bad conditions. So the good guys versus bad guys myth always distorts reality. But a surprising number of leftists sacrifice logical consistency for the emotional pleasure of the traditional myth. For them, of course, the monsters are the Bush administration, the neoconservatives, sometimes the mainstream Democrats too, and always, above all, the corporate elite whose hand they see behind every gesture of U.S. imperialism.



This left-wing version of the myth does not play very well in middle America, or even on the coasts apart from a few ultra-liberal enclaves. The hardcore "realist" view may get slightly higher ratings, but not much. Most Americans still demand a heavy dose of moral idealism in their foreign policy. They want to continue believing in the myth of American innocence. They won't give in to a full-blown Niebuhrian pessimism about human nature -- at least not when it comes to American humans. And they don't want to believe that the economic and political leaders of their nation are utterly cynical "realists," devoid of ideals, caring only about money and power.

So the mass of the citizenry, sick and tired of losing in Iraq, swing in line behind the only critical voice they can support: the foreign policy elite. The public criticizes the administration for its inept effort in Iraq. But most citizens don't raise any questions about the long-term goals or the theological premises underlying them.

Only when something looks broken do people think about fixing it. The last time the U.S. foreign policy system broke down was when the United States suffered defeat in Vietnam. However, after a short period of radical questioning, a powerful reaction set in, fueled by the deep and widespread need for idealism and moral certainty. The neoconservatives got control of the public conversation in the late 1970s because they recognized that need and offered a Cold War myth that satisfied it.

The same need for moral clarity arose after September 11, but it's been bitterly betrayed by the failure in Iraq. How can we avoid a similar neoconservative reaction as we question the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy in the years to come? And if the Iraq debacle boots the neoconservatives out of power for good, how can we use this window of opportunity to challenge the most powerful alternative view, the bipartisan establishment consensus? From the outset it won't help to scorn the average citizen's idealistic view of America. That's like wishing away the Rocky Mountains. Claiming that this worldview is unrealistic would be caving in to a simplistic Niebuhrian "realism." After all, we on the left believe in our own idealism. We are happy to hear right-wing "realists" argue that Americans are no more idealistic than anyone else. But we forget that Americans are no less idealistic either. That includes even the most powerful leaders of the nation. Rather than demonizing them and dismissing their claim to good intentions outright, we would do better to look for common values that we can all agree on and then find progressive programs that can put those values into practice.

Different Moral Certainties

Just about all Americans, from Bush and Cheney and the CEOs of Exxon and Lockheed-Martin on down, sincerely want the nation to be secure. As long as our notions of security are built on the myth of well-meaning Americans versus ever-threatening evildoers who embody original sin, we can never dispense with the evildoers. They are as necessary in U.S. foreign policy as sin is in Niebuhr's theology. They always have to be out there threatening us, in our imaginations at least, in order for our pursuit of national security to make any sense at all.

The bipartisan consensus on U.S. foreign policy calls for us to be powerful enough to dominate them. But every step we take to dominate only antagonizes more people and makes some of them really want to harm us. As long as we keep on this self-defeating road, we are not a national security state. We are a national insecurity state. So, we need to redefine national security in a way that meets people's need for a second value that so many of us share: moral certainty. This involves a faith in some rock-bottom kind of goodness in the world, which many Americans believe has a special home here in the United States.

There is a special kind of goodness, rooted in a special kind of theology, that does have an old and honored home here -- the goodness of nonviolence. There have always been Christians who were certain that the only moral way to treat others, even enemies, is with love, not violence. They knew it because Jesus said it, right there in the Bible. In 19th-century America, the abolitionists and Thoreau turned the theology of nonviolence into a homegrown strategy for political change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. took this strategy a crucial step further. He preached that it's the government's role to help bring all people together in what he called "the beloved community" (something very much like what the Social Gospel called the Kingdom of God). Every government policy should promote "the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother [and sister]" -- the responsibility to help every person fulfill their God-given potential.

In King's words, no matter how bad a person's behavior, "the image of God is never totally gone." So, government must serve everyone, everywhere. No one can be written off as a monstrous evildoer, sinful beyond redemption. That was a moral certainty for King, an essential foundation of his religious faith. King knew all about moral clarity and certainty. He was willing to die for the truths he believed in so firmly. But he was not willing to kill.

A Different Narrative

With King as our guide, we could have a distinctly American foreign policy based on the conviction of absolute moral certainty we find in the Social Gospel and nonviolence traditions.. Our goal would always be to move the world one step closer to becoming a universal beloved community. We would no longer act out the myth of good versus evil. We would not demonize a bin Laden or Saddam -- or a Bush or Cheney. We would recognize that when people do bad things, their actions grow out of a global network of forces that we ourselves have helped to create. King said it most eloquently: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

We can never stand outside the network of mutuality, as if we were the Lone Ranger arriving on the scene to destroy an evil we played no part in creating. Just as Bush is tied to Osama, so each of us is tied to all those who do things that outrage us. We cannot simply destroy them and think that the outrages have been erased. To right the wrongs of the world, we must start by recognizing our own responsibility for helping to spawn those wrongs. Indeed, fixing our own part in the wrongs we see all over the world may be all that we can do.

But in the case of the United States in 2007, that alone would be more than a full time job for our foreign policy. We would have to, among other things:

  • end the occupation that creates a breeding ground for violent jihadis in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • reverse the policy of supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East;
  • stop participating in the mad rush for power and resources in Africa, which breeds disasters like Rwanda and Darfur;
  • withdraw support for the corporations and financiers who would strangle the emerging popular democracies in Latin America;
  • and treat everyone as our brothers and sisters, even the leaders of North Korea and Cuba and Iran.


In short, we would have to create a new notion of "national interest" based on the moral certainty that we are all threads in a network of mutuality that is the foundation of our national as well as individual life. Since our foundation is infinite and eternal, no one can threaten to destroy it, or us. Embracing that principle as the basis of foreign policy could set us on the road to a radically new way of thinking about genuine national security.

If that's not something all Americans can agree on, at least it's a program that gets the debate down to our most basic assumptions. This is a democracy. If the people want a religion-laden foreign policy based on the doctrine of original sin and the myth of good against evil, it's what we should have. But at least we should all talk about it together, openly and honestly.

Glued to Our Seats in the Theater of War

A week has passed since George W. Bush announced that U.S. troops will stay in Iraq in "a security engagement that extends beyond my Presidency." Last spring, those words would have evoked howls of protest from Democratic leaders. Now, scarcely a peep.


While the world was on August vacation, Republican and Democratic leaders moved toward a compromise. The outlines are clear enough: Some U.S. troops will start leaving Iraq soon, but tens of thousands will stay on indefinitely with a permanent mission of providing something called "overwatch." This open-ended "Korea model" seems to be a done deal. About the only issue left to debate is how fast the "transition" should happen, how quickly the troops that aren't staying should be "redeployed."


Peace activists who despair of the spineless Democrats should keep in mind that Bush and Cheney have compromised, too. In his most recent speech, just six years and two days after he became our tough-as-nails "war president," the Decider announced that he has decided to do what many Democrats and the peace movement have been demanding -- begin getting troops out of Iraq.


Yes, the numbers will be so pitifully small that many already claim they are meaningless. Nonetheless, it's a major shift in Bush's narrative. And that counts for something all too real, because the debate is hardly about policy any more. It's mainly about the stories we tell about policy -- and about "America." Perhaps it always was.


Every war is bound to turn into a story. Every war is experienced as dramatic spectacle -- the more mythic the better. It's no coincidence that the military refers to a battle zone as a "theater."


Political "battles" are high drama, too. On the campaign trail, the most gripping plot usually wins. In that context, a debate about the math of minimalist "drawdown" -- how many troops should leave and how soon -- is hardly the stuff of legend, the sort of thing to fuel public passions. And yet the two major parties have to conjure up the illusion of a profound, emotionally stirring difference between them. So they turn a debate like the present one about troop numbers and time frames into a contest between larger competing narratives.


Last spring, with the President's surge plan seemingly floundering, it looked like the Democrats were winning that contest. Then, over the summer, the administration began to catch up -- and not just by accident. According to the Washington Post:

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What Are the Democratic Candidates Really Saying about Iraq?

Start with the simplest, most basic fudge. Newspapers and the TV news constantly report on various plans for the "withdrawal of American troops" from Iraq, when what's being proposed is the withdrawal of American "combat troops" or "combat brigades." This isn't a matter of splitting hairs; it's the difference between a plan for full-scale withdrawal and a plan to remain in Iraq in a different military form for the long term. American combat brigades only add up to perhaps half of the troops we presently have in that country.

There is, in fact, quite a gap between withdrawal from that embattled land and the withdrawal of some American troops, while many of the rest hunker down on the enormous, all-but-permanent military bases the Pentagon has built there over the last four years -- while defending the largest embassy on the planet, now nearing completion (amid the normal woes that seem to go with American construction and "reconstruction") in Baghdad's heavily fortified but distinctly insecure Green Zone. And yet, thanks to the carefully worded statements of leading Democratic (and Republican) politicians now criticizing the Bush administration, as well as generally terrible reporting in the mainstream media, most Americans who don't make it to the fine print or who don't wander widely on the political Internet, would have no way of knowing that withdrawal isn't withdrawal at all.

Ira Chernus, Tomdispatch regular and author of Monsters To Destroy, takes a careful look at the leading Democratic candidates for president and raises a few crucial, if largely unasked, questions about the nature of the positions they are taking on the Iraq War. -- Tomdispatch Editor, Tom Engelhardt

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Bring Back the Body Count

"We don't do body counts," says America's soldier-in-chief, Tommy Franks. That's a damn shame.

During the Vietnam war, the body count was served up every day on the evening news. While Americans ate dinner, they watched a graphic visual scorecard: how many Americans had died that day, how many South Vietnamese and how many Communists. At the time, it seemed the height of dehumanized violence. Compared to Tommy Franks' new way of war, though, the old way looks very humane indeed.

True, the body count turned human beings into abstract numbers. But it required soldiers to say to the world, "I killed human beings today. This is exactly how many I killed. I am obliged to count each and every one." It demanded that the killers look at what they had done, think about it (however briefly), and acknowledge their deed. It was a way of taking responsibility.

Today's killers avoid that responsibility. They perpetuate the fiction so many Americans want to believe -- that no real people die in war, that it's just an exciting video game. It's not merely the dead who disappear; it's the act of killing itself. When the victim's family holds up a picture, U.S. soldiers or journalists can simply reply "Who's that? We have no record of such a person. In fact, we have no records at all."

This is not just a matter of new technology. There was plenty of long-distance impersonal killing in Vietnam too. But back then, the U.S. military at least went through the motions of going in to see what they had done. True, the investigations were often cursory and the numbers often fictional. No matter how inaccurate the numbers were, though, the message to the public every day was that each body should be counted. At some level, at least, each individual life seemed to matter.

The difference between Vietnam and Iraq lies partly in overall strategy. In Vietnam, there was no territory to be conquered and occupied. If U.S. forces seized an area, they knew that sooner or later the Viet Cong would take it back. The only way to measure "victory" was by killing more of them than they killed of us. In Iraq, the goal is control of place. U.S. forces can "take" Basra or Nassiriya and call it a victory, without ever thinking about how many Iraqis had to be killed in the process. So the body count matters less.

However, the end of body counts can not be explained simply by the difference in strategy. The old-fashioned body counts disappeared during the first war against Iraq, when the goal was still defined by territory: pushing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

It's much more likely that "we don't do body counts" because Vietnam proved how embarrassing they could be. As the U.S. public turned against that war, the body count became a symbol of everything that was inhumane and irrational about that war. The Pentagon fears that the same might happen if the Iraq war bogs down. How much simpler to deny the inhumanity and irrationality of war by denying the obvious fact of slaughter.

What I fear is a world where thousands can be killed and no one is responsible, where deaths are erased from history as soon as they happen. The body count was more than an act of responsibility. It was a permanent record. It made each death a historical fact. You can go back and graph those Vietnam deaths from day to day, month to month, year to year. That turns the victims into nameless, faceless abstractions. But it least it confirms for ever and ever that they lived and died, because someone took the time to kill and count them.

In Iraq, it is as if the killing never happened. When a human being's death is erased from history, so is their life. Life and death together vanish without a trace.

The body count has one other virtue. It is enemy soldiers, not civilians, who are officially counted. Antiwar activists rightly warn about civilian slaughter and watch the toll rise at IraqBodyCount.org. It is easy to forget that the vast majority of Iraqi dead and wounded will be soldiers. Most of them were pressed into service, either by brute force or economic necessity. As the whole world has been telling us for months, there is no good reason for this war, no good reason for those hapless Iraqi foot-soldiers to die. They are victims of brutality -- inflicted by their own government and by ours -- just as much as the civilians. They deserve just as much to be counted.

So let us bring back the body count. If we must kill, let us kill as one human being to another, recognizing the full humanity of our victims. Without a body count, our nation becomes more of a robotic killing machine. As we dehumanize Iraqis, we slip even further into our own dehumanization. Let us bring back the body count, if only to recover our own sense of responsibility to the world's people, to history, to our own humanity.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Email him at chernus@colorado.edu.

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