WHAT HAPPENED TO AMERICA?
by James C. Henderson
At this point, I thought America would be farther along. I did. I really did. I was born in 1955 and grew up in a time when progress was not just a slogan but was being achieved. All the old mistakes, prejudices, and conceits were being swept away, replaced by a modern enlightenment that was not merely optimism but demonstrable advancements evident in a wide variety of areas across American society.
First off, we had put a man in space and we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Yellow journalism was a thing of the past, an aberration of the Randolph Hearst newspapers whose fiction about the explosion aboard the USS Maine, notably, led us to war with Spain in 1898. That could never happen again; everyone was wise to that scam. It was so nineteenth century. Disease was on its way out, too. Jonas Salk had discovered a vaccine for polio in 1952, and he had given his patent on his vaccine free to the public, to boot—this on the heels of the discovery of penicillin a decade or so before and a few years before a vaccine for measles. It was a time of altruism. One of my passing ambitions, as well as one of many boys and girls, I’m sure, was to grow up to be a doctor and discover more ways to improve health and save humankind.
Science was king. In biology we learned about evolution (creationism was strictly a Biblical story—evolution vs. creationism had been hashed out and resolved in that movie, Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy) and we learned how everything in the biosphere was connected like a web—mess with one thing and everything else falls apart. In physics we marveled at how the splitting of the atom had been harnessed into benevolent nuclear power that would provide clean energy for endless centuries.
Economically, everyone had a job or could expect to have one on graduating college, and it seemed almost everyone was graduating from college. Not that one needed an education. It was going to be a push-button world. By the time I was ready to get married and have 2.5 children, I would be whizzing in a flying car from my office in a skyline of chrome to my house in the suburbs, with its robot maid, and dog (maybe a robot dog). One became educated because it was a sign of personal progress and upward social mobility. Besides, who was going to discover life-saving vaccines and run the nuclear power plants, if we weren’t educated?
It was a time of youthful exuberance and promise. The entire world was becoming a better place to live, and America was leading the way with the 40-hour work week, employer provided health benefits, weekends, and paid vacation. The American Way of Life was the way people should live. Even an exemplar of alien superiority such as Superman was humbled by American virtue and willingly served it. Sure, we had our problems: racism and sexism still existed, some Americans were still poor, sick, and uneducated, but those were problems to solve, obstacles to be hurtled. Overcoming them gave us, as a nation, purpose and a reason to strive, their successful resolutions a reason to be proud. Hadn’t we defeated fascism during the Second World War? That was just the beginning.
Our civics was a source of our prowess as a nation. In this nation governed by “We the People” democracy ruled. Every vote counted and we were there for one another in times of trouble. We were all in this life together, one union. The Red Cross was always giving blood and blankets to disaster victims. The Peace Corp, the best of American youth, was building wells all over Africa, helping to grow wheat in arid ground, and feeding babies condensed milk. We said the Pledge of Allegiance proudly every morning in school, and the nation was indivisible in our desire to be good, and we said “under God,” because God was not scary, then.
All this happened, primarily, under the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a youthful leader with nearly perfect looks and a nearly perfect family, who embodied all that was virtuous in our young democracy. We were all looking forward to the New Frontier, and when President Kennedy died, I cried. It was my first encounter with mortality, his and my own. It made it even more important that I do good work in my life, to leave the world a better place than I found it. As his brother Robert F. Kennedy, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, said: “Some men see things as they are and ask, why? I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”
President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress
The country was embraced by one big social movement as it marched into civil rights, bringing to the fore Martin Luther King, Jr., who had a dream for a society where “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Feminism promised more fulfilling roles for women. Gay men and women were coming out, taking pride in their sexuality. All this promised America would be the land of opportunity for all people. But as I was taking note of this and praising it, reveling in it, relaxing into it, thinking our basic problems were on their way to being solved, the wealthy and powerful in America were also noticing what was going on—and they were not pleased.
Where I saw change for the better, they saw chaos and decline. Where I saw people empowered, asking for what they wanted, they saw a populace too empowered, getting what they wanted. Where I saw the granting of rights, they saw the loss of privileges. Where I saw a leveling of the playing field, they saw the playing field tilting away from them. America in the 1960s was becoming too egalitarian for them, too outspoken, especially in its opposition to their war of imperialism in Vietnam, so they set about to change the course of America from one of progress to one of regression in order to protect their wealth and power, their status and privilege as members of the upper class.
I’d never thought of the country as being divided into classes. Class was not part of my consciousness. Class was a construct of Charles Dickens’s English society. We in America were all of one class. We were, in fact, a classless society. But the rich and powerful did think in terms of class and class was a part of their consciousness—as it still is. Today we simply call the wealthy and powerful the 1%.
The 1% percent implemented many changes. They militarized the space program, turning it from peaceful exploration into the Star Wars missile defense system, and brought back biased journalism with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting, paving the way for Fox News and other right-wing talk radio and television shows that lied us into more wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Creationism was reintroduced into school curricula. Science was viewed with skepticism, except when it could be used to make a profit, such as distillation of oil into petroleum, pesticides, and plastics and the commercialization of the human genome—the selling of patents on living organisms to corporations. The 1% made the claim and stuck to it that nature was not interconnected, that one part could be eliminated or augmented without affecting the whole, such as the assertion that releasing unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide into air would not cause the earth’s atmosphere to warm. Education became a profit center for banks through loans for unaffordably high tuitions. The American Dream of owning your own home was foreclosed on. They even took away my flying car and saddled me with a Hummer.
Government was their main target. They saw civics as pernicious. Politicians who backed social change were replaced or were bought and silenced. Electoral fraud and voter suppression efforts, including the new Voter ID laws, were given priority. Taxes on the rich were cut, not only giving the 1% more income, but depriving the government of money with which to help the people and advance social causes, to as President Ronald Reagan put it, “starve the beast.” Social Security and Medicare, food stamps, unemployment insurance—the entire social safety net—was attacked. American jobs were outsourced to workers in other countries who did not have the same constitutional or governmental protections we in America did, or thought we did, and who worked for lower wages under worse health and safety conditions. Here in the U.S., the 40-hour workweek and minimum wage increases were undermined. Productivity grew but wages did not. Profits increased for the 1%, widening the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. Inequality was not only saved but ensured. Deficits, too, were a project of the 1%—a way to ensure that a government by the people and of the people could never again afford to work for the people. The middle class, the bulwark of posperity and manifestation of progress in America, was reduced and its influence lessened. Class privilege and status were preserved for the rich.
We deal with all these problems to this day and will deal with them well into the future. This is why I occupy: I remember how it was, how it might have been, and how it yet may be. One of my ambitions is still to make the world a better place. It is still a time of altruism.
Of course, I do not occupy the past, out of nostalgia for the good old days. Nor do I want to return to those times. The 1960s were inspiring and I’m glad I grew up in such an idealistic era, but they were not as idyllic as they seem. Perhaps they are now merely idealized. The civilian space program was more likely originally devised as a cover for the militarization of space—spy satellites and the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles—in our race to dominate the Soviet Union rather than co-opted by the military. Vaccinations have their side effects and over use of antibiotics cause resistant strains of bacteria. Nuclear power is not a panacea but a toxic and expensive technology whose waste cannot be safely disposed of or stored. John F. Kennedy was a womanizer who had a penchant for foreign policy adventurism in Cuba (The Bay of Pigs) and Vietnam. And technology, even in the form of a robot dog, can be a snare that only makes things worse the more we trust in it to make things better.
We cannot occupy the past; we must occupy the present and the future. The very existence of the United Sates of America is based on the genocide of the Native Americans whose land we stole and was built, in large part, by free peoples kidnapped from Africa. But we must work toward a better future regardless of the setbacks or the delusions of the past. All the old mistakes, prejudices, and selfishness can still be swept away, replaced by a modern enlightenment that is not merely optimism, if we channel the idealism of the past into the practicalities of the present into demonstrable advancements in the future. Just because the 1% has denied the idealism of the past as a threat to their profits and power, doesn’t make it any less real or admirable. I often see myself sitting in my wood and metal school desk in elementary school, listening to the teacher talking about the world as a place of limitless possibilities, of equality and fairness, and opportunity for all, and I say, yes, I know this is true.