Friday, December 25, 2009

The Seeds For The Decade From Hell

TIME magazine recently called the 2000-2009 years “The Decade From Hell.” Which, of course, has led many commentators to the next level of adjective inflation by calling it “the worst decade ever.” It is perhaps easy to understand the temptation to apply that appellation to this thankfully-ending decade:

  • Two wars are still going on, both longer than any war except Viet Nam, one of which in Afghanistan is essentially being restarted from scratch after eight years;
  • We are now billions of dollars more in debt given a complete throwaway of government fiscal responsibility at all levels from all political parties;
  • We are very gradually coming out of the worst economic disaster since the 1930s, spread across the country in varying degrees but not across all strata of our population;
  • Traditional pillars of our economic society have collapsed into bankruptcy, a result of mismanagement, greed, and short-sighted thinking, forcing us into government bailouts of undeserving companies as the necessary lesser of two bad options;
  • Yet in spite of such bailouts, we have witnessed an unrepentant arrogance from such mis-managers, failing to reform their expectations and ways of thinking;
  • Unemployment, bankruptcies, homelessness are all up, personal income and asset valuations are down.

There are certainly many causes for gloom at this year-/decade-end. I am sure anyone could add to this short list of negatives. Decade from hell? That seems to fit. But worst decade ever? We’re still far away from the 1930s; its 25% unemployment pales our 10%. And that full-blown international depression lasted through the entire decade; we’re only one year into our recession. So let us give our parents/grandparents of that generation credit for patience, stamina, and perseverance. And ultimate success.

The 1940s started badly with our entry into the incomprehensible horrors of World War II fought by the “greatest generation” now dying off. It ended with the baby boomer population spurt now moving into senior citizenship. And it spawned the new economic middle class that anchors us today.

The 1950s had its Cold War with Russia, visions of atomic bombs falling on school children hiding underneath their wooden desks (!) or in backyard underground shelters, and the frightening specter of McCarthyism shredding our Constitution – thereby planting the seeds of “the politics of fear.” In the end, scare tactics and fears of cataclysmic destruction went unrealized in the overall tranquility of Eisenhower.

Which gave way to the tumult of the 1960s/1970s. Two back-to-back hellish decades. Our reinvigoration by Kennedy was lost in his assassination, setting the stage for 20 years of violence as a political solution. High expectations continually gave way to dashed results: Johnson’s Great Society produced some long-lasting institutions in the social safety net and civil rights. But it lost its momentum and coalition in the climate of Viet Nam. The great adventure and challenge of landing on the moon became seen as a frivolous indulgence. The peace and love of Woodstock died in the drug centers of Haight-Ashbury. “Peace with Honor” was tripped up and exposed in a place called Watergate, and the seeds of “the politics of hate” were planted. And just when “our long national nightmare [was] over,” Ford (correctly) pardoned Nixon and a Georgia peanut farmer lost his way in a “great national malaise” of gas lines, sweaters in the White House, and hostages in Iran. These were truly consecutive decades of hell.

Followed by a decade in 1980 of optimism and a re-found sense of humor – at least on surface. “Supply side economics” was rightfully exposed as “voodoo economics.” We pulled out of a short recession, but savings and loan institutions went bankrupt due to a lack of oversight. Deregulation came into vogue and generated much prosperity, though the wealthy / middle class / poor gaps grew wider while public accountability began to fade. “Greed is good” brought “let the buyer beware” to a new zenith, threatening the stabilities achieved from our 1930s lessons learned. The seeds for future financial ruin were planted here, hidden by feel-good sunny optimism, yet waiting to belatedly sprout in this last decade like the choking southern kudzu weed. But the Berlin Wall came down, the Iron Curtain was raised, the Cold War defrosted, and a genuine Middle East threat was stopped by a truly united coalition with a clear and limited objective.

And minus a woman named Monica, the 1990s were pretty good for us. Economic prosperity, international cooperation in the Balkans, overall stability. But the dual seeds of terrorism and the “politics of winning over governing” were being planted during this period, the “ bubble” was looming, yet computer programmers the world over successfully averted a very real potential “Year 2000” catastrophe.

Which brought us 2000-2009. The decade when the accumulated seeds sprouted. Fear and hate sprouted as the Constitution was turned inside out “to keep us safe.” Deregulation sprouted as our economy was handed over to unchecked incompetents with a responsibility only to their own wallets, and a willing public believed there was no cost to prosperity. Terrorism exploded upon us, reflecting years of our patronizing dismissal of other cultures and an arrogant belief in our own self-righteous virtue. And government became paralyzingly ineffective amid a partisan priority for winning versus “governing to the greater good.” A lot of chickens came home to roost in our own back yards in this decade, living within the flowering weeds from seeds we planted years ago.

So what can we expect from this forthcoming “teens” decade? Another decade from hell, or a decade of regeneration? It could go either way. If we are still thinking and acting in our 2000-9 mentality, then it could be grim. If we have learned anything from that decade, and we can apply those lessons with patience, it could be a positive redirection of our collective and individual selves. Like the sick patient, we need to 1) stop the bleeding, 2) then stabilize, 3) then redefine our health regime, then 4) then work through long-term rehabilitation. We’ve done step 1 and are in step 2 right now. If the negative media and politicians do not overwhelm us first, the signs and metrics of recovery are all there. It has taken us a few decades to mess things up this way. If we have the confidence, commitment, and stay-with-it-ness, the Decade of Hell may not lead to the Decade of Heaven. But it may lead to the Decade of Renewal that we need. And individual and national renewal could be pretty damn good.

Happy New Year, and Best Wishes for the New Decade.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Holidays - Revisited

(TIME Magazine recently stated that only 22% of people polled preferred to use a “Happy Holidays” greeting during this holiday season, versus a “Merry Christmas” greeting. In the midst of the Hanukkah celebration, upcoming Christmas, the winter solstice for nature observers, and all other forms of seasonal festivities, it seemed appropriate to repeat the following modified blog from December 13, 2007.)

NEWS ITEM: “(New York) A group of people exchanging holiday greetings on a subway last week hurled anti-Semitic slurs and beat four Jewish riders who had wished them “Happy Hanukkah,” authorities said. The prosecutor’s office was investigating a possible hate crime.” (USA Today, 12/12/07)

In our country’s continuing need to create a controversy where there need not be one, we have now annualized this penchant. I refer to the great “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” cloud that hangs over salesclerks everywhere. What does one say to a stranger in this season of joy and love for people of virtually all faiths over an extended calendar of celebration?

I guess there are some folks who feel it to be their First Amendment and unalienable right and spiritual obligation to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Whether the recipient celebrates Christmas or not, or celebrates within a Christian or secular context, and usually without bothering to ask. Where companies have asked employees to use the Happy Holidays greeting (a meaningful wish applicable to virtually all peoples), employee groups and speeches from the pulpit decry once again “another assault on religion.” I think such outraged individuals have it backwards. If I may, I will use a personal story to illustrate.

When I left my native Arkansas at 21 to go to Boston, a more Wonder-bread kid from a homogeneous white Protestant environment could probably not be found. (What diversity existed in my town was out-of-sight/out-of-discussion, e.g. non-Protestants, Blacks.) Yet in Boston I found myself in a completely foreign melting-pot environment unlike any I had known. Religions, cultures, nationalities, with all their various Americanizations, were all there. Reflecting against all of these new experiences caused me to have to go back and understand where I had come from in my safe, all-the-same upbringing. It was a head-swirling multi-year process of change and assimilation, all for the far better I know.

On my return to Boston after a 2-year absence, I became dear friends with a couple whose history could not have been more different. Raised in New York City, in close knit Jewish communities, immersed in the performing arts, I seemingly had nothing in common with them at all. But over the years I learned so much from them and their family and friends. Not just about Jewish culture, but about many other cultures as well and the ability to all live together, given their broad exposure to such versus my nil.

For years, when the December holidays came around, I always sent them and his parents a Christmas card. Because Christmas cards is what I did every year. It was an unthinking reflex. Kind people that they are, they never pointed out to me my un-thoughtfulness, but just accepted the wish in good (and probably bemused) grace.

It was probably 15-20 years later when, out of the blue, it suddenly hit me how backwards I had been. Christmas is MY holiday, MY set of long memories. Their holiday, their memories, are of a different celebration and meaning --- in their case Hanukkah. I take joy when they wish me a Merry Christmas, their knowing that is a special time for me and my family. In my special feelings for them, I finally realized that my heart should wish them not my holiday but theirs: Happy Hanukkah, the holiday that brings similar seasonal warmth to them.

There are millions of non-Christians in this country (@25% of the population), and many non-religious celebrators of Christmas. Many no longer live in isolated homogeneous communities, but increasingly we live intermixed all together. One can choose to “spread the Gospel” in the winter holiday time, or one can express true love and acceptance of each other and their respective celebrations. People who insist on the “right” to wish a Merry Christmas to people whose tradition of observance is different are in fact being very selfish. They make themselves feel better, but they are not truly spreading “joy and good will to others.”

Our country’s diversity is one of our strengths. But say Happy Birthday to me on my birthday, not yours. Wish me a happy 4th of July, not a Happy Bastille Day. Wish people joy and peace in their own personal form. And if you don’t know, or haven’t tried to understand another’s culture, don’t assume; just know that “Happy Holidays” really does work just fine.

Happy Holidays and Peace be to each of you, and to your friends and families, my readers.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Our Cultural Labels

I was born in America; I am an American. I was born in one of the Confederate succession states of 1861-1865, within a mainly Scot-Irish immigrant ancestry extending back through states of the Old South; I am a Southerner. I was born and raised in Arkansas, on the Oklahoma border; I am an Arkansan, with a western trace. My American / Scot-Irish / Southern / Arkansan heritage was geographical, distinctly cultural, religious, and familial, all within a predominantly conservative homogeneous setting.

At 21, I moved to Boston, Massachusetts for college. Excepting 2 years after college, I stayed in New England for the next 38 years. My geography, my religious connections, my exposure to vastly different and varied peoples, and my thinking about the world, all evolved. Homogeneity became heterogeneity. So am I now a liberal New England Yankee?

Except that now I am living in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina, another distinctly different locale. North Carolina was the home of my primary maternal and paternal ancestors. Am I a transplanted Arkansan or New Englander? Or have I simply returned to my original roots?

In the past, perhaps after one ancestral adventurer moved to start a new beginning, people for the most part lived and died within one place. That one place contained a significant portion of their lineage, siblings and extended family. And that place existed in a culture and support framework extending probably no more than a 100 mile diameter circle. That culture typically lived in near isolation except for tourists passing through, or the books, magazines or movies that gave vague, intangible hints of different worlds beyond. In this isolation, native foods, speech patterns, indigenous careers, and community standards and values took deep roots, flowering vastly different landscapes. If you did travel, you knew clearly that you “weren’t in Kansas anymore.”

As television broadcast images and a standard speech pattern instantly and incessantly across the country (and globe), as franchised food outlets nationalized regional foods, as shopping malls replaced local downtowns with bland repetitive line-ups of national chain stores, our distinct localism and regionalism is being irrevocably lost. With “fresh” Maine lobster, Californian See’s candies, Chicago pizza, and New York cheesecake now available anywhere, the anticipation and surprise of exploring new territories and experiences are increasingly only fond recollections. Sameness, rather than individuality, seems to have become a national priority. When southern-style sweet tea is now available in a prepackaged bottle at McDonald’s in Connecticut, we know that distinctive regionalism and individual identity have suffered a major casualty! The desire for new experiences loses out to the quest for the comfort and safety of familiarity.

Why does all of this matter? Because I believe this increasing loss of geographic / regional / cultural identity contributes to people’s current sense of loss of personal identity. To an increasing anger at a perceived loss of individuality in favor of standardization. A fear of an ill-defined force that is pushing a sameness onto each of us, with a mandate for thinking and behavior that is disconnected from our everyday world. It is a force that seems oblivious and unaware of the framework and reality of our daily lives. It is a force felt regardless of political party affiliation, conservative or liberal bents, religious beliefs, ancestral heritage, geography or race.

So when we see people rallying against health care reform, health is often only a tangential issue. When we see record numbers of people lined up at gun shows to make purchases, the right to bear arms is often only a tangential issue. When “tea baggers” hold up their anti-tax signs, taxes are often only a tangential issue. When “birthers,” led by demagogic politicians and broadcasters, question the citizenship of our current president, citizenship and one’s right to hold presidential office are often only tangential issues. At the heart of these emotional displays is a reaction to a sense of threat to people’s personal life, their personal control over that life, and the disappearance of one’s local community and cultural familiarity. The world feels too big; the individual too small and still shrinking.

This past week, Switzerland passed a public referendum prohibiting the construction of new minarets – those distinctive spires on top of Islamic mosques. This in spite of there being only four minarets currently in the whole country. Switzerland is that historically fanatically-neutral country famous for taking sides on no question, with a long tolerance of multiple cultures and religions. Yet in a country with a Muslim population less than 6% of the Swiss population, cultural fears and perceived threats were aroused and dominated the vote. Spain and Germany have similarly grappled with mosque architectural construction in these long-standing Christian countries, while France and England increasingly struggle with issues arising from growing immigrant cultures. Underneath these struggles is the fundamental question –what does it now mean to be, or look to be, an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German or Spaniard? Where will all those Swiss A-frame cottages or French chateaus go? As some here grapple with having a president who looks very different than all those other presidential portraits, how do the French, the most adamant in preserving their native culture, now respond to a French president with a non-French ancestry?

I expect that Europe, with its history of small homogeneous nation-states, will struggle mightily over the next several years with this issue of cultural / national identification. We in America have been multi-cultured from our founding. Yet even with our long experience, our track record for assimilation has been, and is, very spotty. Underneath our immigration discussions, our educational policies, our “national versus local action” debates, we are in fact still often asking ourselves, “What does it mean to be a southerner, a westerner, a Californian, a Texan, a Vermonter? What does it mean to be an American?” And is our personal label really relevant anymore?