Events

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Labor Day Postscript

Just after I posted my little Labor Day piece, The Nation came out with a series of articles that fortuitously complemented the ones I cited, so I simply mention them here:

• John Nichols (echoing Paul Krugman), the "Right Response to Unemployment is More Stimulus Spending"

• Johsua Clover, "Busted: Stories of the Financial Crisis" ("The one thing that a thousand books written from within the financial crisis won't contemplate is the possibility of an unhappy ending for capitalism.")

• Katha Pollitt, "It's Better Over There" ("In Germany, a strong social safety net keeps people from plunging into the abyss. Why are we so averse to having that security in the United States?")

Here in Amherst, a local resident on the Town Meeting listserve cited the words of Robert Kennedy on our social crisis in 1968. He may well have pulled the excerpt from piece by Michael Moore and others who circulated it that weekend, but here's a longer passage, with a link to the full text from the Kennedy Library:
And if we seem powerless to stop this growing division between Americans, who at least confront one another, there are millions more living in the hidden places, whose names and faces are completely unknown - but I have seen these other Americans - I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future. I have seen children in Mississippi - here in the United States - with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars - I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed, I don't think that's acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.
I have seen Indians living on their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide. . . . .
I don't think that's acceptable and I think the United States of America - I think the American people, I think we can do much, much better. And I run for the presidency because of that, I run for the presidency because I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines are closed and their jobs are gone and no one - neither industry, nor labor, nor government - has cared enough to help.
I think we here in this country, with the unselfish spirit that exists in the United States of America, I think we can do better here also.
I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms - without heat - warding off the cold and warding off the rats.
If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.
And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
In the meantime, we heard that percentage of Americans living in poverty (one in seven people, or some 44 million individuals) is now the highest in fifteen years.  The critical social and political thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may not have had all the answers for all time, but at least they understood that there was a problem.

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