America last week marked the 232nd anniversary of its break from the imperial stem, which provided its two presidential candidates with the perfect occasion to demonstrate how much they love their country. One would think that campaigning to be president, a process every bit as demeaning as appearing on a reality TV show, would be proof enough. In fact, "patriotism" - the last refuge of a scoundrel, according to Samuel Johnson and "the first, last and middle range of fools" to pundit HR Mencken - has become the watchword of the race. It has been reduced to everything from a fashion statement - an American flag pin, once notoriously missing from Barack Obama's lapels, is now de rigueur for the Chicago senator - to a tired debate on whether questioning the Republican contender John McCain's qualifications as president is to besmirch his love of country.
Conspicuously absent from this casual levelling of "patriotism" is its association with "sacrifice," particularly as gas prices enter US$5 (Dh18.37) a gallon territory. We are midway through the most important US presidential race in more than a generation. Fuel costs are at record highs, the world's oil refineries are operating at peak capacity, and there is grim talk of a US strike on Iran that could drive the price of a barrel of petrol into the hundreds of dollars. Yet neither candidate has acknowledged that the US, the world's largest energy consumer, is without an energy policy. The best they can muster is margin-tinkering proposals to open the nation's coasts to new drilling (Mr McCain) and a profits tax on oil companies (Mr Obama). Indeed, both candidates have assiduously avoided the very term "energy policy" because of its implications of a European-style pump tax along with other inconvenient means of promoting conservation and reducing waste.
Though America's energy experts manage to disagree on even the basics - there is no consensus for example, on whether Alaska is sitting on an ocean of oil or a hydrocarbon puddle - they do agree that relatively painless measures can have the greatest impact: imposing a 35-gallon per mile floor on passenger vehicles, motorway speed limits of 55 miles (88.5km) per hour, taxes on gas-guzzling SUVs, and more rigorous energy-efficiency standards for household appliances and new homes. These short-term moves, when coupled with such longer-term initiatives as offshore drilling, particularly along the eastern Gulf of Mexico and mid-Atlantic seaboard, development of next-generation nuclear-power grids and yes, a consumption tax, are the building blocks for the kind of energy policies successfully employed elsewhere in the world, including in hyper-capitalist and hideously polluted China.
Instead, the two candidates and their party burghers seem blissfully unaware that the age of cheap fuel is over. At a time when ridership on Amtrak, the country's orphaned public railway, are at record highs, there is no debate over the need for a nationwide light and high-speed rail system. In Washington, DC there is no subway connecting America's capital city with its closest international airport. In neighbouring Maryland, there was once a public rail system linking Annapolis, the state capital, and nearby Baltimore; it was closed in the late 1950s and replaced with an eight-lane expressway.
Such extravagance is part of a post-Second World War American tradition. Consider the divergent ways in which the US and Japan responded to the oil shocks of 1973. Japan, with no natural resources, tightened its already austere fuel-efficiency standards, embraced nuclear-power generation and innovated "smart" appliances like vacuum-insulated refrigerators, which buzz whenever their doors remain open for more than 30 seconds. In the appliance and gadget emporiums of Tokyo, products are marketed less by price than by kilowatt consumption.
The US, meanwhile, mobilised for the onset of rising fuel costs by building bigger, more luxurious cars, the easier for commuters to deliver themselves to work from their new suburban homes. The same generation that sired the Willys jeep, a tiny warhorse of a military-transport vehicle, begat that poster boy for overindulgence, the Hummer. More than 200 ago, the architects of American republicanism - that brilliant concentration of insurgents, scoundrels, pious Christians and militant secularists - declared themselves "free and independent" from imperial possession, "with the full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may do".
There was nothing about an inalienable right to a fully loaded SUV. It is time both parties declared their independence from the delusion of American exceptionalism, at least when it comes to energy consumption. In a society where cheap oil is considered a birthright, the real patriot is whoever makes a fashion out of shared sacrifice. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org