Things aren’t really that bad, are they?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern Life – January 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Soon we will enter the last half of the final decade of the twentieth century. Right now in the United States, overall crime rates are down. Murder rates are down. Accident rates are down. Unemployment is down. :ife expectancy in North America surpasses the biblical three score and ten. And technically, our country is not in a recession, a depression, or a war.

So why, as we slide into 1995, isn’t everyone dancing in the streets and breaking out the champagne to celebrate this glorious era?

We were happier during the Gulf War. We were less alarmed about crime during the four years from 1987 to 1991 when the National Crime Index rose by more than ten per cent. We were less worried about the economy eight years ago when our banks were failing. All right, I’ll admit the statistics don’t indicate that we live in Shangri-la, but do they warrant such pessimism?

Recently, the Republicans and Democrats have started acting like Cold War enemies. The Republicans blame the Democrats for ruining the country. Democrats are soft on crime. Democrats don’t have family values. Democrats won’t balance the budget.

Well, maybe if Reaganomics hadn’t left us with a four-trillion-dollar deficit we wouldn’t need to scrimp so much. But that doesn’t let the Democrats off the hook.

Democrats are just as adept at name-calling, blame-shifting, and exaggerating as Republicans. Take the environmental movement. Right now, in 1995, we are living in a cold, dark world without gasoline, oil, or coal. The fossil fuels are gone forever, and trees are an endangered rarity — or at least that was the prediction for the nineties back when I was in college.

REPRESENTATIVES from both parties vilify American culture by harping on illegitimacy, illiteracy, crime, scandals and disasters — and they don’t even have the grace to blush when their distorted, alarmist, and oftimes libelous, claims prove unfounded.

To make matters worse, special-interest groups simplify complex situations into single-minded, black and white causes; then they limit discussion about those issues by implying that everyone who doesn’t agree with their established position is on the opposite side. Someone who questions the efficacy of Affirmative Action is a bigot. Only bleeding-heart liberals worry about the number of prisoners we warehouse in America. Addicts want to liberalize drug laws. Chauvinists support stay-at-home mothers. In true Old West fashion, you’re either for them or against them.

But to be for them, you’ve got to support a confusing tangle of supposedly inter-related issues that don’t always strike you as particularly good counterparts. Take the anti-abortion coalition, for example. To marshal power, abortion opponents align themselves with the religious right, and together, various religious groups, and Right-to-Life lobbyists embrace the cause of keeping the terminally ill connected to medical support systems.

In a religious sense, it makes as much sense to advocate non-intervention of any sort. At least, it seems obvious to me that the God-given course of a terminal illness is generally fairly short — if a patient cannot eat or drink, he dies.

IN THIS CASE, however, God got aligned with the heart-lung machine, the intravenous tube, and intestinal feeding. So why wasn’t it assumed that God also directed the vacuum pump when a woman got an abortion?

All by itself, abortion is a complicated issue. If right-to-life forces ever prevail in protecting the fetus, the questions are endless. Will expectant mothers be criminally accountable for fetal deaths due to alcohol abuse? What about women who unwittingly take prescription drugs during early pregnancy? What about careless accidents? Will horse-back riding, snowmobiling, dancing, or jogging be evidence of negligence?

Right now, it should be clear, but isn’t, whether an expectant mother can be incarcerated to protect her fetus from alcohol and drugs. But who cares?

There’s evidence that abortion clinics may be substandard and unsafe, but while anti-abortion groups picket such clinics, those who advocate legal abortion support them.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect people to care about the details when they’re warring about heart-felt, significant, and meaningful positions. Think about it. Did America broach urban renewal during World War II? Did Italy improve its water treatment methods?

Of course not.

So why can’t the United States manage a national health care system when every other industrialized nation in the world can?

That’s obvious. We’re too busy fighting.

In the United States, the presumed formula for running a successful campaign is clear. Blame everything on unwed mothers, drug addicts, homosexuals, the religious right, criminals, sex offenders, negligent parents, neglected children, youth gangs, cattlemen, loggers, immigrants, or whoever else suits your agenda. Then vow to whip that enemy.

It doesn’t matter that everyone has been trying to eliminate criminals throughout history. This year the Republicans really think they’re going to do it — with just a few more executions, prisons, police officers, investigators, school programs, and of course, dollars. According to them, they will also somehow accomplish this miracle while reducing government intervention into private lives and slashing federal taxes.

Eliminating criminals would presumably clear the Republicans’ way in the next election, too. Or at least, Republicans have recently been implying that Democrats are not only soft on crime, but are actually criminals.

As far as I’m concerned, however, it doesn’t matter whether Newt Gingrich is right about White House drug abusers or not. If, as it turns out, drug users can get to work, run for office, direct campaigns and support their children instead of turning into wife-beating, child-abusing gang members — then maybe we’ve spent too much time and money pursuing drug wars.

Yet even though Newt’s accusations don’t alarm me, I can’t help but wonder whether congress is taking the right drugs. Our representatives are altogether too good at grandstanding, barnstorming, and fulminating. They need to relax, cool off, and get a good night’s sleep so they can sit back, and rethink their positions.

Perhaps a doctor could prescribe massive doses of Prozac. Or maybe we should start a citizens’ campaign. Empty your medicine chests. Mail your Sominex, Sleep-Ease and Nyquil to Washington.

As it is now, a lot of our politicians resemble the characters in a really bad Elizabethan drama. A favorite ploy of dramatists in that era was to build the political intrigue, treachery, and feuding until the last act. Then the mayhem began. With swords, knives, bludgeons, and whatever else was at hand, the characters massacred each other for a gruesome grand finale.

NOWADAYS, THOSE OLD PLAYS are seldom performed (probably because, given the modern audiences’ fondness for copious quantities of fake blood that stays wet and red, the entire cast would slide right off the stage). Nowadays, the Elizabethans are remembered in works by Shakespeare and Marlowe, even though poetic masterpieces by those authors hardly do justice to an era when gratuitous violence and conspicuous gore reached a level unsurpassed — until very recently. Thus, few people realize how much we have in common with the Elizabethans.

So I’ll recap.

Elizabeth I gained the throne in 1558, a dozen years after the death of Martin Luther. During Elizabeth’s lifetime, most of Northern Europe became Protestant, and their people were newly divided in their faith.

The Protestants, Puritans, and Catholics couldn’t get along, politics were contentious, and England teemed with spies and counterspies. In those days, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands vied for supremacy over both land and sea, and the indigenous peoples they encountered never had a chance.

In the sixteenth century, the world was expanding and ever-changing, and England was a primary player in determining its destiny. Yet today, a Haitian peasant can jump into a boat and know more about where he’s going, and how he can get there, than Sir Francis Drake or Ferdinand Magellan ever knew.

The Haitian won’t embark upon an empty sea. In spite of his poverty and lack of resources, the Haitian’s chances of making it are greater than Magellan’s were. Thus, our world is once again changing and expanding.

We can’t stop the tide of immigrants and refugees. Borders and boundaries are moot. Modern communications make the concept of distance obsolete. Corporations are international. Television cameras bring Tutsis and Hutus into our living rooms. New medical technology generates moral dilemmas beyond the scope of Copernicus and Galileo.

Currently, our religions, laws, institutions, and traditions don’t cover the half of it — because there’s a new half to cover every day.

Right now, we don’t really know when someone’s alive or dead. In terms of medical research and computer technology, we don’t know what will prove to be good or bad. We don’t know the effects of television violence. We don’t know how to count species. We can’t accurately estimate how much fossil fuel we have left, and we’re not even sure whether our ozone layer is coming or going.

Yet somehow we have to make decisions regarding all of these things.

You’d think with four hundred years of extra experience, we’d be able to handle sweeping change better than our forebears did, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In the United States, we’ve all disintegrated into blaming each other for Haiti and Bosnia, for AIDS and spiraling crime, for expensive health care — for everything. To hear us tell it, these are all things the other party did on purpose.

We castigate one another for being immoral, but the evidence suggests we are far from immoral. In the last few decades, we’ve tried to outlaw bigotry, prejudice, accidents, verbal harassment, psychological abuse, and sexual innuendoes. Contrary to being immoral, it would seem that our sense of how moral our neighbors should be often exceeds the possibilities of human nature.

Still, the Elizabethans were even more contentious, combative, and prone to skirmishes than we are. Yet the Elizabethans lived in the midst of the Renaissance. They persevered in an era known as the rebirth, and in the end, the changes they endured led to the great transition in ideas and philosophy now called the Enlightenment.

Historically, it’s difficult to tell exactly where we are morally, ethically, and culturally, but in retrospect, the best of times were often the hardest to live through.

So maybe things are really not so bad today. But even so, I wouldn’t try dancing in the streets just yet — unless you want to be shot or arrested.

— Martha Quillen