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Far removed from ideal of shared citizenship


A hundred years ago, Henry James was celebrating New World, American innocence in his novels -- an innocence he contrasted with the jaded worldliness of old Europe. In the context of this year’s presidential election, the Jamesian perspective looks wrong-headed, even quaint. In much of Europe today, enlightened social welfare legislation is an article of faith. Health care is justly distributed; green parties and environmental activists are respected; family-friendly policies, parental leave and excellent day-care facilities are regarded as part and parcel of a civilized social-democratic polity. On the issue of capital punishment, Europe is light years ahead of the United States. It has been outlawed everywhere.

To be sure, there is still a flog ’em and hang ’em constituency in England, but it knows that it has no chance of bringing back the death penalty. Advocating state killing is the way people who cannot process anger express themselves -- it betrays an emotional immaturity.

European newspapers and TV journalists have been filing stories expressing incomprehension at the political ascendancy of a mediocrity like George W. Bush. His primitive instincts on the death penalty, his willingness to kill even when, as he confessed to “Late Night” talk show host David Letterman, he knows that the deterrent argument is probably bogus, leave the European reporter stunned. Just before I left England in early October, the main evening’s news hour, on a commercial TV channel, carried a segment of well over 10 minutes on the execution in Texas (in June of this year) of a man who was almost certainly innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Of course the guy was poor and black. His trial and subsequent petitions for review were a travesty of justice. The picture of the United States that emerged was of a barbarous country, a far cry from the land of the free or the home of the brave.

The day after the final presidential debate, I overheard a conversation between a slick, high-earning health care professional and his picture-perfect, blonde assistant. They both agreed that George W. was their man; the reasons they gave were downright ugly. The fellow conceded that Gore was smarter, but the clincher for him was Bush’s commitment to the American dream, which he construed as the opportunity to make lots of money and not to have the federal government putting its hands on his wallet. The well-being of the nation didn’t even figure as a vestigial idea in this man’s thinking.

Less than a quarter of a mile from where these sentiments were being voiced, grinding poverty traps generation after generation of young people, mostly black, who have no hope of a stake in this country. If we were to be honest, we would have to admit that the poor do not belong; I am not sure whether they are thought of as Americans at all. Poverty is considered an un-American activity, rather like joining the Communist Party in the 1950s. Of course, our successful health-care professional does not live near where he works. After hours, he doesn’t want proximity to the shabby, inner-city neighborhood a few blocks from his office. So he drives to a MacMansion in a denatured place where distance acts as an invisible moat, protecting him from the underclass that the politics of selfishness he supports has created.

What concerns me is how far the United States has moved from an ideal of a republic of shared citizenship. When I arrived here years ago, I remember feeling some satisfaction at the prospect of living in a republic. I had grown up in the United Kingdom, a subject (of her Majesty), not a citizen -- something that galled me from the time I could comprehend such things. The French national anthem in its celebration of les citoyens seemed vastly superior to my own country’s servile, pious nonsense, imploring God to send the monarch “victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us.”

Now, after decades of living here and long involvement in American politics, I have watched the republic degenerate into a plutocracy, owned and operated by giant corporations. The notion of a republic of shared citizenship and a politics that has as its goal the search for the common good has been all but lost. The level of political discussion in the media is scary, particularly in those focus groups that television news programs now favor. Participants seem to have no grasp of the issues affecting their lives. They simply do not know how to think politically. What we are seeing is the evil of banality -- to invert Hannah Arendt’s apothegm.

Ann Pettifer, a freelance writer, is the publisher of Common Sense, an alternative newspaper at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001