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imperialism & war

All the Message We Needed

"Our focus on individualism means many of our collective needs go unmet... My hope is that we as a people heed the message, scrape away `might makes right' and send a message to our government that we want a human foreign policy." Victorio Stoppiello is a writer in Washington state.
All the message we needed

By Victoria Stoppiello

[Victoria Stoppiello writes from Ilwaco, at the lower left corner of Washington State. Her column "From the Lower Left Corner" is printed in The Upper Left Edge, February 2002.]

A remarkable year just closed, and a new one is unfolding. It's a natural time to review the past. Because there have been so many references to "the tragic events of September 11," I think of tragedy. I'm thinking tragedy, but as an old lit major I'm thinking of tragedy in an older, more classic definition, "a hero brought low." To elaborate, I was taught that tragedy is when a basically good main character, who has attained a position of success, including power, respect, and usually wealth, comes to an unhappy end because of his own fatal flaw. Think Oedipus, the protagonist of ancient Greek drama. Think of Shakespeare's Lear and Othello, or O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton. They all fit the hero's mold, but lost much because of a very personal failing, the classic "tragic flaw".

Think U.S.A. In the last 70 years, sometimes referred to as "the American Century," it's been quite a ride. From a "minding our own business," mostly agrarian country, focused primarily on our own vast nation, we've become the world's only military super power, involved on every continent.

The US fits the hero's mold pretty well: strong, ingenious, powerful, controlling vast natural and human resources, generating huge amounts of wealth, being the first to respond and help during a natural calamity, with a constitution that is the envy of most of the world. "The land of opportunity." "The land of the free and home of the brave." All of it is true.

But, there are other truths about our country. Our focus on individualism means many of our collective needs go unmet. Many of our community needs go begging. Many of our own citizens live in grinding poverty, and yet in contrast on a world scale our consumption is way out of balance compared with other societies. Perhaps it will prove to be our fatal flaw: our over-emphasis on materialism. It's led us down a path of injustice at home and in the world community. Our government acts on our behalf to control or exploit resources from other nations. If you scratch our foreign policy, you'll often find greed underneath.

In the sixties, leftists and anti-war protestors frequently referred to "US imperialism." I never took the term seriously, but now I do. The end of the Cold War left the U.S. alone on the stage, continuing an arms race with no competitors, refusing to cooperate with other nations on global warming, and threatening anyone with misgivings about the US approach to controlling terrorism. American power, which could be used for so much good, which could bring justice and democracy everywhere, instead maneuvers to control oil and pipelines. Our power could be used to lend a helping hand wherever it's needed, could be used to extend health care and education around the world. But all this is unlikely when our chief use of power is to get more for ourselves.

In classic tragedy, the hero usually gets warnings of dangers ahead. We in the audience know which daughter King Lear should trust, but Lear goes on in blissful pride and arrogance, preferring flattery over truth - to his downfall. A spiritual teacher of mine said the universe gives us small lessons. If we pay attention and learn from them, we escape with scratches. If we ignore the small ones, the lessons increase in force, until we get a lesson that's like a brick wall falling on us, impossible to ignore. I've never forgotten that advice, and when I feel my stubbornness and self-absorption running into obstacles and opposition, I stop to consider if maybe I'm out of line this time. I'm hoping that will be a part of our society's response to events in the new year.

I believe most Americans are all the good things the US stands for: hardworking, friendly, generous, tolerant, compassionate, willing to cooperate. But we've gotten swept away by materialism, partly because that's what we've been taught (and told) by corporate messages in the media. We all know there's far more to life than that. So my hope for the New Year is that the tragedy of September 11 was all the message we needed, that we as a people heed it, scrape away all the "might makes right" rhetoric, and send a message to our government that we want a foreign policy that exemplifies one of our highest cultural values: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

["Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any equal hope in the world?" - Abraham Lincoln]

["Whoever kindles the flames of intolerance in America is lighting a fire underneath his own home." - Harold Stassen]

["The voice of the intelligence is soft and weak, said Freud. It is drowned out by the roar of fear. It is ignored by the voice of desire. It is contradicted by the voice of shame. It is hissed away by hate and extinguished by anger. Most of all it is silenced by ignorance." - Karl Menninger]

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