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From China: Does the American Government work?

Posted Aug. 31, 2011, at 5:10 p.m.

As an American who has spent five years in China, I find it more and more difficult to answer questions about America. Yesterday a friend asked me why working class Americans are fighting to reduce social services while demanding that taxes remain low for the rich. He thought it would make a great film. I think he was right.

As I watch the news, I see a changed America. I remember old people sitting on the porch talking about “modern youth” and the “good old days,” while being too far away from either to speak with authority. They are now angry and off the porch with powerful financial and media encouragement, and at a rolling boil.

The rose colored past is still there but now hopelessness is also there. The anger of southern whites in the ’60s is there, but with a better eye for media coverage. The anger of mill workers whose jobs moved to the Third World is there, and the anger of Americans who see their country losing the respect of friends and enemies ties it together. All the rage of a people who see themselves threatened with the loss of their “rightful” power, and prestige has exploded.

Jobs have gone to China, the president is Kenyan and we are fighting “Third World goat herders,” but can’t seem to win. The war cry is: “Give me back my America!” It’s a great war cry, but false, a myth created from a patchwork of faded memories. I know because I was there.

While that America never existed, there was a real one. It was one where unions fought for wages that allowed a family to live on the pay of one wage earner and own a home. It was an America that understood war.

I was born in 1939 and grew up in that world. I had cousins in the Marines in the Pacific and an uncle torpedoed on the Murmansk run. My father came home once at 2 in the morning. Their fishing vessel had either been torpedoed or hit a mine, and the Coast Guard picked them out of the waters of Georges Banks.

In the first grade I picked milkweed pods for life preservers: we were all in that war. While many of the “Greatest Generation” stormed beaches, others fought the war with ration books, scarcity and hard work. Old men called in favors for a wipers job on a victory ship and mothers built airplanes.

There was a war. America knew that from the stars in the windows, blue for someone in the service, and every month, more gold stars to remind us of the cost. But that was a long time ago. Soon we will find out if America is still a nation or simply a “place,” inhabited by individuals, armed and responsible for none but their own families.

The cult of individualism is making it difficult for Americans to live as a part of a nation. As a people we are less willing to share the responsibilities of society.

I was born into a world that was defined by the draft. Sadly, a combination of the anti-draft feeling of the ‘60s and the individualism of the ‘70s made a draft too much of a limitation of our freedom. Now we fight wars with a “volunteer army” made up of economic draftees and mercenaries, and by going to the mall we show confidence in America. I doubt that the “Greatest Generation” would have understood.

The other indicator of community is taxes. Americans love the “Greatest Generation” but won’t put their money where their patriotism is. The average worker of the “Greatest Generation” (in 1944) paid 20 percent tax, millionaires paid 94 percent. Still, we bought War Bonds, and there were no rallies demanding that millionaire’s taxes be lowered. America had problems and worked together. Now, war isn’t even a budget issue. It’s handled with “supplementary budgets.”

And now the question I often hear in China: “Does the American government still work?”

When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution they dealt with political power, not a world where corporations were more powerful than nations. We now see corporations forming and directing public opinion, with limitations of corporate power seen as an attack on freedom itself. We have a system funded by special interest groups with politicians more indebted to multinational corporations than to the voters.

In the next few years this question will be answered and I am afraid of what that answer will be. America has forgotten Benjamin Franklin’s comment at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Now, from as far away as Shenzhen, China, I can hear the gallows being built.

Ron Gillis is an American who has been in China since 2006. He is a graduate of Bangor Theological Seminary, has been a pastor in churches in Aroostook County and was one of the founding members of the Bangor Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His website is rongillis.weebly.com.

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