The buggy whip conversations

If you're giving the Republican primary debates even a modicum of attention, perhaps you're finding the experience decidedly surreal. So much of what is being proffered seems simultaneously jarring and counterintuitive, dominated by anti-intellectual and ahistorical rhetoric, most of it revealing an ideological nostalgia for a time during the early 20th or the late 19th centuries in America that the candidates find remarkably compelling.

They yearn for an unregulated period of social Darwinism where life was a matter of survival of the fittest or the luckiest. Where a significant percentage of the country lived hardscrabble lives, many in squalor, absent any safety net, while the top 1 percent possessed a stunning wealth.

This was a period absent labor laws (children worked in sweat factories), Medicare, EPA, Social Security and the Voting Rights Act. Most working people had no pensions, no fallback. It was a time of minimal if nonexistent government presence in the affairs of citizens. This period is now held up as a panacea for America by a deconstructed Republican Party.

Herman Cain, Republican front-runner, to rousing cheers and applause from the debate audience, gave no ground on his comment, saying, "If you don't have a job, if you're not rich, blame yourself."

There it is. In that one sentence Cain revealed the intractable philosophical basis of self-reliance and individualism that now frames his conservative party.

Of course, Cain and his ilk ignore how the financial meltdown occurred, throwing millions out of work. The people who should be blamed, he suggests, are the unemployed (the implication is that they are lazy). No matter that it wasn't the unemployed who sold fraudulent loans (called "Liar Loans") to unsuspecting folks. Nor did the unemployed devise esoteric instruments such as derivatives and credit swaps that ultimately proved worthless.

Cain's response is driven not by facts but by a Republican-tea party ideology, affirming that we are not in this together, we are in this as individuals.

Ours is a new millennium, however, and these candidates are mired in the 19th century, seemingly incapable of making the intellectual-philosophical shift necessary to move our country toward full employment and a 21st century agenda. It's astonishing to listen to them denigrate government and taxes while driving from state to state on interstate highways built by that very same government. And had their economic policies worked, then W would have handed President Obama a nation fully employed with negligible deficits and not the train wreck we inherited.

It's time to lean forward, to realize that the old paradigms no longer fit new global realities.

Consider: Protracted land wars, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, defy all logic, supported by a generation whose time has come and gone, a generation seemingly incapable of learning from wars past, most specifically Vietnam. The projected cost for both wars is staggering, $3 trillion to $5 trillion, with post-war care of our troops at $600 billion to $900 billion. Such anachronistic wars drain our desperately needed treasure while sacrificing a generation of our young who, along with their families, will have to live with the consequences for a lifetime.

And how can we possibly consider standing up a region such as Afghanistan, a riddle inside of a puzzle, a tribal geography euphemistically called a nation, known to be a narco-terrorist state supplying heroin to large swaths of the world? It is hubristic in the extreme.

If austerity is the new mantra, then how can we justify spending billions monthly in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously giving Pakistan tens of billions and ignoring our own schools and infrastructure?

And there's the issue of global warming (call it extreme weather), now incontrovertible; yet, the top-tier Republicans still question the science. As they do the science of evolution. The earth is 10,000 years old, they claim, and man shared the planet with dinosaurs.

Consider oil, our bipartisan conundrum. The Republicans chant "Drill baby drill," while the sustainable energy revolution continues to be ignored.

How to explain our stunning lack of imagination? We can only grieve for our planet.

Shell is waiting for approval by the current administration to drill in our Arctic waters, despite the fact that an accident will be profoundly unforgiving because of the cold water. The State Department may soon approve the Keystone XL pipeline, originating in Canada, traveling across America to the Gulf Coast. It is carrying some of the most highly toxic crude imaginable, crossing a multi-state aquifer. Environmentalists call it a game changer. Oil is not the future. We should act accordingly. And, of course, there's fracking.

As it turns out, none of these topics was touched on by the presidential candidates; instead it was all 9-9-9, a chimera. But let's try and be hopeful. And don't sell your buggy whip.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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