One of the topics of national interest that I miss hearing from the various current candidates for President, both Republican and Democratic, is the matter of national purpose and direction. Call it "mission statement," if you will. For the last decade or so, no United States institution worth its salt fails to have its carefully thought-out and articulated statement of purpose on the tip of its tongue.
At Cottey, a copy of the College's recently re-articulated "mission statement," framed, hangs on (no, not "hangs," but "is screwed onto") one of the walls, approximately 5' 8" from the floor, of the Academic Building, so all students can read it without having to drop to their knees or stand on tip-toe. In addition, it is, unless I'm mistaken, printed in each college catalogue. The purpose of Cottey, the goals to which it aspires, in other words, is there for everyone to read. This "mission statement" was not handed down from above, not dictated by Cottey's President; it was collectively written by a large committee of Cottey's faculty, of which I was fortunate enough to be one.
Now, if this is true of a corporation and college, shouldn't it be true of our national government as well? Duh.
Bill Grey, one of this newspaper's best editors, in conversation many years ago, wondered, more to himself than to the party guests surrounding him, "I've been waiting for our government to ask me to make some sacrifices for the common good, like the rationing my parents were proud, if not happy, to observe during World War Two. But so far, they've turned a deaf ear on my willingness." I remember Bill's observations, because I think most Americans would willingly agree to sacrifice something, if they thought such sacrifices would help reverse the downward spiral in which most of us believe our country, under the misdirection of our current president, has been caught up.
For the first time in our history, polls tell us, most American parents now believe their children will have a more diminished life-style than their own. That says a lot about America's self-confidence, doesn't it?
By this time in America, we've grown so detached from, or maybe "indifferent to" is the right adjective, our government's use of the income tax they collect from us each year, that we feel we'd just as soon not know. We've lost the will to protest.
Henry Thoreau went to jail rather than pay a tax he knew his government would use to buy guns and ammunition to kill Mexicans who, in 1849, were doing nothing but trying to defend their land from the invading land-hungry Yankees. And so Bush and his cronies misspend millions, to say nothing of squander thousands of American lives in such god-forsaken and no-win places as Iraq and Afghanistan, totally oblivious to the quiet anger that's building among his constituents back here in the States. Recently, a TV reporter confronted George's vice-president. "Did you know," the reporter asked, "that, as of now, the vast majority of the American people want us to get out of Iraq?"
To the day I die I 'll remember Dick Cheney's tacitly Republican reply: "So?" he smirked, then turned aside. Talk about obscene! In addition, from this point on, on his muzzy but implacable mental calendar, George W. isn't concerned about doing anything for the public good. He's concerned only with how the history books will remember him --his "legacy."
And in that super-anxiety he's no different from all our other presidents, even the good ones. Now, however, with seven years of nothing but mistakes and costly errors to his name, he's so worried about that matchlessly egregious legacy, that until the glorious day he leaves the White House next year, he'll risk anything, no matter the price in blood and treasure, to win a final victory over any enemy/culprit/obstacle he and toady Dick can manufacture. And the vast majority of us will never know the details of his manipulations, until some tireless investigative reporter pries it all out of the White House archives (and then it'll be much too late, of course), because George W's government has been notable only in keeping a lid on nearly everything it can. The man should've been strangled in his crib! The myth remains appealing to us liberals: during World War II, American citizens sacrificed much "blood and treasure" to help win this universally reviled "evil empire" consisting of Hitler's Germany and Hirohito's Japan. (Mussolini's Italy might also be mentioned, except Italians finally had the good sense to hang that creep from a lamppost.). Individual Americans sacrificed what had to be sacrificed to cleanse the earth of these Evils. True, many Americans at the time thought the U.S. could tolerate a western Europe dominated and brutalized by Nazi Germany, but they were, thank goodness, outvoted.
In the eyes of at least one wartime observer (yeah, Harvard's liberal historian) Arthur M. Schlesinger, the calls to sacrifice selflessly, for the sake of freedom, sometimes went unheeded. "The Good War myth," Schlesinger writes in the first volume of his autobiography, "envisages a blissful time of national unity in support of noble objectives." Everyone accepted the necessity of war, "but that hardly meant the suppression of baser motives.
In Washington we saw the seamier side of the Good War. We saw greedy business executives opposing conversion to defense production, then joining the government to maneuver for postwar advantage. . . . The war called for equality of sacrifice. But everywhere one looked was the miasma of 'chiseling,' the term applied to those, and there were plenty of them, who were out to get more than their fair share."
The will to self-sacrifice for a greater good is almost dead in our younger generations. Most young adults have no savings accounts, because they have to buy what their hearts desire NOW. Our children haven't the faintest idea of what it is to "do without for a while." They all demand the things they desire NOW, and their parents don't teach them any different. They haven't the foggiest notion of our Constitution, and what it means.
They know only what material objects they want, because Madison Avenue has been allowed to replace their parents as guide to "the Good Life." Most important, we no longer have common, national goals, partly because we have no public forums in which to discuss and debate such all- important matters. The opinions we hear are not those of our neighbors and ourselves, but those of TV's professionals, like NBC's Tim Russert and PBS's Jim Lehrer, who presumably stand in for their constituents (that is, us).
In truth, we have no common goals and values, partly because, even if such public forums were held, most folks, unaccustomed to articulating their beliefs, would rather stay home and watch 'The Biggest Loser." George W's bumbling and ill-concealed long-range dream, it seems increasingly clear, is to turn the U.S. into an empire. The message behind the bewilderingly huge, multi-building American embassy recently completed in Baghdad, for instance, is patently that "Hey, we're here to stay permanently!"
The idea of empire has always been anathema to the American character, its very soul. That's one of the benign characteristics we inherited from Thomas Jefferson. But why should that bother Mr. Bush, a devout if inadvertent Hamiltonian. He's been stone deaf to our basic and most heart-felt needs and desires for close to a decade now. Do you think he's about to start listening? He and Dick have just about hijacked our country, you see. We may still have a chance to drag it back from the brink, save it from turning into a big-business-run state permitting torture, among other things, cut off from its constituents to conduct business as it -- and only it -- desires.
I believe the coming presidential election will be the most significant since I began voting in 1960. We need, for the sake of our country's well-being, a clearly worded and commonly-agreed-upon mission statement.
Without it, I believe we'll remain a vast mob of individual citizens milling about, without direction, without a sense of national purpose, already on the road to decline.
An article in the most recent Newsweek suggests that, as a nation, we have begun to take the downward path, that we are no longer the world's greatest power.
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask, rather, what you can do for your country." Those are words to live by, don't you think?