According to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Extremes, the 20th century didn’t truly begin until 1914. World War I, with its new technologies of violence and effective termination of several empires, brought what Hobsbawm called the “long 19th century” to a close. Those with a more scientific bent might date the beginning of the 20th century to the first flight of the Wright brothers (1903) or the first transatlantic phone call (1915). If you prefer to think of the last 100 years as dominated by Hollywood and the global image factory, the 20th century began prematurely in 1896 when the first movie premiered in New York.
The profound changes that mark an era rarely correspond to a calendar’s shifts. Even Jesus Christ came into this world several years before the millennial turning point to which he gave his name. In other words, an era dawns two ways, chronologically and metaphorically.
Our choices for the metaphorical dawn of the 21st century are rather bleak. Here are a few possibilities: the outbreak of fighting in Yugoslavia in 1991, the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 report on the incontrovertible evidence for global warming, the attacks of September 11, the Iraq War, and last year’s dizzying stock market crash.
If these events set the tone for this century, we are in deep trouble. We face a long economic decline, a slowly increasing heat wave, growing anarchy and violence, and lousy governance. As these trends converge, we face not the “perfect storm” but the “last storm.” We’re all living on borrowed time (which gives us the name of our epoch, according to a recent contest in The Nation).
But let’s pretend that we’ve simply gotten off on the wrong foot with this century. In a friendly round of golf, if you make a lousy tee shot, you can declare a “mulligan” and do the shot over. We’ve certainly sent the ball into the woods this time around. So let’s call a “mulligan” and start over.
And what better time for a new start than Inauguration Day 2009? Millions have descended on Washington, DC to witness something they didn’t think they’d see in their lifetimes: an African-American president, a moment to be a proud American, or simply a measure of hope for the future.
In this excerpt from her poem Inaugural, part of our latest selection of Fiesta! pieces on the intersection of the culture and global issues, Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kathy Engel captures the hopeful moment:
this is a time to intervene in matters
of bureaucratic pain and idiocy
and not accept the appropriate
a time to make small things matter
and imagine big things
this is a time to turn the faucet off
and rain poems
In an interview with fellow poet and Fiesta! regular E. Ethelbert Miller, Engel talks more about the inspiration behind her poem. “There are times, and perhaps this is one of them historically, when crisis leads to greatness,” she says. “Perhaps these challenging economic times, along with the layers of possibility signified by Obama’s leadership, will lead to rounder thinking. We live in abundance and act out of a sense of scarcity. Even in this crisis we are surrounded by abundance, just not shared abundance. At the same time, there is famine in Zimbabwe, occupation in Iraq and Palestine, chaos and uprootedness, unhealed wounds, displacement, and poverty in the Gulf Coast. Generosity can become pragmatic and be implemented by programs and policies. But it is a way of walking into the day. Fundamentally, the politics of generosity can’t be separated from the politics of listening and empathy.”
Much of the focus of Inauguration Day will naturally be on Barack Obama. He has become a symbol of a new beginning. And he is a remarkable person. But as environmental justice activist Van Jones points out in a recent New Yorker profile, we need to take another leap of imagination and perspective.
“I love Barack Obama,” Jones told a group of high-school dropouts in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “I’d pay money just to shine the brother’s shoes. But I’ll tell you this. Do you hear me? One man is not going to save us. I don’t care who that man is. He’s not going to save us. And, in fact, if you want to be real about this — can y’all take it? I’m going to be real with y’all. Not only is Barack Obama not going to be able to save you — you are going to have to save Barack Obama.”
What does it mean to “save” Barack Obama? At a basic level, this is a call for individual responsibility and accountability. Everyone must pitch in to pull the world back from catastrophe: participate in rebuilding communities, reduce energy consumption, engage in the democratic life of the country. This spirit of voluntarism draws on what Lincoln, in his first inaugural, called “the better angels of our nature.”
But if we are truly going to make this Inauguration Day the defining moment of this century – and make a mulligan out of the horrors that have come before — it requires something more. We have responded to calls for change. To “save” Obama, we must sustain these calls for change even as they are diluted into marketing jingles like IKEA’s dispiriting Embrace Change campaign. We must gird ourselves for authentic transformation.
Closing Guantánamo, cutting a few nukes, withdrawing some troops from Iraq: these are important steps for America to take, but they are not enough. On this Inauguration Day of hope and inspiration, let’s inaugurate not only a new president but something more profound: a new way of living on this earth. Only then can we save the 21st century from the shadows cast by September 11, global warming, and the economic crisis and make it truly a “people’s century.”
From Arms to Art
The end of the Great Depression, some scholars assert, came not with FDR’s famous social programs. It came with World War II and the shift to a war economy. This military Keynesianism threatens to return, as the new president has pledged to expand the size of the army, send a “surge” to Afghanistan, and maintain astronomically high levels of military spending.
What if artists, rather than soldiers, were at the forefront of bringing our economy out of its tailspin? “The United States is the largest exporter of arms in the world. Imagine what would happen if we became the largest exporter of the arts instead,” FPIF poetry editor Melissa Tuckey and I write in From Arms to Art. “This is just one of the ways that an art stimulus package could be used to change the way America relates to the world. By turning swords into paintbrushes, the United States could play a more constructive global role.”Support an arts stimulus package by signing our petition.
Israel has declared a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza and begun withdrawing troops. It claims victory, since the rocket attacks from Hamas have ceased. But Hamas, too, has declared victory since it stood up to Israel and didn’t surrender. The death toll: 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
The United States is no innocent bystander in all of this. As FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan points out in Israel and the United States: Up in Arms, “Hardware continues to flow in, despite the fact the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) requires nations receiving U.S. arms to certify the weapons are used for internal security and legitimate self-defense, and that their use doesn’t lead to an escalation of conflict. During 2008 alone, the United States made over $22 billion in new arms sales offers to Israel, including a proposed deal for as many as 75 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, worth up to $15.2 billion; nine heavy transport aircraft, worth up to $1.9 billion; four Littoral Combat Ships and related equipment, worth as much as $1.9 billion; and up to $1.3 billion in gasoline and jet aviation fuel.”
Noam Chomsky, in an interview with FPIF contributor Sameer Dossani, further deconstructs the myth of the U.S. role. “Here it’s always presented as though the United States must become more engaged; it’s an honest broker; Bush’s problem was that he neglected the issue,” Chomsky explains. “That’s not the problem. The problem is that the United States has been very much engaged, and engaged in blocking a political settlement and giving the material and ideological and diplomatic support for the expansion programs, which are just criminal programs. The world court unanimously, including the American justice, agreed that any transfer of population into the Occupied Territories is a violation of a fundamental international law, the Geneva Conventions. And Israel agrees. In fact even their courts agree, they just sort of sneak around it in various devious ways. So there’s no question about this. It’s just sort of accepted in the United States that we’re an outlaw state. Law doesn’t apply to us.”
The New Militarism?
If George Shultz and Henry Kissinger favor the abolition of nuclear weapons, surely the United States is heading in that direction, right? Not so fast.
In our latest strategic dialogue, FPIF contributors Russ Wellen, Darwin BondGraham, and Will Parrish square off on the future of U.S. nuclear policy.
Wellen points to the latest nuclear deal with India as only the most recent evidence that the United States has given up its leadership on nuclear issues. “Under the Bush administration, the United States has maintained much of its nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert, refused to renounce first-use, and sought to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons,” he writes in Abdicating U.S. Nonproliferation Leadership. “Also, we’ve signed a preliminary deal to station interceptor missiles in Poland. Ostensibly intended as a defense against Iranian missiles, it’s perceived as a threat by Russia, which reacted by moving missiles of its own to its border with Poland.”
BondGraham and Parrish challenge the notion that the U.S. foreign policy elite have embraced a world without nuclear weapons. They argue that the “anti-nuclear nuclearism” of Kissinger, Shultz and others applies only to “preventing non-nuclear states from going nuclear, or else preventing international criminal conspiracies from proliferating weapons technologies and nuclear materials for use as instruments of non-state terror. In other words, it’s about other people’s nuclear weapons, not the 99% of materials and arms possessed by the United States and other established nuclear powers.”
In response, Wellen acknowledges that there are anti-nuclear proponents who covertly favor retaining U.S. nuclear weapons. But he believes that some, like Sam Nunn, pass the anti-nuclear test. As for Shultz, “it behooves us to remember his reaction at Reykjavik when Mikhail Gorbachev said of nuclear weapons, ‘We can eliminate them.’ Shultz’s reply: ‘Let’s do it!’” Although BondGraham and Parrish in their response “fear the scenario Wellen lays out — continuing influence of hyper-militaristic right-wing elements — we don’t see this as the most likely, nor the most dangerous, scenario under the coming administration.”
In an article originally published in Japan Focus, meanwhile, I look at some of the pop culture gimmicks “that the Japanese military has used to improve its image in recent years and overcome the deeply engrained pacifist tendencies of the Japanese population. In recruitment posters, professional female models proclaim in English, ‘Peace People Japan, Come On!’ A music festival sponsored by the military brings in 40,000 people for annual performances that include sexy young women from the pop music scene. The overall message is that Japan’s new military is fun, flirtatious, and yet family-oriented — a far cry from the message that the U.S. military projects of strength, determination, and leadership. If the U.S. Army is from Mars, its Japanese counterpart is clearly from Venus. Such are the inescapable influences of Japan’s kawai culture of Hello Kitty and giggling schoolgirls. Don’t be fooled. The new Japanese military is far from cuddly.”
Finally, in an op-ed originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, FPIF contributor Aaron Glantz urges Eric Shinseki, the new secretary of veteran affairs, to make it easier for disabled veterans to get their benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs routinely delays wounded soldiers’ disability claims for months and years, often shunting them into poverty and homelessness.”