Saturday, November 19, 2016

When was America great? A short history of America during the past century

I’ve been reflecting upon the expression ‘Make America Great Again’. Trump made this expression the cornerstone of his campaign. Apart from the rose-colored glasses nostalgic aspect of it, I cannot find one period in American history that didn’t have social problems, unrest, wars, or unemployment. The America that we know was born of a successful, but bitter and violent break with Great Britain--the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). We experienced a bitter and violent Civil War (1861-1865) that pitted the Northern States against the Southern Confederate (slave) States--families against families, friends against friends and neighbors against neighbors. The war nearly tore the nation apart. It is estimated that close to 700,000 soldiers died, along with an undetermined number of civilians, making it the deadliest war in American history, but slavery,which was one of the main issues over which it was fought, was eventually abolished.

So bringing us to modern times, to what period in time do Trump and his supporters want to return America? There is not one decade in the past century of American history that has been without strife, unrest, war, terrorism, unemployment, or social problems. Following the devastating Great Depression (1929-39), the country needed to rebuild its infrastructure and to get people working again. FDR’s programs helped to do that. But I found out this past summer that FDR had his opponents, and that one of them tried to assassinate him in 1933. His name was Giuseppe Zangara and he was executed in 1933 for that crime. America became involved in WWII following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and that war did not end until 1945. The country had to deal with returning veterans and how to reintegrate them into American society; women’s roles also changed, as they were now encouraged to re-embrace home and family after having staffed the munitions factories while the men were at war. The 1950s saw the Korean War (1950-1953); the US involvement in that war was wonderfully depicted in the 1970 film M*A*S*H and the TV series M*A*S*H that ran from 1972-1983. The 1950s will be remembered for the intensification of the Cold War (1945–1991) between the USA and the Soviet Union and the rise of McCarthyism and blacklisting of people deemed to be Communists. Civil rights for African-Americans was also a dominant and polarizing topic in the period from 1954–1968, with the attendant protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others. The fight for equal rights for all Americans, regardless of color and ethnicity, was not a pleasant one in our history, and has never been, stretching all the way back to the protests about slavery in the years leading up to, during, and after the Civil War.

1963 saw the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; it remains unclear why Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy or whether he acted alone or was part of a wider conspiracy. His assassination and the reasons for it have been the subject of official inquiries and innumerable books and articles for the past half century. In 1964 America became involved in the Vietnam War. That war began in 1954 and ended in 1975, but its escalation and American involvement was what dominated the 1960s and early 1970s. I remember being in grammar school and discussing America’s role in this war; our teachers made us read the newspaper articles about the war and discuss them in class. It was an extremely controversial war that led to protests and societal division; many young people protested this war, not surprisingly because it was the young men of this generation that were being sent to fight in this war that many Americans meant we had no business fighting. TV news coverage showed the casualties of war and reported the body count in a way that most Americans had never seen or heard before. The anti-war outrage on college campuses also led to violent outcomes; one need only remember Kent State University in Ohio and the 1970 shooting of four unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard during campus protests. The music (think the Woodstock music festival of 1969), writing and art of that era, as well as the hippie subculture (often connected with the anti-war movement), documented the outrage and unrest. It was not unusual growing up to see the peace-and-love hippie icons juxtaposed with the ‘Archie Bunker’ types (think about the TV show ‘All in the Family’ that ran from 1971 to 1979). This is the era when we were teenagers, and it was impossible not to be affected by what we saw and heard. The Watergate break-in/cover-up was also the political scandal of the 1970s; the Watergate investigation and hearings led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and to forty-eight government officials being found guilty of burglary, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and perjury, among other crimes.

By the time the 1980s arrived, the USA was involved in the Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981), which led to the loss of the presidential election by Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Reagan survived an assassination attempt in 1981 by John Hinckley Jr. During the Reagan years, inflation levels increased, in part due to his expansionary fiscal policies aimed at stimulating the American economy, including oil deregulation policies. In October 1987, Black Monday occurred. It was the largest one-day market crash in history. The repercussions were felt well into the 1990s as it ushered in a new era of stock-market volatility. The Reagan years were not without their own political scandals--namely the Iran-Contra affair. The Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran; the money from these sales was used to provide CIA aid to pro-American guerrilla Contras in Nicaragua (see Wikipedia for more information). The end of the Cold War occurred during 1989-1991; Reagan was praised for calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, which did occur in 1989 and for working together with Gorbachev to end the Cold War.

The 1990s was a decade of prosperity for America. Kurt Andersen of The New York Times described it best in an excellent article from 2015: (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/opinion/sunday/the-best-decade-ever-the-1990s-obviously.html?_r=0):

America at large was prospering in the ’90s. The United States economy grew by an average of 4 percent per year between 1992 and 1999. (Since 2001, it’s never grown by as much as 4 percent, and since 2005 not even by 3 percent for a whole year.) An average of 1.7 million jobs a year were added to the American work force, versus around 850,000 a year during this century so far. The unemployment rate dropped from nearly 8 percent in 1992 to 4 percent — that is, effectively zero — at the end of the decade……..
From 1990 to 1999, the median American household income grew by 10 percent; since 2000 it’s shrunk by nearly 9 percent. The poverty rate peaked at over 15 percent in 1993, then fell to nearly 11 percent in 2000, more or less its postwar low. During the ’90s, stocks quadrupled in value — the Dow Jones industrial average increased by 309 percent. You could still buy a beautiful Brooklyn townhouse for $500,000 or less. And so on.
By the end of the decade, in fact, there was so much good news — a federal budget surplus, dramatic reductions in violent crime (the murder rate in the United States declined by 41 percent) and in deaths from H.I.V./AIDS — that each astounding new achievement didn’t quite register as miraculous. After all, the decade had begun with a fantastically joyful and previously unimaginable development: The Soviet Empire collapsed, global nuclear Armageddon ceased to be a thing that worried anyone very much, and the nations of Eastern Europe were mostly unchained.

The 1990s also saw the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center by Al-Qaeda in 1993, so that decade wasn’t all rosy and joyful. I remember that day very well, because my brother worked at the World Trade Center. I was working in San Francisco at the time, and spent the day trying frantically to reach him, without success. It wasn’t until late in the evening that he called me to tell me that he had taken the day off and had not been at work. He hadn’t become aware of what had happened until the afternoon because he had not heard the news. So that first terrorist attack on the Towers affected me and my sister too; you would not want to experience the feelings I had when I thought my brother and others might have been killed in the bombing. During the 1990s Bill Clinton enjoyed a successful first presidential period, but the second period was marred by the Lewinsky scandal. The OJ Simpson trial of 1995 and the 1998 grand jury investigation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky did not do much for elevating respect for the USA globally—they were media circuses that should never have happened. In many ways they helped to tarnish the good name of our country, at least for a while.

In 2001 George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton as president; his presidential era (until 2009) will be remembered for the Al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers on September 11th 2001. Before that attack, no one had heard of Osama bin Laden, but after the attacks, the hunt for him began in earnest. Again, I was frantic that day as well, because my brother was still working in that area, having left his job at one of the Towers for a job nearby. But again, as fate would have it, he had taken the day off. Bush’s tenure was marred by the Iraqi WMD controversy, the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal, and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp‎ controversy. He did not succeed in hunting down Osama bin Laden; that was accomplished by the Obama administration. The 2000s were characterized by recessions and global financial scandals, as well as huge changes for the IT industry. The latter changes have impacted on the way we live now; nearly everyone is connected to the internet and now owns a cell phone, usually a smart phone. Cell phones have become an appendage, a part of us. We ‘don’t leave home without them’. The way we use cell phones and the internet has in turn impacted on how the media presents the news to us. Social media has overtaken the traditional news media as a news source, for better or for worse. The traditional news media are scrambling to keep up. The 2016 election will go down in history as one that was dogged by false internet news sites that are thought to have negatively influenced the election results. Most of them were rabidly pro-Trump and by extension rabidly anti-Clinton.

Trump supporters would have you believe that Obama has ruined America. I don’t see that or even understand what they’re talking about, but it’s clear that they’re not referring to Obama’s America when they talk about returning to a time when America was great. Are they talking about the 1990s? That was the Democratic Clinton era in the White House, Americans enjoyed prosperity, women were making good strides in the workplace, and gender equality and equal pay for women were accepted as the norm, among other things. Women had the freedom to choose between family and career, or to choose both. They could marry later and have their children later. The Trump folk would have to admit that a Democrat did something right, and it's doubtful that they would do so. The 1990s also saw great advances in science, with the advent of the genomics era and the impact of that on personalized medicine.

Given that Trump and his coming administration have a predilection for sexism, misogyny and white supremacy, I cannot see how the 1990s would appeal to them at all. So we go back further to the 1980s and the Reagan era. Women at that time had the freedom to choose between family and career, or to choose both, and many struggled with their decisions. But it was an exciting time for women in the workplace, and feminism had firmly taken hold. So the Trump folk cannot hold this decade up as a model era for American greatness either, because it simply doesn’t fit with the American values they hold dear. Let’s examine the 1970s. I cannot for the life of me envision that this decade, or the 1960s for that matter, could be of any interest to the Trump folk. These decades were peopled by hippies, counterculture people, rock artists, beat poets, anti-Vietnam war protesters, and civil rights activists, among others. Far too liberal and left-wing for the Trump folk.

Back even further to the 1950s. This is possibly the only decade that I can envision the Trump folk possibly liking. Minorities knew their place, women knew their place, white men had the power in society and in the workplace, and a lot of wonderful platitudes about God and country were uttered. Communism was anathema and Communists in all walks of life had to be rooted out. The Soviet Union was the enemy (and now Trump is courting Putin's friendship in an odd twist of events--you would have thought he and his administration would be anti-Putin). If you were a Communist, you hated God and Christians. Americans tend to forget that they don’t own God. There is no place in the bible where it says that the USA is God’s favorite country. It didn’t exist when Christ lived. So we should be careful about claiming God for ourselves when we talk about our Christian values and wanting to return to a time when America was great, especially if that time does not support true Christian values. The 1950s were hardly the greatest time in America, as I’ve described above.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. We enjoyed summer picnics with family, ice cream sundaes with family and friends to celebrate a successful school year, sitting on front stoops on summer evenings talking to the neighbors, playing with our friends, and taking vacations to the New England states and trips to amusement parks. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holidays were spent with family after we had been to mass in the morning. We went to Catholic grammar school, were taught by the nuns, and then some of us went our separate ways once it was time to go to high school. Life was fairly idyllic, as it probably is for most children who grow up safe and sound in good families with good parents. Once we got to college, our lives changed irrevocably, became uncertain, risky, and a bit scary. What would become of us, would we make it in society, would we get a job, would we succeed? Would we marry and have a family? Would we maintain our friendships? If I am nostalgic at times, it is for the times before everyone separated and went their own ways. When you could spend hours together with good friends and/or siblings and not think about time passing, when parents were still alive and in good health--all those things. Time doesn't stand still, and nostalgia is just that, a poignant and bittersweet reminder of happy past times. We cannot go back, no matter how much we might miss those times. Because each person has a period in his or her life that he or she might want to return to at times. But the point is that those times are as individual as the person who remembers them. They are not the same for all.

And that brings me back to returning to a time when America was great. We can't, because what truly makes America great is that has experienced, dealt with, and survived the problems that have been thrown at it during each decade since the early part of the 20th century. There isn't one best decade. America has been mired in controversy, wars and protests from the day it was born, and it has evolved, survived and flourished. It has kept its doors open to diversity and heterogeneity. It airs its dirty laundry to the world in a way that no European country ever has or will do. But despite Trump's win, I believe that the majority of America's inhabitants still believe in the real values on which it was founded—liberty and justice for all. That is what America stands for, and what I hope it always stands for.

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