Standing up for principles

Voices of the clarion

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2005

A lament commonly heard these days is we've lost touch with our moral values. We're urged back to "the good old days."

I'm all for a return to moral values.

Just don't expect me to demonstrate my fervor for some lost essence of the past by trying to impose a narrow code of ethics on my neighbors, by seeking to control who sleeps with whom, or by attempting to block access to an abortion clinic. That's not who I am.

Coming of age in the Ozzie-and-Harriet-Father-Knows-Best world of the '50s and early '60s was a mixed blessing of experience. Social conventions often were stiff. Paraphrasing a humorist of the time, education consisted largely of being taught to stand up for a principle and to sit down on one's own stool. That principle part, however, apparently struck a chord.

Anyone alive then knew with certainty that forces entirely out of their control could make the world disappear in a heartbeat. Perhaps it was that nagging fear, or maybe an unintended result of mostly adequately funded schools dedicated to winning the "Space Race," but whatever it was it nurtured a collective courage to question authority — openly — not simply as a matter of fashion, but as a right and a duty of citizenship.

That is not to say such courage hadn't existed before. American history is rife with examples of remarkably heroic stands taken against the prevailing politics of the day. But the 1960s saw a dramatic shift in the national polemic that changed course from a button-down adherence to the status quo to outright resistance on many fronts.

A minority of the population didn't like the results, which included a thaw from the chill of McCarthyism, the successes of the civil rights movement, the wholesale broadening of existing social programs begun in the era of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and continued under Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, initiatives like the Civil Rights Act, the Voters Rights Act and the War on Poverty, the growth of the women's movement, and opposition to the debacle that was the Vietnam War.

Those battles were fought and largely won using "moral values" arguments. Today, many of those advances are threatened by policies that could be summed up as "full speed ahead and let the devil take the hindmost."

How did we let things get so out of hand?

Take the war in Iraq. The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are obvious. Inadequately outfitting them for the war to begin with, the administration of President George W. Bush and an apple-polishing Congress have left the best of our young in harm's way with no exit strategy, no plan for running Iraq after major combat operations ended, no coordinated response to the inevitable insurgency — precisely the intractable problem the president's father avoided by halting the first Iraq war once Saddam Hussein's forces had been ousted from Kuwait.

I hope I'm eventually proved wrong, but I fear history will count the adventure among America's greatest foreign policy blunders, and that we will pay for it for years with huge budget deficits and political "blowback" likely to make the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis look like a frat party.

We're marching backward to an anti-progressive drum. Once a "beacon of freedom," many around the world now equate us with Abu Ghraib. Tax policies benefiting only the super-rich are robbing our children of their futures. Kneeling before the altar of profit, many elected to guard our interests instead seem to idolize the gods of corporate power and succumb to the influence of their money.

Offering only ineffectual argument, we've stomached laws such as the PATRIOT Act that erase civil liberties. Like sheep, we've stood by and watched the systematic dismantling of social programs and environmental protections, apparently accepted largely without complaint promises that electronic voting machines lacking any paper trail will register the truth in elections and appear resigned to the imminent appointment of conservatives to federal judicial benches.

Some have noted with alarm, but so far have failed to halt, moves to alter Social Security that, regardless of assurances to the contrary, promise to reduce benefits for future retirees severely. Meanwhile, families struggle against the rising cost of goods, the disappearance of jobs, the abandonment of the public school system and the growing elusiveness of quality health care and the insurance to cover it.

All this goes on while the top 1 or 2 percent of us grow ever more powerful, ship our jobs to "economic slave" markets in the Third World, hide their riches from income taxes in offshore accounts and, despite their unique and obvious domination of it, disparage what they say is a government too intrusive for the good of business.

Where is the vocal outrage? We ought to be railing from the rooftops against this abandonment of moral values that threatens no less than our free way of life. We should be reaffirming and, in some cases, re-establishing the advances borne of victories in past political struggles — equality under the law, freedom of speech, freedom to worship as we please, freedom from want and fear.

We should be demanding adequate assistance to the poor and incapacitated, full funding of education, a fair wage for a honest day's work, and a reduction in the power of giant corporations whose bottom lines should be attuned to the universal good and rendered less subject to the demands for mere profit alone. Elected officials ought to be held to the highest of ethical standards so that the force of good ideas well articulated might outweigh the unprecedented influence of money.

As I see it, those are battles we currently may be losing. If a healthy sense of morality is a face this nation wishes to present the world, we'd do well to re-avow its true meaning first.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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