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Living in Infamy

It’s getting hard to find people who can tell you where they were and what they were doing seventy years ago on December 7, 1941.  High school students in 1941 are now in their mid-eighties; it won’t be long before we are noting the death of the last survivor of Pearl Harbor.  For my generation the question was, “What were you doing the day President Kennedy was shot?”  For my sons the question is, “What were you doing on 9/11?”

These iconic moments have a way of shaping and, occasionally, distorting memory.  But they can also serve as a mental snapshot of the state of our society at key moments in history.  The day that would “live in infamy” ushered in a period of unparalleled national resolve.  A nation struggling with years of financial suffering found itself unified around a common purpose that required sacrifice by all.  The daughters and sons of the rich and the privileged joined the sons and daughters of immigrants and the unemployed in a shared effort to defend freedom and stem the advance of brutal, totalitarian regimes.  Rationing became a way of life for all, not just some.  Women left traditional roles to risk their lives near the front or to help fuel the enormous industrial effort that arguably won the war.  Even the barriers of race began to crumble, too slowly to be sure, but inexorably. The forced internment of Japanese citizens indeed represents an enormous moral failure of this period.  But to visit the cemeteries at Normandy or in countless other places around the globe and to read the names on the rows of white markers is to be confronted with a poignant but vivid reminder of a national effort that transcended class and religion, race and ethnicity.

I find it both instructive and disturbing to contrast that experience with the decade that has followed our more recent iconic historical event.  September 11 ushered in its own wars, though these were wars of dubious and duplicitous choice rather than urgent necessity.  And while some of our young men and women have gone off to battle, the vast majority has stayed home where none of us have been asked to sacrifice much of anything.  Ten years later we, too, are facing an economic crisis comparable in many ways in depth and reach to the Great Depression.  But this time the impact is less of a leveling experience than one revealing growing and profound inequities that are rapidly destroying any sense of the commonwealth.  Unlike the unifying experience of a common cause that dominated the years following Pearl Harbor, it would be hard to imagine a more fractious political and social environment where cynicism has displaced courage, the great public debates of our political process look more like vaudeville shows, and the proud marble monuments of our nation’s capital have become whited sepulchers, symbols of our nation’s physical decay and moral decrepitude rather than its grand legacy.

Where will we discover the leadership that can help to lift us above the current morass?  The buffoonery of the Republican primary season offers little hope as it clings to the fantasy of American exceptionalism in the face of global problems requiring global solutions.  And the President has only recently seemed to recognize that the very real constraints of political life today aren’t overcome simply by a politically safe posture of passive facilitation of partisan policy debates.  It is true that we don’t have the urgency of aggressive, totalitarian war machines to engender a sense of national resolve.  But who can argue that the dangers of poverty – domestic and global – or of global warming, or of our deteriorating infrastructure or educational system are not of sufficient urgency to summon us beyond self-interest and greed to serve the common good?

A better memory of 1941 might suggest that it was not just a strong president, but the people themselves, who summoned us to high resolve.  And isn’t that what ought to be the case in a democracy?  We have looked for leaders to rescue us from ourselves and inevitably we have been disappointed.  Seventy years ago most Americans stepped forward to lead and to follow in order to “provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare.”  Today when the Constitution is mentioned it is more often for the sake of partisan battles challenging the separation of church and state, women’s freedom of choice, or efforts to reduce the gun violence in our cities and towns.  It is hard not to feel that We the People has become a much smaller and meaner community than it was seventy years ago.

Today at Pearl Harbor elderly veterans will remember the horrific events they witnessed that nonetheless ushered in a time of shared national enterprise.  Today in Chicago former governor Rod Blagoyevich will be sentenced for corruption while in New York Donald Trump plays powerbroker in the Republican presidential race.  Rather than remembering “a day that will live in infamy,” we seem to be living in infamy.  And we only have ourselves to blame.

John H. Thomas

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