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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

April 6, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 1

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

This time the joke may be on us

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Groucho Marx said once, "America is the only country where you can go on the air and kid politicians and where politicians go on the air and kid the people."

Warning: If someone isn't kidding, this national election may be bad for the health of women, children and other living things. Including the Western system of democracy.

The electoral season has begun in full earnest this year before it has even officially begun. We know that because no one is wondering anymore who the presidential candidates will be. We know. The question is: Do we also know what may really be at stake in this election?

The party conventions that ordinarily launch the process and historically have picked the candidates have become purely cosmetic this time around. Unlike elections before this one, where delegates battled until the wee hours of the morning to determine the party candidates, this year's political conventions have little real use at all except perhaps as public pep rallies designed to send the teams onto the field growling. The problem is that I'm not sure anyone will really know what we're supposed to be cheering for once the hoopla and the funny convention hats disappear from the screen.

The parties are "united," they tell us. Unlike four years ago, the major question now is not whether Republicans and Democrats will assume that the regional dialect or family lineage of their own candidate is enough of a credential to qualify them for the job. This time the focus is on "substance." The person of the candidates themselves is clearly less important than the ideologies they represent. But what are they?

Furthermore, neither George Bush Sr. nor Bill Clinton is the ghost in the party closet. It's not the past this time that is the focus of this year's election.

Finally, we have two candidates whose records have been tried in the public arena for years. There won't be a lot to talk about, in other words, that we don't already know.

So this is a good, clearly defined election year, right? Not so fast. If you watch the political ads that are beginning the "slash and burn" part of the U.S. electoral politics, you might get another idea about what this year's election is really all about.

The stakes are far higher than the presidency, it seems. Here in Pennsylvania, at least, I got the surprise of my life.

Arlen Specter, a longtime U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, a distinguished legislator and balanced representative, is running for reelection. Rick Santorum, another high-profile Pennsylvania legislator, stars in one of Specter's endorsement ads that is running on Pennsylvania television from one end of the state to the other. It starts out like this, Santorum speaking: "Some people say that Arlen Specter is a liberal. But I have worked with him and I know "

My head jerked up. I missed the rest of the ad, to tell you the truth. The part, I presume, that told me all the good things he had done to keep Pennsylvania growing and its citizens free. But the message I did get was a clear one: Arlen Specter is not reprobate, not a felon, not a traitor to the American cause. He is, in other words, NOT a liberal. And that's why you should elect him.

The unspoken message of the ad was even stronger than the spoken one: Liberalism is the enemy. Liberalism is the problem. Liberalism is a dirty word. And don't you dare listen to anyone who accuses Specter of being one.

By implication, the rest of the unspoken message is even stronger yet and, worse, more dangerous. To say "down with liberalism" is to imply, as well, "And by the way, down with the Enlightenment, down with the French Revolution, down with the spirit of the U.S. Constitution and down with the entire spectrum of political history that struggled over time to secure the foundations of Western democracy."

There's not a high school history student who doesn't know that it was liberal ideology that created that great democratic experiment called the United States of America. Liberal philosophers and politicians framed the arguments and the political system that gave us the first declarations of human rights, equality, freedom of speech and fair labor practices. These are, we're told, the very reason we marched into Iraq, guns blazing.

And now we are being told not to vote for people who are committed to those things, who make those liberal things the political standards of their lives? Now we're being made to believe that the big "L" word is suddenly the country's secret enemy?

If this is true, what is really up for election this year?

From where I stand, this kind of smear campaign against the very ideals on which this country was built must give us all pause.

The historical truth is that liberalism is always suspicious of any concentrations of power that threaten to subsume individuals into being pawns of any system. So, yes, liberals go to court even in "wartime" to maintain the civil rights of suspected felons lest we all become potential felons in the name of patriotism.

Liberals are open to the reorganization of social systems when old institutions fail to respond to new needs. So, yes, they believe that even White House staffers must be accountable to Congressional investigators.

And yes, liberals encourage change when change is what is needed to save what we value most. When Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National Resources Planning Board in the '30s, it was called "un-American," but who would deny today that the planned use of natural resources is the very lifeline of the country?

Liberalism is both the seed and the core of this country. It is not owned by either Democrats or Republicans, but it must be valued by both or the totalitarian states from which we grew may well be the future toward which we ourselves are headed. Then this election will have been more about the past than it is about the present.

Beware the political ads this year. And listen closely. They may be saying more than they are saying. And that is no joke.

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