A Turning Point: Part I, Where We Are

What has gone wrong with our country since its peak, which, one might argue, was the fifty-year period following the second world war? After putting men on the moon, we felt as though the government, comprised of a lot of our neighbors and friends with “the right stuff,” could do anything. It’s hard not to feel that a relatively few years ago, we would have stared this miserable virus down with civic discipline and the willingness to act on the advice of the experts. With an unselfish eye toward the common good, the public/private partnership that conquered space, also invented penicillin, cured polio, and gave us microwave ovens and color TV. We were strong. We were united. We believed we were all in this together. Our decline leaves me wondering how we went from the world’s can-do country to its can’t-do country.

Inequality of both income and opportunity has been heightened. Fifty years ago, we were more or less financially equal. The mailman could live in the typical middle-class neighborhood, as could the butcher and the waitress. It was before billionaires, and before multinational corporations lost their fealty to America in favor of tax-havens and cheap labor.

As the Becker and Fagen song Barrytown goes, “I’m not one to look behind, I know that things must change.” But the fact is, success spoiled us. Profits, short term profits at that, became the only goal of business. Your health and the very air you breath be damned. The days of the corporate executive being a deacon in his church, or flipping pancakes at an Optimist Club breakfast are over. And speaking of musical truths, remember when Sting sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too”? I find myself wondering if these executives and lobbyists love their children, or give a solitary thought to the world their policies will leave the next generations. Their wealth will not insulate their progeny from their shortsightedness.

Instead of having the means to drive a Cadillac, versus their factory foreman’s Chevy, today’s CEO is chauffeured, flies private, and lives in multiple mansions, likely in multiple countries. The foreman doesn’t drive a Chevy anymore either. Now she leases a BMW she could not afford to buy.

We have outsmarted ourselves. In the quest for never paying any taxes, corporations that remained here hired tax experts—floors of them in the poster-child case of GE in the Eighties—and the cat-and-mouse game between corporations and legislators/regulators was on. Big Tobacco, Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Pharma lobbied up. Smaller industries followed.

Access equals power, and the revolving door between the houses of Congress and K Street, where the lobbyists work (read: hang upside down like vampire bats by day and suck the lifeblood out of our democracy by night), is alive and rotating. Some legislators stay for decades; some leave for K Street and untold riches after a few terms—whatever amount of time is long enough to sell access to their former colleagues.

How did we become the country that prefers traumatizing our grade schoolers with active shooter drills over removing the threat of military-style assault rifles from our streets? The answer is simple: the gun lobby, in the person of the NRA, and the object of their money, power, and intimidation, legislators, and to be crystal clear, regardless of the trope that “both sides do it,” Republican legislators, who, against the wishes of ninety-percent of the American public, refuse to enact common sense rules like limiting magazine capacity, codifying thorough background checks, and closing gun show loopholes. (Mark Twain was right: common sense is not really so common.) The larger question isn’t even how the gun lobby became so fearsome that legislators are frozen in place, it is how do we stop it? Term limits seem like a good place to start, even though many smart people think we would lose critical institutional-knowledge and institutional-history, I have come to believe those would be small sacrifices to make our system work better for everyone.

We are deeply divided in every way imaginable. The public is at war politically, geographically, socioeconomically, ethnically, and racially. Perhaps we always were, but the veneer of politeness that lubricated our social interactions has been worn away by a polarized punditry and social media.

In 2016, the body politic had a spasm. Though he lost the popular vote, the Electoral College handed the White House to a divisive narcissist who lifts himself up by diminishing others, breaking the mold of the unifying leader that the country–and indeed the world–had relied on for a century. Posing as a populist, he was really just a damaged guy who played one on TV.

Media fragmentation is the almost inseparable companion to societal divisions. Apparently, the era of mass media, when we all consumed the same, well-vetted, fact-based news, when we could all Sing Along With Mitch, and we all Loved Lucy, the moment before we disappeared into our own partisan media silos, was, in the eyes of history, short-lived. From a civic perspective, there was a lot to be said for a time when society had agreed-upon facts. That era unleashed a social consciousness that sought to remedy racial, financial, and educational inequality. Slowly, and often ineffectually, the effort was made. Even so, it was still too fast for some. The effort itself created a huge backlash, led initially by conservative talk radio, where hosts, privileged white men all, aired their endless grievances against blacks, gays, women, and foreigners.

A question arises: will right wing media lose its luster in the eyes of some of its less strident followers for denying the reality of the virus before it was too late to stop it? Will their audience be further sickened by the fact that they used the actionable early months of the outbreak to blame Democrats and “the media” (an irreconcilable irony in which they, somehow, are not the media) for making a mountain out of a molehill? If discredited, will their fans begin to think again about the other realities–like climate change–that they deny? Will most people come to believe that a strong federal effort with able leadership could have lowered the death toll?

And thanks to right wing media, conspiracy theories, once relegated to the backwaters of our society, are enjoying an unprecedented rise. Do cell towers cause Covid-19? Are the Globalists (dog-whistle for “Jews”) behind this virus? Is it just a left wing hoax meant to destroy the Trump presidency? Isn’t it just the common cold?

Coming: Part II, America Needs a Reset

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3 Responses to “A Turning Point: Part I, Where We Are”

  1. Don Says:

    Thanks. You speak volumes for many. Even in crazytime your sense-making is healing

  2. John F Sugg Says:

    I’ll vote for you for President. You have a brain, as opposed to the incumbent.

    • jonsinton Says:

      I really think desiring that office should disqualify any candidate. We should drag the most qualified person kicking and screaming to the White House to serve their four years.

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