October 20, 2014
WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE WE AFRAID OF?
MONTPELIER – It’s difficult, I suppose, for the majority of our population – those between, say, 20 and 60 – to appreciate the enormity of the challenges our nation has faced and overcome in the lifetimes of those of us ending our eighth decade.
My parents were married during the Great Depression, and in many ways never got over it. They shielded my sister and me from the anxiety it must have caused them, but the frugality and the toughness engendered by those bitter times – homeless men camping in packing boxes under bridges and stoops, whole families living on the always-burning city dump, bread lines, hoboes looking for handouts – stayed with them the rest of their lives. Then, when I was in kindergarten, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and a few days after that Germany also declared was on us.
Two months later, in his regular Fireside Chat radio broadcast, the President observed, “Never before have we had so little time to do so much.” Never before had such a disagreeable truth been so obvious; yet the nation managed to do it. Factories swung into triple shifts; there were good jobs available for anyone who could work; for the first time, women became machinists and ordnance assemblers; millions of men and women went to war. We kids at home took dimes to school once a week and bought Victory stamps. When each stamp book was full, we turned it in for a war bond. Gasoline, rubber, sugar, and meat were rationed; we got used to counting out our allotted ration stamps or tokens beside our money. (What a bitter mockery it seemed when another president, 70 years later, urged us instead to “go shopping.”)
Urchins trundled their carts through the streets collecting bound newspapers, cans of lard (for munitions, we were told), and scrap metal: keys, razor blades, and flattened tin cans. Some of us ventured into the fields in season to pick ripe milkweed pods, whose silk was used instead of kapok for life preservers. At a dollar a bushel, we felt like war profiteers.
All through that deadly war, and after it, this nation was almost completely unified. We fancied ourselves, and perhaps were, the saviors of civilization. Our 48-star flag flew in every neighborhood, and from the buildings downtown. We learned how low to pitch the first note of “The Star-Spangled Banner” so as to be able to hit the high note at the end. Kate Smith, in the 1943 film “This is the Army,” memorably sang “God Bless America.” (Ronald Reagan played a young Army recruit with a puzzled expression.) We made romantic drawings of American fighter planes in our school notebooks, and learned the silhouettes of Messerschmitts and Junkers, just in case we spotted any overhead. Air raid sirens and blackout shades became part of life.
This feeling – of hard-won invincibility, that we could do anything we put our minds and hearts to, of unanimity – persisted for about three years. Then a Republican Congress, traumatized by Roosevelt’s four terms and Harry Truman’s squeaker over Thomas Dewey in 1948, passed a two-term presidential limit amendment, which was ratified a couple of years later.
About this time a new growth appeared in the American consciousness: one of fear. Naturally, it was planted and nurtured by politicians seeking public notoriety and patriotic purity. True-blue Americans had long had a thorny relationship (to put it mildly) with socialism, communism, and labor unions. But at least it was an open one, if now and then bare-knuckled. Now, we were engaged in a cold war with the mighty and mysterious Soviet Union, and Joseph McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin, began claiming he had evidence that various government bureaucrats and military personnel were members of the Communist Party.
The president who famously stated we had nothing to fear but fear and led us into one of the greatest recoveries in our history was only six years dead, but already we’d begun to forget. We had begun to mistrust each other and, with the Vietnam War, to mistrust the government and its paragons of probity, the leaders of our military. The day of the conspiracy theorists was dawning.
Ronald Reagan probably did as much as anyone to encourage the mistrust of government with one simple line that still resonates with simple, discontented people: “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
What a world of trouble that comment has caused! Fearful people in distress rarely blame themselves for their problems, but instead seek a scapegoat. Now they have a handy one, and thanks to 24-hour Internet activity, they do excite themselves about it. Politicians, never slow to find advantage wherever they can, fan that flame, and we are now likely more fearful than ever.
Large men stalk city streets and even supermarkets with expensive weapons hanging from them, purportedly demonstrating their need for self-protection. Politicians take to the talk shows decrying the president’s sluggish response to the “catastrophic threat” of the Ebola virus, utterly forgetting that the AIDS virus was a joke in the Reagan White House press room until almost 28,000 Americans had died of it. “Two-thirds of Americans” according to a recent piece by Robert Reich, “are falling behind and living paycheck-to-paycheck – so overwhelmed by fear and insecurity that they're highly vulnerable to the politics of resentment and blame.”
It’s hard not to miss the days when we could whip the world and then help rebuild it – when, just after that high note we dreaded so, we ended with “...the home of the brave.”