Cohen: Emptying Pandora's box

Posted in United States | 10-Nov-08 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

The campaign sloganof President-elect Barack Obama is painted on a window of the American Book Center in Amsterdam.

NEW YORK: These are interesting times. Jobs are disappearing and General Motors is running out of cash. At the same time, the United States has assuaged some of its deepest wounds with the election of Barack Obama. We have less money in our pockets but more hope in our hearts.

Hope won't feed an empty stomach. But it's potent. In Greek myth, when Pandora opened her box, she let out all the evils except one: hope. The Greeks considered hope dangerous; its bedfellow can be delusion. Nietzsche later saw hope as the evil that prolongs human torment.

But in the end Pandora opened her box again and released hope because, without it, humanity was filled with despair.

At least that's one version of the myth. What is certain is that there's a lot of hope about these days. It would be an exaggeration to say people are happier now that we have less money, but accurate to say there's a surfacing of shame about the extent of our spend-spend-spend excesses.

The check on this shopping spree stands at $2.6 trillion in U.S. personal debt. That's a staggering sum.

You can't wish away debt with a magic wand. The toll for all those home-equity paid Disney vacations will be heavy. Yet I would resist the temptation to say that economic crisis defines our times. No, as Bill Clinton might have said, "It's the culture, stupid."

The culture that said the most patriotic act was to shop. The culture that sent the best and the brightest to Wall Street to concoct toxic securities. The culture that said there was no need to balance individual rights and community needs. The culture that replaced thrift with thrills and hope with hype. The culture that said a country at war is not a country that needs to pull together in sacrifice.

Goodbye to all that.

I've had countless uplifting e-mails in recent days that, in different ways, have been about a moral reorientation, a reaching out, the rediscovery of the ways in which we can be our brothers' and our sisters' keepers. Diana Strelow, 73, of Portsmouth, Virginia, put it this way: "My vote for Obama was and is about my hope that an intelligent, self-respecting president will lead to a renewal of civility on the part of all of us - perhaps a renewal even of the love that Americans once had for each other."

Significant as economic anxieties were, she said, they paled beside this deeper yearning.

Another message came from a U.S. official who, in January 2007, was serving in Fallujah, Iraq, alongside the 1st and 2nd Marine Expeditionary Forces. He forwarded a letter he had sent to Obama on Jan. 27, 2007, on the eve of the senator's announcement of his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois.

"Those of us still serving in these dangerous Iraqi deserts need your voice and message in the Iraq debate back home," he wrote. "More than that, we want a new politics that speaks again to the great traditions of not just one party but of one country, ours. You capture that theme, genuinely, like no one else.

"Throughout my time in this tough assignment (best and worst job I will ever have), I have looked to Washington for the kind of leadership traits that I see among our Marine captains, colonels and corporals in the mean streets of Anbar. It has been dispiriting. Another Greatest Generation - whose apolitical patriotic steel is being forged here among tens of thousands of Americans - deserves better."

The official, who asked not to be named because of the rules of his government agency, continued: "I am leaving Iraq before long and have decided to go basically straight from Fallujah to Springfield in order to hear your formal announcement in person. I just want to be there. Anonymous. Part of the energy." And he concluded: "With you in the presidential picture, I am more hopeful about endings in Iraq and beginnings at home, in our country we miss so much and remain honored to represent."

Yes, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been engaged in prolonged forms of service and sacrifice that have deserved better.

Better not just of a president, George W. Bush, too insecure to inspire, but of all of us for whom easy credit became synonymous with easy amnesia. Perhaps the new frugality can also be the new humanity.

The United States' moment of reckoning is global. Economic anxiety has spread far and wide, as far and as wide as the hopes vested in Obama. This moment of moral opportunity is not confined to the United States.

Anti-Bushism, straying often into anti-Americanism, has been the defining ideological current of recent times. Its disappearance with Obama, or at least its retreat, leaves a gaping intellectual void needing to be filled.

For inspiration on how to do that I suggest this image: hope fluttering out of Pandora's box. Crisis demands statesmanship, which cannot be composed of calculation alone, but must reach for the unquenchable in the human spirit.