Sunday, September 27, 2009

Running Us Down

Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever."
Michael to Fredo

"For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.”- President Obama in his address to the United Nations

"What's the difference between a caucus and a cactus? On a cactus, all the pricks are on the outside."- Lyndon Baines Johnson

Who knew that America became a nation of great character only 9 months ago? I must have missed the memo, or email.

Fighting and helping to end World Wars, rebuilding war-torn nations, including our former enemies, protecting all of Western Europe from Soviet invasion, and providing billions of dollars and goods in humanitarian aid to nations around the world all must have happened in the last 9 months.

Remember when John Kennedy spoke in Berlin and repeatedly criticized American actions before he became President? I don't remember it either.

Never before have we had a president who when speaking on foreign soil or to a foreign audience, has this compulsion to denigrate American history and actions that took place prior to his taking the oath of office.

And he does it to try to gain credibility with the non-credible. With two-bit dictators and nations who don't hold a candle to the courage, valor and charity America has exhibited to the world.

Anyway, if you need a refresher on the unique goodness of America, check out this brilliant essay, written by Pete Hamill at the end of the 20th Century:

America: The Place Where Dreams Still Do Come True

When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, I could see from our tenement window the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of Manhattan. They were there in all seasons, the statue like a green toy cemented into the harbor, the skyline a great cluster of spires aimed at the sky. In our neighborhood of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants, they represented America itself. Frederic Bartholdi’s glorious statue stood as a permanent sign of welcome, a promise of freedom. The skyline symbolized all the soaring possibilities of that freedom. They weren’t symbols of New York; they stood for America itself.

Those symbols, made visible and concrete by the efforts of human beings, were not lies. The first said that here, in these United States, men and women were free of the ancient curses of class, iron tradition, religious division. An Irish Catholic from bigoted Belfast, a Jew from some forlorn and isolated Russian shtetl, an Italian from the eroded wastes of the Mezzogiorno: all were free. Each was the political equal of the richest man in the country, able to cast a vote in free elections, possessed of rights guaranteed on paper in the Constitution of the United States. Here, no man or woman would ever genuflect before a king. Here, no child would shiver in fear during the terrors of a pogrom. Here, no feudal don would exercise arbitrary powers of life and death. Not here. Not ever. This was America. Here you could imagine a glorious future. Here, dreams really did come true.

The skyline, of course, was an accidental monument. It had no master planner. Each building was the product of specific need and individual will, the foundations driven into the granite of lower Manhattan by men of flesh and blood. Some were ruthless. Some were greedy. Some were corrupt. But they put buildings into the world that were not there before, and those buildings became parts of that skyline. For some Americans, in all parts of the country, that skyline could be viewed with bitterness, even hatred, as a symbol of Wall Street and arrogant bankers and a rapacious capitalism. Around the world, it was often viewed with contempt or fear.

But for many of us growing up after the war, and for millions in other nations, that skyline was a challenge. Yes, it said, this is a free country: but what are you going to do with that freedom? Here before you, gleaming in the sun, is what some Americans did with theirs. This accidental monument, the skyline of New York, is proof that if men and women work hard, acquire tools through education, and dream large dreams, they can challenge the sky itself. That skyline was the second thing that most immigrants saw when they sailed past the Statue of Liberty to begin their American lives. They came up from the dark holds of steerage, blinking in the sunshine, and there was the immense statue to the left, while before them lay the clustered spires of that skyline. It remains for many of them, and for millions of their children, a symbol of an invincible American optimism.


To be sure, that optimism has been sorely tested since the end of World War Two. It was tested by persistent racism. It was tested by recurrent economic recessions. It was tested by Korea, and more ferociously, by the long agony of Vietnam. Assassinations, riots, tanks rumbling through American cities: all assaulted optimism. A more severe, long-lasting test came with the great changes in American manufacturing. The small factories that gave employment to people like my immigrant father, with his eighth grade education, began to vanish. Migrants from the American South – abandoning their own home places because of a combination of agricultural automation and racism – began arriving in American cities at the very moment that the factories were closing. Welfare too often replaced work; in New York, the number of welfare cases rose from about 150,000 in 1955 to more than a million at the end of the 1980s. Children were born, grew up and went to school without ever knowing anyone who had worked. Too many men abandoned their children. Too many children had children. The twinned plagues of drugs and guns fueled a crazed escalation of the crime rate. There was a time when it seemed that only a fool could embrace that old optimism.

And yet that optimism persisted among many Americans. If the public school system appeared to be a shambles, there were still school teachers who stubbornly and valiantly insisted on teaching poor children to read. There were brave women who held together their families even after their men had vanished in the wind. They are still doing it. Last year, I spent three hours with a group of adults from the Hospital Workers Union. Most were African-Americans, Hispanics, and immigrants. They were working for their General Educational Development (G.E.D.) high school equivalency diplomas and as part of their curriculum had studied a novel I had written. At the end of the session, a handsome black woman came to me with two copies of my book to be autographed. “One for me,” she said, “and one for my son.” She paused. “Write something nice to him,” said this woman struggling towards her high school diploma. “In September, he’s going to Harvard.”

God, I thought: this is an amazing country. Who could meet such a woman and not believe in possibility? That small moment, with its understated pride, might have happened somewhere else, in another country or another society. I doubt it. This remains the country where it is truly never over ‘til it’s over. The trouble is that in dark times, we often see only one or two versions of our society, and that is always a mistake. If we have learned anything in this half-century it is that we are not a simple people. We make up a dense, layered, complicated society. And even during bleak times, there remain people among us who see a future that will be better. Since the mid-19th century, that optimism has been sneered at by touring European intellectuals, from Charles Dickens to Jean-Paul Sartre. Optimism is somehow proof of American innocence, our permanent adolescence. But for all our mistakes, all our follies foreign and domestic, we did not produce a Hitler or a Stalin. Their evil was rooted in despair, a loss of faith in all human decency. Americans never surrendered to such wormy cynicism.

Our optimism was not empty oratory either. We actually did things that opened the doors to all. Our public school system was one of the greatest of all our accomplishments. Not only was it open to all, but all children were required to attend until they were sixteen. Pushed by liberal reformers and muck-raking journalists, we abolished child labor. We said that no American child would be forced to work in coal mines or sweatshops or cotton fields. In spite of killings and teargas attacks and too many broken heads, we established the principle of free trade unions. They were good for workers and they were good for bosses. They allowed working men and women to go to work with their heads held high. The corruptions that later followed, the abuses by pampered union leaders, the infiltration of honest unions by the non-working hoodlums of the Mob were crimes against workers. But they did not invalidate the essential idea of free men and women banding together to make wage labor itself more honorable. Men and women who are decently paid, who work in safe places, who are treated as valuable human beings are always more productive. The men who ran large enterprises after World War Two understood this and in the end built their great companies with such considerations in mind. I’ve yet to meet a successful businessman who treats his employees with contempt.

But this country also made certain that such advances were encoded in the law. That is, we set up some rules for living together. The most important of those laws involved civil rights. The laws were passed in the mid-1960s and finished off the last vestiges of legal segregation. Only a blind man could insist that they made no difference to the lives of African-Americans. The proof is in the politics of the South and in many Northern cities. The proof is in the expanding black middle class. The proof is in the front offices of American corporations. Race remains a vexing problem in our lives, but if you were there, as I was, when Jack Roosevelt Robinson first came to play at Ebbets Field in 1947, you know that progress has been steady and inspiring. Who in those hard years could have envisioned a day when white folks would weep alongside black folks at the retirement of a black man named Michael Jordan? I’ll tell you who could have imagined such a day: black people who loved America and believed in its essential goodness.

For me, there was another piece of social legislation that was just as important: the G.I. Bill of Rights. Millions of Americans, of all races, had their lives changed forever by the G.I. Bill, which guaranteed an education for those who had fought and survived a great war. For the first time in our history, the gates of academia were opened to men and women from every conceivable background. The rigidities of class crumbled. Children of longshoremen, mechanics and factory workers walked into the classrooms of the Ivy League. The children of policemen became lawyers. Infantrymen became professors of literature. Men and women who spoke Italian or Yiddish at home with their immigrant parents absorbed the elegant theories of quantum theory or semiotics or symbolic logic. When I was going to college on the Korean War version of the G.I. Bill, there were still a few students using their benefits from World War Two. They were intense, serious (but not solemn) men. I remember asking one of them if he felt intimidated by a philosophy course he was taking. “Intimidated?” he said, with a thin smile. “Hell, no. I was in the Battle of the Bulge.”

Such men and women unleashed the intellectual and artistic power of the United States. Many of them were the first people in the histories of their families to attend a university. To them, it was no small thing. When they took their diplomas, their parents often wept, and so did they. The struggles of life in America seemed justified at last. And all of us saw the country change. One small example from my own time in America. When I was a boy, every candy store in Brooklyn was run by Jews, many of them immigrants. They sold newspapers, comic books, pulp magazines. They sold candy and cigarettes and cheap cigars. Often they lived in cramped rooms in the rear of the stores. They bought one pair of shoes a year. They didn’t own automobiles and came late to television. They scrimped and saved and bought books for their children, and they made all these sacrifices so that their children would not run candy stores and live “in the back.” Those children went to high school and studied hard. When the draft board called, they went to the Army. They went on to the universities where a generation earlier Jews were restricted by quotas. Today, there are almost no Jewish candy stores in Brooklyn and the reason is simple: those men and women, filled with dreams for their children, succeeded. No: triumphed. Today their children are lawyers and judges, doctors and educators, businessmen and journalists. You cannot tell them that America did not keep its promises.

The G.I. Bill also created the American suburb. Better education led to better jobs. Good jobs combined with low Veterans’ Administration mortgages to make it possible for people raised in dreadful slums to live among lawns and trees and safety. The veterans helped drive the economy, buying cars, TV sets, furniture, and, of course, formed families. In a crucial way, the baby boomers are the children of the G.I. Bill. All was not perfect, of course; there were special tensions in the suburbs, not the least of which was an abiding nostalgia for what had been left behind. That nostalgia was, in a peculiar way, a longing for the austerities of hard times. And it affected many families.. In the 1960s, the famous “generation gap” basically described the differences between those who had been scarred by the Depression and the war and those who had not. For one generation, a college education was a momentous experience; for too many of their children, it was a casual thing, taken for granted. But even that division was eventually healed. Most baby-boomers have now lived long enough to understand and honor the struggles of their parents and grandparents and even to stand in awe of their tenacity.

The civil rights laws and the G.I. Bill were themselves expressions of the American belief in the future. The theory behind them was an optimistic vision. It insisted that once you tore down the artificial barriers of class and race there would be an immense release of creative human energy. The theory proved right.


In the end, this remains a country where dreams can come true. The Americans in this issue of Fortune are only a small sampling of the human evidence. They remind us of what can still be accomplished through a combination of work, optimism and tenacity. It didn’t matter to these Americans where they had started; they had dreams of the future and refused to surrender to pessimism. Each had a vision. Each looked clear-eyed at the country where they lived and tried to understand what that country needed. Each survived disappointment. Each seemed to understand that it didn’t matter if you got knocked down; the crucial question was whether you’d get up.

That lesson was passed to many Americans by the people who got us here. They were amazing human beings, who came here with virtually nothing. This one carried a stone from a stream in Donegal. That one had a small bag of earth from Calabria. The other carried a samovar from Russia. Most of them were young. Most of them were physically small, stunted by diet, even hunger. But they were giants. And the most precious thing they carried with them was the dream of America.

That dream is alive and well. It dominates the lives and careers of the Americans in this issue. It’s present among the New Immigrants who work outside my door in downtown Manhattan. I live in a loft, on a street crowded with small shops. Those shops are run by Koreans, Indians, Mexicans, Pakistanis, and Vietnamese. They have passed through the first stage of the entrepreneurial immigrant tradition: working for others. Now they are in the second stage: working for themselves. Some have even reached the third stage, where others work for them. They have no plans to go back where they came from, except for an occasional visit. When I go out in the morning for my newspaper, the man who runs the India Bazaar handbag store always smiles. When he leaves for home at eight o’clock at night, he is still smiling, although wearily. “Good morning, America!” he exclaimed one April morning. And I wished more Americans loved this country as much as he does.

Those shopkeepers are not the only handy examples of optimism and tenacity. There are two schools near my building and each morning I see their students rise from the subway, with bookbags strapped to their backs. One school is Manhattan Community College, where most of the students are black, Latino or the children of New Immigrants. The other is Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s elite public high schools, its students admitted after rigorous competitive examinations. About 52 per cent of the Stuyvesant students are now Asian-Americans. I talk to some of these young people from time to time. Not one – from either institution -- has ever said that he or she believed the deck was stacked against them. The young men and women I’ve met from the community college all plan to go on to four-year colleges, and become doctors, lawyers, or business people. The high school students talk about science, the distant frontiers of space, the arts, and even literature (the writer Frank McCourt taught at Stuyvesant for many years and his example is a vivid one). All are computer literate. All are looking optimistically towards the 21st century.

They are, in short, Americans. They believe in the grand dream of tomorrow and there are people like them all over the country. Instead of wailing about grievances, history, and psychic injuries, they are doing something concrete about realizing their dreams. They are acquiring intellectual tools. With the Cold War over, crime rates dropping, and the economy healthy, they are young in a fortunate time. They have one other big thing going for them: they are living in the right country. Since they are young, they might see the Statue of Liberty as a sentimental cliché. They might feel no challenge from the presence of that skyline. But on every morning when they arise, heading for the places where dreams might possibly come true, they are honoring all the improbable dreamers who came before them.

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