America, we need to talk - seriously

With the end of the Iraq war, no more serious talk, right?

Au contraire. Elemental questions remain - of who we are and where we're going; questions that our "victory" in Iraq only heightens, especially as we presume to rebuild that country and reshape the world.

Who are we? In diplomacy, the world sees us as cowboys; in business, bare-knuckled capitalists; in culture, creators of cartoons and "cool" who'd naturally secure the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad but not the National Museum (whose destruction our Defense Secretary dismissed with "stuff happens").

And where are we going? As the "hyper-power," do we appropriately assert our might and ideas globally, as the Bush administration assumes? In fighting terrorism, will our policy of pre-emptive strike reduce or actually increase attacks? How many more civil liberties will we yield without debate?

And with the administration mulling regime change in Iran, Syria, North Korea, these questions are urgent - we may be heading for a long season of war.

We need to talk - seriously.

Yet talk is not happening, not at the civic level. As with Sept. 11, so with the Iraq war: We fix on the big event, then when it's "finished," we return to business and fun, so relieved. Suggest the big event is not finished, and you get generic responses - or non-responses - with much nervous laughter:

"Hey, we won, what's the problem?" "Nothing serious goes on in this household, thank you." "Deep thought's not my thing, I'm too busy." "I think about these things, but what can I do?" And, most disturbing, "I'm past caring, I can't take more negativity."

Talk does occur, but it's narrowcast between like minds. Talk between unlike minds often ends in disputes over patriotism. For a verbal people who glory in freedom of expression, we're uncommonly mute now. So are the media and politicians: Few are asking where we're going.

Moreover, if a citizen turns to the administration, what does he get? Shifting rationales and fudged intelligence on Iraq, loyalty checks (the France-bashing continues), and photo ops of the president profiled at Mount Rushmore and zooming onto an aircraft carrier. In short, nonengagement and stagecraft.

Quoted recently in The New York Times, the White House director of communications (emphasis intended), premising that "Americans are leading busy lives," concluded: "If they can have an instant understanding of what the president is talking about by seeing 60 seconds of television, you accomplish your goals as communicators."

Communicators to whom? Children?

Message to White House (and this will take two seconds): "We're not dummies."

One suspects our busyness is being exploited for image control. And, communication being two-way, where's the mechanism for engaging us?

That question is moot, however, given our resounding silence. Oh, the silence, and all the nervous laughter: What is it about?

A seatmate on a recent plane flight shed some light. "Ever since 9/11, I've been of two minds about everything, in fact more than two minds! I suppose it's best this way. But," he sighed, "it sure is stressful."

What he'd defined was ambiguity, having "two or more possible meanings," also being "not clear, indefinite, uncertain, vague." No wonder our stress.

But one senses something else: profound fear. Fear that the republic's foundation has cracked, and that the administration's world-beating actions, rather than repairing, compound that crack. Thus the civic reaction ranging from superpatriotism to despair. And the farther the administration courses off-track, the greater our fear. One wonders too, and Shakespeare tells us, how fear drives those holding power.

Shaken though we are, we still can act - and leave it to Americans to find utility in fear and ambiguity. Ambiguity is best, as my seatmate intuited, for it's a truer mirror of complexity than the administration's certainty, going from either/or to both/and. Also it's more empathic than "my way or the highway." And fear can be constructive - if we face it.

Taking a moment (or five), everyone - the administration included - might ponder the elemental questions: Who are we, and where are we going?

Asking others, "What do you think, and why?" makes for talk of a nuanced kind, better than "stuff happens." Indeed, asking our philosophic opposite the evolution of his thinking would defuse emotion (not to mention surprise him). In this exploration, saying "I don't know" is permissible, and perhaps the beginning of wisdom. And please, everyone avoid the p-word - patriotism.

Some of our countrymen resist serious talk. Nathaniel Hawthorne long ago observed our aversion to "shadow," our habit for "broad and simple daylight." But a shadow hangs over the nation.

Democracy is rule by the ruled. If we, the hyperpower, would act wisely, the administration must engage us and we must engage ourselves.

Abraham Lincoln, sculpted above President Bush at the Mount Rushmore photo op, said, "If you want to test a man's character, give him power."

Likewise a nation's character. We are, right now, being tested. The test is our use of power. We need to talk - seriously.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of 'The Washington- Sarajevo Talks.'

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