08 July 2011

Why would any child listen to us?

This was a long, long time ago...

What happened in October 1929? Why were income taxes
very high in 1919? Your Republican member of Congress
does not know, but perhaps you should.
And this... "House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's bold entitlement reform plan goes beyond taming spending. It recognizes that the history of cutting taxes vindicates Calvin Coolidge, not Paul Krugman," is from "today," from an editorial in Investors' Business Daily, which illustrated their desire to roll back the clock over 80 years - complete with an entertaining graph which "conveniently" leaves off what happened seven months after President Calvin Coolidge left office.

But it is not this intellectual dishonesty behind the actions of America's Republicans that disturbs me. It is not just that they will not explain why the US top marginal income tax rate was so high in 1919, or that their preferred "strategy" produced a worldwide economic collapse that took a decade to begin to dig out of. Lying is one thing...

...being defeated is another.

If you watch the whole Kennedy speech from that day in Houston, you will hear honesty you have not heard from a leader in a very long time. "All this will cost us a great deal of money," he says, "a staggering sum." He details that, saying the cost of the space program will rise to be "more than 50 cents per person per week for every man, woman, and child in America." Yes, things that matter - even something which mattered spiritually more than perhaps anything else - cost money then. And will cost money now. But societies which care about the future do what matters.

Societies which don't, don't. And, in Washington DC, in Westminster in London, in Ottawa, Canada, in Canberra, Australia, we are usually listing what we cannot do. We plan our defeats before we even let ourselves discuss our possibilities.

In the United States we cannot provide everyone with decent health care, we cannot properly fund public education or the preparation of teachers. We cannot rebuild New Orleans, we cannot create national rail travel options. We cannot even make our bridges safe, or, according to Michigan's governor, make cars which get good gas mileage. Now, 49 years after Kennedy's speech, we cannot even get a human into space.

It's not so different in the United Kingdom. David Cameron's government can't feed or house its own people - something even World War II Britain managed to do. They can't pay for decent schools either, and after doing it for 66 years, they're not sure they can provide universal health care anymore.

In Canada the Prime Minister couldn't even figure out how to stay in office without shutting down Parliament like a third rate military dictator, then gets re-elected by claiming that Canada really can't do anything anymore.

Heroism is a real thing, and we need heroes today
(The PT 109 Story from Navy Log, a 1950s TV show)

Heroism is a real thing. John Kennedy had many leadership skills, including, obviously, the gift of human communication, but he - and much of his generation - also had an understanding that the future needed to be a better place, and that creating that better place would take hard work and sacrifice.

The leaders who built the "postwar" world were risk-takers because they understood the risk of not moving forward. Whether Kennedy in the United States, or Willy Brandt in Germany, or Robert Schuman of France, they were heroes before they ran for political office, they understood real risk and reward, and they all understood the value of society and community.

Before The Great Society, Robert Kennedy sees
"Poverty in the United States
And so John Fitzgerald Kennedy not only pushed America to the moon, he began an 8-year administration which attempted to create a nation with civil rights for all, a nation which would "wipe out" poverty (and despite what you've heard, that worked so well that ever since Republicans have been claiming that America's poor aren't really poor), which would eliminate the disaster that was then senior health care, and which helped create the real "jet age" through support for huge planes which made flight affordable.

In Berlin Willy Brandt took a destroyed, divided city and rebuilt it into one of world's great symbols of democracy, and then took huge risks to breach the Iron Curtain with friendship.

And in France, Robert Schuman, escaped prisoner of the Gestapo, began the most audacious experiment in Europe since the dawn of Rome, when he set in motion the effort to build a peaceful, democratic, united continent which welcomed the just defeated Germany as an equal partner.

See, those are actual risk-taking activities. Those attempts are not the same as finding "grand bargains" or yelling at a crumbling wall, or babbling about "big societies." They were real.

And obviously those were real attempts to create an improved future - not the hysterical whining of those who think a time of incredible oppression of minorities and women, combined with high infant mortality and starving farmers, represents "the good old days."

It is hard to even imagine JFK's "Moon Speech" in today's America. In a nation where clowns claim to be in a "Tea Party" recovering some supposed "anti-tax" past (quick question, were the original "Tea Party" rioters opposed to paying taxes, or, did they want representation in the British Parliament?), in a country where the Secretary of Education, the man charged with safeguarding the future, is constantly telling us what we cannot do, in a nation where people vote like they fully believe their greatness is in the past. It is hard to imagine what our students might say if they watched the whole speech. Or if British students actually listened to Churchill, or if Canadian students thought about John Macdonald trying to pull a bizarre collection of British colonies together with an impossible railroad...

What would they say?

And what would they say about us, the collective "we" who have lost our imagination and our ambition. "We" who ask about everything, "what will it cost me?" "We" who choose to not even invest in our own children?

Will they expect us to be - just a little - heroic? To take real risks? To try big things? To make sacrifices for something we may not live to see?

I hope so.

- Ira Socol


Dani Alexis said...

Thank you - once again, your post covers what I've been mulling over lately, only much more eloquently. :)

I've stopped watching the news, because all I can think about is how we're throwing away the potential of an entire generation at this point. I went through elementary and middle school at the tail end of the Cold War, when the rhetoric we got was still "the U.S. the greatest nation on earth and we can do ANYTHING, and to do that we need the best and brightest and smartest students, so if you apply yourself, you will be contributing to the AWESOME that is the U.S." I really believed, as a kid, that I was growing up in a country that valued and needed my contributions.

I don't want to return to the "we're awesome, you suck" kind of jingoism, but I do miss the U.S. in which being The Most Awesome County That Ever Awesomed meant supporting students to find out what their personal best was and then achieve it. Now I feel like no one gives a crap whether schoolkids (or anyone else, for that matter) succeeds or fails. I feel like we've been thrown out, and I hate it.

Darren Draper said...

Part of the problem I see, Ira, is that the adults in generations past were willing to sacrifice their present for their children's future. How dare they, for we, clearly, are not!

The collective adult "we" in our society today cares only for ourselves, our present, and our gratification. When selfishness, greed, and indulgence lose out to empathy, sacrifice, and saving, then - and only then - will the future of our children look bright.

Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

David Britten said...

You are absolutely right, Darren. Today's adult generation definitely knows how to produce children but don't have a clue when it comes to deciding between the adults' present or the children's future. Self-sacrifice is no longer in our lexicon just as leadership and statesman no longer mean anything in politics.

Great thoughts, Ira.

Jennifer Geiger said...

Excellent post! I've been thinking of asking my students to look at great speeches and respond free-form to what they found powerful. (I figure it's a better way of talking about persuasion and word choice and all that English Language Arts-y terminology). I think I'll add your links to videos to the bank of them I've been building.

It's also a great excuse to expose them to new ideas, ideas they haven't heard from Tea Party or religious right parents. (I asked my students the same question about the motive of the original Tea Party, and the kids had no idea!) I have been teaching 11 years now and I'm noticing the students regurgitate whatever they hear from home or their small parent-approved community. I think the first step to free thought is to hear ideas different from your own and that challenge you to rethink why you believe what you believe. Hegemony only "works" if there is no dissent or if dissent is quashed.

I also was thinking that the ideas you emphasize here in this post about sacrifice and vision for the future, with less emphasis on the pleasure in the present are ideals that sports and music and drama can teach. Ironically, these are the programs being cut in our schools due to budget concerns.

But I will not be discouraged. I also read as much of Larry Ferlazzo's blogs as possible-- check him out when you can. In the last few weeks he posted a (Washington Post?) write-up of some research about delay of gratification being the key to future academic success-- the marshmallow study. I plan to look at his links for helping my high school students some delay of gratification. Perhaps we can make some difference and these kids can help put the country on the right track?

Ouida McDaniel said...

Very thought provoking. My parents grew up in wake of the Great Depression. I am very lucky that not only did my parents sacrifice their present for my future they taught how important that it would be for me to do so as well. I feel that we have lost sight of what is really important. Our children are lacking in education, unemployment is sky high, and the only thing that people are worried about is money. I think once the adults can say that our system is not working and needs to be fixed and are willing to step up and sacrifice for the future of our country and our children we may stand a chance of becoming a great country again.