The More Things Change…
I’m currently reading a fascinating book, “The Boys in the Boat”, by Daniel James Brown. It tells the true story of a group of young oarsmen at the University of Washington in the 1930’s, and their quest for a gold medal in rowing at the 1936 Olympic Games. Of course the story described in the book takes place during the Great Depression, and in setting the scene for the primary story, the author gives the background of that terrible time, with millions out of work, farmland in the Midwest turned into the “Dust Bowl”, and all the social dislocation that accompanied these hardest of economic times. Against this bleak backdrop, Mr. Brown tells of a day that brought some hope to the beleaguered country: the groundbreaking for what would become the Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington state.
As Mr. Brown relates in “The Boys in the Boat”, although President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies in the year and a half he had been in office at that point had stabilized the country to a degree, there was still a great deal of suffering in the U.S., and the president’s political enemies were far from shy about excoriating FDR and the very policies that were beginning to bring us back from the abyss. It was not so much that Roosevelt’s policies weren’t helping; it was more of an ideological opposition to the nature of those policies. Henry Fletcher, Chairman of the Republican party, blasted FDR’s New Deal, calling it “an undemocratic departure from all that is distinctly American”. Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho warned that Roosevelt’s policies “were endangering the very foundations of American liberty”, and that their “creeping paralysis of bureaucracy threatens freedom of the press, placing the yoke of torture, colossal expense, and demoralization on the nation”. But FDR, as we know, soldiered on despite the vitriol and negativity, and led us through and out of the Great Depression. Again, from Daniel Brown and “The Boys in the Boat”: “Many of them (spectators at the Grand Coulee Dam event) would never forget the day. For them it was a dawning, the first real hint of hope. If there was little they could do individually to turn the situation around, perhaps there was something they could do collectively. Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental – the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together”.
I am struck by how eerily the political events of today mirror that time. After all these years Republicans are still trying to limit, cut back on, and dismantle social security and other essential safety net programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, despite the wide-spread suffering that occurred during the Depression when these programs were not in place. They have no sense of the collective common good, and instead use divisive rhetoric to emphasize our differences instead of our commonality, all toward an end-game of divide and conquer. And so they emphasize their Christianity as a reason to vote for them. What does that say to non-Christians like me? The demonize undocumented immigrants to this country, many of whom have lived here honorably for years, and deny a path to citizenship even for those who have served in our armed forces. They seek to marginalize homosexuals and deny them the same rights as everyone else. I guess gay people aren’t part of their vision for America either. They tout tax cuts for the rich even though they know that the only “salutary” effects of such tax cuts will be the rich getting richer while the overwhelming majority of us will have to get by with less. They fight tooth and nail against a living wage for all working Americans. They look at our duly elected President and all they see is the color of his skin, and so they tell outrageous lies about him and his very “American-ness” to make it seem that he is not really “one of us”, because they define “us” so narrowly, and with such a meanness of spirit.
It is certainly true that our country faces many challenges today. Maybe not as pressing as those of the Great Depression, but pressing and potentially dangerous none-the-less. To face these challenges we need the efforts and talents of all Americans pulling together for the common good. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the FDIC, Unemployment Insurance, the Affordable Care Act and more are expressions of our understanding that we are all in this together, and America can only achieve its potential by adhering to its message of “E Pluribus Unum”; “Out of many; one”. Does the GOP really want us to be a country of “Every Man For Himself”? FDR knew better. The everyday people who flocked to hear that great president extol the virtues of the Grand Coulee Dam and what it would bring for everyone knew better too. We are all in this together; no exceptions.