Wednesday, January 10, 2001
is not a 4-letter word
Two commentaries caught my attention recently: one by Washington Post political reporter David Broder, the other by Gordon Sinclair, a Canadian television commentator, quoted in the Congressional Record.
They got me to thinking about the United States of America, its federal government, and how differently some of us view it. You may have seen Sinclair's remarks, widely circulated on-line, in defense of Canada's neighbor to the south that would be us as being "the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people on all the earth."
He credits us, correctly, with lifting Europe and Japan out of the wreckage of a war we didn't start and didn't ask for, and claims that they have been ungrateful. We propped up France's economy, he says, and received insults for it. And although Americans have raced to the scene of disasters worldwide with tools, money and willing hands, he says outside help was never offered to America, not even after the San Francisco earthquake.
When 59 American communities were ravaged by tornadoes last spring, nobody else cared, according to Sinclair.
I'm not at all sure he is right. Not expecting to need them, I did not keep news reports of the earthquake or other U.S. disasters, but I am positive I read that foreign governments offered or sent aid. I definitely remember thinking how odd it was to be on the receiving end when hurricane Hugo wiped much of southern Florida off the map, although I confess I don't recall the source of aid.
And no perceptive traveler can fail to be touched by the expressions of gratitude that literally dot the landscape of England, Belgium and the Netherlands, crediting the United States with coming to their aid at great sacrifice to herself during WWII. Marker after marker uses words like, "In undying gratitude..." and "We will never forget..."
Most French people like most American people when treated as friends and not with the hostility we seem to reserve for the French. Even Germans, while less given to public expressions, appreciate what we did with the Marshall Plan. What conquering nation in history ever gave so much aid to rebuild a defeated enemy?
I may be stretching an analogy here, but what if Evander Holyfield's home burned down? Is it likely that the citizens of Fayette County would initiate a furniture drive or take up a collection to help him rebuild? I don't think so. Holyfield is seen as having greater resources than most of his neighbors and perfectly capable of solving his own problems, no matter how devastating.
Now as to that favorite target of conservatives, the federal government: Americans tend to be as ungrateful toward their own government as writers like Sinclair claim other nations have been. I grew up understanding several principles about government:
That it existed to do for the people what the people cannot do for themselves;
That Government R Us;
And that we ought to pay taxes ungrudgingly, whether or not we get what we consider our fair share back. It's very nice to talk of the private sector and the faith community stepping in to provide for the general populace, but it's not realistic. Imagine, for example, General Motors saying, "Since we earn our profits by building cars, and cars need roads to run on, we'll be glad to build an interstate highway system."
Or the two churches with the most extensive school systems in the country Catholics and Missouri Synod Lutherans saying, "Why, of course we'll expand our facilities to make an equal and nondenominational education available to every American child. Just make available to us the school taxes they used to pay to local government."
Or nonprofits to pool their resources to fund space exploration or Medicare or medical research. I grant you I'm biased to favor federal spending on research because of one huge incident in our lives, our experience with the National Institutes of Health when our teen-age daughter was diagnosed with Wing's sarcoma. She did not survive.
Only now, a quarter century later, has significant progress begun saving lives from that rare cancer. But once she was accepted into their program, from the moment we got her to Bethesda, the staggering expenses of her part in the study were covered in full. And believe me, she was never merely a laboratory case or a serial number. The care she received went far beyond caring.
Broder, in a column appearing in the AJC two weeks ago, said that when the noted think-tank Brookings Institution charged historians and political scientists with listing major government successes since mid-century, three of the top five were in the area of civil rights: expanding voting rights, reducing employment discrimination and promoting equal access to public accommodations.
First on the list was the Marshall Plan and fourth was reducing disease through immunization programs and the development of the NIH.
Others include winning the Cold War, environmental protection, Medicare and welfare reform. I won't reprise the whole list, but highway and air safety are on there, as well as food, water and pharmaceutical safeguards.
No, government does not do it well or efficiently every time; neither does the private sector (see Tires, Firestone). But government tackles "some of the most important and difficult challenges facing this society and scores some notable successes," Broder says. "We can celebrate some of the governmental successes we are far too prone to take for granted."
If you want to feel proud of your country, look up www.brook.edu and click on "Government's 50 Greatest Endeavors."