Ira Chernus  


Visions Of America, Iraq Are Colliding


Elections depend heavily on symbols. Each side tries to move the voters with words and images that evoke powerful emotion. That’s why Iraq dominates the presidential campaign.

With Western reporters largely confined to Baghdad hotels, we can’t know much factual truth about what’s happening in Iraq. The one fact we do know more or less for sure—the number of American dead—does not seem to distress the American public excessively.

The debate does not get its emotional impact from the facts. It triggers strong feelings because it’s about how we see the significance of the war. It’s about the meaning of the symbol "Iraq." But behind this debate over the symbolic meaning of "Iraq" lies a much deeper question: What meaning will we find in our most powerful symbol of all—"America." That is why the debate is so emotional.

George W. Bush gives us "Iraq" as a symbol of steely will—an unfailing ability to know what is morally good and an unfailing determination to do the good. Bush’s "America" is the one nation that has such a will. It’s the Lone Ranger of the world, never needing or asking anyone’s permission to seek out wrongs and set them right.

John Kerry gives us "Iraq" as a symbol of thoughtful pragmatism—seeing all sides of the issue, trying out new approaches, and if one fails another else until we get it right. Kerry’s "America" is the epitome of Yankee ingenuity, always figuring out a better way to make progress. It’s also a team player, avoiding the pitfalls of arrogance by making compromises, keeping all the members of the team pulling together.

Bush and Kerry do agree, however, that "Iraq" is and must remain a symbol of freedom—American-style. Iraq must have free elections; candidates must be free to buy as much advertising as they can afford with the contributions they solicit from the rich. Iraqis must be free to own private property. That means no more state-run enterprises, though roads, police and fire services, and a few other public services (including some schools) can be owned by the government.

Iraqis must have freedom of religion, though some religious influence in government can be allowed (like the tax exemptions we give churches or the "In God We Trust" on our money). Iraqi women must have full human rights, except maybe not the right to control of their own reproductive processes or to equal pay for equal work

The particular brand of freedom we enjoy here often looks rather arbitrary and somewhat illogical to foreigners. But Bush and Kerry agree that Iraq must be helped to freedom by American hands; its degree of freedom must be judged by American standards. That makes "Iraq" a symbol of the unique virtues of our brand of freedom. It makes the symbolic "Iraq" a patriotic celebration of our symbolic vision of "America" at its best.

After election day, no matter who wins, watch for a reinvigorated peace movement to present a third kind of symbolism: "Iraq" as a sobering lesson about the pitfalls of power and hubris. The peace movement’s "America" is a superpower that has reached too far, taken too many liberties with other people’s lives, and refused to acknowledge the harm it has done to others and to itself.

The peace movement’s "Iraq" represents real freedom. It may choose to have factories and oil wells owned by the state. It may structure its government as a patchwork of ethnic and religious factions. It may put a substantial degree of Islamic law into its state laws.

Of course, peace activists hope that it will guarantee full human rights, including total religious freedom and gender equality. But their "Iraq" is not so predictable, because it symbolizes, above all, the freedom of each nation to determine its own destiny free of foreign interference.

The peace movement’s "Iraq" actually reflects two symbolic "Americas," the one that is today and the one that could be tomorrow. Today’s "America" is the arrogant giant blind to its own deeds. Tomorrow’s "America" recognizes genuine limits to its power, for both moral and practical reasons.

Tomorrow’s "America" also represents a much broader range of freedoms than what we have today. No, it won’t be able to turn religious law into state law. That kind of freedom, which has deep roots in Iraqi culture, has no roots here strong enough to claim us.

But "America" might choose to have full separation of church and state. It might choose public ownership of many resources and industries. It might choose to ban political advertising, to get big money out of politics. It surely will give women full economic as well as political equality and fully guaranteed control of their own bodies.

As the war in Iraq grows bloodier, we can expect a swelling peace chorus to make this alternative vision of "America" stronger and more compelling than it has been since the height of Vietnam war.