Too often Americans demonstrate a unique ability to be optimistic despite obvious pitfalls and obstacles in their way. Most of us see our own personal situation as positive and do not understand recent economic and social conditions that appear to foresee a dismal future for our youth. America is in a moral crisis as well as a political, economic, and social crisis. Many see the nation drifting from the ideas and ideals of our founding fathers and mothers. Tea Party activists, before being co-opted by corporate and Republican Party operatives, did reflect the premise that the system has been distorted and operates to serve the interests of the elite and not the people. They feel small government is the best type. Their objection to government almost borders on the anarchic ideal as the solution. They believe in the ideals of some of our founding parents best personified by Thomas Jefferson. It would appear the Occupy Wall Street activists are more supportive of the government’s role in regulating and supervising activity in the marketplace as protectors of the larger needs and interests of the American public. Their view best reflects the ideas of Washington and Hamilton. Both movements are worthy of examination because these movements reflect a desire for less crony casino capitalism, less incestuous mixture of the political sphere with the marketplace, and less greed and selfish individualism. Historians will debate the year 2011 as many other watershed years of history.
One watershed year was 1848. Similar to 2011, all across Europe many national groups simultaneously demonstrated and rioted against being under the domination of larger powerful empires. These demonstrations were ruthlessly crushed but the ideas and desires remained and led to the unification of Italy and Germany, the establishment of Poland and Ireland again as free and independent nations, the eventual breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the popularity of a political movement called Zionism.
The year 1968, which for many of us was in our lifetime, saw a generation demonstrate and sometimes use violence to disrupt a military machine that appeared to be out of control, for civil liberties for minority groups, empowerment of women in society, and for elimination of barriers for the physically and mentally challenged. Although in many aspects these movements were not completely successful and often brutally suppressed; there were demonstrative accomplishments. De Gaulle was forced to resign in France. Mental institutions were broken up into living arrangements that were more humane. Women became more empowered in the workplace and employers are more reasonable in allowing flex time. Government also allowed legislation that gave workers the right to leave employment to take care of ill family members. Concepts of marriage and family now reflect reality. Homosexual rights are now part of political discourse. People with Disabilities now can demand reasonable access to services and opportunities. Our youth are no longer drafted – a volunteer armed services in this country allows men and women the right to serve. Young men and women can now vote at the age of 18. Sometimes history is not so clear cut but in general, change comes with some pain and some disruption.
The year 2011 has seen so many disruptions to the status quo. All across the Maghreb changes have occurred because the youth were not satisfied with the prognostications of their futures. Our economic and European prognostications leave many young people anxious and fearful of their future. Their parents are in deep economic distress and our economic system rewards failure, political paralysis, and greed. We can only guess what will happen. I suspect repression will occur and yet ideas cannot and will not die. Positive actions may be the outcome of the Arab Spring and the Wall Street Autumn. Our youth want change and their ideas will not be suppressed.
Most of us believe in a strong separation of church and state. There are some, unfortunately, who feel their peculiar theological beliefs should be imposed on all of us. This is dangerous for believers of any sect. Religious beliefs are personal and private concerns. At the same time, all of us need to be sensitive to those who have strong beliefs in a superior authority. Strict separation of church and state does not preclude respect and reasonable accommodation for faith based beliefs provided these beliefs are not harmful to others. Sometimes, secularists forget that some of their ideas regarding religious expression can be intolerant. This nation needs an examination of how religious experience can be included in the civic life of the nation without rancor. Should prayers be said at the beginning of each session of Congress? Can religious organizations and institutions use religious symbols within their walls if they accept government funds? Can religious traditions be observed in public spaces such as parks or buildings as signs of tolerance and not coercion? This issue always reaches its summit when, at the end of the year, nativity scenes and Menorahs are displayed in public places. Are we a nation that can tolerate religious diversity or must we shut out any display of belief in a public setting?
It is unreasonable for a person accepting a position of civic authority to refuse a member of the public any civic right because of their peculiar religious belief. We understand there are county clerks who because of their religious or moral standards will not issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. This is not acceptable. The issuing of the license does not mean that the clerk’s religious beliefs are not important but that the civic nature of the same sex marriage is not the same as marriage blessed by her particular denomination. There is no state coercion of any religious group that same sex marriages must be conducted in their sanctuaries. There is no obligation for the Roman Catholic Church to accept women as clergy despite equal protection and rights under civic law for women. Religious tradition is not subject to civic interference under our law. At the same time, civic officials cannot impose their religious beliefs and preferences by denying civic rights to same sex couples.
As a result of restrictive and punitive immigration legislation in Alabama, Arizona and Georgia, representatives of the agricultural industry complain that they are finding it difficult to replace immigrant workers with American born workers. Industry spokespeople have said that this so called unskilled labor is in fact labor that requires peculiar skills and training that makes hiring local native born laborers difficult. Most Americans refuse to work under such conditions for such little remuneration in both good and difficult economic times. Our nation needs immigrant labor and a humane immigration policy that makes sense and meets standards worthy of a civilized nation. Harassment, poor working conditions, second class treatment for immigrant laborers, both documented and undocumented, are not the mark of a proud civilized people.
Our city police force is under considerable criticism for manipulating crime statistics, having possible unlawful and possibly unnecessary surveillance of Moslem communities and religious services, brutal treatment of prisoners, and racial profiling and abuse. Police were in force whenever OWS was demonstrating and in my opinion behaved for the most part admirably. I was at three demonstrations and yet it was my impression that the police were intimidating in their numbers and behavior. Our police are public servants not masters and there needs to be training and tack used when controlling a crowd of peaceful demonstrations so as not impede lawful public assembly. Our city fathers could have opened up our parks and provide some hygienic needs for the demonstrators. This would be a first step toward a genuine discussion of our common problems. Suppression and intimidation will not kill ideas or solve our nation’s dire economic, social, and moral needs.