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Happy (We Hope) New Year!

Fireworks in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (photo from Nickelodeon)

All things considered, 2012 is not going down as one of my better years. It was a fairly rotten year in fact, so rotten that I cancelled Christmas – no tree, no decorations, no nothing except a few minor gifts. After draping the garlands on the front porch, I decided I didn’t have the energy or the inclination to unpack three trunks filled with Christmas stuff and put it all out. Most of that ennui was personal, but some of it comes from the political arena of the past few years.

I was born in 1948. In my lifetime, we have fought for an end to the culture of conformity that had everyone in the 1950s pretending to be WASPs (that’s white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant to those of you not old enough to recognize the term), equal rights for blacks, equal pay and workplace opportunity for women, increased roles for women in politics, the death of the girdle and the rest of the sexist clothing popular in the 1950s, rights for gays, an end to spiraling nuclear stockpiles, the right to a safe abortion and birth control, factual sex education to prevent those abortions, respect for rock music, unionization of public sector workers (private sector union membership was around 40% when I was born), affordable health insurance and health care for everyone, recognition of rape and spousal abuse as major crimes, an end to the military draft, an end to wars, fair wages and benefits, affordable colleges, good schools. Underneath a lot of those fights was a basic battle for our culture to stop sugar-coating life. Our historical figures were not saints, our country made mistakes, there was crime and violence in our society, the happy homemaker was probably an alcoholic or Valium addict. We demanded that the media shine a light on the bad parts of our society to educate people to its existence. It was a very busy second half of the twentieth century, fighting for all those things and more.

The 21st century is off to a really bad start. We have seen the United States enter into two unprovoked wars, costing tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Instead of a draft, we saw our National Guard sent overseas to fight these wars, with stop-loss orders preventing soldiers and Guardsmen leaving the service at the end of their enlistments. We saw repeated tours putting our servicemen and women in the field for years, and injuries more horrific than anyone had ever recovered from before. And rather than spreading democracy in the Middle East, our actions increased enrollment in terrorist groups. That’s what happens when you have a President who engages brain after speaking and calls our invasions “crusades.”

We now have a culture in which it is not only deemed preferable, once again, to be WASP, but the rest of us are not real Americans and we should just leave, self-deport to wherever we came from, even if the ancestor who came here arrived before the Revolution. And being part of an older, mainstream Protestant denomination isn’t enough. You have to be a fundamentalist evangelical who calls him/herself a “Christian” while refusing to admit that anyone who worships Christ is a Christian and who wants to put your theology in our secular laws.

For all the advances made by minorities and women in the workplace, the recession threw us backwards. We were reminded that even with the Lilly Ledbetter Act, women are still paid less. That’s why more men were laid off during the economic meltdown than women.

Republican governors and state legislatures have declared war on public sector unions, stripping them of their collective bargaining rights, trying to strip Democratic campaigns of funding and support from unions.

Every conceivable barrier to abortion has been erected by Republican legislatures, short of outright banning them. Republicans have lied about the work done by Planned Parenthood, so they could justify cutting off funding to the primary source of health care for millions of low income women across the country. We’ve seen the spread of laws limiting sex education in our schools to “abstinence only” which has done nothing to reduce the number of teen pregnancies. Ignorance isn’t bliss – it’s a one-way street to getting knocked up.

Spanx? Seriously? We got rid of girdles only to get constrictive ankle to ribcage spandex? Spike heels on pregnant women? Spike heels at all? Geez, ladies, take a look at the feet of 80+-year-olds and ask yourself if you want twisted toes and deformed feet. And where the hell did rock-and-roll get to? When did the closest thing we are getting to rock end up on country music stations?

Our demand for honest depictions of life and honest reporting of life’s horrors has led to an entertainment industry which now glorifies the guts and gore they never depicted in the 1950s, and as a consequence they have given the pro-gun lobby a convenient scapegoat for violence. It’s the video games, the movies, that cause mass killings, not the ease of gun ownership. Yeah, right. Billy the Kid and Adolph Hitler didn’t have video games.

When I was a child, a typical New York City news vendor with a street kiosk had a six to eight foot shelf covered in newspapers (New York Times on the left end, newspapers lined up by distance from Times Square). They had magazines hung from clips all around the “window” of their kiosk. We had three major news magazines. Time was conservative, Newsweek was liberal and U.S. News and World Report was so factual and unbiased it was downright boring. We had three half-hour news reports every night in addition to our local station news. CBS was conservative, NBC was liberal and ABC walked the middle line. But the bias was subtle, more a matter of placement of stories and emphasis than overt advocacy. Now, we have a right wing media that has persuaded a large portion of the population that they should never, ever listen to, watch or read the so-called mainstream media because “they lie” and in getting people to cut off their own access to other opinions, the right wing media has complete control of information for these people and the people never question what is presented to them. Sixty years ago, fifty years ago, we had witnesses to the power of advocacy media and state-controlled media, and we celebrated our free press. Today, those witnesses are gone or ignored and we are witnessing the same activities out of the right wing media that our parents and grandparents witnessed out of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Propaganda is never “fair and balanced” no matter which side of the political spectrum it comes from.

Any leader who admits to the mistakes and bad acts of this nation is accused of hating America and “apologizing” for it. Anyone who points to Benjamin Franklin’s 12 illegitimate children as evidence that our founders weren’t all lily white is accused of lying. And forget quoting our founders on the subject of church and state. They will come back at you with all kinds of extrapolations to prove that our nation was (contrary to the statements) founded as a Christian nation.

Just when we think we have changed the minds of law enforcement and rape will be seen as a crime of violence instead of a crime of passion, we get jerks like Paul Ryan who want to water down rape laws by including the word “forcible” in them and Todd Akin who thinks there’s such a thing as an illegitimate rape in which a woman can get pregnant, because doctors know that women’s bodies shut down their fertility cycle in situations of legitimate rape.

My mother didn’t attend church because in her time, the use of artificial birth control meant automatic excommunication. By the early 1970s, parish priests had pretty much decided that if they made an issue of birth control, they’d be preaching to empty pews. Now, 98% of all Catholic women use birth control, and the church and Catholic employers are up in arms over the inclusion of birth control in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The United States entered the 1960s with the strongest economy and largest middle class in the world, due to the policies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, combinations of high taxes and sweeping programs like the G.I. Bill and encouragement of manufacturing and unions. Now, our economy is limping along and our middle class is on life support. The sickest thing I heard during the fights over public sector unions was the idea that union members – police, teachers, firefighters, municipal and state employees – should not have more in terms of wages, pensions and health insurance than the employees of Walmart. Instead of aspiring to jobs with good wages and benefits, the right wing believes that everyone should be dragged down to the lowest level.

For every step forward we took in my lifetime, especially through the 1960s and 1970s, it seems that our nation has taken two steps back since 2000. We are fighting again the battles we thought we had won. Some in the feminist movement and some in the minority rights movements have said that what we are seeing is the last gasp of the white male dominance culture. “They” – those white men – are scared of how much power they have lost and are working overtime to regain it, even though they are by any measure a minority in this nation. I’m a bit broader in my view. I don’t think it’s just white men who are fighting so hard to turn back the hands of time. I think their fear transcends gender or color or ethnicity. I think it’s a primal fear of change, any change. They can’t cope with the speed with which technology and society have changed, so they want to change it back. They distrust anyone who is comfortable with the changes, labels those people “the others” and convince themselves that we don’t belong in “their” country. It’s a very old story. Every immigrant group ran into it, all the way back to the earliest years of this nation. Every minority group, and even the majority group known as women, have run into this attitude. The only difference today is the way the very technology that scares them makes it possible to join them together into viable political forces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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