Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Post #152 - Can We Spare a Dime?

"And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

"...for purple mountains' majesty..."
Since the early days of our republic, some have felt that our blessedness -- a vast landmass rich with natural resources and a population ready and willing to make the most of it -- was an indicator of our goodness.  "Spacious skies and amber waves of grain" were signs of our favored status, according to some.  As the hymn goes, however, we also asked God to "crown Thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea." Lately many of us seem to find the treasures of water and land, wealth and privilege, to be sufficient, and have left off seeking the crowning achievement of brotherhood. We imbibed the idea of our country being divinely elected, without remembering the responsibility that comes with our good fortune.

Will and Jaden Smith, "Pursuit of Happyness"
Years ago, the cynical old saw went “The rich get rich, the poor get children.” Now, if we are honest, we have to say “The rich get rich faster, the poor get poorer sooner, and the children pay the price.” For all our natural resources and global reach, we have not been able to find a share of the wealth for those who start out life in utter deprivation. While the American dream is alive as a concept, the number of people who actually pull it off is very few. The genius of the recent film Pursuit of Happyness [sic], starring Will Smith, was that it showed a man of unrecognized brilliance and ingenuity who could (barely) succeed in making a life for himself and his son in modern-day U.S. society, by sheer perseverance and courage. But his success begs some questions:  What of the other millions who happen not to be brilliant, or even of average intelligence? What of those who, in addition to being down-and-out, are weak and sick? How about the person who is quite willing to work at a job, but lacks the energy to find or create one in a tough job market? What of all the children who, unlike that man's son, haven't any parents to care for them?

...the children suffer most...
On the international level, are the poorest of the world now seeing the United States as their strong and committed ally in the alleviation of their poverty? Among the thousands of political appointees in the Bush administration, one of the most effective may have been Andrew Natsios, until recently the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. His agency compiled some impressive successes in various parts of the world on disease eradication, clean drinking water, pollution mitigation and disaster relief. Yet the Iraq War -- and then the surge in Afghanistan -- have tended to soak up all available dollars, to the detriment of many such worthy efforts. The preoccupation with the “war on terror” has put other agenda items, such as Darfur (which was Natsios' later assignment on behalf of the president), restructuring of debt, trade imbalances and privacy concerns in an electronic age, on the back burner year after year. We were already contributing far less, as a percentage of our gross national product, in international aid, than other  industrialized nations -- then our budget began to show signs of the wheels falling off.

In Egypt, a huge U.S.-funded project designed to train Egyptian officials to perform more effectively in governmental ministries in 2004 was not renewed, after several successful years of implementation. Today, we see that Iran has restored full diplomatic relations with Egypt. A member of the majlis (Iran's parliament) was quoted as saying, "Iran's foreign policy is moving in the direction of constructive engagement on all fronts.” Restoration of relations with Egypt, he said, will have “positive effects on the whole region.”  Today, of course, we do not have the stable and friendly Hosni Mobarak in charge, but an unpredictable combination of Muslim Brotherhood, street demonstrators and old-regime hold-overs.

During the Cold War, we matched the Soviet Union tit for tat, in order to “win the hearts and minds” of the world's developing countries. In the process, we did many good things (if, perhaps, for the wrong reasons) -- creation of the Peace Corps, the Fulbright Act for educational fellowships, and trips of Mercy by the Hospital Ship Hope.  Recently, we have not only been losing the battle for respect and admiration, but most importantly we have failed to bring our unequaled economic strength fully to bear on what should be all mankind's enemies: illiteracy, pollution, poverty, disease and preventable death. Science knows more about how to prevent malaria and stop AIDS, but have we the will to make these things happen?

Like individual human beings, our country will eventually be remembered less for its power, than for its humanity -- or lack of it.

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