Saturday, June 20, 2009

This country has lost part of its soul.

(Because blogging is international, I would like to make plain that the country I am referring to in the title is the United States of America. You can make your own judgments about your own country.)

I have no idea what our kids are really being taught in school these days. I do remember what I was taught when I was growing up. The U.S. was founded on very well defined principles, such as freedom, equality and justice. The system we had might not be perfect, but the ideals we tried to strive for were.

As with almost everything in life, what I was taught turned out not to be all that black and white. A lot of what we were taught about freedom, equality and justice was true, just as a lot of it was a combination of wishful thinking, self-delusion and propaganda. We really weren’t given the whole impact of having a large part of the nation’s economy based on slavery. We weren’t really told about the systematic extermination of Native Americans. Nor were we told about the interment of American citizens during WWII who had the misfortune of being of Japanese ancestry. The working class was treated as little more than trash during the Gilded Age. Intolerance and racism was not on the curriculum. Those things were kind of left out. There is, and always has been, a lot that is good about America. And there has always been a dark side that most of us would rather pretend didn’t exist.

Yet, given all that, it seems to me that our ideals still held true. Even after all those dark episodes, our better nature would ultimately rise back to the surface. Maybe I am just being naive. Maybe I have been so immersed in our idealized view of our country, I swallowed it, just like everyone else. I really believed that the U.S. was rather exceptional. Possibly, I was suckered.

Even given that uncertainty, it seems like to me the U.S. has changed. The principles we hold dear are worthy of slogans and sound bites, but are not things to be taken literally. Or perhaps the meaning of these words has morphed into something not included in their original definitions.

I would have never thought that our society would seriously be debating whether or not we should be torturing people, or that holding people indefinitely without being charged with a crime and not allowing them access to the legal system would not only be something we would ever consider, but would be held as a moral and patriotic imperative by some. There are some people in this country who would seriously try to make a case that Jesus would torture people, under the right circumstances.

Greed and the pursuit of more and more money override basic tenets of civilized behavior. I wrote the other day about insurance companies, to whom people have paid hefty premiums all their lives, that will drop coverage to people who are in desperate need of healthcare for the flimsiest of reasons. The whole Enron debacle showed us just how out of control people can be when groupthink sets in.

New behavior and attitudes that were once unthinkable have become normalized. Yelling and screaming at people who disagree with you is now commonplace. Attempting to steal elections is now just “part of the game” and the only sin is if you get caught. Blatant self-interest rules. The poor, the aged and the sick can just fend for themselves. It’s survival of the fittest (read: the wealthy and the powerful) taken to absurd extremes, to the detriment of everyone else. As a society, we aren’t even trying anymore to pretend to aspire to ideals. Our ideals have become nothing more than slogans to bash our opponents over the head with.

Like I said, maybe our country really was like this all the time and I was just taken in by very nice sounding propaganda. It’s always easy to believe the best about yourself. Maybe the symptoms just seem worse now because of the 24/7 wall-to-wall coverage of outrage.

Still, I can’t help believe that some fundamental change has occurred in this country. Torturing people is a good thing? How could that possibly be?

What I don’t know, nor does anyone, is whether or not the current attitudes in our country represent just a dip in the road, or is the start of a long, probably very painful, decline of our country as a power for good in this world. All civilizations, small, large, powerful and ineffectual, eventually come to their end.

Let’s hope we, as a society, can once again become what we like to believe about ourselves.

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