What happened to promise of America?
BY BARRY FRIEDMAN
Saturday, May 26, 2012
5/26/12 at 3:30 AM
There they were, on their knees on the Supreme Court steps back in March, praying to overturn the Affordable Care Act (and if you're calling it Obamacare, stop - it was approved by a majority in Congress), asking for divine intervention so insurance companies could once again indiscriminately drop coverage on diabetic 6-year-olds.
Closer to home, legislators considered tax cuts, while Oklahoma classrooms fill up like Chuck E. Cheese on a Saturday afternoon. It's an odd world, where senior citizens who would otherwise be dead without Medicare carry signs that read "Keep government out of my medicine cabinet" and where those making $50,000 per year and are three paychecks away from their own tent at Occupy Tulsa but 300 away from being invited to Hilton Head for a meet-and-greet with the Koch Brothers, argue against Dodd-Frank.
If this is class warfare, it's headed in the wrong direction.
So what happened to us?
Maybe to understand what went wrong in America, we should remember what went right. For more than 100 years there was a promise of the common good, a common wealth - not of money but of America itself.
To find it, maybe you have to go back to when those grandparents and great uncles and aunts walked across Poland to get to a place where they could get on a boat and arrive at Ellis Island with the proverbial dime in their pockets, when people got off subways with their lunch in a bag and went to the City University of New York for free.
When the Works Progress Administration hired mathematicians and poets to teach in the hinterland. When millions took advantage of the GI Bill and bought homes in the suburbs and raised six kids in three-bedroom homes. When interstate highways made it possible to earn a living driving a truck and get to a cousin who had a stroke before she died.
When Pell Grants and food stamps made it possible for medical students to order in pizza and study nephrology in the wee hours of the night, when Social Security allowed cab drivers who had worked for 40 years, 11 hours a day, six days a week to retire to Boca Raton and drive around in blue Volkswagens.
My family, my life, was based in New York, but you didn't have to climb up from steerage to see the Statue of Liberty at daybreak, as my grandparents did, to be a part of America. It was found in Tennessee Williams' New Orleans, Baxter Black's New Mexico, Joan Didion's California, and Billie and Tracy Letts' Oklahoma. My grandparents, who bought that '69 Volkswagen Beetle in their 60s, their first car, probably would have loved Branson as much as they loved Coney Island.
America was our shared DNA.
Here was the deal: Through their tax dollars, those who took the train from Queens into Manhattan helped pay for the tornado sirens in Poteau, while those in Poteau subsidized subway fares.
It wasn't perfect, it wasn't always efficient - societies don't have to be - but it worked.
This nation, in fact, subsidized all our lives - from free or reduced college tuition, to the hiring of a government meat inspector who discovered a mad cow in the middle of Nebraska three days before our children went to McDonald's for a Big Mac, to the traffic lights in Chelsea, to the pacemaker in your grandmother's or my father's chest.
It was an enormous investment the country made in us, we made in ourselves, we made in each other, even though none of it - NONE OF IT - made a profit.
Maybe, while praying for the America we want, we can remember the America we had.
Barry Friedman, Tulsa, is a columnist; author of two books, "Road Comic" and "Funny You Should Mention It"; does commentary for Public Radio Tulsa (89.5), and is a standup comedian.
Barry Friedman: Maybe, while praying for the America we want, we can remember the America we had.