How Do You Like the 21st Century So Far?

On Tuesday, November 4th, we Americans made history.  As Journalist Bill Moyers pointed out on NPR, the albatross of racism has been lifted from around many American necks.  I include myself in this category.  I also feel as if the 2008 national election is the first bright spot in a dismal decade.
The new century was hardly underway when the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks bloodily and dramatically signaled the end of America’s brief illusion that, as the world’s sole superpower at the end of the Cold War, Uncle Sam could do anything he liked and get away with it.
A strong case can be made that we over-reacted to the Nine/Eleven attacks.  Launching a two-front war from which we have been unable to extricate ourselves is deemed by many Americans to have been a colossal blunder.  If you believe that fighting terrorism is essentially police work, and that our military forces are creating more radical Islamists than they are killing, then the Afghan and Iraqi wars were a bad idea.  If, on the other hand, you believe that America needs a stable Middle East to secure vital oil supplies, then the Bush Administration’s gross underestimate of the price in lives in treasure required to pacify the region makes the Afghan and Iraqi wars a bad idea.
More troubling to me is the financial crisis precipitated by Wall Street’s greed and Washington’s unwillingness to regulate the financial world’s shenanigans.  As Moyers said the other night on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” since the Bush people have no respect for federal regulation of business, they saw no reason to dampen the redistribution of wealth to the financial/power elite that occurred over the past eight years.  The Bush tax cuts contributed mightily to this largesse for the elite.  The War on Terror also contributed mightily.  For example, Halliburton, which made Dick Cheney a multi-multi-millionaire between Bush I and Bush II, has been rewarded with billions in defense contracts since the start of hostilities.  What the tax cuts and war didn’t put in the top five-percent’s pockets, they stole.
I don’t know what kind of a president Obama will make.  Two years ago I wrote him off as a flash in the pan.  A year ago I criticized his lack of national-service experience.  As Senator Joe Lieberman said at the Republican National Convention last summer, Obama is a talented man of great potential.  But, as Lieberman added, the ability to make an inspiring speech is no substitute for experience.
That being said, his themes of “hope” and “Yes, we can” are sorely needed now.  He seems to be surrounding himself with the wealth of experience he himself lacks, starting with Joe Biden.  By the time this column appears, he most likely will have picked a Treasury Secretary of comparable stature.  Jack Kennedy was younger, when elected, than Obama is now.  JFK was tested and made some early blunders at his first summit with the Soviet Union’s leader and at the Bay of Pigs.  But by October 1962 he was sufficiently seasoned to surmount the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Obama, too, is a quick study and a gutsy guy.
Even if he turns out to be a mediocre president, his election by a wide majority marks a departure from America’s centuries of racism.  It validates and renews Jefferson’s claim that America is the last, best hope of the world.  It supports our claim that our greatest strength is our diversity.
The challenges facing President Obama and the rest of us are daunting.  The current financial crisis will subside.  The challenge of a global marketplace occupied by an ascendant China, a resurgent Russia, and other energetic and powerful economic competitors is with us for good.  Islamic militants probably won’t quit until they succeed in detonating a nuclear device on US soil, or we succeed in killing them, while also making peace with the moderate majority of the Muslim world.  We who work in education must somehow manage to increase the demoralizing high school graduation rates of our largest cities, while providing our college students with all the skills they need to compete in a world where young Americans are no longer guaranteed to do better than their parents.
The half century that has comprised most of this writer’s life, from the late 1940s down to the turn of the new century, was a sort of Golden Age in the USA.  Getting by was a piece of cake.  Relative affluence was possible for the vast majority.  The Cold War with its doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction created a sort of “Pax Atomica” interrupted relatively rarely by low-level conflicts in Asia and elsewhere.  Ronald Reagan was the last US president to know what was wanted: “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.”
Since 1988, our brief ascendancy to sole superpower-ship has plunged into confusion, greed, and blind stupidity.  I don’t know if President Obama is the man to reverse this trajectory.  But unless you think that the first eight years of the new millennium were good times, you need to join those of us who hope.
[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost/Associate Council at Rider University.  His 17th book, “Al Qaeda Goes to College,” will be published by Greenwood/Praeger next spring.]


2 Responses to “How Do You Like the 21st Century So Far?”

  1. Great article, Jim. I agree with you on everything with one exception… Obama can’t be a mediocre President. To make a bad pun, his results are going to be measured in black and white. He promised HOPE and CHANGE. The GOP will obviously attack most of his “change”, but I feel that the majority of the people that supported with also attack him if this “change” doesn’t do as much as his promised.

    Healthcare? Medicare? The economy? The war? We all believe that Obama can change that all, don’t we? Then why did we vote for him? Only because he’s African-American?

    I don’t think the majority of the American voting public is pragmatic or realistic. To most people, there isn’t too much subtlety in politics, which is why negative attacks during the election work so well. Will they see Obama as going too far or not enough? Or will he indeed live up to his election theme?

    More thoughts here:

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