What’s new with me

Sam Smith

One of the ways that bad policies, ideas, and values spread is because the system, especially the media, portrays them as normal. One of the ways one knows this to be untrue is to be old enough to remember when life was different.

I’ve been jotting down things of a political, social and economic nature that have been happening lately for the first time or in record quantity since I covered my first Washington story 54 years ago. Here are a few of the things that are new with me:

– The most radical and irrational Republican Party. To be sure, there had been Joe McCarthy but among those who eventually put him down were normal conservatives who found him embarrassing. Those people don’t seem to exist any more in the GOP.

– The most conservative Democratic president. In an earlier time, there would have been a name for Obama: Republican.

– People who would have formerly been considered political jokes are now talking about running for president, such as Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. To be sure there was a Pogo for President movement and comedian Pat Paulsen’s campaign, but neither had a PAC.

– An unprecedented level of political nastiness. I can’t, for example, remember a segregationist politician calling for blacks to be shot and killed by helicopter like “feral hogs” as recently proposed for immigrants by a Kansas legislator.

– A record bipartisan contempt for civil liberties. Never has a Democratic president or a Republican Party been so eclectically contemptuous of constitutional rights. As William Shirer, author of a great book Nazism, pointed out, “You don’t need a totalitarian dictatorship like Hitler’s to get by with murder . . . You can do it in a democracy as long as the Congress and the people Congress is supposed to represent don’t give a damn.”

– A decline in the respect for facts. In America’s political debate, facts are now treated like just another ad hominem argument to be dismissed with colorful rhetoric. And numbers are considered simply another form of adjective.

– A Democratic administration without a single cabinet member one can truly admire.

– A Democratic Congress with only a tiny handful of party members who might have supported either the New Deal or the Great Society. But you can’t save the republic just relying on Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich and Anthony Weiner.

– A stunningly vacuous cultural leadership and a weird willingness to let Jon Stewart take care of all it for us.

– Massive passivity by, rather than reaction from, the nation’s young.

– The extraordinary level of bipartisan contempt (depending on who is in which office) for the constitutional powers of the Congress and states.

– The sense one has of Obama seeing himself as a CEO rather than a political leader of multi-faceted democratic institutions. And our treatment as either consumers or employees.

– The level of mind-blowing bureaucratic complexity of new policies such as the healthcare legislation, which no one has truly figured out.

– The willingness to replace legal argument with euphemisms to accomplish violations of the Constitution and international law.

– The bipartisan indifference and ineffectiveness regarding the ecological crises around us, all the more striking because the evidence of ecological danger is now far stronger than when the modern environmental movement started four decades ago.

– The unprecedented willingness by Democrats – from Obama on down – to dismantle great programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.

– A loss of privacy unlike any time I have experienced.

– A record number of people on food stamps.

– A record collapse in housing prices.

– The first decline in family net worth since the 1950s

– Record high average temperatures.

That’s just for starters.

Here, for comparison is how was when I was just a starter, as Jermie D. Cullip describes it:

“From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite.

“Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . By mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year’s recession and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. . . .Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent'”

The amazing thing by today’s standards is that all this was accomplished by a system producing less than 5,000 MBAs a year as opposed to the 142,000 that would be turned out annually by 2005. And nobody talked about branding, mission statements or strategic visions.

There was, of course, plenty wrong and the next couple of decades made big positive changes in the lives of those who had been left behind, including the poor, women, blacks and gays.

Then came the Reagan years and the corporatization of America that would follow. America seemed to stop wanting to be America anymore. Being just another phony brand was good enough. American began its thirty year decline. And to this day, there are few who will tell you.

Further, it all can happen faster than we think. Nine years ago, for example, I gave a talk at a punk rock concert in which I listed nearly 30 ways in which American freedoms had diminished during the lifetimes of the 20-somethings present.

Above I’ve noted just a few of things that have changed since then. If you haven’t thought about them, don’t blame yourself. The media and our leaders have given us cultural Altzheimer’s and they’re not about to change their ways. As Don DeLillo put it, “History is the sum total of the things they’re not telling us.”

So that’s what’s new with me. And, I’m afraid, with you as well.

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