Let’s talk of the disappearing America – of the idealistic sixties, of the Kennedy years and Peace Corps, of the flower generation, the hippie revolution and Vietnam of course, of the Columbia and Watts riots, Wounded Knee, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, of good ole corporate responsibility when jobs were plentiful, the unions were reasonable and the worker was a valued asset, of times when we still had a strong manufacturing base and well-to-do middle class, when the label "Made in USA" meant something both at home and abroad, when greed, cutting corners and the bottom line weren't the only things that mattered.
I was a child of the sixties. She missed it by a decade. It made no difference, however, as she voiced concerns of her own.
She spoke of the immigration problem which neither party would address and which started making inroads into the local job market, and of outsourcing – a kind of process in reverse whereby jobs were being transferred overseas to places like India or Taiwan, where pidgin-English was preferable to retaining a higher-salaried, American workforce. It started affecting the insurance industry, her own employer. None of us have begrudged the rest of the world becoming enriched on the coattails of American prosperity. But was it right, we wondered, when it came at the expense of its own people?
We both agreed this was still the best place on earth as evidenced by the invading hordes – people from all corners of the world, of every accent, skin color and culture, coming in droves, daily, legally and illegally. Nowhere else would they be rather than here. But for how long? And for what reason? We questioned their loyalty. What stake did they have in America? Didn't they come here just to rape her, to take their spoils, to squeeze her lifeless and dry, to make their money and run, only to leave her like some useless carcass, all-barren and in tears, when there was nothing else left to take?
It still was, we both thought, the land of opportunity. But in the eyes of many, including many of its citizens, it was quickly becoming a narrowly-defined, almost vulgar concept, delimited more and more to the money-making proposition, to accumulation of wealth for its own sake, to enriching oneself by hook or by crook, to the devil-may-care type of attitude while the country and its people were going down the drain.
But that wasn't what America was supposed to be about. Freedom was. Freedom from government, from undue interference and excessive regulation, freedom of religion and worship, freedom to pursue your own idea of happiness, however construed, freedom to excel in any area whatever, freedom to become whomever you wanted to become; and yes, even the freedom or the right to disagree with your government and its policies, freedom of speech, the right to civil disobedience in the honorable tradition of Emerson and Thoreau.
All these have been bestowed on us by our Constitution as our unalienable rights. Pursuit of financial or economic independence, both as a nation and on the part of its citizenry, though an admirable expression of that freedom, wasn't meant to preempt it, let alone cancel out equally worthwhile if not more admirable pursuits.
It has always been the beauty of America, its singular attraction, that it was never one-dimensional but accorded its people opportunities for full development in any area whatever – not just in accumulation of wealth but in arts, crafts, technical and scientific innovation, research, physical culture. All this was captured once by that unforgettable, though now defunct, phrase – "the American dream." Or by Walt Whitman's notion of America as an idea, as the great experiment, as the hope of humankind. And at the bottom of it all was freedom.
The creative energies, the American spunk and perseverance, its fortitude against any and all odds, its domination in the field of science and technology – all were a by-product of that freedom, its direct or less direct manifestations. But our golden age of television was long gone. And so it was with the Hollywood era, the times when we could still dream of heroes. The best in the American jazz hadn't seen its heyday since the sixties. And it was no different with rock 'n' roll, that all-American icon of pop culture: we couldn't think of anything memorable or noteworthy past the seventies.
Even the best in musicals – the uniquely American invention of making Johann Strauss and opéra bouffe accessible to the American palate – have been of late either English or French-originated productions: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miz were a case in point. All have fallen victim to the vulgarization of culture, to reducing it to the lowest common denominator, to increasing the paying base, to selling out to quick profit and box-office success. Only in computer technologies and software development did we still excel, but there was a reason for this: because of a worldwide demand for ever-cheaper, better products, it was one area in which both quality and profit could still go hand in hand. Hence Bill Gates, presumably the richest man in the world and possibly the last icon of American excellence.
We didn't mind, of course, the rest of the world catching up. Ideally, we both thought, all governments and human societies should emulate our way. The whole world would be better for it. But we weren't quite ready for global government, charitable or Christian as such an idea might be. They haven't prepared us for this. Even less were we ready for our own government selling-out to international business interests and cartels. We were afraid of losing our country in the process.
And so we talked, and shared, and communed.
It was two in the morning.