Let new American dream end our listless slumber

October 10, 2002|By Jill Raymond

HOW DID America get to this place?

It is the electorate in a democratic superpower that is ultimately responsible for the power wielded in its name. Citizenship demands focused attention. It requires staying awake, even for the boring parts.

We have opted for distraction instead.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, education theorist Neil Postman notes how 19th century farmers and villagers turned out for hours-long debates by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. We would rather spend the night at Home Depot buying lawn furniture. We scrutinize the ads for cell phone deals as if life or death hangs in the balance. We count our frequent-flier miles, buy our Powerball tickets, go to the spa.

Meanwhile, our leaders decide on war and peace, pollution controls, tax cuts and health care.

The facts are out there. Income disparity, housing costs, campaign spending, incarceration rates, substance abuse, depression and road rage -- all are on the increase, while voter turnout, school funding, air quality, affordable health care, retirement security and corporate accountability plummet. High school kids graduate unprepared to think with clarity or independence.

If this is the American dream, it might be time to wake up.

How did we get to this place?

Those of us who see our circumstances largely resulting from Republican policies find it easy to blame the Democrats in Congress for quiescence and timidity. Yet those who place the blame forget the essential logic of democracy: It's the people who decide the contours of government policy. Both parties may be forgiven part way for their failures because the people are sending mixed signals. One poll question shows lopsided support for a particular position. The next question, nearly identical in meaning to the first, elicits a different response.

That said, history does not stand still, and the Democratic leadership is in a time warp. Call it "anti-Vietnam syndrome." The specter of 1972 and the humiliating debacle of George McGovern has had Democrats by the throat for three decades. The confused, milquetoast muddle that their party has become allows the Republicans to intimidate the Democrats into silence and to embrace far-right extremists with impunity.

But someone should tell the liberal leadership that Ronald Reagan is gone, and the public has moved on. Much of it is fed up with religious fundamentalism, corporate greed and mindless bloodletting as the political weapon of choice from Rwanda to the Middle East to Lower Manhattan. As hard times loom in ordinary middle-income neighborhoods, Americans suspect the Bush people have no intention of providing answers for their problems.

We have, like Marley's ghost in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, hauled those chains of over-consumption and over-stimulation for so long we've forgotten what inspiration feels like. The words of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are resurrected for memorial dinners, but they are a dead language in the year of Tyco and Enron, Dick Cheney and Martha Stewart. "Ask not what your country can do for you"? Who was he kidding?

Americans are distracted, and our opinions are full of contradiction, but there is a deep craving no leader seems to have noticed. We need the American dream to add up to something beyond the Target receipts and HDTV. We would gladly make sacrifices that allow us to believe we have something to contribute to a noble purpose.

Some genuine leaders with brains, guts and vision need to come forward and risk their political careers for something larger than themselves. They may well not win the battle in the first round. But they will reap grateful support from surprising quarters, and they will not be forgotten by history.

Jill Raymond is a free-lance writer who lives in Silver Spring.

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