Friday, August 27, 2010

The unpaving of a superpower

Once upon a time, there was a country that set itself high ideals about liberty and equality. With unbounded enthusiasm and can-do spirit, it defended the rights of minorities to participate fully in the life of its Republic. It fought on the side of freedom and justice. It treated its enemies generously. It gave all religious faiths equal rights and abolished faith-based requirements for office.

It bulit things. It built railroads and bridges. It brought telephones and electricity to remote places. It paved a great highway system across the nation. Its scientists were unmatched for creativity and resources, and even put men on the moon.

This country recognized its own failings, and set itself to create a Great Society where all could achieve, regardless of race, or economic background. It promised its citizens the ideal that anyone can achieve success. By hard work and dedication, its young could earn an education regardless of the circumstances of their births and become rich and famous. It built universities and libraries toward this task.

What happened to that country?

Here were are, 390 years after refugees stepped off a boat at Plymouth seeking religious freedom; 234 years after our audacious founding documents promised respect for all faiths, almost 70% of Americans oppose a religious building built by Muslims. Hack politicians inflame the masses against an unpopular faith, as though principles only matter when we apply them to those we like. It's not related to the deaths at 9/11, either, as there are protests against mosques across the country.

Here we are, where bridges crumble due to lack of maintenance , and local governments are actively UNPAVING their roads. Unbelieveable: we are tearing up the asphalt and going back to dirt and gravel.

Here we are, plunging back into dark nights of crime when cities turn off their streetlights, and public school children have to bring their own toilet paper to school. Unfathomable: like something out of the third world.

And have you been in any city downtown lately? The potholes, the grime, the boarded-up storefronts. And everywhere, the homeless, with dead eyes of despair,nearly invisible to people passing in expensive cars.

As Paul Krugman writes,
In effect, a large part of our political class is showing its priorities: given the choice between asking the richest 2 percent or so of Americans to go back to paying the tax rates they paid during the Clinton-era boom, or allowing the nation’s foundations to crumble — literally in the case of roads, figuratively in the case of education — they’re choosing the latter.
How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right. The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud....But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed.

And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.

So the end result of the long campaign against government is that we’ve taken a disastrously wrong turn. America is now on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere.

But it's bigger than just economics. The very soul of what used to make us great (or at least, reasonably aspire to greatness) is lost in careless demagoguery, threats, and grasping greed for power that doesn't care for governance, or the well-being of a society. The party of "no", far from standing on reasonable conservative principle, stands on whatever will reflect ill on the Administration. Never mind if the flood waters are rising. Never mind that we all live here together. Increasingly, there is only Us and Them, as though we are not bound by blood, geography, culture.

For a culture that thinks of itself as mainstream Christian, it is odd to have rejected so fully a responsibility for the least among us, the idea of being one's brother's keeper, of giving all to the poor. The national attitude, which far too many Christians support, is "I've got mine, screw you".

And increasingly, we end up as a nation whose ideals are written on no more than, well, toilet paper, with a monstrous military complex, a cynical ruling class, and ill-educated, frightened people standing in the dark, on unpaved roads.

Picture sources here and here


Karen said...

Exactly. Thank you for this.

F. Harry Stowe said...

We tried and we got Obama elected. Now what? Is there a plan for overcoming inertia in Washington (I'm assuming an H-bomb and a clean start is not an option -- nor likely to be enough anyhow). With an uneducated (indeed, anti-educated) populace who like horror movies in real life, what is to be done that we aren't already doing as best we can?