'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Brief Visit to the Carter Museum 

My wife and I spent much of Thanksgiving Week in Georgia. Not being familiar with the Deep South, she was a little unnerved by the proliferation of Baptist churches and the open display of the Confederate flag, especially in the mountains of North Georgia. People from the more diverse, cosmopolitan regions of the country are sometimes mystified by the effectiveness of Karl Rove's campaign tactics, but, after this trip, my wife undertood it instinctively.

Yesterday, before traveling to the airport for our flight home, we drove over to the Carter Museum and Library. Politically, it is easy to dismiss Carter, despite his evolutionary rehabilitation over the years. Cockburn is correct: Neoliberalism won the day on his watch. His much advertised emphasis upon human rights was fraudulent. As with Pope John Paul, the invocation of human rights was a sword to use almost exclusively against Communist regimes.

Arms continued to flow to repressive regimes, with the public distracted by highly publicized personal requests by Carter that dissidents be released from prison. Upon leaving office, not much has changed. James Petras has mercilessly exposed the role of the Carter Center in facilitating the removal of democratically elected governments hostile to US interests, an effort that experienced a rare failure during the recall referendum against Hugo Chavez in 2004.

In a world in which we have been forced to substitute the intimidation and violence of military neoliberalism for the earlier, softer coercion of its parent, one cannot resist stating the obvious. Recalling Yeltsin's famous quote about himself, Gorbachev and perestroika, if Carter, the messianic monitor of voting rights did not exist, the US would have had to invent him. And, in a sense, it did, as the Center is funded by private donations from individuals, foundations and corporations.

Carter's recent criticisms of the war in Iraq and Israel's suppression of the Palestinians are most properly understood, as those of his National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, as indicative of a disagreement with the neoconservatives as to how US power within the Middle East can be preserved. But, of course, I knew all this before going into the museum, and, while it predictably casts Carter and his presidency in an appealing light, it, consistent with Carter's self-effacing, technocratic temperment, does so in an understated way.

I was especially struck by the sense of time and place. Carter emerged in an era very different from the one in which we now live. After the excesses of LBJ and Nixon, the public was suspicious of outwardly egotistical political figures. In 1976, Carter outlasted the self-deprecating Mo Udall, another figure whose success was dependent upon the post-Watergate mood, while the stoical Ford survived the challenge of the charismatic Reagan. He and his wife, Rosalynn, engaged the public directly, symbolized by their walk down Pennsylvania Avenue for his inaugural speech.

Carter, as later, with Clinton, consciously eschewed the trappings of the imperial presidency, and emphasized a religious inspiration for his life in politics quite different than the fundamentalist kind repeatedly described by Bush. He, with a charming naivete, has sought to live a life of humble Christian service, and, while President, believed that the public would respond to his example, and his attempts to educate them. It was a simpleminded idealism that might have been very effective in a communitarian society, but it was destined to fail in the crucible of the final stages of the Cold War, with the contours of the coming neoliberal order, designed to drain away the energy of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, already visible.

Accordingly, it was now the primary function of leaders to depoliticize the social life of their countries, not encourage it, and sadly, a lot of people were ready to acquiesce. Carter, unlike his successors, lacked a clear understanding of his role, and, hence, swung between social and economic policies that disempowered people, and attempts to motivate people through education, appeals to rationality and community involvement (and, if necessary, sacrifice, as with his national energy policy).

In other words, Carter actually believed that Americans, and, indeed, people everywhere, could be persuaded to endorse an increasingly deregulated, privatized world under the benign oversight of the US, and, curiously enough, he still seems to believe it today. For others, the toppling of the Shah of Iran, and the subsequent hostage crisis that overwhelmed his presidency, persuaded them that a more cynical, sophisticated approach was required.

In the future, the public would be discouraged from believing that they had any capacity to effect meaningful social change, the government would be stripped of its power to protect people legally and economically from the predations of transnationals, and, for purposes of intimidation, and, if necessary, those rare instances when force was required, the military and security services would be better armed and less restrained. As President, Carter was noteworthy for two important things. He participated in no military adventures, unless one counts the ill-fated Desert One, and did not espouse the doctrine, so much in vogue today, of an executive that must be able to act independent of the Congress to protect our security.

Carter was either too stubborn or too ignorant to understand that, instead of using military force only after great deliberation, it was essential for the US to demonstrate that it was willing to use force unilaterally and aggressively to deter perceived opponents. Given the necessity of doing so, he was equally incapable of recognizing the importance of releasing the presidency from the restraints of the Constitution, not just to facilitate covert operations and military actions, but, also, to psychologically narcotize the public into accepting that it was subordinate to the President, that, in effect, the President and the state are indistinquishable, such that any criticism of the President is, necessarily, a criticism of the legitimacy of the state, or, put more simply, sedition.

In the congressional elections, the public rejected these tenets of neoconservatism. They voted, in essence, for Carterism, in the absence of a better term, even if neither of the parties is yet showing an inclination to act in accordance with this result. Despite all of its defects, Carterism is certainly superior to the brutality of neoconservatism, but neither is a plausible response to a world that is, paradoxically, both increasingly independent and interdependent.

Now that it has become evident, after Iraq, that the world cannot be subjected to the demands of transnationals and finance capital through force, Carterism suggests a rosier outcome through dialogue, multilateralism and economic coercion. If adopted, it will fail again, even more so than in the 1970s, because it retains that enduring American perspective that it is our mission to modernize the world in our image, despite increasing opposition to such an endeavor. Perhaps, this helps explain why the new Democratic majority is so fractious. Each fork in the road leads to the abyss, and it is impossible to know which route is more circuitous.

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