Political America: In Search of a Common Conscience

As much as I’ve always enjoyed Ogden Nash, the poet, I must confess that many of his writings have impacted me as if coming from the wisdom of a philosopher rather than the wit of an accomplished light verse mechanic. And, among his many vignettes, there is one that seems to have stayed inscribed on my head, as if sentry in eternal vigilance.

“There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball,” says Nash, “and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” As hard as I search for another type of accommodation where happiness can reside, conscience needs to be part of it, either by its presence or by its absence; conscience and the state of well-being appear irremediably intertwined. Of course, such conclusion in my part stems from defining conscience as the awareness of a moral-ethical aspect to one’s conduct together with a forceful desire to prefer right over wrong.

And therein lies the problem; we all claim ownership of a conscience… but what we are obviously lacking is a common conscience. How else can you explain a nation of over 300 million people, one would guess happy for the most part – if consumption is at the very least a low level indicator of that happiness– allowing their leaders to commit high crimes against humanity day after day of their lives? Directly, via orders carried out by the military in Iraq, Afghanistan and lesser known locations; or indirectly, via outright threats to groups and nations, or via bully resolutions most often inflicted as sanctions; economic punishment, as a rule, on undeserving peoples or nations, such as Cuba, or Iran, just because we judge the political behavior of their leaders out of step with ours.

Two happenings this past week give us a telltale of what political America is all about, at least with reference to its foreign relations component. On Wednesday, our Lecturer-In-Chief decided that it was high time – after four years – that he tell those loyal Cuban-Americans that populate Florida plus a splattering elsewhere, and who for the most part are die-hard Republicans, that Castro and his revolution remain anathema to this US. Then, on Saturday, the dove in America’s conscience had been scheduled to spread its wings for peace, at least in some major population centers. Sadly, what a telltale on both counts!

Hollow in moral authority, here is George W. Bush lecturing the world about a sovereign nation just a hundred miles away, in a preface to a wake for Fidel, submitting to the people in Cuba, as well as the rest of the world, the need for a regime change; and, in a shameful act, urging peacekeepers of the nation – police and military – to turn their backs to those in charge. Something reminiscent of America’s ever presence in other nations’ internal affairs, not out of idealistic friendship for people of those nations, but solely to serve the interests of powerful groups in this United States – wasn’t that what we told Chile’s police and military to help bring down Allende and install Pinochet?

If America wishes for other nations’ governments to evolve and perhaps resemble our own – which is beginning to look more and more like a joke or even a death wish – why is it that our government’s efforts always seem to be directed in a counterproductive way? Why must America resort to military threat, or economic sanctions that kill and impoverish people, but do absolutely nothing to enlist minimal change or even low level accommodation? Our decades-long sanctions against Cuba, not Castro, have made us only enemies of 11 million Cubans, even if one-quarter million hard-core anti-castristas exiles command some attention because of their votes in Florida. The latter, something that might soon change, as Cuban-American voters, chiefly Republicans, have become a minority (45%) among Hispanic voters in Florida, where they represented 80 percent just a decade ago. And non-Cuban Hispanic voters tend to vote with equal fervor… but for Democratic candidates.

US-instigated UN sanctions in the 90’s against Iraq, not Saddam Hussein, only did succeed in the hush-hush infanticide of at least one-half million Iraqi children, doing absolutely nothing else. And the sanctions imposed against the Palestinians post-Hamas victory in the 2006 elections… by the US, Israel and the me-too Europeans only brought pain and suffering, while also being instrumental in a fratricidal conflict and territorial fragmentation; and a resumption of an exclusionary peace process that is invalid and destined to fail. Now it’s sanctions against Iran, America’s enemy-du-jour!

Of course, the peace marches on Saturday did not amount to much. They never do. It’s the same decent people with conscience, few others bothered to join. Just because in these last four years Bush’s popularity ratings have plummeted from 80 to 30 percent, that doesn’t mean that 50 percent of the people have developed a common conscience towards peace and goodwill; only that they don’t care for the Current Occupant of the White House, as Garrison Keillor would say. Decency doesn’t seem to be contagious. Have you ever asked yourself how many of your “happy” neighbors have a clear conscience… and how many just don’t have a conscience at all? I bet Ogden Nash knew about the conscience-status of his neighbors.