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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

America in Retrenchment

I have the sense, as I have read disparate news items from Apollo 11’s moon landing forty years ago to the healthcare debate, from Henry Louis Gates’ arrest in his home near Harvard Square to the Republicans’ petty delay on voting for Sotomayor, that the United States as a country is getting smaller and meaner, instead of more ambitious, experimental or collectively enthusiastic and purposeful about the future. I may be wrong. But I see a country fighting to keep what it has, rather than solving its problems and moving toward opportunities.

It is always dangerous to abstract and claim any country seems like this or like that. We are a collection of 300 million individuals, from different backgrounds, religions, races, and classes. And what you understand is often what the media wants you to see and hear, through their weird prism where glib contradictions, petty arguments, and the scandals of celebrity culture attract eyeballs and ears to TV sets, radios, and newspapers, the point of any media empire however big or small.

But those caveats to my impressions of America’s retrenchment have always been there. Either we have had leaders who overcame our personal or collective pessimism about the direction of this country, or optimism was truly a part of society, for whatever economic or political reason. So I think the United States may truly be changing from what we used to be.

The fortieth anniversary of the moon landing exemplifies, for me, how far we have fallen in our space program, not how much we once accomplished. We should be going to Mars and beyond. Where is the enthusiasm to explore a new world? Where is the collective will, along with the nuts-and-bolts practicality, that embraces the challenge, the technological breakthroughs, and the sacrifices of such missions?

‘We don’t have the money,’ many might say. ‘We need to fix our country before we can represent the human race in space again.’ Yet many of our economic problems were self-inflicted. We chose a laissez-faire capitalism, particularly during the disastrous Bush years, that destroyed limits on risk-taking for banks, that unleashed profit predators on hapless, uneducated consumers of mortgages, and that fueled a society of pointless consumerism.

Meanwhile, our children watched too much TV, played too many video games, and were rarely encouraged to read. I am not surprised that the biggest group of foreign students in one of my classes is Chinese. These students are invariably polite, hardworking, aggressive, technically capable, and fluent in English. I see the future in my class every day. What happened to our work ethic? What happened to the peddle-to-the-medal desire to rise from the dirt and make something of yourself? My father and mother were like that; the Ukrainian woman I met on Broadway, who works several menial jobs so that her daughter can finish dental school at NYU, is like that. But I feel they are aberrations in contemporary America.

Part of the problem is the United States became too developed. You see this size problem when investing in companies. It is easier to grow a $100 million company by 20 percent, than a $100 billion company. America is not a growth story anymore, but a story of fixing devilishly persistent problems like the uninsured, high infant mortality rates, swaths of our society still disenfranchised and in poverty, and racism. The problems of race are not what they were in the 1960’s. I believe we have made progress. But I also believe it is foolish to think we don’t have a problem anymore, or that racism and ethnic discrimination will not take different, unexpected turns like African-Americans and Anglos closing the doors on Latinos.

Which brings me to Professor Gates and Judge Sotomayor. It was one thing, in the early years of the civil rights movement, to be a liberal by giving minorities the chance to educate themselves and to compete equally for jobs, local political offices, and so on. But that’s not where we are anymore. Many from the traditionally disenfranchised classes don’t want just a break anymore; they want and deserve the keys to Harvard and the Supreme Court. Barack Obama already has the keys to the White House.

I am sensing further retrenchment in America to the progress of the disenfranchised. It is one thing to be patronizingly liberal, to grant an opportunity to someone you still may look down on. It is another for someone to replace you at the highest levels of power. Perhaps what I sense is this unease in parts of America that are white and non-Hispanic; you certainly see it in a wing of the Republican party. They are unwilling to concede Sotomayor is exceptionally qualified to be on the Supreme Court, even after she handled the hearings well, even after her judicial record was scrutinized and determined to be moderate. Her detractors will not be convinced by anything reasonable. They have prejudged her, or are careful never to counter the smears of Limbaugh in front of their constituencies. These senators are digging in their heels.

What I hope will counter America’s retrenchment is having leaders and cultural educators strive to make the United States as one again. One nation about freedom. One nation that is bold, yet tolerant. One nation that focuses on problems to solve them. One nation that corrects mistakes, instead of repeating them. A nation more about the future than the past.

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