"There is something about too much prosperity that ruins the fiber of the people."
-- Diplomat Dwight Morrow
In 1933, the president awoke to the news that the United States banking system had collapsed. Unemployment had reached 25 percent. Hourly wages nose-dived 60 percent. Distraught dairy farmers blockaded highways in order to dump hundreds of gallons of milk in a vain effort to drive up milk prices.
"They say blockading the highway's illegal," said one Iowa farmer. "I say, 'Seems to me there was a Tea Party in Boston that was illegal too.' "
2010 endured Tea Party rage, road rage, air rage, cell phone rage, even McNugget rage when a woman in Ohio attacked a worker at McDonald's after being told that the chicken chunks were not on the breakfast menu.
During the '30s, our grandparents and great-grandparents suffered lost jobs, houses, farms, and incredible poverty without the benefit of credit cards, bailouts and stimulus, and they managed to live through a Great Depression with grit and resolve.
Many of today's citizenry however, have become a whiny group of rage-a-holics.
It took six long years for the gross national product to climb to 60 percent over the dark days of 1933. When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4 of that year, the country was in a death grip of fear. People wanted their jobs back, their farms back. They just wanted their lives back.
"I'd like my life back," said former CEO Tony Hayward regarding BP's efforts to stop the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Little did Hayward realize that he was crystallizing exactly what many Americans felt. They just want their lives to return to the unrestrained prosperity of the 80s and 90s.
"As bad as it is today," said Treasury official Neel Kashkari, "it could have been so much worse." At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, Kashkari served under Secretary Hank Paulson and was given the unenviable task of delivering the bad news as well as a plan to fix it to President George W. Bush.
"If the financial system had collapsed," Kashkari said in a New York Times interview, "businesses on Wall Street and Main Street alike "wouldn't have been able to access funds to pay their employees, who then wouldn't have money to pay their bills. It would have cascaded through our economy."
2010 has taken a shellacking in poor judgment and bad behavior. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez calls comedian Jon Stewart a bigot, then digs the hole deeper by announcing that all network heads are like Stewart. Blogging "journalist" Andrew Breitbart's wildly misleading viral video takes Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod's speech out of context and wrongly paints her as a bigot. Worse still, Ag. Secretary Tom Vilsack fires Sherrod before checking the facts.
Then there was Florida Pastor Terry Jones who advertised Burn a Koran Day. Thankfully, he was talked out of it but only after intervention by White House, Pentagon and Vatican officials. JetBlue attendant Steven Slater who, after an incredible lapse of bad behavior becomes, of all things, a hero for stressed out employees. WikiLeaks Founder and Firestarter Julian Assange became another kind of "hero" by dumping hundreds of thousands of classified documents on his website without any thought to who might be harmed. And Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was fined a mere $50,000 "for not cooperating" in an investigation looking into allegations of sending lewd photos to a young woman. Anyone else would have been fired.
Then there was -- is -- that vuvuzela of populist rage known as (depending on where you live) Tea Party Nation, Express, Patriots, or The 1776 Tea Party, supported and/or co-opted by the likes of Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, Christine O'Donnell, Sarah Palin and my favorite demagogue of the year, Glenn Beck, who says thing like, "I haven't seen Jesus and what he would do on a talk show on Fox, but I'm going to try." (April 21)
Aren't you glad you have cable?
I'm not suggesting that all of what the Tea Party has wrought has been bad for the country. They've effectively put Washington on notice: Shape up or we'll ship you out!
However, during the past year, the country has been in a death grip of deep cynicism. On Christmas Eve no less, the political cartoon Pepper and Salt showed Santa on the couch with his analyst: "The question is not whether people believe in you," the shrink tells the morose icon, "but rather, do you believe in yourself?"
Maybe we need is a big dose of Tony Robbins. "Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives."
We know how to build, how to innovate, how to pull ourselves up and start over again. Our grandparents did it in the face of a Great Depression. Our mothers and fathers did it during World War II. Sadly, many Boomers today lack the right stuff. We have become A.D.D. texting-FaceBook-Twitter and medication addicted. We have Cialis for E.D., ergo we want, we expect the same with our economy, jobs, housing... you fill in the blank.
However, the reality is this: It took years for us to get into the current economic mess and it will take years to find our way out plus determination and a whole lot of hard choices.
"Even though I knew locating us would be like finding a needle in a haystack," trapped Chilean miner Luis Urzua said, "I never lost hope that help would arrive."
It took 17 days just to find them, and 53 more to finally rescue all 32 trapped miners. What made the difference for the trapped men - faith and leadership.
"We made sure it was one for all and all for one down there," Urzua said.
That's the attitude more of us need to embrace if we're ever going to pull ourselves up and start over.
One example comes in a message from vascular surgeon and Viet Nam vet John Baldwin. After checking in to see how he was doing after back surgery, he wrote back, "I'm just lovin' being semi-pain free and alive in a beautiful world. I have found that divorcing myself from things I cannot control like Democrats, Republicans, TSA searches, deficits and murders of children, and just focusing on Jeannie [his wife and nurse extraordinaire], grandkids and my six-month old kitten has made me a fun person again. It took this illness and pain to appreciate the blue sky and my wife, more than ever!"
Results from a Gallup Student Poll taken last August in grades 5-12 found that "53 percent of students are hopeful, 63 percent are engaged and 70 percent are thriving."
It's that kind of hope and engagement that the rest of us need to embody.
"If we hope to reestablish our strength, confidence, and balance as a nation," Mario Cuomo writes in Reason to Believe, "we need to help one another see that our self-interest is not identical with our selfish interests, that self-interest is inextricably linked to the common good. We need to understand that apart from the morality of recognizing an obligation to our brothers and sisters, common sense by itself should teach us that we are all in this thing together, interconnected and interdependent."
Can I have an Amen?
Jim Lichtman has been writing and speaking on ethics since 1995. His commentaries can be found at www.ethicsStupid.com.