Although most Americans think of Presidents' Day mainly in terms of sales on home appliances and electronics, as well as a welcome mid-winter day off, it's worth stopping to think for a moment about what we are actually celebrating on this day.
Why take a day out of the national calendar to honor Washington and Lincoln? What is there about these two heroic figures to inspire us today?
Both Washington and Lincoln were warriors. They took our nation into bloody wars fought on idealistic principles.
Washington led an insurgency against British troops, an outrageous act of treason against the powerful British Crown.
Lincoln led American troops into battle against our own Southern states, which were threatening to secede from the Union.
In both cases, wars were fought and many lives were lost but survivors agreed that the cause had been just, and the sacrifices necessary.
Both Washington and Lincoln were able to build political coalitions and persuade Americans of the rightness of the course of action they were about to undertake. They did not lie to the people about the dangers or the costs; they appealed to Americans to support the Revolutionary and Civil Wars on the basis of the moral justice of the cause.
What a contrast this presents to the most recent time America mobilized for war, in 2002-03, when our president relied on smoke, mirrors, propaganda and outright lies to manipulate Americans to support the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A president should never lie to the people, especially when lives are at stake.
On Presidents' Day, 2012, we face another round of saber-rattling, this time with Iran. The regional politics of this conflict are deep, complex and ancient, dating back to pre-modern quarrels among the Jews, Sunnis and Shias. They are of concern to us, way over here in America, mainly because of our reliance on Middle East oil, and secondarily because of our ideological support of the state of Israel.
Today, our President is weighing the possibility of an escalation of this conflict. Pakistan has just made a defiant announcement that it will stand with Iran in the event of war. Pakistan is a nuclear power; Iran may be too.
We have not teetered so close to the brink of nuclear war since the scary days of the 1980s, before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union was revealed as just a small Wizard projecting a big image from behind a screen. Unlike the harmless Wizard of Oz, however, these generals are armed with nuclear warheads, and they may be prepared to use them.
When nuclear weapons are used, civilians suffer. Innocent civilians; innocent animals, birds and flora. Surely the recent release of radiation in Japan should serve as a reminder of just how obscenely dangerous even peaceful applications of nuclear technology can be.
What we need in our President today is that he be a warrior, yes, but a warrior for peace, not war.
Just as Washington had the courage to risk treason to break away from the established bond with Britain, and Lincoln had the courage to stand up to the South to end the established reliance on slave labor, today we need our President to take a stand against the addiction to fossil fuels that is proving so destabilizing to human civilization and our entire planetary environment.
On Presidents' Day 2012 I call on President Obama to restore America's role in the world as a beacon of "liberty and justice for all," but now with a new, 21st century inflection.
When Washington thought of liberty and justice for all, he did not include women or enslaved Africans in that "all." Lincoln turned a corner, demanding liberty and justice for the slaves, but ignoring the disenfranchisement of women.
As we enter the 21st century, we need to again rethink the "all" for whom we intend liberty and justice. Every living being on this planet deserves to live its life peacefully, without undue suffering.
It is now abundantly clear that the path America has laid down since the 1940s--a path littered with spent shells and warheads, paved with an oily slick of asphalt, and reeking with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical treatments of all kinds--has proven to be a disaster for us, and for the world that has followed along behind us.
Industrial civilization and a consumer-based society has proven to be a disaster to every living being on this planet, and the planetary ecosystem as a whole.
We need our President to stand up to the oil barons, the merchant princes and the corporate bankers and insist that they now funnel all of their resources into creating a new path into a different kind of future.
We need our President to rally the sick, bewildered, overburdened populace and lead us not into another insane war, but into a vast new Americorps project to restore education and health to our communities. We need America to become once again a model and a support for the rest of the world.
President Obama, when we elected you we believed you would be a different kind of president. Yes we can was your motto, and we believed you would be the leader to lead us out of the nightmares of the 20th century, into a cleaner, healthier, kinder 21st century.
There is still time for you to make this vision a reality, Mr. President. On Presidents' Day, I challenge you to live up to the best aspects of Washington and Lincoln, and lead us out of danger...lead us home.