Fixing Our House

Posted on November 15, 2011


I am going to make an argument here that many will quite possibly violently disagree with.

I’m not even sure that I agree with it!

I have spent most of my life and career in and out many places in the Americas, all the way from Chile to Canada, and have come away with a decidedly international or global view of the world. We all tied together, and so we have to fix our problems globally.

But I’m not sure that is the best way to go about fixing our mess at home. Let me explain, and I’ve got good advice, from Jesus Christ to George Washington.

This has to do with fixing up your own house before looking to fix up your brothers. Or, put another way, we need to make things right at home before we continue to police the world and dictate what they should do.

Our foundation right now is pretty weak and unimpressive to be pontificating to the globe.

The argument goes way back to the teachings of Jesus and one parable in particular. It is a familiar one, speaking to hypocrisy and curing one’s self before pointing to sin in others’ lives.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Mathew 7:3-5).

Now, fast forward about eighteen centuries or so to George Washington’s Farewell Address, September 26, 1796.

I recommend anyone interested in deep and abiding political wisdom to read the full Address. It is online and won’t take you long.
One line reads: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…”

Less often cited is the following passage: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible.”

What was George telling us? BTW, he consulted with James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others as he polished the final draft which was a vision shared with others of the founding fathers.

Basically Washington was advising his fellow countrymen to mind their own business and stay out of foreign politics and entanglements.
Over the next two hundred years plus, this argument has been described as the “isolationist” or “neutralist” argument.

It is countered by the “international” or “globalist” argument which contends we are all inextricably bound today by ties that can only be solved “globally,” or by all concerned.

These problems—let’s be fair—include the premise that all nations and all people are linked by real or invisible ties of financing, production, buying, selling, monetary rates, stock markets, environmental issues, global warming, and nuclear proliferation. It makes perfect sense that the solutions have to be global as well.

But wait.

What about the advice of others whose credentials are pretty good, although maybe not as impeccable as Jesus Christ and George Washington?

In the mid-nineteenth century Secretary of State James Buchanan wrote his minister to Peru and told him “It is impossible that you can reform either the morals or the politics of Peru.” Buchanan was interested in information about Peru, not in manipulating Peruvian politics.

In the twentieth century Will Rogers had something to say on minding one’s business.

“America,’ said Will Rogers, “has a great habit of always talking about protecting American interests in some foreign country. Protect ’em here at home! There is more American interests here than anywhere.”

Where are we going here? Isolationist literature—whether serious or humorous—has been part of our national culture since George Washington. Teddy Roosevelt summarized his foreign policy with the pithy, “speak softly and carry a Big Stick” in 1903. Don’t try to remake the world, but when you do something in your vital interest, be sure you do it with clout and the assurance of victory.

Not bad advice.

We need to do two things to realize our potential as the great republic and beacon for freedom we have been for over two hundred years: we need to put our house in order; and we need to be strong in the world when needs be.

These are not contradictory principles. But the first needs to come first, and the second second.

Perhaps I am being simple-minded, given the conditions that plague the world, from starving African babies to nuclear tipped missiles in the hands of trigger happy fanatics.

But we cannot meet these challenges from a position of weakness, where the inner core of our institutions and our moral fiber has dry rot.

We need to reform our culture and restore the principles that drove our fathers and forefathers forward.

Instead of a culture of entitlement and privilege, we need a culture of desire and excellence coupled with an ethic of work.

Five hundred years or so ago, there was another great institution going south: the Christian Church. Corrupted by materialism and a rampant worldliness, a priesthood given to venery and luxury, and a leadership swollen by pride and conceit, the Roman Catholic Church was shaken to its foundations by the Reformation movement.

Martin Luther and contemporaries struck into the heart of the Church and demanded a return to original principles as expressed in Scripture.

The Reformation spun off Protestantism, and the Catholic Counter Reformation purified the Catholic Church of the worst abuses which had accrued to the Church over the centuries.

This country can do the same.

But only if it focuses on making things right at home, before dictating morality, ethical behavior, political fashion, and even the highest minded principles of democracy and equality to the world.

They simply won’t buy into it, coming as it does from the leader in the world’s depression, from a bloated and inefficient government bureaucracy given to self-service rather than true leadership, from an educational system that rewards mediocrity rather than merit, from bankers and brokers whose unbridled greed even boggles those of us who view capitalism and the free enterprise system with admiration.

The globals won’t buy it. Nor should we be selling the vision, and the actions, that have plunged us into this terrifying free fall with no bottom in sight.

So, what’s the silver lining?

Let me suggest a couple of areas we need to move in to make things right. One is in education, and I wrote about that a few weeks ago.
The other is in foreign affairs.

I believe if one is going to criticize, then one also ought to offer up solutions.

Let me make a simple suggestion in foreign affairs to get us started, and this speaks to a particular situation we face today. In fact, let me start with a question.

My question is this: now that we captured and brought Osama bin Laden to justice, are we through in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Along the way to destroying Osama bin Laden we were persuaded that we needed to clean up Iraq because it was a mess. Then we decided to tidy up Afghanistan, in the face of historical realities that no foreign empire has ever changed the culture of Afghanistan. It is a swamp for foreign armies.

And, while we were at it, we also decided to fix Pakistan because they have nuclear weapons. So do the Indians by the way. So do the Russians. So do the English, the French, and, for all I know, the Bulgarians. I read the North Koreans are pretty close. They don’t like us either. Anyhow, somehow we are going to make sure the Pakis don’t use them and this will make us safer.

But here’s the problem. Our own country is in a mess.

I think we need to fix our house first before we turn to fix others.

This column also published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday November 13, 2011

Posted in: History