Retake The Moral High Ground


The United States has been ridding itself of its First World status for as long as it has been privatizing its critical infrastructure (a.k.a. the common good), at the same time despoiling the natural resource embodied in the health, welfare, courage, and intelligence of its citizenry.
—Lewis H. Lapham

As we write, Hillary Clinton has won Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary. The fierce competition for the party’s nomination will continue even as the most extended U.S. presidential race in history nears its final lap. Yet despite more than a year of lavish media coverage, neither the candidates, nor their interlocutors, nor commentators have devoted sufficient attention to three pressing issues. They may be the most important issues the new president will confront. What they have in common is that they bear on the question of how America can regain the moral stature among nations that it squandered during this decade.


John McCain supports the war in Iraq; Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say they oppose it but have not indicated how they would radically alter its course. The sharp increase in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence since April 2007 indicates that the “surge” has not been effective after all, yet the administration refuses to budge. For its part, the public seems to have settled into grudging acceptance of a war that has persisted longer than America’s involvement in World War II. That might change if Americans better grasped the actual size of the war commitment.

For starters, how many Americans are actually in Iraq? Amazingly, no one knows for sure. The number of troops is regularly reported. But public discourse seems to have forgotten that a similar number of American contractors serve alongside the troops in a mercenary army. At least it was widely believed to be a similar number until April 2007, when then-CENTCOM commander Admiral William Fallon confessed to Congress, “I have no idea how many are actually there.”

The American majority has grown accustomed to an ongoing occupation involving perhaps 140,000 troops. But the full U.S. contingent is probably between 250,000 and 300,000. If that number drew more attention, public resignation about the war might be replaced by long-overdue outrage.

Outrage is also overdue regarding the war’s implication for America’s global standing. Have Americans forgotten that this war was entered into on the strength of faulty intelligence and misinformation—or that there were no weapons of mass destruction, hence no justification for toppling a sovereign regime, even one as repugnant as Saddam Hussein’s? Does the American public realize how appallingly we have devastated Iraq? Estimates of Iraqi casualties vary too widely to be relied upon, but we do know that there are more than four million refugees. Have we forgotten that prior to 2001, America was a nation that sent its citizen-soldiers to war, not roughly equal numbers of soldiers and mercenaries? Have we forgotten that American forces and agencies waged the so-called War on Terror by means of barbaric and illegal practices, including torture, now known to have been explicitly approved by officials all the way up to then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, and even the president himself? Before September 11, 2001, Americans took pride that their nation’s principles precluded much of the behavior that has since stained the American escutcheon.

The next president may face the demand of world opinion that those who brought us to our current predicament be held accountable. In our view, those who avoided impeachment during this presidency should face prosecution in the next.


These issues are inseparable. In Australia, a six-year drought apparently linked to global warming has effectively extinguished rice exports, exacerbating today’s harrowing food crisis. In India and China, burgeoning economies depend too much on dirty power from coal, while their emerging middle classes aspire to Western levels of consumption. Beneath it all is the sheer unchecked growth in human numbers. For these and other reasons, a terrifying run-up in prices for basic foodstuffs, oil, and other critical commodities is now underway. People in Haiti riot because food costs have spiked 45 percent since the end of 2006. Across the globe, millions who dreamed their societies had outgrown the fear of hunger are discovering that they cannot afford basic foodstuffs or cannot find them at any price.

In this light, rethinking our enthusiasm for biofuel projects that steer scarce foodstuffs from table to gas pump seems an obvious place to begin. But it is only a start. What refocusing of economic priorities may ultimately be required to control humanity’s carbon footprint—or to deal with its consequences, if it is already too late to achieve control? If nothing is done, when that famous telephone rings in the White House at 3 A.M., it may be to tell the next president that rising ocean tides are lapping across lower Manhattan.


From the United States to Russia, China to India, the last two decades have showcased the spectacular enrichment of a few while all too many around them have failed to achieve comparative gains. The free market has done wonders in stimulating economic growth in China and India. Prosperity sparkles in high-growth cities like China’s Shanghai and India’s Bangalore, but, although a new middle class has emerged in both countries, large sectors of the rural populations have not sufficiently shared in the prosperity. In both countries, sizeable pockets of poverty still remain. Successful Muscovites lead elegant lives with a new crop of billionaires, but outside of the capital all too few Russians have shared in this new wealth (due largely to the increase in oil prices), and the disparity between the poor and rich continues.

Meanwhile, America’s gulf between rich and poor has attained a breadth unseen since the Gilded Age. Such economic growth as there has been has benefited the rich; according to one Census Bureau report, the median American family earned fewer constant dollars in 2007 than in 2000! At the same time, Forbes touts the growing number of billionaires.

A measure of income disparity is needed to fuel economic striving. But disparity on today’s scale erodes social cohesion and actually weakens prospects for future growth. More to the point: it violates standards of human decency. No democratic society will thrive unless all citizens in society—especially the middle class—can share in its prosperity.

These issues loom far larger than those that have dominated campaign discourse. Can we hope to hear a candidate—or even a major pundit—acknowledge that America must atone for its misdeeds; that humanity must reshape its use of natural resources, even as the nations rethink their cultivation and distribution of food; and that the world’s wealth must be distributed more equitably?

As secular humanists, we insist that our leaders focus on the challenges that threaten the welfare of the entire society—indeed, of the globe—not just the fat cats of Wall Street, the super-rich, or the visionaries of American empire. We challenge them to retake on the nation’s behalf the moral high ground that the current administration has so shamefully surrendered. So far, that kind of focus has been in short supply.

  The United States has been ridding itself of its First World status for as long as it has been privatizing its critical infrastructure (a.k.a. the common good), at the same time despoiling the natural resource embodied in the health, welfare, courage, and intelligence of its citizenry. —Lewis H. Lapham As we write, Hillary Clinton …

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