Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ringing It In*

It has been a cold and rainy New Year’s here in Los Angeles, a lot colder than normal. Today and overnight, we will see snow in places where it hasn’t snowed in twenty years. This is a perfect way to start 2011: cold, wet and blustery out while we are safe, warm and contemplative inside our homes. I am probably a lot more prone to sit in the dark and think than most people.

Periodically in history, the American people have had to stop and rethink their lives. The Great Depression was one such point. Post-Second World War was another, as was the era when the Cold War ended. The last one, when the Berlin Wall finally fell, I think we turned inward as a nation. There were no exterior threats, so Americans began to think about what they could do to make their lives better than ever. Unfortunately, many of us focused on materialistic pursuits featuring greed and ostentatious excess. I don’t mean this to sound like a lecture, and that is not my purpose for writing. There was lots of misery in the first half of the twentieth century. It is not a criticism to say that Americans began thinking of giving their children better lives than they had. Somewhere along the way, however, we went over the top. Life in America meant road-hogging SUVs, all-you-can-eat buffets, and popping antacids to ease the stomach ache of our success. Wall Street and the housing bubble, unemployment, jobs sent overseas, and the end of American ingenuity all roll into a real desperate situation in our country as we ease into 2011.

So we must rethink our behavior, our mode of operation. We must ask ourselves, what is most important. Our kids can, and should, handle a little adversity. Challenges are good, even if they knock us on our ass. Self-esteem has a way of rebounding, and even becoming stronger when a person faces down an obstacle. For a moment, we can assume that Junior will survive without the latest video game or fastest computer.

The good news is that what is wrong with us is still internal. We are our own worst enemy. We need to fix our infrastructure and rebuild highways and public works. In a country where almost everyone has access to the internet, why are people still hungry? Why, even with President Obama’s health care legislation, which the new Congress will try to overturn, must people make a choice between seeing a doctor and picking up a prescription or eating for the week? Why must we still worry that Social Security will collapse, or that Medicare will go bankrupt? School districts cannot educate students effectively, nor find the strength and leadership to set course for the future. In my own city, there are many prominent political pundits, including a former mayor, who believe the city and possibly the state may go out of business. The entire American way of life seems stymied and constipated, much like the average American’s digestive system after the holidays.

According to one of former President Bill Clinton’s closest advisors, the gap between the rich and the poor will only widen in the new year. “What will happen to the US economy in 2011?” Robert Reich asks in the Huffington Post. “If you’re referring to profits of big corporations and Wall Street, next year is likely to be a good one. But if you’re referring to average American workers, far from good.” Reich goes on to say that unemployment, especially long term joblessness will plague the economy, as will the housing market and consumer confidence. “In other words,” he says, “whether 2011 is a great year economically depends which economy you’re in—the one that’s rising with the profits of big business and Wall Street, or the one that will continue to struggle with few jobs and lousy wages.” We must find a way to put people to work. Roosevelt’s New Deal Redux, anyone?

The key to improving the US economy, I believe, is education. If we educate our children better, our ingenuity and innovation will return. Instead of attacking teachers or unions, we must put aside the bickering and blaming and focus on what is important: the education of our children. Teachers, we must teach—every moment of every day. Increase the school year and reverse the recent trend of shaving days off the calendar to save money. We have one of the lowest number of school days per year of industrialized nations. Bump it up to 220-230 days a year from the dismal 180. Blow open the doors of our public universities and allow anyone to attend for free if they meet the grade standards. Stop handing out inflated grades and get down to the business at hand. Becoming an innovator, an intelligent human being, takes work. It is not assembly line work, or chopping down trees, but it requires painstaking diligence and the utmost effort. To hell with self-esteem. If a student doesn’t measure up, it is time to ask why and then deliver the proper verdict. In America, we rise to the occasion. We achieve, often against insurmountable obstacles. How are we serving our children if we do not teach them this most precious of American values? Resilience is key. Effort is compulsory.

The bottom line is that America has lost its mind-life. We have no intellectual growth in this country. We have become so enthralled with our iPads, 4G phones, and technical gadgetry that we have forgotten that those things are machines. They are only as smart as the people who use them. And stop talking about technology replacing the book. That codex has been around for millennia. It is not a question of, “Will the book disappear?” My question is, will anybody read what is in the book or on the iPad? In an era when information is at our fingertips in quantities our ancestors only dreamed of, why aren’t we smarter? Why are our brains turning to mush? Simply reason: we are in love with the bright lights and shiny excess of our things. We have fallen in love with how the cell phone looks rather than the ability to talk to people around the world and dialogue about something meaningful. All this communication equipment, and nothing to say: how sad is that?

I don’t fall into Robert Reich’s view of things. Yes, I have my share of doom and gloom moments, but I believe in the human mind and the need to better oneself. However, like those endless TV ads, if you don’t act now, you will lose out. This must be the year we rethink who we are and who we wish to be. We must set goals and get back to bettering the human condition. We must find us in the electronic forest and redefine our intelligence and morality. This is not about being Republican or Democrat, young or old, black or white, gay or straight. It is about being human and spiritual and intelligent. It is about how we wish to live this year, and in all the years to come.

*Check out what Robert Reich said today (1-3-11) about our current economic condition.

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