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Life as Performance Art

   In many ways, Jimmy Carter was a good President.  He was decent, honest, free from personal scandals, and along with his wife, Rosalind, set the example of a good long-term marriage.  A good man, but it turned out he made some real blunders during his tenure.  I am not certain they were all single-handedly his fault, almost everyone agrees that he has made a far better Former President than the occupant of the Oval Office.  He returned home, and for years quietly went about teaching Sunday school classes at his local church, and above all, promoted Habitat for Humanity.  He and Mrs. Carter demonstrated the real philosophy of the organization by not merely fundraising and talking, but helping to build homes, one nail at a time.  We admire men and women who practice what they believe.
     I think he made a big mistake when he signed an Executive Order directing the State Department to remove the logo from the door of the US Information Agency.  It stated organization’s purpose: “Telling America’s Story to the World.”  When challenged about this decision, President Carter said that after the disastrous policies of the Viet Nam War, Watergate, insufficient progress in civil rights, and significant meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries, America had little right to announce it was telling its story to the world.
    Even in that pre-social media, internet, and non-stop televised news era it created a scandal that made the US look weak.  It probably contributed to the Iran Hostage Crisis.  After a while his Executive Order slipped off our collective radar.  However, it has been a precedent constantly used by domestic detractors of the United States to deny the idea we are an exceptional nation.  It is not just that they pointed out a vast number of issues where we do not live up to the high idealism of our founders, but seemingly try to tear down everything to remake the nation into their own image.  I do not think they offer very much.
      We have never had a truly perfect president administering a perfect nation.  Some of the Presidents we admire, some we do not and some are all but forgotten.  Four of them are memorialized at Mount Rushmore, and there are statues of them sprinkled around the country.  Even Millard Fillmore had a small rural county named in his honor.  Americans have never always agreed with any of them on all topics and policies, and I think that is a very good thing. Our ethos of free speech and democracy is based on both consensus and disagreement. Only the worst sort of tyrants and dictators demand nothing but praise and adulation. Only a simpleton blindly follows a leader.
      All of our forms of media discuss, debate, and often criticize public policies.  As individuals, we do the same thing.  When appropriate, they aren’t afraid of criticizing our leaders for obvious lapses in good thinking that lead to some bone-headed decisions.  Will Rogers reminded us in the 1930s that political humor is a clear sign that there is freedom of speech.  “We poke a little fun at our elected officials but try that in Russia and Stalin will give you get a one way train ticket to Siberia.”  Today we could add more names to the humor-deprived dictators in other countries around the world.
     The real problem of shredding America came almost after President Carter’s Executive Order.  It opened the floodgates of criticism from revisionist historians, both professional academics and rank amateurs.  Many of them wanted to make moral pronouncements based on their own views.  They find fault with the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and moved straight on to the Framers of our Constitution.  Maybe it is because they seemingly want to knock them down to their own size. It continues to the present day.
     Other revisionists criticize men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford for making an unimaginable amount of money when their employees were paid very low wages and had no benefits.  Of course, they conveniently forget that Rockefeller funded museums and art galleries; that Carnegie gave away most of us money to pay for libraries and concert halls across the country; or that during the Great Depression, Ford raised wages.  The same could be said of JP Morgan, and there are many others. 
     To be sure, they made vast fortunes, but they also gave most of it away for the benefit of others.  It seems to me that many of them have an agenda of spewing as much hatred as possible to tear down our country.  I cannot figure out that way of thinking.
     Let’s not kid ourselves.  Over the course of some 400 years of European settlement on this continent we have done a lot of truly awful things.  Slavery, the eradication of the Native American nations, Jim Crow Laws, racism, ageism, sexism, at least two of our wars (the Mexican War and the Spanish American War) were primarily to acquire more territory and national wealth,  and not to right wrongs. Even some very good policies, such as the Homestead Acts of the mid-1800s, had a big hand in creating the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927, and caused horrendous widespread devastation, the federal government said it was the responsibility of private charities and the states to deal with the problem.  Only one cabinet officer toured the area, and suddenly the unknown Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, was nominated and elected President in 1928.
     Hindsight, we are told, is always 20/20, and the harsh reality is that we can never fix the past.  The best we can do is learn and not let it happen again.  We work hard at that.  As one politician said, “Why keep making the same mistakes when there are so many new ones we can make?”
     Despite the follies and foibles of the past, we really do have a story to tell the world.  For those who doubt it, answer this question:  If we are as terrible as so many people make us out to be, why have millions of people come to this country, and why are millions more wanting to come here today?
    It is because they see hope, opportunity for a better future, and a chance to live in freedom from poverty, crime, hunger, and abuse.  It has always been that way.  When my great-grandparents moved here from Europe in the 1840s, it was for the same reason migrants come here today.  They risked crossing the Atlantic in a wooden boat; today they risk traveling through dangerous territory to enter what they believe is the new Promised Land.
     When they came here, there was no one to meet them,  no one promised them a job. They weren’t guaranteed a thing.  They moved to upstate New York and took any work they could find.  Four years later they moved to southern Ohio and bought a small farm and house.  They weren’t there very long before the radicals of the Know Nothing Party drove them out, and they moved 600 miles to the prairies of the Minnesota Territory.  And they persevered through winter blizzards and summer droughts, grasshoppers, prairie fires, and a tornado that took the roof off a newly completed barn.  They taxed themselves to pay for a small clapboard one room schoolhouse, contributed the firewood for the stove, paid the teacher’s salary, and augmented her income by boarding her in their homes.  In time, they and their neighbors built a solid stone schoolhouse.
      It is much the same today.  Late in June I was talking with an orchard owner who is having a hard time finding employees.  A few years ago he had little difficulty, but now, he claims, the new wave of immigrants and their children are working at high paying factory jobs or opening their own businesses.  They are building their lives and our country, just like their predecessors. 
     Blemishes and imperfections abound, but we still live in a great country full of great people.  All of us have a positive story to tell, and we need to do it because it boosts over-all morale.  More importantly, it strengthens our resolve to live up to the hopes and ideals that will build the future.
    So, it’s shoulders back and chest out time once again.  It’s time to roll up our sleeves and continue the work others began so we can turn this country over to the next generation of doers and achievers, and not the critics and detractors.

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