PARIS – That hoary fable has it wrong. Frogs have the sense to hop out of heating pots. We Americans don't. Degree by degree over decades, we've been scalded senseless. It is time to snap out of our stupor.
Consider the ironies.
Back in 1967, I went to the Congo and then kept going, curious to find the strangest society on earth. These days, I could just stay home.
Americans in the 1970s loved the Waltons, a hardscrabble West Virginia fictional family who fed any stranger at the door. Today, six real Waltons are worth $115 billion, more than the bottom third of the nation. For one of their Walmart peons, that is seven million years of base pay.
No one thought about climate then. Water made headlines in 1972 but only with "gate" attached to it. Reporters revealed Richard Nixon burgled the Democrats' Watergate offices. Outraged citizens impeached him.
Today, most of us just shrug when we learn how the White House snoops on us all.
Members of Grandmothers Against the War, Granny Peace Brigade, the Raging Grannies and other groups hoist a model of a drone in the air as they protest the U.S. military's use of drones during an 'April Days of Action' demonstration April 3 in New York. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
Generals and their drones
Congress cripples essential services to save a few trillion dollars over 10 years. We squandered twice that on two unwinnable wars, despite the lessons of Vietnam, only to make yet more people hate us. Iraqi oil now goes to China.
When allies who need our leadership warn that we are bumbling toward the scrapheap of ex-empires, we wave bigger flags. If sovereign states thwart us, our generals fondle their drones.
We vaunt our generosity but, per capita, our foreign aid is the stingiest among rich nations. As George Packer notes in the New Yorker, it is "an awkward exercise of high-minded self-interest, humanitarian goals uneasily balanced with strategic calculations."
At home, we take comfort in our bedrock strength, defended over centuries: Our freedoms to choose. Yet we allow ourselves to be fleeced by partisan politics and a tiny fringe of big-money players.
Two pals visiting from Arizona offered a diagnosis. Workaday Americans, overwhelmed, focus on their own narrow bread-and-circus worlds. Kids, seeing bullshit all around them, thumb alternative realities on tiny screens. The way out, my friends conclude, is to build awareness and incrementally spur action.
That is like a flight crew's directions as a troubled airliner nears a mountain: Buckle up, lean forward, and kiss your ass goodbye.
We need to move fast, as a collective. We can each act locally, but we've got to think on a planetary plane. Borders in today's world are only lines on a map.
Bring de Tocqueville back
For starters, let's face reality. Sure, we're a great nation. But I'd love to see Alexis de Tocqueville back for an update at a Phoenix mall among feckless golden youth. Or at a Tucson gun show where old guys in boots arm themselves for Armageddon.
Tocqueville came in 1831 to see how France might improve its prisons. Now I could show him Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's pink-clad inmates frying in summer sun. He would find we lock up 760 of every 100,000 inhabitants, seven times France's rate, more than Cuba and China combined.
He marveled at how people stayed free and happy by holding governments to account. When citizens grow apathetic, he wrote, democracies slide toward "soft despotism," and majorities tyrannize minorities. (He'd likely be amused by our term, sequester. In French, sequestrer means kidnap.)
We are no longer so exceptional. In a lot of countries any kid can grow up to be president. An American must raise a billion dollars and show Donald Trump a birth certificate. We sneer at others' corruption, yet ours is built into our institutions. Special interests can legally rent all the legislators they need.
Obsessed with ourselves, we don't see how others view our violence. A terrorist band killed 3,000 people in 2001, and we still rain fire halfway around the world. Our guns at home take 11,000 lives each year. In Japan, by contrast, gun deaths totaled seven in 2012, two fewer than deaths by scissors.
Here are some urgent priorities:
- First, we need a firm grip on global realities. That requires professional reporters along with thoughtful readers who absorb what they report. Today's avalanche of "news" from multiple directions would be great if we knew what to trust. Mostly, it only confuses us. Good stuff gets lost in a tower of babble. Too often, we reduce "news" to nuggets that feed prejudice and agenda. Example: It was senseless to fixate on the Benghazi calamity. No government can field enough agents and troops to secure countless far-flung snake pits. We need to reduce frustrations that breed enemies who target easy prey.
- Second, we have to elect people who remember their oaths of office. Here is Robert Reich: "Conservative Republicans ... basically shut Congress down. Their refusal to compromise is working just as they hoped: No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No hike in the minimum wage. Nothing so far on immigration reform." Our legislators do not shoot their way into office. We vote them in, and we can bounce them out when they put their own interests ahead of ours. We need to undo gerrymandering that lets minorities hold majorities for ransom.
- Third, we need to realize that in the long run schools matter most. When I start a class, I'm always stunned at how little 21-year-old journalism students know about the world they are about to inherit. At the end, I'm thrilled at how eager they are to keep learning more. That interest should start in third grade. Each Reaper drone missile load costs at least $320,000, enough to hire a handful of teachers who can explain to future generations why it is a bad idea to blow up distant strangers. If some kids disagree, fair enough, as long as facts, context, and critical thinking factor into the process.
Half a century of poking into other societies has shown me that people are more alike than they are different. They know injustice when they see it, social and otherwise. Muscular nations with big appetites need to keep that in mind.
Latin America is finally narrowing the rich-poor gap. Ours widens. Corporations rule. Banks we bailed out squeeze us at every turn. Other nations see health care as a human right. Our version enriches insurance companies, overburdens doctors, and does little for many it was meant to help.
This is no commie rant. I reported from the Evil Empire when it collapsed. Soviet socialism didn't kill it. People finally had enough of leaders who used state power to favor a chosen few and quell dissent. Sound familiar?
But only half of us even bother to vote, let alone protest. Look how Turks reacted when the prime minister tried to make Taksim Square into a shopping mall.
What America was
Wherever I go, friends tell me they miss what America was and could be. Gustavo Gorriti, the most respected reporter in Peru, sent chills up my spine.
"I admire the United States profoundly," he said. "Some of my best years were spent there." Like so many others, he studied the American style of journalism that set the world standard. Now, he says, that is over.
"We now all pay the price of your having devastated real newspapers," he said. As he sees it, few Americans realize that a complex public-private universe operates over their heads. When an Edward Snowden attempts to shed some light, he is hounded as a traitor into the enemy camp.
'Too crazy' for Orwell
"Orwell would have thought this was too crazy for his novels," Gorriti said. He fears Europe is being muscled to follow along, eroding democratic foundations built up over centuries.
"There has to be a reaction from the people," he concluded. "Americans have to take their country back. If people don't act in the United States, in Europe, we are going to lose the greatest achievement of human history."
Farfetched? Orwell wrote "1984" on the Scottish island of Jura. Just recently, the BBC reported, Jura vanished from view. Google inexplicably wiped it off the map. This was later corrected, but the point was made. When virtual replaces real, anything is possible.
We need to bang away at family and friends and then widen our circles. TV won't help much. John-Boy Walton narrated how Franklin Roosevelt shepherded America out of the Great Depression. Today we have faux reality and that porcine putz with preposterous hair on "Celebrity Apprentice", who takes such delight in bellowing, "You're fired."
People can be inspired. Stéphane Hessel, in his 90s, sold four million copies worldwide of a pamphlet, "Indignez-vous!" Roughly translated: "Get Off Your Butt". Then he wrote "Engagez-vous". "Stay Off Your Butt, and Keep At It".
Hessel was French but his message was universal. He advocates simple firm action, not violence. Civil disobedience only incites police to break heads. We need to understand that those cops work for us. And so does Congress.
In America, if a 99 percent majority cannot revive a hallmark democracy and a free-choice economy, that metaphoric frog has already croaked.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons; The Guardian via Getty Images
Mort Rosenblum is a former Associated Press special correspondent and ex-editor of the International Herald Tribune. You can find more of his perspective on Facebook at Reporting Unlimited.
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