“For Americans, only threat to our way of life justifies resort to conflict.”
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
“The American way of life…is really the American way of death.
Everything Is determined by greed and the insatiable desire to
be the richest and most powerful. And that desire is limitless.”
There is much being written, all over social media, as to how the current demonstrations threaten our way of life. On the other side, millions of people have taken to the streets to manifest their displeasure with where our way of life has taken us.
I chose to take a trip down memory lane. My neighbor, who dabbles with engines, offered to give me a ride on his time machine. I have returned to the present without a scratch. These are some of the things that I found.
For hundreds of years preceding the 1807 law that banned transatlantic shipment of slaves, about 12.5 million Africans were transported to the Americas. The overwhelming majority ended up in the Caribbean, but close to 400,000 came to the US, to first establish and then preserve our way of life. Another 1.5 million died on shipboard during passage.
Once the 1807 law was passed, slave owners depended on procreation to maintain the numbers needed to keep our way of life going. This was important, since the average lifespan of a slave in a large plantation was 9 years. Slaves arrived in plantations alone, not knowing anyone, but soon they established family units. Many, if not most, of the slaves who ran away were just trying to visit a loved one who had been sold and moved elsewhere. Owners also exercised their right to rape and impregnate their female slaves. The children born of these unions were also enslaved, and they could be sold for profit, to preserve our way of life.
Almost immediately after Lincoln was elected president, southern states seceded from the union, fearing that Lincoln was an abolitionist (which he was not, at least originally). War was declared. Hundreds of thousands of people died. The country was devastated. In order to preserve our way of life.
Once Lincoln was murdered, Andrew Johnson saw no need to grant civil rights to the formerly enslaved. Tens of thousands of people were brutally hunted down and killed, because they wanted to vote, which they saw as part of our way of life. Eventually intimidation succeeded. Very few former slaves got to vote. We are still living with the consequences of those actions.
By the late 19th century the industrial revolution tore through America. Railroads, coal mines, banks, and later oil rigs dominated the landscape. By 1900 18% of children ages 10 to 18 were forced to work under inhuman conditions in order to keep themselves from starving. Their parents were forced to work, on the average, 60 hours a week. We were assured by the big industrialists that these people had a job; that this servitude was essential to maintain our way of life.
When labor unions began to sprout, they were brutally repressed. The factory and mine owners felt that it was unreasonable for workers to demand one day a week off, and safer working conditions. Any change to the status quo represented a threat to our way of life.
During World War II most of our young men were sent overseas to fight. Factories faced a labor shortage. Women took up some of the slack. Business owners were forced to offer higher salaries and more benefits, including health insurance. This is how our current system of private health care got started.
Things went well when everyone had a job and technology was cheap or nonexistent. When small businesses gained in numbers and importance, they found out that they could offer jobs without insurance, and that desperate people would accept them. Today, 27 million people cannot get a knee replacement if they need one. People who suffer crippling pain from rheumatoid arthritis have to suffer, because the medicines we use to treat them cost $4,000 a month. It is essential that these people suffer if we are to preserve our way of life, we are told.
Pain, lack of education, and joblessness lead to anger, addictions, and crime. No reasonable person disputes this fact. In order to preserve our way of life, we need to hire police officers who are trained on how to use violence to subdue unruly individuals. They have an impossible job, because they can do nothing to eliminate the conditions that cause crime. But we keep hiring them.
There are more than 680,000 police officers in our country. They have worked hard: we have placed 2.3 million American citizens in jail. Slightly less than 100 officers per year are killed by violent offenders, a figure that brings tears to my eyes. About 1,800 people per year are killed by police. In the European nations that most closely resemble our financial and cultural means, less than ten people a year are killed by police. But we are told that these deaths are needed to preserve our way of life.
In the past, when we had to face the clearly abusive treatment that we gave many of our citizens, reform was accomplished only through enormous pain and determined leadership. Lincoln; both Roosevelts; Lyndon Johnson stepped up and pushed enormously unpopular legislation in order to lift the disadvantaged from their desperation. Today nobody advocates slavery, or child labor, or unsafe working conditions, or abolishing Medicare.
There remains work to be done. First, we need to acknowledge that there is nothing holy or worthwhile about a way of life that kills and imprisons so many policemen and their fellow citizens. That we cannot be content with being able to schedule an appointment for a routine mammogram if we know that there are hundreds of thousands of women who need one and cannot get it. That should not be our way of life.
All that I am asking for is a conversation. One that allows the disenfranchised to tell us what the state should provide and gives us privileged ones the opportunity to demand peace and brotherhood in return. If we refuse to listen; if we continue to isolate ourselves in gated neighborhoods, and send our kids to de facto segregated schools, and hire more and better armed policemen, I see no way that we can keep the peace.
There goes our way of life.