I read a couple of columns recently that jarred me. I’m not always in accord with all she says, but I’ve found her to be a rational progressive. She’s the sort of person about whom one can always say “Her heart’s in the right place,” even when one feels her mind may have skipped out for a bit. On this occasion she extolled the wonders of modern China. It reminded me of another writer, Lincoln Steffens, who wrote similarly about the Soviet Union. His most famous quote is “I have seen the future, and it works.” I thought about Mr. Steffens’ bright-eyed myopia, and wondered if the China columnist ever read any history. Just as no one can deny China’s accomplishments. no thinking person can look at them and not wonder at the tyranny responsible for it. All that accomplishment came from the sweat and blood of people with no voice in any election, no right to assemble, no right to protest working conditions and near-universal corruption, and God help the man who tries to exercise free speech – assuming that man has government permission to believe in God. The column glowed with reference to China’s high-speed trains. Airports were orderly; the restrooms were clean. I lament America’s rush to third-world status when it comes to our denial of the fact we have an infrastructure that crumbles a bit more every day. My contempt for our own politicians is already beyond measure, yet they manage to increasingly disgust me in ever-new ways. But is the lockstep mass we call China any sort of role model?
Actually, that question is the heart of my disappointment about the newspaper column. I’m not worried about China. It’s huge and belligerent and malevolent; it’ll cause massive agony before its own excesses bring it down. That’s how it went for Mr. Steffens’ glorious empire. It’ll happen again. My concern is that we’ll forget who we are. We’ve appointed ourselves as the doctor to the world, here to cure everyone’s problems. In the meantime, we’ve seen our own middle class – which was the crown of America’s achievement – ground to dust. We elect fools who’re so intellectually stunted they can’t spell USA, much less care about it. On top of that, they’re lap pets for the creepiest oligarchs since Rome went aground. The working stiff who goes to work, does his best, raises a family, has no more chance today than a buffalo did before Teddy Roosevelt came along. The really ironic thing about that is, yeah, Roosevelt saved the buffalo; he also broke the trusts that were bent on turning the American working man into a cipher like today’s average Chinese. So it bothers me when someone even hints that a tyranny has lessons for us. We’re a nation in trouble. If we’re going to deal with it properly, we ought to look at ourselves and figure out how we skidded into the ditch while we were riding off into our future. We need to work on America’s problems. Let the rest of the world work on theirs. We don’t need any Maos or Stalins or Cromwells. We need us, plain old us – voters, volunteers, contributors, neighbors. I believe “Americans” is the word I’m looking for here. Don’t tell me immigrants are destroying America. We’re all immigrants. The new guys didn’t come here to package up your job and ship it overseas. The guy – or woman – you voted for set that up. Don’t tell me Republicans are stupid. Don’t tell me Democrats are stupid. Just get off your whiny butt and help someone make things better. You’re not going to change the world, but instead of moaning about setting suns and such, you can certainly ask yourself at the end of a day “Did I take a minute to live outside myself today?” and, if you don’t have a good answer, try harder tomorrow.