Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
You'd think, reading that today, that it was written last week, last month, or last year. It certainly sounds familiar. What a mess of 'dark realities' we have.

In fact, this quote is from 1933, during the Great Depression--the only time the economic turmoil in America seemed even bigger than it does today. The fear of these realities has cable news and talk radio in a churning frenzy, day after day, month after month. The sky is falling, and the only way to prop it up there is with the ingenious idea of whichever politician or pundit happens to be yakking it up on the magic TV or radio machine at that moment.

And people are so scared that rather than demand real answers and real action, most of us are falling into one of two groups: Group A, in which we bicker and name-call and line up in neat rows along partisan divides, blaming the other guy loudly and with great fervor and suggesting that some program or other that affects someone else is high past ripe for some serious cutting; or Group B, in which we stick the proverbial banana in our ear, our heads in the proverbial sand, and with our intellects numbed by this week's smorgasbord of mindless diversion, proclaim with absolute confidence that it's 'their' problem to solve, and dammit, 'they' better get to it!

Of course, neither group wants any part of taking our own measure of responsibility for our contributions to the problems we face. We don't want to give up the student loan for our kid. We don't want to work a few extra years before retirement. We don't us want our taxes to increase or our knee replacement to cost more. We don't want to drive a car that's smaller or less fancy because it gets great gas mileage. We don't want to recycle everything, even if it's more work, so there'd be less in the landfill. We don't want to eat less frozen pizza and more broccoli because we'd lose weight and be healthier and ease the burden on the healthcare system. Heck, we don't even want to use the high-post-consumer-recycled-content-bath-tissue. It's too scratchy, you know. We're all really quite ready for our ills to be cured by placing them squarely in the 'someone else's problem' field. We are desperately waiting for the heroes.

So, what are we going to do when they give us their solution? When they tell us which job we'll get and how much money we'll have. When they decide who's worthy to be educated and who's not. When they decide which brand of religion to observe because it's the one of our "forefathers" and which ones to attack because they're wrong or dangerous or bloodthirsty. When they tell us whom we have war with to preserve our national illusion. When they tell us what we have to do to get our bread ration or a pair of shoes. What exactly will we go along with because we "have to" to keep our place in this hard and scary world?

Back in 1933, right before that quote at the beginning of this post, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave us one of the most famous lines ever delivered, "...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." A more quoted thought has been rarely had. But oddly, hardly anyone knows what the rest of the speech was, and certainly no one in our current political and economic system wants to talk much about it.

The rest of the speech was about what had brought America to the brink of financial ruin. Roosevelt called out the "self-seekers" and the profiteers, and all those who sought to protect their own interests at the expense of others and our common good. He talked about our own money-changers in the temple. He criticized the politicians whose only reason to serve was "pride of place and personal profit." He asked America to generously use the relative "plenty" that we still had, even in hardship, and to not react to that hardship with hard hearts. And he called on everyone to realize that,
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

The people who heard that speech and were inspired by it have come to be called the Greatest Generation--not because 'outsmarted' the downturn with clever investing and kept what they had, and not because they killed neighbors for their canned goods, and not because they found 'efficiencies' in payroll and increased corporate profits by double, but because by and large they came together and sacrificed and helped each other and pulled the world back from the edge.

Dang. Maybe 'they' aren't going to solve our problems. Maybe the heroes we've been waiting for all along are us.

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