Viewing the rot and the glitter

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

August 27, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

This week, the Baltimore Sun will host a group of journalists from the Soviet Union and I have been trying to imagine what they will think of our society.

We'll take them to an Orioles game. They'll go on a tour of the National Aquarium and the White House. They'll meet the mayor and they'll spend a lot of time in people's homes.

And I imagine they will be struck most by all of the things we have. It may seem to them that everyone they meet has televisions and cars and food processors and microwaves and VCRs and telephones and telephone answering machines and central air conditioners and jogging shoes and walking shoes and aerobic shoes and Sunday-Go-To-Meeting shoes.

Our cupboards will be stocked with sugar-frosted flakes and instant potatoes and canned peaches, pears and prunes. Our refrigerators will bulge under the weight of pot roasts and Smithfield hams and Australian veal and Jerusalem artichokes.

Whether we take them to the mall or to the grocer or to some quiet, little, out-of-the-way shop that only a few special people know about, our Soviet visitors will see a society of plenty. A wealthy society. A wonderland society bulging at the seams with things, things and more things.

I wonder, though, if they'll be awed by it all or if they'll be able to see how much of our things are useless junk.

And I wonder if they'll be able to pierce through all this junk and see how poor we really are underneath.

Our society is one of the sickest in the industrialized world -- primarily because we put so little of our resources into health care. Infant and maternal mortality here is one of the highest in the world. Millions of Americans do not have health insurance and those who are covered by one of the federal programs often receive inferior care. Every day, according to the U.S. Health Department, thousands of Americans die of maladies that could have been prevented through timely or effective treatment, maladies that would have received such treatment elsewhere.

Our society also is one of the most violent in the industrialized world. Entire nations have fewer homicides per year than just one of our major cities. The Justice Department reports that we incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than does any other industrialized nation and that we keep them there for longer periods of time. National opinion polls indicate that the majority of Americans are not only afraid to venture into the streets at night, they are fearful of being victimized in their own homes.

This is a society twisted and warped by fear. People here are plagued by unemployment and by the fear of unemployment. They are plagued by bankruptcy and the fear of bankruptcy. There are millions of homeless people here and millions more who live just one paycheck away from homelessness. We are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society that has barely been able to live together in peace.

A lot of this stuff we will not be able to hide.

Some innocent citizen surely will be slaughtered this week, and under circumstances that will horrify even us.

In New York, the simmering animosity between blacks and Hasidic Jews that exploded into violence last week continues.

Inmates in Alabama have held onto hostages for almost a week now.

And, if our visitors find out what happened in Milwaukee, they may jump on the plane and never come back.

Ours is a divided, unhappy society.

There is rot beneath the glitter.

Yet, for all of these problems, we also remain a politically apathetic society.

Our voting turnout is among the lowest in the industrialized world. And I for one do not think people do not vote because they don't care. I believe people don't vote because they no longer believe their vote can make a difference.

Last week, when the Soviet people stood up to the bad guys, faced down their tanks and forced them to retreat, I felt moved to the brink of tears.

I've been pondering those feelings for several days now and I think I understand.

Over there, the bad guys came out of hiding and the people beat them.

Over here, the bad guys seem legion and our victories over them seem small.

All of this may be hard to explain to visitors.

We live in a wealthy society blessed with unprecedented bounty. We enjoy more freedoms than anyone else in the world. We had such great promise.

Where did we go wrong?

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