Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Thinking Ahead

I listen to a lot of "talking heads" on TV and radio, sometimes because the alternatives on other channels or stations aren't worth listening to, sometimes because it acts as a nice mental exercise. Too many of us only listen to the people we agree with instead of listening to the people whose opinions make us crazy; that's rather like swimming downstream with the current, no resistance or challenge. That's why I think it is funny when I listen to conservative-leaning shows and hear all these callers who generally agree with the talking head; all they are getting is an easy ride, moving with the current. They really should be listening to the people they supposedly disagree with so that their minds can be getting some exercise; whether you agree with the opposition or not, to make yourself think, develop arguments against the other guy's opinion or arguments in support of his position and perhaps even developing ideas the other guy never thought of, it'll make you a better person, a smarter person better able to see the other side of things and realize nothing is truly black and white except for a checkerboard.

As a people and as individuals we don't seem to be thinking ahead much anymore. American history is replete with individuals who had a great deal of courage and foresight that enabled them to look beyond the public opinion polls or the next election to do things that might not have been the most popular, but eventually created a greater benefit for the greater good. Abraham Lincoln fought what became a very unpopular war to save the Union; he could have simply let the South go, bought off on the Secessionist idea that State's Rights were paramount and let them become a seperate country. Robert E. Lee, by all accounts a brilliant officer and someone not necessarily dedicated to the preservation of slavery, chose the short-term view and, by rejecting Lincoln's proposal to head the Army of the Potomac, probably contributed to the massive death toll on both sides and extended the conflict for years. Why didn't Lee look ahead to a Republic that insured the rights of all, black and white, instead of siding with a Confederacy that sought to preserve a short-sighted brutality that would have doomed its citizens to an agrarian economy tied to a failed political ideal?

Franklin Roosevelt is an odd duck these days; he's both villified by uber-conservatives (who see him as a crazed Socialist who failed to really solve the economic problems of the Great Depression with his experimentations in Socialism and probably gave Eastern Europe away to Joe Stalin) and talked about in almost-glowing terms by others of the Big Elephant persuasion (because of his work in Social Security, to which they now wish to make substantial changes, channelling his ghost for support). The fact is that Roosevelt was a politician and a man; both had their amazing strenghts and staggering faults, but at least he looked ahead and tried something different from the stuck-in-the-mud policies of the conservatives who ran a post-WWI America to a return to "normalcy". His dreams, his experiments, are still with us today, good or bad, and they've had an undeniable impact on our society and will for decades to come.

Where are the dreamers now? Some conservatives say Ronald Reagan was one, but for all the talk about the "Reagan Revolution" what did he really do? The Revolution basically involved a mode of political communication that overly simplified the argument between Left and Right and created the modern morass we now find ourselves in, where moderates are left with nowhere to go and extremists on both ends of the spectrum take no prisoners . The result from that so-called "Revolution" is that nothing is getting done to really move us forward. Democrats can't really take the high road on this, since they had their chance to move things forward and managed to blow it as well. Lyndon Johnson made some tremendous strides in the days after Kennedy's asassination in civil rights and social programs, but then he saddled us with Vietnam, even knowing that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and did not reflect the majority of the people. His successors in the national Democratic Party are bamboozled by their recent defeats at the hands of the Republicans, unable to see how they got their legs got cut off from under them by flashy rhetoric and faulty logic, still trying to regain the glory days of the New Dealers.

Look at our so-called "energy policy" since the infamous Arab Oil Embargo of 1973; it has simply been a reaction to high oil versus low oil prices. When oil got expensive, everyone started talking about alternatives and conservation; when it got cheap, the alternatives were (literally) pushed to the side of the road by SUVs and RVs. Think of how much progress could have been made had we not all but abandoned alternatives to oil and gas in the mid-Seventies? Instead, we are playing catch up. Who developed hybrid cars for the American market? It wasn't GM, Ford or Dodge. Solar power is still nearly an afterthought for most situations, wind power is barely making a dent anywhere and hydrogen fuel-cell research, while it did get a mention in the President's State of the Union address, has barely any Federal money behind it. Meanwhile, oil prices are going through the roof and we're still driving gas guzzlers.

A number of commentators have indicated that they think this next century will belong to China, not the United States. It's a depressing thought that our nation will probably become another England, once a great power, able to bend the world to our views and culture, but soon to become a client country of the great Asian behemoth, saying "How high?" when they say "Jump". We're the world's greatest debtor nation, spending like there is no tomorrow (and there may well not be one, the way we're going), saving little if anything of our salaries, being prodded instead by media to buy the latest, live in the biggest and newest, and to put it all on credit. Meanwhile, we spend our tax dollars liberally overseas trying to keep a relatively small number of extremists from turning our cities into mirror images of downtown Baghdad and plan on sending men to Mars when we cannot even manage to keep potholes out of our roads. Our students are encouraged to "study" Creationism and its newest offshoot, "intelligent design", ignoring or "thinking critically" about evolution. It is even more depressing because it didn't have to be this way and it doesn't have to be in the future, but because there is such a dearth of leadership and courage to stop the downward slide, I'm not sure it can be stopped. Americans still like to be told that we're the best country on earth or that we're "blessed" by God, who has some sort of master plan for us and we tend to denigrate those who try to tell us the truth (remember how Jimmy Carter was castigated for talking about the "malaise" in America during the early Eighties?).

I'm pretty sure another Great Communicator will pop up one of these days, tell us that "It is morning in America!" again and our eyes will glaze over and we'll begin to chant in unison, "I LOVE Big Brother! I LOVE Big Brother!" while everything heads downhill like a snowsled on Teflon.

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