Do you feel like tucking your head under your wing and letting the world go by? You are not alone. When political discourse—such as the current combat over the federal budget—is this frighteningly unhinged from on-the-ground reality, a raw will to power is in play.
Never mind all the spin, the carefully crafted arguments and charts: we are witnessing the desire to dominate at all costs. This chilling reminder of the debased character of contemporary electoral politics resembles the sort of epic battle characteristic of the old West, Hollywood version. But very few of those enacting this drama are willing to call it what it is: a shootout.
Republicans are claiming the power to stop government from functioning if their demands for ever-increasing cuts in current-year spending are not met. In recently reported White House conversations with House Republicans, called by the Obama administration to head off a federal government shutdown on Friday, President Obama has trumpeted his willingness to meet Republican demands. “As I’ve said before, we have now matched the number that the speaker originally sought,” the New York Times reported. “The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.”
In this Gunfight at The DC Corral, President Obama is the mild-mannered marshal—Glenn Ford might have played him, or Denzel Washington—who eats humble pie for as long as he can stomach it, even as the audience sees that the head outlaw will never back down.
According to the Times piece linked above, Marshal Obama “encouraged Mr. Boehner to ‘figure out how to go to your caucus and declare victory. You’re already most of the way to where you wanted to go.'” This is the real-life equivalent of the scene where Glenn or Denzel lays his gun and badge on his desk, mounts his horse, and rides out of town.
In the movies, of course, that is when something happens: a stouthearted woman or intrepid young boy gallops after the marshal and shows him the big picture, reminding the man that his duty to the community supersedes all else. I wish I could be sure that would happen here, but honestly, I doubt it. Most of the actors in this drama have their faces pressed close to the action; real perspective, a grasp of the big picture, is hard to find.
The Republican budget unveiled this week by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan is full of smoke and mirrors. Click around the last few days of Paul Krugman’s blog, and you’ll find clear descriptions of many of them: made-up figures from the extreme-right Heritage Foundation, so indefensible that Heritage actually retracted them; wildly optimistic revenue projections with absolutely nothing to back them up; huge transfers of public debt to private indebtedness; and much, much more.
But that still doesn’t encompass the big picture. In our national movie, the intrepid kid riding up to Marshal Obama to call him back to public responsibility says, “Wait, Marshal. The outlaws are hiding something, and when people hear about it, they’ll be on your side. They said we have to cut spending to save the country, but they lied about what they are doing. They put in a whopping tax cut for their own gang—almost a third off current taxes—then doubled spending cuts to make up for it! And Marshal, listen to this, they didn’t even touch the war budget! They left it right where you put it, 5 percent higher than the Defense Department’s spending plan!”
The details of this home truth are nicely laid out in a piece by Ben Armbruster at ThinkProgress.org. And here’s a concise piece by Igor Volsky and Pat Garofalo from the same source about major issues in Ryan’s budget exposed by the Congressional Budget Office report.
Pull back from the details far enough to bring the big picture into focus, and here’s what you see: a national bullying campaign willing to sacrifice the elderly and ill to further enrich the wealthy—at a time when the gap between rich and poor beggars imagination—and to further bloat a war budget that dwarfs any other on the planet. We spend more than twice as much of our GDP on the military as any other country; more than six times as much as the next largest military budget (China’s); and in all, close to half of what the rest of the top 15 spend in the aggregate.
When it comes to public policy, the big-picture questions I keep asking are what we ought to be talking about now. I intend to keep asking them as long as I can: Who are we as a people? What do we want to be known for, our pursuit of liberty, justice, and well-being for all, or our willingness to sacrifice the common good to enrich the few? What do we want to be remembered for, our vast creativity, or our prodigious ability to punish?
The bullies who want us to cower compliantly while democracy is sold to the highest bidder are feeling very self-confident right now, comfortable with throwing their weight around. The way to stand up to a bully is to raise our own hands and our own voices, proclaiming the big-picture truth. Forget the numbing inside-baseball debate that diverts attention from the rawness of the Gunfight at The DC Corral. We need to be the kid who reminds the marshal of his duty: “You made a mistake, Marshal Obama, when you proposed a defense budget with a real value higher even than George Bush’s or at the height of the Cold War. Now the outlaws are compounding that mistake by expecting the rest of us to pay for billions in lost revenues from the tax cuts for their gang. Turn around and do the right thing before it’s too late!”
In the movies, as the marshal races back to his duty, he deputizes passing townspeople. When he walks into the bright evening to face the head outlaw, there’s an enormous posse at his back. Its members—in ten-gallon hats and homemade bonnets, floursack dresses and bespoke suits—see each other, as if for the first time, and stand a little taller. It’s an aha! moment: There are so many more of us than of outlaws. We could have stood up to them anytime. In the instant before the credits roll, the marshal makes a little speech.
Who are we as a people? What do we want to be known for, our pursuit of liberty, justice, and well-being for all, or our willingness to sacrifice the common good to enrich the few? What do we want to be remembered for, our vast creativity, or our prodigious ability to punish?
The message that calls us to remember who we are can come from any source. Often, artists’ voices are raised before others, pointing to patterns obscured by the noise and smoke of the shootout. I want to pull the lens back for a global wide-shot, dedicating this next song to two artist heroes who spoke truth to power:
Juliano Mer-Khamis, actor and leader of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, was shot and killed on Monday, reportedly by masked Palestinians. The child of an Israeli Jewish mother and a Palestinian Christian father, Mer-Khamis continued to make art and insist on freedom of expression despite a level of threat most human beings would find intolerable.
The day before, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained by authorities as he tried to board a flight at Beijing International Airport; he has not been heard from since then (although it was announced this morning that he is being held and accused of “economic crimes.” Ai Weiwei has been a powerful advocate for and exemplar of free expression in China, and an international artworld star.
Using the language of art, both Juliano Mer-Khamis and Ai Weiwei took great risks to speak the big picture in their own true voices, and their voices rang out. No doubt, Mer-Khamis’s memory will inspire many others; and we can hope that Ai will live and prosper to rebuke injustice another day.
Meanwhile, here as around the globe, often the most important thing we can do is “Tell It Like It Is.” This is the definitive Aaron Neville version, going out to all those elected officials trifling with our hearts and minds.