Thursday, March 30, 2006

We Don't Know What To Do, So We Do Nothing, op ed. Jay Bookman,

Published on Thursday, March 30, 2006 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Dismay of Our Elders Sums Up US
by Jay Bookman

An eerie sense of calm has settled over the nation's affairs — a dead calm.

It's not merely that the Bush administration has run aground on its own illusions. The real problem runs deeper, much deeper, and at its core, I think, lies the fact that out of fear and laziness we insist on trying to address new problems with old ideologies, rhetoric and mind-sets.

To put it bluntly, we don't know what to do, and so we do nothing.

Run through the list: We have no real idea how to address global warming, the draining of jobs overseas, the influx of illegal immigrants, our growing indebtedness to foreign lenders, our addiction to petroleum, the rise of Islamic terror . . .

Those are very big problems, and if you listen to the debate in Congress and on the airwaves, you can't help but be struck by the smallness of the ideas proposed to address them. We have become timid and overly protective of a status quo that cannot be preserved and in fact must be altered significantly.

The Republicans, for example, continue to mouth a cure-all ideology of tax cuts, deregulation and a worship of all things corporate, an approach too archaic and romanticized to have any relevance in the modern world, as their five years in power have proved.

The GOP's sole claim to bold action — the decision to invade Iraq in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 — instead epitomizes the problem. The issue of Islamic terrorism is complex and difficult, and by reverting immediately to the brute force of another era, we made the problem worse.

Unfortunately, the Democrats don't offer an alternative. They mouth no ideology whatsoever, their imagination, ingenuity and courage apparently having petered out 30 years ago. They can't bring themselves to acknowledge that the modern litany of problems will require us to invent new roles for government, and to rework the relationships between citizens, corporations and country.

But we can't even talk about such things. Our public discourse — which ought to be the source of renewal and energy in a democracy — has been stripped of meaning, with rudeness now mistaken for eloquence and anger substituting for insight.

All that has led to a sense of helplessness atypical of the American character. In an accurate reflection of our national mood, only 29 percent in a recent Gallup Poll said they were satisfied with the country's direction, a number that can't be explained away solely by our predicament in Iraq. The Gallup numbers haven't consistently been above 50 percent since the spring of 2002, long before most Americans were even aware an invasion loomed.

But more compelling to me than numbers are the e-mails, probably dozens of them in total, that have trickled into my in-box over the past year or so from older Americans all around the country.

"I am 79 . . . I am 84 . . . I was born in 1931," they start out. "I fought with the Eighth Army in Korea . . . We lost our oldest son in Vietnam . . . My husband served in the Pacific . . . I taught school for 35 years," they continue, each recounting their personal contributions to this country and establishing their own perspective on its history.

Then comes the statement that breaks your heart. The words vary from author to author, but the sentiment does not:

"This is not the country I wanted to leave my grandchildren . . . Is this what we sacrificed so much for all those years? . . . I really don't understand how it has come to this. . . . We took for granted that in America it would always be better for the next generation, but I can't see that's the case anymore. . . . Where did we go wrong?"

These people are concerned not for themselves, but for what they may soon leave behind. And that concern for the future is all the more remarkable because it is so rare among those of us who are their children and grandchildren.

Unlike our elders, we refuse to tax ourselves to pay for our wars, our roads, our government. We elevate leaders who promise us tax cuts and free services and cheap oil and the strongest military in the world, and we shun any who dare to suggest that sacrifice might be necessary for such things.

Of course, as a nation we have faced worse. The generation that endured the Great Depression only to be hit with World War II had to confront challenges that make our own pale in significance.

But when people of that generation express sincere dismay about where we're headed today, it's gotta make you wonder.

Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.


Post a Comment

<< Home