Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Phrase of the Day: NOT LIKE IT USED TO BE

I have heard individuals complain about the world not being like it used to be.  Many times, it is a reaction to simply not wanting or accepting change of any kind.  With regard to many things, the status quo is safer, easier.  Sometimes change is for the better and sometimes it is for the worse, but change is, quite often, very hard to accept. 

Some observations and complaints are completely warranted.  I am fifty-six years old.  That is, in and of itself, not news, but it is germane to this topic.  (More on that later.)  While not limited to those who are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, many of the not-like-it-used-to-be complaints that I have heard are from persons in those age ranges.  I can see why.  Part, again, is just a refusal to change, and part is having seen the world for so many decades giving them a wider perspective on life and the world. 

I find myself, at just fifty-six years of age, sharing in those complaints.

Some of these complaints can be regional observations (i.e. people in the northern United States tend to not be as nice as people in the southern United States) and some are about society in general.  One example (and this is an easy one) is music.  It seems that each generation as it gets older, flat-out dislikes or has some complaints about "music nowadays".  Count me in that group.  I can remember how I would really like a slew of songs each year.  (My musical tastes are pretty wide, so that list would be long.)  Nowadays -- there's that word -- I may like just a few songs each year and couldn't care less about the rest.  In short, in my opinion, music nowadays -- there's that phrase -- stinks.  People who really like today's music can disagree with me, and that's okay, but I am no longer a teen or in my twenties or my thirties anymore ... and maybe that's part of why I feel that way.

Okay, that's an easy one.  Now, let's get a little more serious.  As a society, we were nicer.  Now, when some folks read that, they think people like me think the world should be a real life 'Little House on the Prairie' or 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet', or some kind of Utopia, or a living Hallmark card.  I do not doubt that some who believe that way desire such a change, but mine is a general observation.  Were people nicer back in the "good ol' days"?  I think so, overall, even though there were bad people around then, too.  This is not to say that being nice has completely vanished from the norm -- there are always stories of good deeds and heartwarming stories out there -- but it certainly appears as though we are less hospitable to one another as a whole.

We cared about others' feelings more way back when than we do now.  It seems that the only feeling and emotion that receive any great measure of validity are hatred and anger.  We also cared about others' well-being more than we do now.  Yes, there are many, many individuals who do care about the well-being of others who are not in the caregiving professions, but we are not as interested in that as much as we used to be.  Even politics now has actions, speeches, and votes that reflect a false sense of caring ... actually, no sense of caring.  The "false sense" comes from empty words that are not always backed up by actions.   

America used to be a nation made up of individuals.  America is now a bunch of individuals who happen to live in a nation.  Individualism is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it has now become the thing.  Sure, an individual received recognition for an achievement of some kind, good or bad (and that still goes on today) and we had national heroes generations ago, but there used to be this sense of a greater good, of something bigger than any one of us ... our country.  The neo-trinity of Me, Myself, and I has superseded that.  President John F. Kennedy's words from his inauguration speech -- "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." -- have been rendered irrelevant.  This nation's earliest motto "E pluribus unum" ("Out of many, one") is nothing more than something printed on U.S. coinage.

Knowledge has had a ridiculously topsy-turvy rollercoaster ride in terms of importance.  It used to be (and still is in many circles) something to which one would aspire.  We have made knowing this and knowing that so important, a kind of idolatry has taken shape, to the point where smarter has replaced more compassionate and more engaged.  We never used to do that.  Conversely, knowledge has also become a kind of odd, slippery slope, amoeba-like construct that merely serves as a convenience.  We were, as a nation, never afraid of knowing the facts.  Now, we live in a world of "alternative facts".

We used to have what we called national heroes.  Even if you did not follow or partake in an individual's field, they were still considered by many to be national heroes.  People like Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Wilma Rudolph, John F. Kennedy and George Washington, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Pearl S. Buck, and many of the U.S. astronauts, to name a few.  There are people today who are inspiring, to be sure, but those highlighted here were people who inspired us as a nation, showed us the heights to which we could reach, made us proud of our country, and made us somehow feel better about the state of things.  What do we have now for the most part?  No national heroes, that's for sure.  What we have now are a lot of famous people.  The biggest and saddest example of this are people who are famous for being famous.  Sure, some of them do things, like starting charities that accomplish good, and that's fine, but their initial fame was never earned; it was simply given.  They were fillers for programming time, nothing more.  Their fame is purely manufactured.

Do we have no national heroes because of manufactured fame taking over or do we have manufactured fame because we have no national heroes?

We have become dismissive of things like "What our nation's founders said/did/thought about..." and old inspirational sayings and phrases.  While not everything from back then can be applied exactly today, we do not give a damn about what our founders said, did, and thought.  That is seen as nothing more than the stuff of history classes and that's where it should stay.  Inspirational sayings and phrases still inspire, but they, too, have been relegated to just making oneself feel better.

The concept of "American exceptionalism" has been co-opted.  It used to be a sense of exceptionalism that was not entrenched in arrogance and one-upmanship.  It was more based on our accomplishing more and better than others, akin to the slogan atop the World War II poster of Rosie the Riveter, "We can do it!".  It was striving for, and achieving.  It was pride in our country, plain and simple.  We were something that other peoples looked up to,  Don't get me wrong, many still look up to the United States to this day, but we were not simply better than the next person or country, however that was measured.  We were inspiring, both to others and to ourselves.  America in the twenty-first century has replaced American exceptionalism with nationalism: all of you are bad and we are good ... all of you are dumb and we are smart ... all of you are lesser people and we are better.  (Sadly, a wave of nationalism is happening in many other parts of the world, too.)  Dominance, a la some great conqueror, has been the cancerous tumor to national achievement and creativity.

Along those same lines, let me mention fear.  We have dove head first into the sea of fear, as if we have fallen overboard, as if we cannot swim, as if we do not have a life preserver or any kind of lifeline.  A close second place to showing fear, aside from fear itself, of course, is anger.  We have been permeated to a great extent by being fearful, along with an accompanying anger, as though being fearful and angry are normal.  If being angry all the time is not sustainable or healthy for an individual, how can it be sustainable or healthy for a nation?  The truth is it cannot.  The resulting question, then, is how long can we sustain that and how extensive will the damage from it be?

A great purveyor of fear is politics.  Mention the word "politics" to the average American citizen, and you are bound to get a variety of responses, most of them negative.  The word "politics" is derived from the Greek word "polis", which means "city-state", the standard community structure in ancient Greece.  The actual thing we call politics came from the concept of "polis" and the writings of Greek philosopher Aristotle on the subject in the fourth century B.C.   There have always been both good and bad elements in the world of politics, but politics in this country is no longer the work related to, of, or for the country (or to the city-state, as it were).  It is now a means by which the wealthy, or at least the financially well-off, serve themselves more than those they are supposed to represent.  Is it a means from which some good can come?  Yes, and it does, from time to time.  More and more, however, it is self-serving, divisive, and both socially and institutionally destructive.  To those politicians on local, state, and national levels who really do good works, I apologize, but you are caught up in a system that is, at its best, a joke.

And they wonder why the number of eligible voters actually voting is so low in this country.  Well, they wonder that publicly.  Privately, considering their self-serving interests, including keeping their jobs, they may not be nearly as concerned, just as long as they get re-elected.

The late comedian George Carlin once observed (in a televised special more than twenty years ago) the following about people complaining about politicians:

        "This is the best we can do, folks.  This is the best we can offer.  This is what our
        system produces: garbage in, garbage out.
        "Because if it's really just the fault of these politicians, then where are all the other
        bright people of conscience?  Where are all the bright, honest, intelligent
        Americans ready to step in and save the nation and lead the way?  We don't have
        any people like that in this country."

Is he right?  Maybe.  I tend to think that one loses sight of their conscience with the acquisition of more and more money and power.  Are there some in politics who are, as I said, wealthy or financially well-off, who still have a conscience at the forefront of their minds?  Yes.  The problem is that there are far too few of them.  Clearly, having only those who are financially better off than most of us in power is ruining this country.  The words of the nineteenth century British historian Lord Acton come to mind here: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

There are more things about which I could write, but let us look at the question that naturally arises: So, what do we do about all this?  The answer: stop doing this stuff.  Too simplistic?  Maybe it's too simplistic of an answer, but it is that simple ... IF you want it bad enough.  (That's the key.)  You stop this stuff by stopping this stuff.  Period.  If you do not stop, then it continues.  Still sounds too simplistic?  Maybe the societal "norm" of everything must be complicated, over-complicated, or just a total mess has an influence on you, too.  Ask yourself: If something is helpful, positive, curative, preventative, or maybe even empowering, would you stop it or continue it?  Then ask yourself if your answer is the same when talking about something being hurtful, negative, harmful, or discouraging.  Then apply those questions and your answers to the larger scale of an entire country.

I am only six years past a half-century of being alive.  That's a fraction of a fraction in terms of this country's history, a blip in terms of the history of all of humanity, and an even smaller blip in terms of the history of this planet, let alone the entire universe.  And yet, it's clear to me that things are not like they used to be ... and that is a damn shame.


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