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Carter Was (Partially) Right

The struggle we see today in America, in the unrest exemplified by two deeply coopted movements, the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement – both of which nonetheless reflect genuine grassroots frustration – is the culmination of decades of crisis. Jimmy Carter announced the struggle that lay ahead during his ‘malaise’ speech. Unfortunately, Carter both presaged and helped launch the series of wars for hydrocarbons, and the reckless disregard for environmental degradation, that wracks our world today (for all that he symbolically put solar panels on the White House roof). Carter also identified the deeper problem: a crisis of faith, of shared purpose, that left America drifting with no vision of the future, no inspiring common purpose.

Typically, Carter blamed this crisis on us reg’lar folks. He, rightly, claimed that we had become craven consumerists, but, of course, he failed to point out that a society which often crushed dissent, while paying people just enough to consume, if they were lucky, while not empowering them to build their communities, left people with few options. Then, as the Reagan years closed in, a new trend started, where more and more people weren’t even paid enough to consume, and where a household needed two, then three, then four, then more incomes just to keep up appearances. The unraveling of America continued apace, till we arrived where we are today.

Even growing up in the seventies, I thought it was an assumed thing, for most decent people, that society existed FOR THE GOOD OF ALL. That idea is long forgotten today. Now most people seem to bow down to the principle that Greed Is Good. Most seem to accept that the world is, and should be, a dog eat dog rat race, where who grabs the most, the fastest, and with the biggest gun, wins. This thinking dominates both our foreign policies and our domestic policies. Abroad, we blatantly attack countries for their oil, and few think this is really wrong. We see it as somehow natural. At home, we somehow accept the idea that a few immensely powerful organizations, multi-national corporations, all with interconnected boards and directorships, should dominate every aspect of our lives, including our government, and if they rip us off for trillions, while crushing the very economy our future generations will depend on, well, that’s to be expected, it seems.

Of course, there is a burning resentment underneath this acceptance of a brutally selfish world. It isn’t just reflected in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. It’s also reflected in high rates of non-voting. It’s reflected in polls that show that vast majorities of Americans no longer believe that their government represents them, or that it is even legitimate. It is reflected in the television and video-game soaked apathy that surrounds us like a fog. We are headed towards a future that we dread, and we feel we can do nothing about it.

For all his faults, Carter was right about one thing. To seize, enliven and enoble the future, we have to regain our faith in the future, and our shared sense of purpose. We can do this, but to do it, we have to reach out to each other across cultural divides that have separated us citizens into hostile camps for generations. I’m talking about the Left/Right divide. If we could just shift our perspective on this divide, we might see that the principles that both sides hold dear don’t have to conflict; they can also complement each other. For example, the Right is concerned with Property. The Left is concerned with Community. Isn’t it obvious that, in balance, these seemingly opposed principles actually support each other? The Right calls for Fairness, while the Left calls for Equality. Here again, isn’t it obvious that these two principles, in balance, support each other? When inequality becomes too great, doesn’t fairness become impossible? Without opportunity, doesn’t equality become a lifeless shell? One can go on and on this way.

If the future is a door, WE THE PEOPLE hold the key to the door. But no one group of us holds the entire key. We all hold pieces of the key.

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