Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what you can do for yourself. It is both sad and ironic that in a time of steady and fervent patriotism we seem to care so little for our republic. Our national motto could well be, "You deserve what you get, and you get what you deserve."
The insidious trend started with the faux-rugged individualism of Ronald Reagan. Reagan spoke of American exceptionalism with spiritual reverence, evoking deep feelings among his conservative brethren, which still resonate today. Reagan conservatism, tinged with libertarianism, became a philosophical surrogate for national pride. But it is this same conservative philosophy that has rendered our republic scarcely recognizable.
The record is unambiguous. Delayed slightly, but hardly reversed by the Clinton presidency, self-interest has become a virtue and personal sacrifice for the greater good is an endangered concept. The gap between rich and poor is greater and more debilitating than at any time in modern history. Many estimates place the real un- or under-employment rate above 20%, nearing 30% among young black males.
Nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance. All over America school budgets are being slashed. State and local governments are making draconian cuts to health and human services. Medicare and Social Security, two programs that once exemplified America's commitment to a social contract, are under constant attack by offspring of the Reagan revolution, who relentlessly seek to eviscerate the federal government. Our tax rates, a reliable if imperfect barometer of our commitment to each other, are lower than any other progressive, developed nation on Earth.
Corporate profits are soaring, yet businesses are cutting wages and benefits to remain "lean and competitive." Multinational behemoths take profits and tax dollars to offshore shelters and cowardly legislators bow before their lobbying clout and economic threats. Wall Street investment banks ripped off America a mere three years ago, were bailed out by all of us, and have gleefully returned to their old ways.
Reversing the social progress of several decades, communities and schools are becoming re-segregated at an alarming rate. Anti-immigrant hostility is rising. Gun ownership goes up, reasonable regulations go down.
Extremely wealthy folks have a near stranglehold on American policy. Bill Gates and Eli Broad provide hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at privatizing education through the proliferation of charter schools and online programs (hmmm, who benefits from that?). The notorious Koch brothers support a network of conservative advocacy groups that drive sensible, sustainable energy policy down and drive their own dirty profits up. The pharmaceutical industry hamstrung efforts at real health care reform, leaving us with the watered-down "Obamacare" that the Republicans in their thrall are now trying to completely dismantle.
With global warming accelerating beyond even the most dire predictions of several years ago, our idea of bold infrastructure investment is to build more highways for more cars and open up more precious land to oil exploration. It is not exaggeration to observe that global warming is a great boon to the oil and gas profiteers, as vast amounts of previously unreachable reserves are being exposed as the ice shelf retreats.
Even religion has become increasingly devoted to self-interest. Smarmy televangelists like Joel Osteen preach the gospel of prosperity, as they rake mounds of cash from the peak of what can only be seen as a pyramid scheme. Moral imperatives like "Love thy neighbor . . ." have been edited to "Love thy straight, white, Christian neighbor" in many American households. "Do unto others as you would . . ." has been abbreviated to a more briskly efficient, "Do unto others."
Does this sound like the country you love? A critical reader might find a point or two to quibble with in the admittedly depressing litany of ills cited above, but can any among us deny the aggregate truth? In Tea Party times, even the Pledge of Allegiance, an oath for which I have little affection anyway, promises only liberty for all. Justice is socialism.
We have the power to change this. Most folks I know, however they define themselves politically, are decent and generous on a personal level. But somehow the rich and powerful have hoodwinked millions of Americans and into believing that the nation I've described above is a great nation. Great for whom?
The 2012 election is our opportunity to do something. The cast of Republican candidates, beholden to nonsense like Grover Norquist's "no tax increase pledge," is truly frightening. Candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty make Ronald Reagan look like a moderate Democrat.
Get active and do something now. Support a rational candidate. Carry a sign. Write to someone - anyone - advocating for sane policy. Be authentically patriotic.