Monday, January 30, 2012

Back in Nairobi

It’s nice to be back in Nairobi, especially after a two-day journey from Washington, D.C. that involved a 13 hour layover at Heathrow—possibly my least favourite place in the world.  I understand that D.C.’s weather was unseasonably balmy, but after being spoiled by California’s own mild winter, it was objectionably gloomy, making the sunshine and greenery of Nairobi all the more welcoming.

As were the staff at the YMCA.  The rates have gone up (perhaps to purchase the nice, new chairs that adorn the terrace), but the cashier, several of the refectory staff, and a couple of the housekeeping staff greeted me with “Nice-to-have-you-back”s, asked how long I would be staying, and whether I was working at the archives again.  At least two of them remarked that I appeared to have been eating well, indicating that my sedentary lifestyle is having the logical effects. 

To pass the time on Sunday before heading to the National Archives Monday morning, I took a stroll up the road towards the Arboretum.  This area is one of the more beautiful in Nairobi, as the pleasant grounds of the University give way to even more luxuriant suburbs.  Pedestrians catch glimpses of bucolic opulence behind stone walls topped with razor-wire.  Spectacularly-green, tree-dotted hillsides sweep down to lush forests through which Kirichwa Dogo River runs (I can’t tell if its cloudy colouration bespeaks any sulphuric activity, or simply the generous quantities of you-don’t-want-to-know-what that goes into it). 

As the road wound uphill I could feel the effects of Nairobi’s altitude, to which it always takes me a day or two to accustom myself.  It is hard to reconcile the terracotta roofs, the brick piles and smart maisonettes, the sheer otherworldly beauty of the homes that wealthy Kenyans have made for themselves up on the hillside, with the bustle of town.  The contrast is even greater with the urban squalor that lies just a few short miles away in Kibera and other shanty-towns where Kenya’s failure to embrace any significant redistributionist policies has shovelled the poor and dissolute of the capital. 

After switching rooms at the YMCA (I’d been put in an overly-large double room my first night), I headed downtown for a bite to eat.  The city centre always feels underpopulated on Sundays (not, you understand, an unpleasant sensation), but I was quickly spotted by one of the local scam artists.  I recognised the guy from a previous trip (he’d accosted me twice...once as a medical student running a charity and once as a Somali immigrant—not quite as bad as the guy who tried to convince me three times in the space of a month that his mother had died the previous day, necessitating a rather lavish-sounding bus fare).  Too jet-lagged to wave him away, I heard him out.  After the usual pleasantries and the obligatory praise of Obama once he learned that I was from the U.S., he went with the Somali refugee-turned biology teacher route.  It’s a sad measure of expectations of Americans that he found it necessary to proclaim himself a Somali Christian and begin badmouthing Muslims and declaring them all terrorists.  Needless to say, no money changed hands, although I think I heard him condemn me to hell if I heard his mutterings correctly as he stalked away. 

Having spent my Sunday lazing about town, it was back to work at the archives on Monday.  There too I saw the same old faces: the stern archivist who exudes a sense of serenity and calm as he renewed my permit, and the redoubtable Richard Ambani, patron saint of researchers, who swept in just after nine, be-suited and pausing to shake every staff-member and researcher’s hand before taking up position at the end of the reading room.  His hair looked a bit whiter, but the spring in his step and his ramrod bearing hadn’t changed. 

Pleasantries over, it was down to work, starting with KW 1/8: Game Department Headquarters/Staff General Correspondence, 1968-1972.  And so on...

Agonising over Ivory

When I was at my parents’ house in northern California over Christmastime, I was up early enough one morning to see a good-sized coyote trot by the window, just ten yards from the house.  After checking to see that our elderly, deaf, and more-than-a-little shaky dog was snoozing inside, we watched its progress through the trees in silence until something caught its attention and it bounded away into the dark of the wood. 

As my mother and I marvelled at our good fortune, we both voiced the thought that our first instinct had been to wonder whether the animal—larger than any coyote I’d seen in years—could be the wolf that was widely-reported to have struck out from Idaho and made its way into northern California.  The animal in question is a lone male, and given its trajectory when I last saw mention of its incursion, appeared to be heading back to Idaho.  But the possibility of the return of the wolf to California sparked instant and emotional debate, with conservationists and the San Francisco Chronicle enthusiastically endorsing the return of a top predator while ranchers and anti-big government Tea Partiers (yeah, I don’t see the connection there either...) declared that they would shoot any wolf they could find. 

The momentary celebrity of the unwitting canine, probably in search of a mate, took me back to an article in the August edition of Vanity Fair.  It had all the makings of a Hollywood Blockbuster.  ‘Traditional’ people, who “revere” their wildlife and “regarded them as almost human”; ethnic violence, drought, Chinese traders (bad guys); American and European conservationists (good guys); evocative scenery...   

Alex Shoumatoff’s “Agony and Ivory”, will undoubtedly further raise the profile of the plight of Africa’s elephants (already higher than that of the over ten million people facing starvation in north-eastern Africa).  Accompanied by two beautiful slideshows (here and here), the story, in its own words, involves elephants: “highly emotional and completely guileless, [they] mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s ‘suddenly wealthy’ has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more.  With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the spectre of an ‘extinction vortex’, Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it”. 

And with all that gallivanting about, it’s no wonder that Shoumatoff didn’t have time to learn much about the local histories of hunting, poaching and preservation in East Africa’s national parks and reserves.  These histories are always the first to be sacrificed when telling one of these globally-interconnected stories of intrigue, in which authors identify such clear-cut moral lines. 

I really don’t mean to be flippant.  Because in spite of the unsentimental approach that I try to take to researching the politics behind wildlife policy in East Africa, when looking at the politics behind National Parks, energy use, open space and public lands in the United States, I’m probably a preservationist by sentiment myself.  Yes, the idea of nature is a cultural construct.  But it’s a construct that I like and value.  But liking nature or enjoying wildlife doesn’t oblige us to suspend the use of our critical faculties.   

Whenever I’ve seen elephants moving about in their habitats, interacting with one another and the people around them, I cannot fail to be moved.  More easily than with most animals, it is possible to read into their behaviour emotions, sentiments, actions and thoughts which we tend to think of being the sole preserve of humans.  Even during the nineteenth century, in the years before animal welfarism became common, European hunters remarked on the animals’ intelligence and dignity, frequently remarking on how much it pained them to fire the fatal bullet (never, it seemed, enough to prevent them), and as early as the 1920s, Elephant Control Officers in Uganda recognised the need to identify the habits of individual herds and to study the characteristics of ‘problem animals’ so as to be able to induce them to correct their aberrant behaviour (usually raiding crops or harassing villages). 

But because, as Shoumatoff goes to such pains to point out, elephants are such complicated, dynamic and sentient-seeming creatures, there are histories written into their behaviours.  So when elephants in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania appear skittish and aggressive (and let me tell you, a skittish and aggressive elephant is a scary, scary thing), it’s because most of the adult elephants carry memories of a time when the park was heavily poached.  Some zoologists began arguing in the 1960s and ‘70s that elephant behaviour switched on and off in response to poaching threats relatively quickly (in the space of just a few years, perhaps, see F V Osborn, unpublished dissertation 1998, 114), but others argue that the affects are much more long-term.  In addition to the widely cited article by Bradshaw, et al, Eve Lawino Abe argued in the early ‘90s that in Uganda, poaching “adversely affect[ed] the age at first reproduction, intercalving periods and calf survival” (Abe, unpublished dissertation, 9). 

And this shift in the scientific view of how we need to understand elephants has strong cultural overtones.  The men (yes, they were all men) who staffed the early Elephant Control, Game and National Parks Departments in East Africa did not approach the Elephant dilemma through the emotional, moral framework that characterises our own engagement (one of my favourite National Geographic articles).  I’ve been told that when South Africa decided to re-open the culling of its elephants (an illustration of the problem of global regulation when conditions vary so greatly with geography), the U.S. Embassy in that country dedicated one staff-member solely to answering switchboards and responding to the letters and e-mails that flocked in from an outraged American public (one which was clearly unaware of Elk culling in the Rocky Mountain National Park, or of the fact that Yellowstone was only saved from ecological annihilation by the mass culling of Elk). 

In the 1920s and ‘30s, through the 1950s and ‘60s, the individuals who were charged with managing and studying East Africa’s elephants did so dispassionately, often ordering the destruction of thousands of animals to restore ecological ‘equilibrium’, for study purposes, and to protect croplands. 

Shoumatoff gives us the oft-repeated but never (to my knowledge)-substantiated line about corruption in wildlife services departments through MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) and “rangers and top officials”.  I would be fully prepared to credit official involvement in the trade, but neither Shoumatoff nor anyone else who makes the claim backs it up, and so the accusation that isn’t quite an accusation has just become another tool in the preservationists’ box. 

“Obviously, no ivory should be sold, legally or illegally.  It has to be taken off the table completely.  You can’t keep feeding the demand and providing incentives to poor Africans to continue killing their elephants.  That—and educating the Chinese—is the only hope for the remaining ones in the wild.  All of Africa needs to follow the lead of Kenya, which burned its ivory stock in 1989”.  This blanket prescription ignores the complications that a global regime of commodity regulations raises.  Southern African countries, faced with what they define as an ecological-surfeit of elephants, have repeatedly pushed in the past few decades, for the legalisation of some trade on the grounds that they are forced to waste a potentially-valuable source of revenue when they periodically cull elephants.  East African countries, whose elephant populations are widely assumed to be more fragile, are horrified at the thought. 

The arrogance inherent in the orders which flow southwards between hemispheres is breathtaking, as is the assumption that this is a one-way conversation.  There is a heartbreaking scene in the excellent film Milking the Rhino (about conservationist dilemmas in Kenya and Namibia) in which a local, elderly woman on the Marienfluss Conservancy in Namibia is informed that her task is to sit in the dust all day making trinkets for tourists who pick at her and take her picture as though she were in a zoo. 

And amidst all of the killing, there are warnings of compression—which is what occurs when, because of external pressure (poaching, boundary fences) elephants or other animals are forced into an increasingly small space—which could lead elephants to exceed local carrying capacity.  In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Kenyan parks culled elephants.  It’s not pretty, and descriptions of the culls are truly horrifying, but the mass starvation of elephants and the wholesale destruction of their habitat wouldn’t be particularly nice to see either. 

What I really don’t want to end with is that phrase often considered to be the historian’s cop-out: “It’s complicated”.  But it is, and while that shouldn’t be the end of the debate, perhaps that complicatedness should serve as a warning to people who like morally simplistic narratives. 

We should be wary of pigeonholing the interactions of people (in this case the Maasai) with their wildlife based on easy, sweeping generalisations.  The attitude of Maasai towards wildlife, within the past 120 years at least, has been largely contingent on other factors: how much and what kind of wildlife do they share space with, what kind of access do they have to wildlife resources, what are their own economic options, and what are their relationships with different levels of government.  Maasai (at the risk of condensing quite a diverse group of people), in other words, are a people with history, not a ‘traditional society’ floating in some bubble only recently punctured by the advent of ‘modern life’.  If we don’t understand this, we will not be able to understand people’s actions and have an honest conversation about different points of view. 

We should think critically before endorsing solutions like a CITES ban which operate at a global level.  The discontent such a ban can foster might arguably offset the short-term benefits.  We should also try to understand conservation debates within the larger social, political, economic and historical frameworks of nations and regions.  I daresay a lot of the northwestern public could tell you something about their take on conservation matters in Africa.  Not many of them could describe the politics of a recent election in any country, tell you anything about the history of wildlife preservation, or describe the post-independence social and economic trajectories of African nations. 

This is oft-said, but when debates about conservation provoke raw emotion in our own countries (think wolves in Idaho and Montana—and maybe soon in California, bears in regions of the northern U.S. and Canada), we should be more understanding when people in others might not share supposedly-universal values about the intrinsic worth of nature and animals.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

State of the State? Denial.

It’s hard to get terribly excited about President Obama’s State of the Union speech.  It will be full of stock phrases about the inherent greatness of America, about how Americans are special, and about the need for serious thinking and sacrifice (though of course it won’t likely ask for any actual sacrifices from anyone).  It will take cheap shots at the radical Republicans’ cynical style of politicking without acknowledging that it has been Obama’s own vagueness, shallowness, and lack of commitment to progressive causes which has put his Presidency on the rocks.

I feel like it’s safe to assume that there is no danger of the President saying anything novel or courageous, and so I might just sit the speech out altogether.

But I did follow coverage of California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address last week.  I wasn’t able to watch the address, but read it,

Brown, who since being elected to office has been easily outmanoeuvred by Republicans who effectively govern the state from their minority position, sought to portray himself as a proponent of public works.  California’s high speed rail project, it seems, will feature as a key part of what will likely be his fairly unmemorable policy legacy.  But the idea of Brown as proponent of public works—theoretically a mainstay of Democratic politics—sits uneasily with anyone familiar with his earlier stint as governor, although this isn’t the first time since reassuming office in 2011 that he has cast himself as a proud Rooseveltian Democrat.  Then he was a proponent of “small is beautiful” and of minimalist government.

In fact in some respects, governance by inaction seemed to be the order of the day, and while George Skelton argues that Brown has matured as an executive and come home for good to California, Brown hasn’t been the most pro-active executive this time around, and has taken heat for not campaigning for his proposals (something which he is perhaps set to rectify). 

California’s Republican Party responded to Brown’s speech along the usual brainless line.  The LA Times quotes Bob Huff, Republican Party leader in the Senate, as saying, “We have a different vision...The governor’s vision is: Tax more people.  Our vision is: Enable business, make government lean and more responsive, and you will get what you want”.

Unless, of course, what we want is an honest and fair government which looks after the economically marginal just as much as the affluent.  Or unless we want a government prepared to invest in excellent public colleges and universities, which not only put our state on the cutting edge where research and innovation is concerned, but which, when open to all Californians who meet the relevant qualifications, builds well-informed and thoughtful citizens.  Or unless we want a government committed to protected the health of our resources and are people by ensuring that the private sector is committed to the public good and responsible to the public.

Brown was clearly trying to make nice with legislators when, in his speech, he reminisced about how “last year, we were looking at a structural deficit of over $20 billion.  It was a real mess.  But you rose to the occasion and together we shrunk state government, reduced our borrowing costs and transferred key functions to local government, closer to the people.  The result is a problem one fourth as large as the one we confronted last year”. 

I wouldn’t call the squealing, unprincipled, backstabbing process that led to the butcher’s budget “rising to the occasion”, given that not only did it continue the process of carving up our public universities, initiate the process of gutting our public schools, and remorselessly hamstring the ability of the state to look after its less fortunate citizens; it also abjectly failed to address the real issue: why it is that a state as wealthy and supposedly progressive as California simply cannot govern itself without engaging in this farcical process on a yearly basis?

It certainly isn’t because our elections fail to return clear results: Democrats control the state Assembly and Senate by wide margins, and in California the party remains a fairly progressive one, most of its legislators committing themselves to the University of California, the California State University, the California Community Colleges, and our public school system, as well as to those systems of social welfare which maintain a basic standard of living for the poorly-off, and a series of environmental- and energy-related regulations which put the state at the cutting edge.

Rather, it is because of our state’s broken political structure, in which 34% of the legislature can put off any revenue increases (while only 51% are needed to cut revenue—something which affects people just as much, perhaps more so, than tax increases, given the wide range of services which inevitably suffer).  It is because Prop 13, which wildly skewed property tax rates and enshrined minority rule, is something that Brown and the Democrats are unwilling to address, perhaps knowing that the Republican Party will fight tooth and nail for protecting its polluting paymasters and corporate sponsors. 

As a result of Democratic cowardice, no serious progressive movement is afoot to overhaul the state.  Signs are that Brown’s push to put tax increases on the November ballot have the backing of significant business interests as well as of organised labour: even business interests seem to have realised that the Republican Party is becoming driven by economic fundamentalists who are out of control and dead set on wreaking as much havoc on public institutions and apparatuses as government as they are able. 

But a temporary tax increase will not address the underlying problem of why too many Californians live perpetually on the brink.  Nor will it take the debate beyond the childish whining about tax levels which fail to ask Californians to commit to an idea of what their public sphere should look like. 

“Putting our fiscal house in good order”, Brown’s State of the State mantra for the last two years, does us no good if that house stands in the middle of an immoral maelstrom or the wreckage wrought by a party devoid of social conscience. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Today's GOP and the Environment

I’m spending my week combing through the papers of Russell Train, lawyer-turned conservationist.  Train, inspired by an African safari, founded the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation, chaired the Council on Environmental Quality, headed the EPA under Nixon, served as president of the U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund, and continues to write and speak about the importance of international conservation.

Oh, and he was a life-long Republican, never voting for a Democratic presidential candidate until George W Bush opened up the back-door of the EPA and other regulatory agencies to the oil companies.

Train’s career (to be fair, he was criticised by many environmentalists for not going far enough in reforms) is a salutary reminder that Republican Party leaders weren’t always card-carrying buffoons, and didn’t always make up mere goon-squad for the least savoury elements of the corporate world.

As many people know, the Nixon Administration (best known for its abhorrent conduct of war in southeast Asia and the Watergate scandal) actually put in place many of the agencies and oversaw the creation of many laws which today form the bedrock of our approach to the environment.

I don’t know what Nixon’s motivations were, though presumably people who have written about his administration have some ideas.  Perhaps he simply saw the common sense in tackling a set of issues which so clearly impact the physical and moral health of a nation.  Russell Train suggests, in recounting a dinner in January of 1968 in which he sat beside Nixon, that the President might have been interested in legislation that could attract broad-based support.  Train sat beside Nixon at a dinner at which various task forces were present.  When he raised the issue of the widespread benefit of sound environmental policy, Nixon asked, “I am sure you are right in the suburbs and among much of the middle and upper classes.  But what about the blacks and the poor in the cities?  What is the appeal of the issue to them?”*  Most likely, Nixon saw environmentalism as an increasingly powerful force, representing a set of constituencies, ideas and concerns which would be of steadily-increasing importance during the coming decades, and decided that he wanted to be on the right side of the debate.

Interestingly, Train’s biographer, J Brooks Flippen, identifies Newt Gingrich’s ascendancy in the House as one of the moments when it all started to go downhill.  Flippen notes that “for many the environment had joined taxes and a litany of social concerns such as abortion and gay rights as wedge issues, defining one’s partisan allegiance.  When Texas Republican congressman Tom DeLay called EPA ‘the Gestapo of government’, environmental support for democrats increased”.**

The knee-jerk absurdity which characterised the approach of people like Gingrich and DeLay is nothing new to us today.  The San Francisco Chronicle announced that environmentalists are worried about a possible Republican victory in November, as though it is somehow news that the Republican Party has decided that our natural world and its resources should be sold to the highest bidder whatever the social costs to the rest of us.  Almost every Republican presidential candidate has laid into the EPA with a vigour born of either ignorance or cynicism.  They wholeheartedly embrace the destruction that unchecked oil drilling would wreak on our coasts, seabeds and landscapes, sparing nary a thought for its effects on attempts to wean ourselves off of oil (their answer, of course, is that we don’t need to, because global warming is all fake). 

Train, a lifelong public servant, abhors this attitude.  “We will never”, he wrote, “achieve excellence in government by trashing it at every opportunity”.**  In his years heading the EPA, Train repeatedly made the moral case for limiting growth, for regulating pollutants, and for the cultural or even spiritual importance of the natural world.  But he also made the obvious point that if industries are polluting, it means they are being inefficient and wasteful.  This is an argument that would undoubtedly appeal to many conservatives if they weren’t so dependent on the campaign cash that energy, agricultural and industrial lobbies use to turn our elected leaders into their wind-up political flunkies.

For today’s Republican Party, the fantasy called the “Free Market” is the panacea for all the world’s ills.  They sing the praises of markets, to accompany the corporate cash that comes clinking into their campaign coffers.  In a 2004 interview with Mother Jones, Train, who campaigned ferociously against Bush, offered the following when asked whether there was “a free-market case to be made for clean, renewable energy”.  Rather than extolling the virtues of the market, he paused to recognise its limitations, arguing that the market can help “to the extent that we can harness market forces”.  But, he cautioned, “I’ve never felt that market mechanisms can take the place of regulatory functions”. 

Given his willingness to apply reason, and to accept that a publicly-accountable government will be a more effective regulator than a profit-oriented industry, it’s no wonder why Train felt out of step with his party.  It is a discomfort that most people in California and the U.S. would undoubtedly feel if they stopped and thought about the importance of ensuring that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we grow our crops in are all safe.  The Republican Party’s glorification of ignorance and its radical assault on environmental values and ethics should trouble anyone who wants the products they buy to be sustainably made and safe to use.  It should be of concern to anyone who enjoys national parks, national forests, state parks or our beautiful coastlines.  All those who find any solace in walking in nature or watching wild creatures should feel a degree of alarm at the callousness the Republican Party leaders increasingly show for our physical surroundings. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, together with the haunting early photos of Earth from space, are often cited as sparking the modern environmental movement.  Those photos are a reminder of our inherent fragility, and of the care we owe our natural surroundings.  Conservation and environmentalism were once issues almost free from partisanship, so universal was their applicability.  It should be so once again.

* Library of Congress, Manuscripts: MSS85254: Box 67, Folder 4.

** J Brooks Flippen, Conservative Conservationist: Russell E Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism (Louisiana State University Press, 2006): 216, 10.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Learning from Official History

I spent my morning and evening strolling through the physical commemoration of U.S. history in Washington, D.C.  It’s hard not to chuckle at the Washington Monument (currently closed for earthquake repair), and hard not to be awed by the Lincoln Memorial.  But my favourite was the FDR Memorial, perhaps because it represents very poignantly the physical frailty of men alongside the resolve that a people can muster to do good and change the way we think about the world.

The monuments to Lincoln, Jefferson and King depict majestic men, frozen in stone, untouchable and timeless.  Roosevelt, on the other hand, is portrayed in the midst of his era, surrounded by references to the Civilian Conservation Corps (a work relief program which simultaneously recognised the value of human dignity and natural resources) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (an imaginative and ambitious—if also flawed—program designed to develop an economically adrift region). 

The statues of the Roosevelts are accompanied by representations of destitute men and women, and unemployment lines, reminders of the circumstances which call us to step outside our comfort zones and ponder our moral universe. 

While there’s nothing to be gained from wallowing in generally-misplaced nostalgia for leaders past (as encumbered with moral warts as the amphibians swimming in our own day’s political cesspool), it is striking, wandering amongst the nation’s monuments and memorials, how much these earlier men were willing to ponder big moral questions, and fundamental issues of human relations, societies and governments.

Roosevelt remarked that “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little”.  This is above all a moral argument, and petty considerations of tax levels and budgeting would be entirely secondary ones.

Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits”.  This is urgent idealism on a level that entirely escapes our much-debased political discourse today.

And on the question of the relation between societies, its values, and its laws, Thomas Jefferson had the following to say: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions.  But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.  We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors”.

This is a statement at once more fundamental and elementary and sophisticated than anything the so-called defenders of our Constitution have today.  It recognises the fluidity of societies and cultures, warns against allowing the past to become a prison, in which we find ourselves shackled by the smallness of our predecessors and soiled by the muck of historical failures. 

Each of these three thoughts marks a serious meditation on what it means to live in a society, in a nation-state, and to aspire after a rooted yet dynamic form of government.  They take a strong moral stand.  They reflect on citizenship at individual, national and global levels.

Today, by contrast, we are bombarded by the faux deliberations of the Tea Party and the Republican Party, in which serious consideration of liberties and responsibilities gives way before a sordid, grubby little gutter debate about ‘rights’: the right to hoard every last penning of your earnings, no matter who else contributed to your success; the right to kick little people, weak people, while they’re down; the rights that corporate entities supposedly have...rights, we are told, astoundingly, which ought to be the same accorded to living, breathing human beings.

In the evening, I stopped by the National Museum of American History.  I was drawn to an interactive exhibit commemorating the lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro Woolworth’s store.  The docent acted out the role of an activist training the audience in civil disobedience.  After explaining what four courageous students experienced in 1960 in North Carolina, and the significance of their moral courage for the civil rights movement, he asked the audience whether we believed there was something wrong with people being asked to sit at different counters at a restaurant on the basis of their skin colour.  There was universal, murmured assent.

Then he asked on what grounds we could say such a thing was a problem.  The answers were telling.  It says so in the Declaration of Independence, said one man.  Nope, said the docent.  Must be the Bill of Rights, said another.  Nope.  The Constitution! guessed a third.  Our rights come from God, shouted a fourth, and the docent politely reminded him that as many people were invoking God in defence of segregation as otherwise in 1960.  Brown v Board? came still another response, but alas, that only dealt with schools.

An elderly woman finally put up her hand and said firmly but quietly, “I say it’s wrong”.  And the docent beamed.  But it was peculiar how struck the audience was by this unabashedly moral statement, by the assumption of responsibility for collectively-done wrongs.  They had turned to judicial precedent, to the Constitution, and to other forms of legal authority without approaching the problem from a personal or moral standpoint. 

And such is our difficulty today.  We are beset by many of the same ills as in Roosevelt’s era: we are in economic doldrums, we are at war, we are institutionally becalmed, and in danger of experiencing political wreckage.  And yet our troubles spawn cynically cautious men like President Obama, soulless technocrats like Mitt Romney, and morally stunted creatures like Newt Gingrich. 

The Official History of the United States, as laid out on the national Mall, may let the efforts of too many people and groups go unrecognised.  It might glorify flawed men and women.  It might let the real lessons of far too many bloody wars go unlearned.  But there are still some things that we can learn—or re-learn—from it.  And there’s no time to lose.