Global Matters: Heed the call for historic change

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Nobody seems to know who first coined the well-worn quip, “There’s no constituency for change,” but events unfolding in Washington and indeed globally these past few weeks confirm the adage.

The 2008 election in this country certainly seemed to be about change. To all appearances, the country wanted a different kind of president, a change in congressional leadership, and a different approach to diplomacy, the war on terror, Guantanamo, stem cell research, health care. We wanted a massive do-over of the prior eight years, with a completely different team in charge.

Or not.

By the looks of things, we don’t really want change if we have to compromise in order to get it. We don’t want change if we have to be patient. We don’t want change if other issues take priority over those we care about the most.

No, we’d rather endure the creeping paralysis of political stalemate than move ahead, even incrementally, on the projects we presumably cared about so deeply just a year ago.

Take health care.

Insurance premiums are rising, more Americans are joining the ranks of the uninsured and people are dying for lack of coverage. Yet the process of extracting a bill from the Senate Finance Committee required Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe to do no less, in her words, than to respond to the call of history in order to cast her vote in favor.

No word yet on whether history will call her and her colleagues on the final legislation to be presented to the Senate.

Along with tamping down the rhetoric over what was once called the “Global War on Terror,” President Obama is taking a long, hard look at our military strategy in Afghanistan in order to determine appropriate troop levels in a war that is fast approaching the decade mark. He’s listening to the best advice of the defense establishment, demanding more of Afghanistan’s leadership, requiring an exit strategy and so on.

But many of the president’s supporters think that, having laid waste to the country, we should walk away from the mess and get out immediately, regardless of the consequences to Afghanis or to our own security.

And of course, the president’s opponents think that any re-examination of strategy is dithering and evidence of weakness.

Back in the day, we wanted to close Guantanamo and restore an America that trusted its constitution and judicial system. But the recent proposal to house Guantanamo inmates in a hyper-max facility in Illinois is considered risky business, and don’t even ask about trying presumed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in federal court.

I guess when you get right down to it, there’s change, and then there’s change. No one wants any change if it’s not change enough, and no one wants change if change is too threatening. So we find ourselves in a situation in which nothing’s changed.

Or rather, nothing will change unless we can somehow remain both steadfast in our support of what we believe is right, even as we recognize that change may not come in a dramatic flourish but, rather, over time.

Historically, this country has shown a remarkable ability to change, to evolve as circumstances create opportunity. Change, and the potential for change, is what has made this country a beacon for those suffering in entrenched poverty and repression. It is the potential to improve one’s own lot and the country’s potential to change its ways that set us apart.

Yet today we stand with clenched and gnarled fingers clinging to the familiar even as our institutions and our people are increasingly at risk. We fear change because it may cost us more money, or, worse, an election. We fear change because others may benefit more than we will. We fear change because we doubt our ability to prevail in a world in which we are no longer the undisputed cock of the walk.

Without change, however, we stagnate, and when it comes to policy, without change there can be no progress.

Alfred North Whitehead, one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, put it this way:

“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society.”

I’m not ready to throw in the towel. I’m not interested in propping up an unrelieved system of order. We need to change and to be ready to compromise in the interest of progress.

History demands no less, and if you can’t hear history calling now, I doubt that you ever will.

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NEWnewman-op.jpgPerry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.