When did we become a country in which everyone felt they had the right to tell everyone else how they should or shouldn’t live?
My guess is that it was right about the same time when our politicians slipped from simply smarmy down to viciously venal.
It actually all fits together. We evolved from people who read books and had intelligent discussions into people who vegetated in front of their television sets and only believed what the loudest voices told us to believe. This may be difficult to fathom, but until first radio and then television came along, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in small-town America was going to an auditorium and listening to lectures.
The Chautauqua movement would be almost impossible to comprehend these days. The very idea that most of the folks in a small town would go to an auditorium and spend two or three hours listening to a presentation designed to make them more informed about some aspect of the world is so far beyond modern reality that it might as well be science fiction.
Benjamin Franklin was the one who said the Founding Fathers had given us a republic — if we could keep it — and H.L. Mencken was the one who said in the 1920s that the republican would fall within a hundred years. Mencken gave two reasons — stupidity and greed — and both appear to be in full flight in 2012.
It would be easy — and probably wrong — to say the average member of the public is stupid because he’d rather watch “Jersey Shore” than PBS or listen to Justin Bieber instead of grand opera. The average person is a lot more stressed by life than folks were a hundred years ago.
My late father often told us that our generation had a lot more stressful choices to make than his had. He had health insurance through his job for his entire career, and he had a pension when he retired. He didn’t have to buy insurance or make decisions about 401(k) accounts or individual retirement accounts. His generation — the one that survived the Depression and won World War II — had far more stability in their careers. My dad worked for one employer for his entire career. By contrast, my closest friend hasn’t had a full-time job with full benefits for more than two or three years of the last 25 years.
The fact is, more and more people feel like control over their lives is slipping away from them. Whether it’s conservatives telling them they can’t have an abortion or liberals telling them they shouldn’t be smoking or eating meat, everybody seems to be in somebody’s face these days. And as worried as so many people are about their finances, many certainly resent being told how they have to spend that money.
One of the biggest problems is that while once we were a country where people sincerely believed we were all in it together, today working people have as much in common with Donald Trump or Bill Gates as they do with an extraterrestrial. In fact, just about the only thing we all have in common anymore is that we all are born and we all die.
I just finished reading a book I first read nearly 50 years ago — Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach.” The Gregory Peck-Ava Gardner film made from the book is a classic, but there really aren’t many movies made from books that surpass the printed word.
The book is far more poignant in dealing with its subjects as the end of the world approaches, a world destroyed by politicians and military men. Parents worry about dying before their infant children, an old woman wonders what will happen to her little dog when she isn’t around to feed him. Folks who never gave a thought to international politics, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone to live their lives, died for the hubris of the rich and powerful.
My guess is that most people don’t care at all how other people live their lives as long as those other people don’t affect them. My friend is fond of that old cliche about your right to throw your fist ending where his nose begins, but he has always defined his nose rather loosely. Back in 1978, when you could still smoke a cigarette without making a federal case of it, I remember him and his girlfriend hassling someone in a cafeteria who was smoking at the next table.
I’ve never been a smoker, but I have a feeling that’s where our society’s holier-than-thou complex got started. Once was the time that people who smoked were courteous about it and tried to avoid blowing smoke where it wasn’t wanted. But after a while, that wasn’t good enough, and now there really are some people who would like to prevent smokers from lighting up in their own homes.
Is it even possible anymore for us just to respect each other as human beings? It doesn’t affect me in any negative way if gay people want to marry each other, or if kids want to meet at the flagpole before school starts and praise Jesus. But if you were to listen to some people, these forms of love and worship are worse for our country than all three of the Kardashian sisters combined.
I suppose the problem is that issues became so complex — or at least seemed to — that average people decided they had no chance to understand them. So they chose the loudest voice that made sense to them and started believing everything they heard from that person.
Once was the time we elected people like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Now we have a president who started running for office after two years as a U.S. senator and a challenger who doesn’t even have the charm of Thurston Howell in “Gilligan’s Island.” We call people intellectuals and great thinkers whose politics come straight from the novels of a fourth-rate writer like Ayn Rand.
Couldn’t we at least try for John Steinbeck?
I don’t think it’s too late to save our country, but time is definitely a-wastin’. We need to get rid of the bums, the hypocrites and the grifters and look for some honest folks to make our laws. But more important, maybe most important of all, we need to understand that a gay couple in Hawaii and a foot-washing Baptist couple in Alabama have a lot more in common than they do dividing them.
Most folks just want someone to love, someone to share their happiness and the chance to work for a better life.
Oh, and most of them aren’t at all fond of politicians.
See, that’s a start.