Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What Made America Great, Again?

The television show, "The Newsroom" was a creation of Aaron Sorkin.  Sorkin has a well-deserved reputation for both being very liberal and for being bombastic.  The show presented a pro-Democratic or more correctly an anti-Tea Party bent and at times it did so in a very "Sorkian" style, hyperbolic/over the top.  It only ran for only three seasons probably in part because of Sorkin's take no prisoners style as a producer.  Still, it was clever at times and it was utterly brilliant at others.  It was very nearly always compelling even factoring in the "Sorkin effect."

I bring it up because the first 10 minutes of that show's pilot episode are about the best 10 minutes of television produced in the past 40 years or so (sorry All in the Family, Mash, Hill Street Blues, and a host of others).  Those 10 minutes are something every American should watch.  They were so great because they asked a very hard question and gave a very hard answer.  They were also great because they were prophetic and hit home on a very visceral and deeply held feeling in the United States.

At the beginning of that episode the host, Jeff Daniels, in his role as Will McAvoy (a supposed old school Republican and long-time news anchor), is moderating a town-hall style debate between a liberal and a conservative.  A college student stands up and asks each of the people on stage, "What makes America the greatest nation in the world?"

The liberal says, "Diversity," and the conservative says, "Freedom, Freedom and Freedom."  Daniels/McAvoy is also asked but he demures and then the questioner persists.  Finally, Daniels/McAvoy says, "It's not.  America is not the greatest country in the world.  It once was but it is no longer."  He then turns to the liberal and says, "Diversity???  Lot's of country's are diverse.  If you liberals are so damned smart, why do you keep losing elections."  He turns next to the conservative and says, "Freedom? Seriously?  There are 167 countries in the world and roughly 125 those have the exact same freedoms we do."  Finally, he turns back to the young woman who asked the question and (after mocking her a bit), says, "America is no longer the greatest nation in the world....  But it could be, again."  (Apologies for any mistakes here, I'm going from memory).

The irony of this episode should not go unnoticed.  This left-leaning show defined precisely what would become the campaign slogan of the Republican Party's nominee for President.  In fact, I sometimes wonder if "the Donald" stole his campaign slogan from Sorkin (a left-leaning radical if there ever was one).  How ironic that the right's champion has taken up a cry and given voice to a reality we all understood (that America ISN'T that great any more) but would would have gotten anyone on the left who said it eviscerated.  But, the real lesson isn't that Trump was smart enough to take advantage of a popular TV show's pointing out of the obvious, no I think the lesson is that what McAvoy said and meant is so ultimately different from what Trump means (and means to do).  It's not just different, it's appallingly, shockingly different.

First, ask yourself, when you think about "what makes America great?" most likely you think of some of our foundational freedoms, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion (though I'd argue that freedom of religion isn't so very free right now), and then you would very likely think of a couple other really meaningful things.  First, you'd likely think of our ability to change the course of World War II, of our ability help for the world defeat Fascism and then help the world recover from that war.  You might also recall the US doing something very similar in World War I.  We were the "arsenal of Democracy", and that generation which fought that war and helped to recover is often pointed out as reflecting our "greatest generation." Our actions in that decade and a half or so are seen as among our most significant accomplishments.  Last, many will point to the idea "land of opportunity," the ability of people from many nations to come to the "melting pot", stake out a life, and over the course of time (especially through the development of labor protections) creating our large middle-class, the large number of people who lived a good life and the high standard of living which we once broadly enjoyed.  

So, let's look at each of these points of greatness and I think through doing so, the difference between what "makes us great" (or made us) and what Trump represents will become starkly obvious. 

First, looking at "freedoms", the fact is the US has roughly equivalent freedoms to many other nations.  Nearly all have freedom of the press, freedom of religion (some more so than the US), and freedom of speech (again some with more).  Some do less to allow for citizens to carry around guns, but our freedoms are far deeper and far stronger when we protect freedom of the press, speech, and religion and so much so that the 2nd Amendment becomes a footnote when we do.  It's not needed and those freedoms are equally protected elsewhere. So, when Daniels' character said "we could be again" he wasn't thinking that our current freedoms were so strong that they made us great though he MAY have felt they weren't as good as they once were.  By contrast, Trump talks about and attempts to intimidate the press into inaction, he intends to pressure the press into silence. Further, and more chillingly, he talks about using unconstitutional police-state tactics, especially toward Muslims.  So it's not freedom that Trump wants to "Make Great Again", quite unlike the position of McAvoy who felt our freedoms aren't so special any more.

Second, "land of opportunity?"  Well, obviously Daniel's wasn't speaking to this as it wasn't the subject of his (or anyone else's) response in those 10 minutes.  Perhaps Trump means to be, but not for foreigners pretty clearly.  No, Trump if at all is only doing so in the guise of "bringing back jobs."  But how?  Trump has said repeatedly one method he'll use to make that happen is to eliminate labor protections to allow for broadly reducing wages in the manufacturing sector.  That's not enhancing the "land of opportunity." That's not helping people raise themselves up the socio-economic ladder.  Trump's other proposals, expanding tax cuts for the rich have nothing whatsoever with helping the middle-class.  He has no plans to help handle the exploding cost of college even though EVERY analysis of global competition points out that it is critical to have a well-educated work force which is to sustain the middle-class.  It has been that middle-class which was the engine of making America the world's pre-eminent economic power - and that power which made us able to come to the world's rescue and remain the world's pre-eminent super-power.  While Trump speaks to helping manufacturing (solely), his methods are either those of a protectionist, which would shrink our economy OR of someone saying the "people make too much" which ALSO would shrink our economy.  Notably as well , he, like the rest of the robber baron class he so ably represents, never says the rich should expect less as well.   His proposals would reduce, not grow consumption and his most favored method for increasing manufacturing would (reducing wages) would LOWER our standard of living for the average worker, hardly something which will "Make America Great Again."

Last, and this the one is to me the most important, let's look at our conduct in the world.  During World War II we put OTHERS first, we sacrificed money, sweat, and blood.  We sacrificed market position after World War II to help Germany and Japan rebuild.  We recognized our great fortune and our moral responsibility to help.  We saw that our economic strength carried with it a moral duty to help save the world during the war and afterward to bring the rest of the world back from the abyss.  We see THAT conduct, rightly, as representative of what it is that made us great.  We used our strength and we GAVE OF OURSELVES.   That selflessness and sacrifice (and success in doing so) is precisely the kind of thing we honor and herald and call individuals "Heroes" for doing.  We think of putting others first as a good and decent thing.  We saw our ability to turn our economic strength, borne of a vibrant middle-class and a nation of vast natural resource, into assistance and military might to fight against those who would destroy life and liberty, and then rebuild that world, as the quintessential example of that which it is which makes us great.  Other nations have high standards of living, but damned few had so many living so well, and so well that in fact we could come to the world's aid when needed, in defense of the defenseless, trying and succeeding in guaranteeing the blessings of democracy for ALL, not just our own people.

THAT is what most of us look at as our greatest moment, our greatest generation, and our greatest strengths.  That is what McAvoy meant and it is most certainly NOT what Trump means.  Trump means to "put America first" meaning, if he so desires, we will torture folks, sacrificing our moral high-ground with the world.  He means to bomb indiscriminately, killing innocents without regard to impact among the populations we bomb or our reputation around the world.  Let's remember that our indiscriminate bombing during World War II was one of the few blemishes on our honor and something we said we'd try very hard to avoid.  He means to demonize foreigners, especially those in the middle-east, Mexicans and Muslims.  That's not helping others, it's teaching us to hate.  Nowhere has Trump said he'd seek to reach out to help the world stop hunger, drought, or economic privation.  He does not seek to self-sacrifice and elevate our nation through good works.  No, he intends to have us act selfishly, ignorantly, and to strike out blindly and often.  THAT doesn't make us great, it makes us very much like the people we FOUGHT in World War II.   Further, he doesn't seek to expand the middle-class (he talks about jobs but not GOOD jobs), he seeks to shrink college opportunities.  He does not seek to empower us as a the world's greatest economy he seeks to isolate us and to restrict immigration.   That's not making us great, it's not offering the US as the shining city on the hill to which others should seek to aspire to be like, it's making us the distant, dingy house of the decadent and selfish baron which others will say they can never reach nor should ever want to do so precisely because the baron never helps and NEVER cares.  We will no longer be great (if we are now), we will be the selfish scrooge, waiting only to die, and with it, our reputation and place in history.

So, if you want to know what "Makes America Great", ask yourself what trait it is you think defines our greatness and then ask yourself whether it is/was the fact we could "kick the sh*t out of people", because after all, Germany and the Soviet Union could and DID do that, or was it that we did so only when needed, and with it brought liberty and kindness, generosity and hope to the world?  When you do, then ask yourself whether electing a demagogue who would cut us off from the world, pull back from helping, deny the realities of the impacts of pollution, torture people, kill indiscriminately, deny access to our country, ask yourself whether THAT America is one about which you could be proud, and whether THAT America is truly the greatest nation in the history of the world?

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