Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cause for Alarm

Cause for Alarm

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Beaches, barbecues and flags as big as baseball fields. Fireworks as loud as thunder lighting the nighttime sky. Hot fun, as Sly & the Family Stone would say, in the summertime.

Friday was the 232nd anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Celebrations were ubiquitous. HBO offered a marathon telecast of its John Adams series. Bands of wildly varying quality, from one coast to the other, let loose with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

It was a July Fourth like many others. There was nothing overt to signal anything was wrong. The Red Sox had traveled from Boston to play a weekend series against the Yankees in the Bronx. In Washington, the National Independence Day Parade made its way along Constitution Avenue.

And yet, there was an undercurrent of anxiety in the land. Vacations have been curtailed because of the price of fuel. Since the holiday fell on a Friday, the monthly unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics were released a day early, on Thursday. They weren’t good. The Times summed things up with a Page 1 headline:

“Outlook Darker as Jobs Are Lost and Wages Stall.”

The high and the low were being buffeted. The bad news bears were loose on Wall Street, and the prospects for the summer employment of teenagers were abysmal. The national employment rate for teens in June was the lowest in 60 years.

But the anxiety seems more intense than the usual concern for a cyclical economic downturn. Something fundamental seems to have gone haywire. David Boren, a former U.S. senator who is now president of the University of Oklahoma, has written a short book that he called, “A Letter to America.”

His sense of alarm in the opening paragraph could not have been clearer. “The country we love is in trouble,” he said. “In truth, we are in grave danger of declining as a nation. If we do not act quickly, that decline will become dramatic.”

I couldn’t agree more. The symbols of patriotism — bumper stickers and those flags the size of baseball fields — have taken the place of the hard work and sacrifice required to keep a great nation great.

You know that matters have gotten out of hand when, as we learned this week, American instructors at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, gave classes on torture techniques used by the Communists to extract false testimony from American prisoners during the Korean War.

Talk about defining deviancy down! As Al Gore reminds us, this is the first time in American history that “the executive branch of the government has not only condoned but actively promoted the treatment of captives in wartime that clearly involves torture, thus overturning a prohibition established by Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War.”

There are signs galore of the nation’s turn for the worse. We are fighting a debilitating war in Iraq without any idea of how to pay for it — or how to end it. No one has any real idea about how to cope with the devastating energy crisis, or how to turn the economy around.

The airline industry is a first-class mess and the knees of the General Motors colossus have buckled. Locks are being changed on foreclosed homes across the country and working families lucky enough to meet their mortgages are watching the value of their homes decline.

We can build spectacular new stadiums for football and baseball teams (the Yanks, the Mets, the Giants and the Jets are all getting ready to move into staggeringly expensive new homes) but we can’t rebuild New Orleans or reconstruct the World Trade Center site destroyed almost seven years ago.

This year’s presidential election is the perfect opportunity to place the truth before the American public in the form of a realistic examination of the state of the nation, and an honest consideration of creative ideas for moving forward. Instead, we’re getting hour after hour and day after day of trivia: Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s patriotic? Who’s not?

Mr. Boren believes that the combination of unrestrained partisanship and the corrosive influence of big money have all but paralyzed the political process. He worries about the neglect of the nation’s infrastructure, about the growing divide between the very wealthy and everyone else, and about “the catastrophic drop in the way the rest of the world views us.”

The U.S., with its enormous economic and military power, is still better-positioned than any other country to set the standards for the 21st century. But that power and leadership potential were not granted by divine right and cannot be wasted indefinitely.

Patriotism has its place. But waving a flag is never a good substitute for serious thought and rolling up one’s sleeves.

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