President Obama is going to deliver the annual State of the Union address tonight, and if I were to make a wild guess, I’d say he’ll declare the union strong. The economy may be troubled, perhaps the United States is facing challenges, but if history’s any guide, the President will say the union is special, blessed by God, and strong, and there will be applause – no matter that it couldn’t be less true.
Politically, the nation is split as dramatically as it was before the Civil War. The Republican/Democrat divide reflects almost exactly the borders of the old confederacy, and there’s no sign of it shifting any time soon. And economically, we’re as divided as can be.
Take our supposedly representative Congress. In a middle- and working-class nation, Congress is a gathering of millionaires, multimillionaires and billionaires. While working-class people are a majority of our labor force and 90 million people strong, they can’t afford to run for office, and fewer and fewer rich people have ever held a working-class job. Duke University Professor Nicholas Carnes has found that since 1998, the average member of Congress has spent just 1.5 percent of his or her adult life doing any sort of service or manual labor.
Domestically, we’re divided; go global and it’s worse. In sharp contrast to the situation at his first State of the Union address four years ago, Pew Research reports that global approval of President Barack Obama’s international policies has declined significantly since he first took office, along with overall confidence in him and attitudes toward the United States. “In nearly all countries surveyed,” writes Pew, “there is considerable opposition to a major component of the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism policy: drone strikes.”
Yup, killing people via robot-in-the-sky, without trial or warning, is not only, as a New York Times headline put it recently, “hazardous” for US policy goals and America’s global effectiveness, but also, as it turns out, for human life. Drones kill people and make others hate us. They’re bad for our union with the world, and it’s not just the drones, the entire war on terror has done a job on our world relations.
What might be good for our union? On Tuesday, if he really wanted to strengthen our union with the world, President Obama could ask Kathy Kelly to deliver his address for him.
Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Kelly is fresh back from her 12th trip to Afghanistan. As she trudged up the stairs where I live recently, I heard her breathing heavily. She’s just getting over pneumonia, but my three-flight walk-up turns out to be nothing compared to Kelly’s daily routine in working-class Kabul.
In our conversation, she described going to visit poor women who live high in the mountains outside the city, far from warmth and water, because the rent on a one-room hut on the cliffside is all they can afford.
“It’s the culture,” Kathy explained. “If somebody knocks at your door and asks for food or beverage, you give it to them. If that person’s a Taliban who’s appearing on a screen to somebody in Creech Air Force Base, Hancock Field or Whiteman Air Force Base, then you may very well be a subject of a night raid or worse – a weaponized drone could target your house.”
Kelly has a friend who is still trying to explain to her 5-year-old son that a computer killed his father.
Kathy Kelly’s union with the Afghan people is strong. How’s ours? You don’t get much of a sense that anyone cares in Congress. As Kelly reports, four hundred new refugees are displaced by the war in Afghanistan every day. One out of five children does not live beyond the age of 5; one out of every 11 women dies in childbirth. All of this is happening while the United States has spent $2 billion – two billion dollars per week – on the US military presence there.
Yet when Chuck Hagel was interviewed for confirmation to the post of secretary of defense, Afghanistan barely came up. In eight hours of hearings, there was no question from any Republican on the topic of Afghanistan, and the three from Democrats were all about the schedule for troop withdrawal and the future for America and Americans in the region.
To reach back into history again, contemporaneous with the Civil War, internationalism was being born. The first meeting of the International Workingmen’s Association was held in London in 1864. Packed into a church hall, English, Italian, French, Irish, Polish and Germans pledged allegiance to one another and not to imperial wars. The First International meeting was followed by a Second in 1886, at which some socialists by then had the idea that an international organization of workers was the only thing that would help the working class of the world balance the growing power of global capitalism and finance.
How’s the state of our union in those terms? I don’t just mean our Pentagon’s and the CIA’s, I mean ours – yours and mine. What’s the state of our union? What if every drone attack in Kabul provoked a response in Denver, and Delhi and DC? How would our union be then?