by Ron Kenner
Baldwin Hills, Calif.
December 5, 2012
Part III: TAKING EXCEPTION TO EXCEPTIONALISM
BALDWIN HILLS, Calif., Dec. 5, 2012 -- In fairness, there has been some remarkable progress over the years, in maturing public attitudes toward minorities, women, gays, and toward the unfortunates in our society.
In the 20th Century, the lifespan of Americans has doubled. In other ways, too, even in addition to our digital wonders, there has been significant progress, not least in civil rights, human rights, religious rights - at least until recent years, when we've seen some stunning reactionary reverses, such as the approval of torture in the War on Terror.
In the old days. bad things occurred but mostly in a clandestine way, not openly - as if there were no problem. In the President George W. Bush Administration, however, they were bragged about, almost as the Serbs bragged about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and were accompanied by horrified lip service and inaction for years by the rest of the civilized world.
In 2005, a strong condemnation of what had been going wrong in this country under the Bush Administration was issued by the usually cautious former President Jimmy Carter, author of the Simon & Schuster book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis.
In a November 2005 column, "This isn't the real America," in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Carter was right on target, raising concerns like those raised by the American public during the recent election. As Carter observed in the early stages of GWB's second term, the former President had "become increasingly concerned by a host of radical policies that now threaten many basic principles espoused by all previous Administrations, Democratic and Republican." And that's saying something, given our long and difficult path to progress.
Mr. Carter emphasized a clear failure of the Bush Administration, pointing to radical policies he said threatened "the rudimentary American commitment to peace, economic and social justice, civil liberties, our environment and human rights."
Not least, former President Carter asserted, these Bush policies "also endangered our historic commitment to providing citizens with truthful information, treating dissenting voices and beliefs with respect, state and local autonomy and fiscal responsibility."
With yet plenty more to complain about, Carter added, "... [A]t the same time, our political leaders have declared independence from the restraints of international organizations and have disavowed long-standing global agreements - including agreements on nuclear arms, control of biological weapons and the international system of justice."
Even though President Barack Obama has earned a mediocre record on some of these matters, such as tolerating - at least until after his re-election - the CIA's "rendition" program, and keeping most of our suspected terrorist prisoners indefinitely, often without trial, in Cuba at Guantànamo Bay.
It's a cliché, but the best description for our policy is probably "Just throwing away the key" and keeping prisoners there without representation or charges, even though a large percentage of these suspects "keep trying to kill themselves."
Under the Obama Administration, we've also tolerated dubious invasions of privacy and other questionable conditions in the U.S. Yet there's no comparison between the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration, or what would almost surely have been the conditions of a Romney Administration, in which disparaging of "47 percent" of Americans would suggest a severe myopia about the real problems of the real world.
Between President Obama on one side and Mr. Bush and Romney on the other, it's like Mr. Obama is in a completely different league. The policies of Romney and President Bush, despite some differences in time, style and content, the latter remain too close for comfort. Romney relied on policy advisors borrowed from the Bush administration, including some who led us disastrously into the Iraq war.
Whatever Obama's limitations, such as being overly circumspect despite the urgency of the times, this circumspection nearly put America to sleep during that first Presidential debate.
Yet the majority of voters still rejected the policies and politics of Romney and gave President Obama a second term in hope that he'll live up to campaign promises that got him elected the first time, and, not least, that he'll get us beyond our painful economy.
Let's hope so. The times are still urgent and the United States of the 21st Century is not now and not likely to be what it was in the 20th Century, in prestige, in our economy, nor in our formidable role as "world cop."
Far from the exceptionalism that Jimmy Carter astutely challenged, we are likely to become more of an underdog in a multitude of ways, especially given that American education has failed to keep us more competitive abroad and provide a work force for the high-end jobs that bring almost the only decent wages - or the ones that are still here.
As things are moving and have been for some time now, conditions aren't so great for many workers, in the U.S. and internationally. Yet with the stimulus and fewer austerity binges, the United States has done better economically than Europe these past few years, even though that's hardly good enough and not without pain for millions in the U.S.
In America, the banks, mortgage, and finance industry and the warring, tax-cutting Bush administration caused most of the latest economic crash, along with an unimaginative auto industry that had long been selling bigger and better gas-guzzling cars and SUVs - until European and Asian markets stepped in to fill our practicality vacuum.
Then these high-rollers and risk-takers got bailed out, almost blackmailing the Obama Administration because "it was legal" and that they were "too big to fail." Meanwhile, the general public suffered many hits in the economic crash -buying houses they couldn't afford, taking risks, missing payments, not saving for a rainy day - a whole panoply of issues and misdeeds.
We complain about outsiders taking away our jobs, but many immigrants, especially illegal ones, do back-breaking work for extremely low wages in sweatshops or worse from New York to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, many miners and laborers, including legal citizens and others, are desperate for work and take what comes.
It's barely acknowledged, yet who would have guessed that the middle class in the U.S. would become "colonized" to the extent that we are? Not too many decades back, as one example, every major bank in Los Angeles was headquartered in Los Angeles; with many of them back then taking an active role in addressing local concerns and spreading money around the city with charity, taxes, increased payroll, and providing work incentives and support to neighborhood services.
Now one of these banks is headquartered in Los Angeles - in the city of Beverly Hills, actually -and most aren't even headquartered in the U.S., reflecting the city's close commercial ties to Japan. The consequences seem not to matter, even if local orientation could mean more profit for some and more tolerance for others if American enjoyed more of a "safety net."
If not exactly excusable, this "colonization" is "understandable" and tolerated in the name of progress the demands of the "free" market. At least a fair number of our jobless owe it not to foreign competition and or domestic failures, but to our successes - that is, the ability to put more and more people out of work while maintaining and even increasing production - even without cheap goods and services from abroad.
Some of these conditions are unavoidable in a complex world, and if we boycotted everything we object to we'd probably have a hard time getting through the day. It's difficult to imagine or face up to some of these conditions.
Yet if we want to organize things better it would seem more purposeful to educate the general public about how things work in the real world, not to mention the real e-world, not just at Walmart or in the manufacturing industry but in the service sector, too, where a woman or immigrant working next to you, doing a similar job, may be taking home a salary of a third or more less.
One "solution" is not to ask how all this works out, and many of us don't. But we won't sort out society's problems, or even our own, by operating in the dark.
AR Correspondent Ron Kenner, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has edited about 100 published books, including more than a dozen gold medal/first place national award-winners in nonfiction, dramatic nonfiction, and fiction. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.