Thursday, February 17, 2011

Look in the Mirror of Reality

Late last year Sylvia landed in the hospital, followed by a rehab center stay. By the time she was discharged and went back to her apartment, she had missed the cutoff date to renew her registration for the Meals on Wheels I deliver in Yonkers each week. Her slot was assigned to another. A government cutback in funding denies program administrators any leeway in adding to their roster of subsidized recipients, so near 90-year-old Sylvia will have to arrange her own meals while she waits to reclaim a spot on the food distribution list. You can easily imagine how the next vacancy might occur.

Sylvia’s plight, and the juggling act social service providers must play given extreme reductions in funding for safety net programs, begs the question: What type of America do we want our parents and grandparents to live in during their sunset years? Alternately, what type of America do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?

Will it be an America of opportunity or an America in retreat? An America that cares for its vulnerable citizens or an America that shuns collective responsibility?

Matt Bai of the NY Times framed the debate in terms of gluttony vs. neglect ( Democrats would lead us to decline by a spend, spend, spend mentality. Republicans would cut, cut, cut our way to second tier, or lower, status by failing to invest in infrastructure needs.

Are there any statesmen left in America to bridge the gap between these two philosophies?

Sadly, it’s not really the politicians’ fault. Their job is to get elected and re-elected. As the conspirator/patriot? Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Or, as Walt Kelly’s comic strip possum character Pogo related three decades ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are blinded by imaginary realities. We create mystical memories of politicians, sans warts. The victorious current candidate is the one who can channel his or her own image more strongly with those of heralded predecessors. Democrats fawn over FDR. And JFK. Republicans lionize Ronald Reagan. FDR and JFK created and extended the safety net and universal freedoms. They were not embraced by most wealthy Americans; their constituents came mainly from the working poor and the growing middle class. Reagan, on the other hand, managed to convince common citizens he served their best interests, a legacy Republicans have pounded into the electorate’s head over and over again. Every Republican swears allegiance to Reagan, hoping the public remembers the image, not the reality of his political arc.

When will the Democratic Party start broadcasting reality reports? When will they de-claw the GOP lion by pointing out he raised taxes in seven of his eight years as president, that he nearly tripled the federal budget deficit, that government grew under his tenure, that his adoption of trickle down economic theories hurt the working class and the middle class? Are the Democrats so cowed by the specter of Ronald Reagan they cringe at the prospect of running against his record?

In the play, Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote, the hero is brought back to reality by the Knight of the Mirrors. “Look in the mirror of reality and behold things as they truly are...thy dream is a nightmare of a disordered mind,” Don Quixote is told.

It is laudable to have a quest, a vision of greatness. But government based on falsehood would be catastrophic. Better to face reality.

Tax and spend is not the way to go, either. We need a reasoned, compromised approach to ensure America’s prosperous future. We cannot strip away funding for education, for social services, for health care, for infrastructure and expect our country will remain great. The other day an alarming report informed that many foreign students opt to return to their native lands, albeit countries where personal freedoms are limited, because they believe opportunities for wealth generation are greater overseas. Some might say, good riddance, but that would be turning our back on America’s history, a past built on the contributions of immigrants.

I want our country to respect the service and value the Sylvias of her generation contributed to American society. We should not force safety net providers to limit their administration of benefits while we dole out tax relief to wealthy individuals and corporations. I want America to challenge the next generations to think not just of themselves but also of the collective good of all. Societies that allow their citizens’ fortunes to bifurcate may survive for an indefinite period, but they invariably rot from within and topple, often in violent seizures. Our greatest threat is not from China, India, Russia or Iran, et al, it is from our failure to learn the lessons of history.