THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
James Carroll

As new doors open, we can't shut out the past

By James Carroll
November 3, 2008
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AMERICA is a house with many rooms. In an image of the writer Philip Slater, our frontier legacy instilled in us the habit of taking possession of one pristine room at a time. Instead of occupying the whole house at once, we have lived in it room by room, successively. At first, we love the clean feeling of a fresh space, but gradually we litter the room with accumulations, both material and spiritual. Garbage and broken promises clutter the corners, then spill into the center of the room. Waste, excess, and lost innocence pile high. Finally, unable to stand it, we pack a few special possessions and open the next door, ready for a fresh start, a new room. Because the house is so big, there is always unused space, just waiting for us to claim it. Close the door on the sullied past.

This is what the continental progression from spoiled east to ever-virginal west amounted to, in Slater's metaphor - a nation that never had to reckon with its profligate ways because there was always the next frontier. The great American ideal of freedom was thus founded on freedom from accountability.

Slater's metaphor obviously applies to a long-operative environmental irresponsibility, as polluted cities were left behind for pastoral suburbs, and as sprawl-ruined suburbs are now being left behind for evergreen exurbs. The metaphor precisely describes the geographic state of American education, with trashed inner-city schools left behind by "No Child Left Behind." But the metaphor applies more abstractly, too - as we see US foreign policy on Iraq, for example, defined, first, by wrecking the room, and then (now), by getting the hell out. (Let's try Afghanistan.) We solve our problems by leaving them behind. We don't do consequences.

Today, the United States stands at a threshold, marked by tomorrow's election. As has happened so often before, a new room seems to lie open before us - but this is a room with a view. What is seen from there means that the whole house of America might never look the same. The threshold itself is the transformation. So let's just vote, and, as the admirable but poorly named antiwar organization proposes, move on.

No, let's not. Thinking of tomorrow's election simply as a fresh start is a temptation to be resisted. There will be no closing the door on what America has been doing, so let's not even try. After voting, instead of lighting out, let's turn back and reckon with what has been befouled. This is a matter of specific policies: end the Middle East wars, of course, but cooperate in unprecedented international diplomacy to eliminate the causes of war; change the urban-suburban social contract to bring impoverished inner cities back into economic and cultural vitality; recast the underpinnings of the economy, with one eye on demilitarizing it and another on making justice count as much as profit.

But more than policy, a change in American mythology is required. No innocence abroad; none at home. Good intentions aren't enough. The last frontier is long closed. No new frontiers. No moving on. Only one Earth. Love it or lose it. That's the truth, which has consequences.

Everyone is asking what kind of leader our next president will be. But there is a prior question: What kind of people will we be? The transformation that matters tomorrow is the one that occurs in the hearts of citizens. Can we cast our votes as a personal promise to be responsible for where and how we live? Democracy does not end with the ballot, but begins there. Our ill-treated house, staying with the metaphor, has brought the neighborhood down, even as we and our housemates have not been good to one another. Can we change? Yes.

The convergence of historic US foreign policy failures, an epochal economic collapse, a cultural mutation spawned by information technology, a make-or-break moment for American schools, the global environmental challenge, and the arrival of new political leadership - all of this defines the threshold on which we stand. Not a new room, but the only room there ever was, waiting to be finally ruined - or fully renewed.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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