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This is not the country we were promised | COMMENTARY

Elizabeth Lombardi of Baltimore realized the Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen might be closed, but she found a way in to pray for "all the countries of the world." The Archdiocese of Baltimore decided to close churches due to the coronavirus threat.
Elizabeth Lombardi of Baltimore realized the Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen might be closed, but she found a way in to pray for "all the countries of the world." The Archdiocese of Baltimore decided to close churches due to the coronavirus threat.(Amy Davis)

It was not supposed to be like this. This is not the country we were promised. It is not the one we wanted to leave to our children.

Long ago, before cynicism got into our bones, there was the promise of America, and it bristled with possibilities. I don’t have a date for that, but it was within my lifetime. The overarching promise was understood to be a national commitment to progress. Inertia was not acceptable. Failure was not an option. The country would learn from its mistakes as it grew up, grew wiser and became exceptional in all things, with peace and prosperity the side benefits.

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I’m not making that up. We once had leaders — presidents, senators, high school teachers, coaches, parents, poets — who said those things.

I come from the baby boom. We grew up in the candescent glory of World War II and the Greatest Generation. We beheld a golden promise: This virtuous country had saved the world from murderous tyrants, and now it would defend and serve the high ideals of freedom, generosity and the common good while simultaneously becoming rich and powerful.

The Cold War cast a shadow over us, but it didn’t stop American progress, it accelerated it. The space race signaled a golden age for science and what our country would value in the second half of the 20th Century — brains as much as brawn, higher education, advancing technology, an evolving culture and a rising quality of life. We sent men to the moon. We built better hospitals and expanded universities. We awakened to the threat of a silent spring and passed laws to protect the environment. We established health insurance programs for the poor and the elderly.

It was a capitalist country, of course, but patriotism included respect for the common good and the needs of the many over the interests of the few. While they always grumbled about high taxes, the wealthy and corporations paid their share, twice as much as they pay today. During the Eisenhower years and the 1960s, workers, many of them unionized, moved into the middle class. Median family income doubled between 1947 and 1973.

Certainly, many were still being left behind. But, while the oppressor state clung to life, men and women rose above the old prejudices of their parents to the realm of better angels. They gave blood, sweat and tears to achieve equality under the law for those who had been denied the promise. It was a hard and beautiful struggle, but a country that had been torn apart by the bitter fight over racial discrimination and the war in Vietnam would arrive on the other side of those conflicts better for them. It wasn’t naive to believe that. It was American to believe that.

We too easily measured greatness by military might and not by the things that make people whole — the confidence that they have enough food to eat, access to a doctor, access to good schools for their children, comfort and security in old age. But the promise was there. It had been established with the New Deal, advanced by the Great Society. By the 1970s, if the safety net had not reached every American who needed it, certainly it would in time.

Certainly the nation was committed to both widely shared economic growth and social progress.

This was never a perfect country. Its greatness was always exaggerated, or certainly limited by the color of someone’s skin, gender or social status. And yet there was always the promise that this rich and powerful nation could also be a smart, welcoming and humane one.

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But what happened?

We missed countless opportunities to learn from mistakes, to fix problems, to expand equality and prosperity, to foster a belief in shared destiny.

We have had 40 years of steady ridicule of government and an incessant push for austerity. The constant harangues foment distrust and undercut the government’s essential role in upholding laws and executing policies designed to make life better and safer for its citizens.

We continue a ridiculous decades-long fight over whether all Americans should have access to affordable health care, something our allies in World War II settled long ago.

We give tax breaks to millionaires, billionaires and corporations, returning again and again to the myth of trickle-down prosperity.

We have watched income inequality widen for four decades, leaving millions of Americans incredibly vulnerable in a situation like the one we face now, in the midst of a pandemic.

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Thirty years after the Cold War ended, we continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on national defense, virtually without question. And the Trump administration adds billions more while trying to cut student loan assistance, affordable housing programs, food stamps and Medicaid.

This is not the country we were promised.

We have an educational system that still fails too many children and fails the country by not teaching — or having time to teach — the fundamental values of American democracy.

We’ve done little to end the gun violence that continues, day after day, in our streets and too often in our schools, churches, mosques and synagogues.

We have a president who demonizes sanctuary-seeking immigrants and obsesses about a border wall while letting our guard down on the threats posed by climate change and a novel virus.

The president walks away from international efforts to meet the enormous challenges of a warming planet. He sneers at science and expertise. His administration closed a global health security office established by his predecessor after the Ebola epidemic of 2014. Warned about the possibility of a disease outbreak like the one we’re seeing now, the Trump administration made no effort to ramp up readiness for it.

I keep thinking of the late congressman from Baltimore, Elijah Cummings, and his righteous voice. “We are better than this,” he so often said.

Maybe we could be. Maybe we can try again, those of us who get to the other side of COVID-19.

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