What year did everything go wrong?

Essay by Martha Quillen

American Life – July 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

There’s a new parlor game sweeping across America: To pinpoint the year in which everything went wrong.

I first noticed this at a rural journalism convention, but since then I’ve encountered quite a few people playing it.

Although the definitive solution probably won’t arrive until someone writes the book, the year 1963 seems to be an odds-on favorite due to the Kennedy assassination.

— 1968 does well by encompassing both the Martin Luther King and the Robert Kennedy assassinations, plus the blight of hippiedom.

— Various years in the 70s tend to get cited by those who blame our woes on yuppies.

But so far, I haven’t heard a single person claim that America went wrong as late as the 1980s.

My personal favorite, thus far, was 1965 — a year offered by a man who felt that was the year when cars went bad. After ’65, he said, Detroit churned out cars without style, originality, quality, or even a modicum of heart and soul. Then Detroit’s bad example led to disco, repetitive Sylvester Stallone movies, and the popularity of Michael Jackson. By then it was all over.

At a Colorado Co-operation Conference held in June to improve urban-rural relationships, almost everyone agreed that things went wrong sometime in the 60s. Participants, including Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Cynthia Evans of Colorado Business Magazine, Greg Walcher and Eric Johnson of Club 20, discussed how our families have disintegrated and our school systems have broken down. Speakers talked about our lost sense of connectedness, our rootless society, and our isolated existences.

So are things really so bad that we should have switched our topic of inquiry from, “What’s wrong?” to “When did everything go wrong?”

Apparently, they are.

According to a Newsweek poll, 76% of adults agree that America is in a moral and spiritual decline.

That number certainly includes my mother. Just a few weeks ago, my mom told me that things were really getting terrible where she lived. She said that half of the kids in Heather’s class had started to date. (Heather is my eight-year-old niece.) Youth gangs from San Antonio had been wandering north and causing trouble. And teenagers all seemed to be drinking too much and getting pregnant.

Then my mom fretted about the murder rate, before she concluded that there was really no future for her grandchildren because America had fallen apart.

Trying to cheer her, I said, “Well, maybe things will get better. After all, the murder rate is actually coming down a little.”

But she said, “No, it’s not. Don’t you ever read the papers? Things are getting worse and worse. The whole country is falling apart.”

So I said, “Hey, mom, things were pretty bad when you were young. The murder rate during Prohibition was just as high as it is today — what with Al Capone and machine guns and all. So maybe it’s just the war on drugs or something. Things might turn out fine.”

I had actually done a story on comparative murder rates last year and was sure of my facts, but it was a mistake to mention them.

My mom replied, “Don’t tell me that things were as bad when I was young. Things were never that bad when I was young — because we had morals. It wasn’t my generation that ruined America. It was your generation that ruined America.”

Actually, my mother is usually easy to get along with, so I quickly changed the subject.

Yet I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since, and similar conversations, and the sheer number of such conversations taking place these days.

My mother lives five miles from Spring Branch, Texas, and Spring Branch certainly isn’t Houston, New York, or Washington. Actually, there are two Spring Branches in Texas — my mom’s has a population of 50, and the people who live nearby are very much like the people who live in Central Colorado.

The countryside even looks like the land between Buena Vista and Salida (except in the hill country of Texas the junipers grow so thick you can’t squeeze between them, and the cows-tongue cactus gets as large as Colorado Herefords).

My mom’s community is made up of retirees and people willing to commute to live in the country. It’s one of those places where people move to escape from cities and city problems, just like here. Yet even in Spring Branch, people can’t escape from the prevailing feeling that at some point during the last few decades — everything went wrong.

I agree. America isn’t looking very good these days.

But did America go wrong because of high crime rates and moral degeneration? Or are high crime rates and moral degeneration merely symptoms?

At a recent political dinner, I talked to a man who felt that America had gone wrong because of its legal system. There were just too many lawyers needing too much work and they were encouraging everybody to go to court over everything.

I agree with that.

But I thought that maybe our social-service systems were equally at fault. I told him about the time my daughters were with a friend who got hit by a car.

The boy driving the car offered to take the injured child to the hospital. An older couple ran out of their home to invite all of the children inside while they waited for an ambulance. A passerby tried to approach my daughters’ friend to question her about her injuries.

But the injured child jumped up, and she and my daughters ran three blocks to the home of a person they knew — even though the little girl who’d been struck was bruised, scraped, and limping badly on a leg that was swollen purple from ankle to thigh. The car accident hadn’t upset those children as much as those people who had tried to “kidnap them.”

We are being encouraged to fear one another, and to see ourselves as victims. In our wealthy, modern society, women, blacks, Hispanics, Indians, Jews, the handicapped and immigrants have been encouraged to view themselves as oppressed by their fellow Americans.

Despite this, I still might have agreed wholly with the man who felt our legal system was at fault — if Ed and I hadn’t just printed the Strawberry Door Story.

People kept calling us. We heard about grandmothers accused of Satanism and fathers accused of perversion. In every case our legal system had found those people innocent — although not always before they had spent their savings and lost their homes.

Those people, however, felt they had been abused by quirky therapists and meddlesome social workers. I agree.

Yet sometimes I blame America’s decline on our two-party system. In the United States, it seems that every time we vote, we choose between two opposite and equally ludicrous ideologies.

One side wants drug education and one side wants sex education, and together both sides have reduced our entire moral curriculum to drugs and sex.

Whatever happened to sharing, kindness, and good manners?

Whatever happened to the concept that families are responsible for the religious and moral education of their children?

But we don’t trust families. We don’t trust one another. We want our government to oversee the moral and ethical values of our neighbors.

And that is almost certainly why America can’t work. How can a country embrace the concept of freedom while simultaneously promoting a system where the government controls the moral and ethical standards of its citizens?

Our forefathers were afraid of centralized government. The first six articles of the Constitution defined and severely limited the power of the federal government, and the ten original amendments defined the civil rights of citizens — civil rights that are now routinely ignored.

The Declaration of Independence listed a multitude of reasons for breaking away from the government of Great Britain. Among them were:

He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.

He has kept among us in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of, and superior to the Civil Power.

For quartering large bodies of Armed Troops among us.

For protecting them, by a mock trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.

For imposing taxes on us without our Consent.

For depriving us, in many cases of the Benefits of Trial by Jury.

But today, a citizen of the United States can be accused and held by the ATF, the FBI, the DEA, the Secret Service, or by any number of separate state and local agencies, or by agents representing Immigration, Customs or Wildlife, and that’s just a partial list of our law enforcement agencies.

A citizen of the United States can be spied upon by undercover agents of his own government.

Even when no crime has been committed, a citizen’s name can be included on lists of suspected sex offenders or gang members. In such cases, a trial by jury isn’t deemed necessary.

Recently, citizens of Central Colorado have been stopped at random by law enforcement officers and searched by dogs — merely because they drove down Highway 285.

Children attending school in Central Colorado can be counseled and questioned without a parent’s knowledge or consent.

Every year we ask the government to do more. We demand that our government provide day care, sex education, drug education, and protection from verbal harassment.

The United States has more prison inmates than any other country in the world, and many of our federal policing agencies are actually armies complete with tanks. But that doesn’t seem to alarm us.

We allow expert witnesses to charge exorbitant fees to appear in our courtrooms — and yet we claim that America offers equal justice for all.

Despite tales of police brutality and educational ineffectiveness, we demand more police officers and insist upon new school programs to curb the teenage pregnancy rate.

So why do we accept government intervention as a way of life?

I suspect it’s because we’re afraid — afraid of crime, afraid of moral differences, afraid of speaking out, afraid of alienating our friends, afraid of loosing our homes and our livelihoods, afraid of our neighbors, and afraid for the future of our children.

That is truly frightening. The more anxious we become, the more laws we pass to protect us from our neighbors. And such laws, laws that grant our government the power to intervene, intercede, and investigate, merely make our government more intrusive, overloaded, and ineffective.

So, in what year did everything go wrong?

I don’t know.

But on the Fourth of July, maybe we should all take a minute to answer that anthem question.

“O, say, does that star-spangled banner still wave, O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

— Martha Quillen