There was a time in America when the law of the jungle prevailed. The strong preyed openly on the weak. Goons beat and shot striking union members. Old folks ate cat food to survive. Back-room abortions took a grisly toll on women. Debtors rotted in prison. Ragged children begged for scraps in the streets; the lucky ones languished, unloved and abused, in orphanages.
The rich built stately mansions and bought luxurious yachts. Their servants – mostly black – indulged their every whim. Privileged Americans gave pennies to the poor if they felt like it, and millions to get their names on theaters and opera houses.
There were two classes – the rich and the poor. The rich were few and the poor were multitudinous.
The schools and churches helped to keep the poor ignorant and superstitious, instilling in them reverence for the rich and contempt for themselves and their peers. Guilt, ignorance and low self-esteem kept them in emotional and intellectual slavery.
But over the years, enlightenment came – in fits and starts at first but exponentially as information become more available and travel more accessible.
I think the change came partly because of trade unions, partly because of crusading media, partly because of improved education and partly because of a religious reformation. And the “baby boom” that followed World War II provided fertile ground for fresh ideas.
As American society matured, the middle class expanded, generating buying power and bringing prosperity. The “average” American could now afford “luxuries” like indoor plumbing, refrigerators, washing machines, automobiles and nights out at the movies.
But a couple of years ago, the abuses of free-market fanatics triggered an economic disaster that has shaken the roots of the American economy and threatens to dismantle the society that supports it.
Exploiting the fear and misery resulting from the economic crisis, a hard core of political cranks has captured the attention of the media and the public. The progress America has made over the past century is in jeopardy.
Standing at the gates of Congress are barbarians who would bring back the bad old days. They propose to abolish such programs as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, food stamps and any other kind of welfare. They plan to repeal recently passed health care benefits for the working poor and middle class. They would lower taxes for the rich and expand military spending.
And they would bring with them an age of ignorance, superstition, prejudice and intolerance.
They would subvert the education system, bullying teachers into compliance with nonsensical notions and robbing students of the chance to become enlightened.
They would enrich the rich and impoverish the poor. They would promote racism and xenophobia, brute force and arrogance. They would criminalize abortion, sending women back to the back rooms and coat hangers.
Under their leadership, the United States would be a global bully, opting for bombs over diplomacy, crushing dissent, and scorning “foreigners,” especially those of a different skin color, or with different cultural or religious traditions.
This is the America – this is the world – that I envisage from listening to and reading about the Republican candidates seeking election next month.
The polls predict they will win.
God help us.