Here and now and long ago

“…I suddenly saw the breaking news on CNN about the El Paso and Dayton shootings, which raises in my mind this question: What’s happening to the America that I learnt so many good things about from Gaylord, you and other PCVs? What happened  to the great American values upheld by the ideals of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Reagan? Surely, something is wrong in the state of Denmark. What is the difference between white supremacists and ISIS terrorists? In my younger days, my wish was to migrate to America. Now I say to myself “I’m glad my wish did not come true.”

Not long ago, an old Moroccan friend, well educated, who had lived abroad in England as well as in the States, and who speaks English fluently, wrote me the message part of which I have quoted above. I tried to answer it as best I could, but the state of the world baffles me, too.

After further reflection, however, I began to ponder the question itself. When I went to Morocco in January 1968, the entire world lived under the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The States was involved in disastrous and deadly wars in Southeast Asia. The president and the military were lying to the public. The soon-to-be president campaigned on a “secret plan” to end the war, a plan that didn’t exist. Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces crushed Czechoslovakia’s “democracy with a human face.” Political assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy shocked America. Street protests and race riots were common occurences.

I had written to a friend in early 1968, from an agricultural station outside Meknes, that the weather was getting hot. He wrote back from the University of Chicago, where he was a grad student studying south Slavic languages. “You think it’s getting hot there? They are setting up a machine gun emplacement outside my window.” It was a time of race riots and rage.

When I picked up a Newsweek magazine in Fes in 1970, the cover photo portrayed a young college girl at Kent State, reacting with grief to the shooting of a fellow student by Ohio National Guards. I was horrified.

Kent State, 1970. Newsweek.

In France, student protests forced the French president Charles De Gaulle to step down. Across the straits in Spain, Franco continued to rule a country still suffering deeply from civil war that had taken place decades earlier. Northern Ireland was torn by civil strife, and Great Britain lived with car bombings. The white Rhodesian government had broken with Britain, and South Africa lived under apartheid. China was in the throes of its “Cultural Revolution.” Nigeria was in civil war. Within the next few years millions would die in the Cambodian genocide. Even unrest beset Morocco, where the king, Hassan II, would survive two coup attempts in the span of two short years, both while I lived there.

I have read Hans Rowling’s book, Factfulness, and I acknowledge its earnestness and veracity. Negativity comes easily. Just the same, I am far too much of a skeptic to be very optimistic about the world’s future in the face of pollution, resource exhaustion, overpopulation, growing economic inequality, and climate change. Only God knows the fate of humanity and the earth. Or, put in a more humanistic framework, whether men shape history or it shapes them, there is assuredly a destiny awaiting humanity.

My correspondent knew America primarily through Peace Corps volunteers and popular culture. Did we misrepresent it, or did his young mind perceive the States as something that it wasn’t? We certainly knew that America was not perfect. The civil rights movement of the 1960s had brought a new consciousness to America, and forced many, my young naive self among them, to begin to confront the many ugly facts in American history glossed over by traditional texts. And environmental issues began to take on a new importance following the publication of Rachel Carlson’s book, Silent Spring.

We were all deeply concerned with the state of our own country. I remember listening eagerly every week to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on the BBC World Service, always hoping to be entertained and enlightened, but also always fearing what next great tragedy might be his subject matter.

The world today seems to be on a reactionary bent. I could speak about current events in the States in terms of racism and fear of loss of white privilege, the problems of American government and its electoral system, the proliferation of guns and mass shootings, the hyper partisanship that puts political gain above the national interest, the ability of the very rich to inordinately influence government, widespread climate change denial, the lack of internationalism, foreign influence on American elections, willingness to violate norms that have developed over thousands of years, and so on and so forth. However, I am not sure whether there is not a certain amount of hypocrisy in looking back at a “golden age” when much nasty stuff was done behind the scenes, out of the eyes of the public. And Georges Brassens is always in my mind:

Si j’connus un temps de chien, certes

C’est bien le temps de mes vingt ans

Cependant, je pleure sa perte

Il est mort, c’était le bon temps

Il est toujours joli, le temps passé.

 

Roughly translated, the extract from the song goes “If there ever was a bad time in my life, it was certainly when I was in my twenties. Now that it’s gone, I mourn its loss. The past is always golden.”

Today, I am unhappy to live in a divided country, I do not like racism, which those of the white majority find difficult to acknowledge. I find extremism abhorrent in any form. There is no difference between Islamic terrorism and domestic terrorism: nothing justifies the taking of innocent lives.

In France in 1995, waiting to leave France, my wife and I watched TV reports of the Oklahoma City bombing where 168 people died including 19 children, most of whom were in a daycare center while their parents worked. The bombing was carried out by someone who was born and raised in Niagara County, where I was born and now live. He was able to do this because he lived in a free society where it is relatively easy to acquire guns and buy substances to make bombs. He did it because he hated the government and the building was a Federal government office building. Some mistrust of government is healthy, but hatred of it can be pathological.

The Murrah Office Building, Oklahoma City, taken by Staff Sergeant Preston Chasteen.

What gives me hope at home is our American legal system. English common law and its embodiment in democracies across the world have provided those who are fortunate to live in them with the rule of law, and the American and French revolutions provided universal ideals about human dignity, rights, and freedom that could be enshrined in constitutions. Yes, implementation is often imperfect, and law enforcement needs improvement, but, though perfection may be a goal, we should usually just content ourselves with what we have, and resolve to continue working to improve it.

Winston Churchill was astute when he said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

We all now live in a dangerous world, and I think that we must confront it together. To reprise, here is another famous quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though possibly apocryphal. He made it during the American Revolution, but the observation is applicable to almost any crisis: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The world is in a crisis of unprecedented scale. We ought to recognize that and hang together. I feel fortunate that I was born in the States and I certainly recognize how much I have benefitted from living here, but the scale of problems that now threaten the individual is no longer national, but global. Yes, I worry about where my country is headed, but I worry as well about the world we live in. The question my Moroccan friend might have also asked is: What has happened to the world? His answer would be as good as mine.

In the 1940s, the democracies of the world fought for their very existence, but after the war, many people turned their thoughts to problems of a different scale. To enjoy democracy, the world needs a stable world order, where participation in society benefits everyone, and, above all, where the rule of law governs society.

When I left Morocco, I wondered how that country would evolve. The coup attempts had been a shock. I was concerned, too, about Morocco’s growing population in a part of the world short of water and land. Morocco today continues to be plagued by serious problems, yet it seems to have made remarkable progress in many areas, and I am happy for that. If I were Moroccan, I would be proud of the great strides my country has made. Still, no one in the world today should be complacent. As for the States, we are certainly going through a bad patch, but I remain confident that the foundations of American democracy are deep and solidly built, and American society resilient.

As for me, I am growing older every day, and I try to console myself in part with the ironic lyrics of the old Woody Guthrie song Worried Man Blues:

It takes a worried man

To sing a worried song

I’m worried now,

But I won’t be worried long.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

3 thoughts on “Here and now and long ago”

  1. Thank you, Dave, for a penetrating narrative on our (the world’s) situation. It is grave and in many ways all but hopeless. As for my personal attempt to better things, I make a determined effort to be open and welcoming to all I have occasion to meet – walking my dog or in the supermarket. We are losing our desire to be truly interested in the well being of our fellows And this transforms into our national lack of real concern for humans of all races and creeds.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You have put your finger on a real issue, too, and I congratulate you on your response. It is so difficult to have meaningful influence.

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  2. Wow, Dave, this is thought-provoking. Loved the Woody Guthrie lyrics – great song. I took from your piece that things have not got worse really. They have just got more complicated and dangerous though. But not being a worried man long could be said at any time of life in the scheme of things. So best get as much good from it while you can if you ask me.

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