Is America Great?

_dsc0061Some people think America is going to hell in a hand basket. Some people think America isn’t great anymore. Phooey, I say!

I think America is already great. It’s far from perfect, of course. And some things are pretty bad, such as our dysfunctional national politics. And the way we’ve allowed people of wealth to dominate politics and our economic policies.

We have work to do, and it’s gravely disappointing we’re not going about the business of getting things done. But that doesn’t mean America isn’t great.

Of course, it’s possible we’ll end up fiddling while Rome burns. But only if we continue to allow our emotions to be manipulated and override rational thought. I’m certainly not convinced that outcome is inevitable.

To be sure, we’re in a political mess right now, which is to be expected given the situation. The situation to which I’m referring is the technological transformation of society. We’ve moved (and are moving more deeply) into the digital technology age — a period of massive change and upheaval. We’ve yet to adapt fully, but it’s hard to believe we can’t adapt, given enough time and commitment.

Computerization has gutted much of our middle class. It’s taken from us a massive amount of solid working-class jobs. By way of example, a chemical plant in Kentucky for which I used to be responsible (when I was CEO of the company) today produces far more product than it did when the workforce was four times larger, all thanks to technology.

All across America computers and other technology have replaced human hands. This economic transformation has played out in nearly every industry, with rapid speed.

Now, we’re facing the prospect of even greater cannibalization of jobs. If and when driverless vehicles become a common reality, look out. Countless workers will be rendered redundant. But it’s just not vehicles. I suspect the prospect for technology replacing workers in other industries is limited only by our imagination.

It’s not that new jobs haven’t been created. They have. There are more programmers, developers, compute technicians and data analysts today than anyone could have imagined when I was your age, Vera. And undoubtedly jobs will be created before you’re an adult that don’t exist today. But there haven’t been enough. And many of the new jobs are low paying — they’re not high-paying STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math).

Layer on top of this the forces of globalization, the dismantling of trade barriers and the ascendancy of the financial sector in our economy and what you end up with are stagnant or falling wages and diminished economic prospects for many Americans. And growing inequity. And candidates like Donald Trump, a man who by nearly any measure is thoroughly unfit for the presidency and who wouldn’t have had a chance in normal times due to his fascist rhetoric, narcissism and other glaring flaws. But these aren’t normal times.

For the past decade I’ve lived with the fear we’d get to this point if we didn’t deal with the diminished prospects of those who have gotten the short end of the stick over the past 40 years. I just didn’t think we’d hit the wall this soon. I thought it might take a few more years. But here we are.

I don’t think these challenges are easy to address. Certainly, some of the so-called solutions advanced by Mr. Trump won’t work; in fact, I have no doubt they’d make things worse.

But neither will some of the stale neoliberal solutions advanced by his principal challenger work either (although at least they wouldn’t be as disastrous as some of the policies advanced by Mr. Trump).

It’s disappointing that our choice is between two aging, wildly ambitious, divisive Baby Boomers. I wish my generation would move on and allow the next generations some space and opportunity — a real shot at addressing some of these challenges. But we’re not a generation inclined to leave the stage quietly (or quickly).

Baby Boomer are doers. Ambitious and competitive. Self-absorbed. Over-confident. And we’re not built for retirement — at least not as it was envisioned by our parents’ generation. We’re more inclined to stay in the game, to keep swinging until our last breath. So it’s likely that society will be stuck with us until time takes its tool and claims more of us, rendering our generation an insignificant number and irrelevant political force.

Of course, it’s not merely a matter of allowing others to tackle the problems. These are tough challenges; there are no easy answers. But our problems aren’t insurmountable, provided we don’t stubbornly persist in our ideological, irrational and intensely selfish ways.

Those on the Right who seem intent on obstructionism have been fueled by a right-wing media that is motivated largely by self-interest and pecuniary gain and, further, have been funded by elite titans who have much to gain personally from the resulting divisiveness and anti-worker policies. These media tycoons and personalities and fat cats from industry and finance are some of the winners in this new era. The steel workers, miners, manufacturing workers and those without advanced degrees are some of the losers.

Most of the winners don’t give a damn about the losers. But I suppose that’s the way it’s always been. But what may be different this time is the degree to which some of the winners are playing those who are taking the brunt of the forces of change, using media and propaganda tools that weren’t available in earlier times to elicit emotional responses grounded in both fear and hope.

So the struggle continues. Much work awaits us. Whether we’ll be able to work through these challenges and obstacles in a productive, nonviolent way remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it’s important to be aware of our entire situation and not only our divisions and what seems to be a fatal trajectory. That’s one of the reasons I spend so much time in nature, Vera. Mother Earth never fails to make her point. She brings perspective. She provides assurance. She inspires with her glory, beauty and magnificence. She engenders hope.

If you ever feel America isn’t great, take a road trip. Hike into the Grand Canyon. Stand atop Pike’s Peak. Gaze in amazement at the herds of bison at Yellowstone. Walk through our Appalachian hardwood forests. Stand in silence at the foot of the Grand Teton.

But don’t stop there. Meet your fellow citizens — not only the ones who look like you and share your beliefs and station in life, but also the ones who work our fields, wait our tables, clean our rooms, enact our laws, build our roads and houses, care for our sick and make new discoveries.

Don’t allow yourself to spend your entire life in a protective cocoon with only like-minded and like-skinned people. Get to know Mother Earth and all her inhabitants.

Discern the forces of survival and creation among us. Listen for the heartbeat of the Spirit that binds us. Feel our shared aspirations.

If you do, I have no doubt you’ll agree: America is great. It can be better, to be sure, and if we work together, in humility and mutual respect, it will be better. But the work to be done doesn’t detract from the reality: the reality that we live in a place that is truly magnificent — great if you will.

If we fail to make the effort, if we allow destructive forces to undermine our values and shared commitment, then at least make sure you have done your part — at least ensure you can hold your head up high knowing that you were part of the solution and not part of the problem. Ensure your motives are good. Resist the force that has rendered many of our fellow citizens bitter, nasty and untethered from rationality.

Deep satisfaction comes from diligence and hard work. We cannot always control the outcome, but we have much to say about the effort.

As for politics, know that wisdom does not reside on one side or the other. Some of the policies of the Right are deeply misguided, as are some on the Left.

I have known elected officials on both sides of the aisle, and quite some time ago it became abundantly clear to me they have more in common than most people realize. All are motived by self-interest.

That doesn’t mean they’re worse people than the rest of us. Self-interest plays a major role in all of our lives. It always has and it always will. It’s how we managed to survive as a species.

Yet greed and self-interest do seem to be unconstrained today, particularly on the Right, which seems intent on vilifying and demonizing everyone who does not share their world view or opinions. Indeed, some on the Right seem intent on destroying our society, or at least taking it back to a time when the instrument of law was controlled by and for white men, with little or no regard for the rights of women, people of color, people of other religions or people born with sexual desires different from theirs.

It seems to me, Vera, that people, in the main, are either builders or destroyers. I hope you grow up to be a builder.

Two weeks ago your grandmother and I spent several days at Arches and Canyonlands National Park in Utah, which isn’t far from our home in Colorado. (By the way, southern Utah is a glorious place. Don’t miss it.)

We had been there before, but we hadn’t ever driven to Needles Overlook. It’s south of Moab, on the east side of Canyonlands. It’s not in the park; it’s on federal land owned by a different agency. But the views are to the west, north and south, over the park and other lands. It’s a panorama that defies description.

I hope, as a society, we can match the greatness of the land we inhabit. I hope the inequities, injustice and technological and economic changes that understandably and predictably have engendered anger, fear and feelings of disenchantment and despair don’t consume us. I hope the next generations spawn great leaders. I hope that, together, we dedicate ourselves to a fairer and more just and compassionate society and work hard to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of this new era.

In the meantime, I relish in the greatness of this land and the society that has been formed by its native people and the many immigrants who traveled far to create a better life for themselves and their families. We are a unique society, built on admirable democratic and just values and principles. But, of course, we should never forget that our country also was built on the backs of slave labor, war and unimaginable atrocities against native peoples and others.

But great doesn’t mean perfect, or even just. Rather, in this particular context, great means a glorious land and people who are willing to work, shoulder to shoulder, for the betterment of themselves, their families and all of humanity, without regard to ancestry or inherited title or wealth.

Great means a society that is built by doers possessing a can-do spirit, people who have forged a crucible of ideas and innovation.

Great means a society that allows creative juices to flow like a mighty river and that strives to bring out the best in each of us.

Great means a people who aspire to climb mountains and explore new frontiers, to see and experience new things, to learn and discover.

Great means a people who care for each other and, if the circumstances require it, risk their lives for each other.

I don’t think we need to make America great again. The America I know and love is already great. But I do think we need to work hard to ensure we don’t allow the flame of greatness to extinguish — the flame that was a beacon for many of our ancestors who traversed to this land of promise.

I will try to do my best, Vera, so that someday you, too, may be able to stand in awe at Needles Overlook and know that my generation did our part — that we carried the flame for the distance allotted to us, as the Olympic torch is carried from one runner to the next.

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