100 years of uneven progress

Published 11:06 am Tuesday, February 4, 2014

In 2014, historians are looking back 100 years, to 1914, to the cataclysm known as The Great War—World War I. A deadly mixture of national ego, corporate greed, and mistrust of cultural differences caused the explosion that overcame the logic of peace and the benefits of progress. In a sense, it was the Big Bang that brought about our world of today.

Progress had definitely been made in human affairs–electric lights, automobiles, airplanes, and cures for many illnesses. President Theodore Roosevelt had proclaimed “a Square Deal” for all, with government acting as a referee between workers and managers, consumers and corporations.

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But progress is not a straight line. It’s easy to believe it’s God’s will that we rule and others follow. So, after World War I, when President Wilson proposed that all nations work together in a League of Nations, the U.S. Senate said, no. And in the 1920’s, our leaders trusted big business and an unfettered stock market, with The Great Depression the result.

Then, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal government programs–Social Security, unemployment compensation, and conservation programs–provided income and jobs for millions. Roosevelt, unable to walk because of crippling polio, helped America to its feet. After he led the U.S. to defeat fascism in World War II, Roosevelt and his supporters created the United Nations, which has helped the world avoid a third world war.

Unfortunately, when President Johnson sent 500,000 U.S. troops to overpower Vietnam, arrogance had trumped good judgment. And when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq to overthrow its government, he was taking us back to the time when powerful nations disregarded the rights of smaller nations.

Meanwhile, corporate media, and President Reagan, convinced many that “government is the problem,” and poor people were mostly chiselers. Free trade, some said, would benefit everyone with cheaper goods. But as wages stagnated, the working people of 2014 have found themselves headed back to the bad old days of the 1920’s.

What’s next? The past offers some guidance. The beauty of the American system is the checks and balances that provide the wisdom of multiple points of view. Big business needs unions to check its excesses toward workers and the public. Wages, as Henry Ford realized in 1914, need to be high enough to allow workers to buy the products. Our natural resources can increase our wealth, but we mustn’t stupidly despoil our lands and waters, killing the golden goose in the process.

Also key to our national success has been a free press, and common public schools. These institutions gave us the information citizens need, and everyone a more equal chance. They helped our various cultures come together in one nation. Now, as part of a misguided “race to the top,” we’re giving away our tax dollars to a variety of private schools, many of them proselytizing for fundamentalist religions, including Islam.

Without a Fairness Doctrine, ended by President Reagan, our radio and TV have become more corporate controlled and divisive, with the internet up for grabs. Without the common information provided in public schools, and from common media sources, it may be impossible to be “one nation.”

In foreign affairs, the Golden Rule is still the best guide. Maybe we shouldn’t intervene in civil wars or drop drones out of the sky to kill alleged bad guys–and innocent bystanders. It’s morally wrong. Sooner or later “bad guys” will do it to us. And if we spy on ourselves 24-7, how can any of us be really secure or free?

We’ve come a long way since 1914, but human nature hasn’t changed. Working people and consumers still need the square deal government that T.R. proposed, and nations still need to cooperate. We still need good, common schools for all our young people, equalizing opportunity.

The year 2014 will require us to make intelligent, compassionate decisions regarding Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, the proposed trans-Pacific trade agreements, fracking oil and gas versus more environmentally friendly energies, keeping the internet open to all, supporting, not harassing, public education, and ensuring equal rights for women.

The Square Deal may be history, but our decisions this year are certainly going to be a big deal, for now and the future.


Southern Ohio writer, Jack Burgess is a retired teacher of American & Global Studies.