The Fourth of July always brings out the little boy in me, no matter how old I get, the little boy whose imagination was lit when he saw a movie short of Frank Sinatra singing “The House I Live In” as he stopped a bunch of kids from picking on a Jewish boy.
“What is America to me? A name, a map, or a flag I see? A certain word, ‘democracy?’”
He answers his questions enumerating the richness and diversity and the freedom — “the right to speak my mind out … but especially the people, that’s America to me.”
It was 1945, at the end of World War II, and I was four; this short film became the foundation of my political consciousness, which was augmented by a voracious, childhood appetite for the biographies of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who inspired Virginians to take up arms in 1775 by declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Before I was 10, my No. 1 hero was someone Wikipedia describes as a “political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary” — Thomas Paine, who wrote “Common Sense,” a wildly popular pamphlet advocating the overthrow of the tyranny of the British king.
“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one,” Paine wrote.
I didn’t say I was much of a political philosopher or theorist, but the ideas formed as a child and the influences that formed them must have somehow led me to become a journalist 50 years ago and to take an activist attitude to my work in the face of corporate ownership’s homogenizing and pasteurizing the news and its presentation, leaving it to the uninformed reader to somehow figure out context and meaning.
Before television wiped out half the newspapers in the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, the media was highly competitive — 12 papers in New York, I think, eight or nine in L.A., six in Chicago, three in my hometown of Cleveland.
Owners had axes to grind and targeted audiences that shared their beliefs, or at least were interested in what they had to say, creating a robust conversation among competing points of view as many people read more than one paper.
But sound-bite journalism over the airwaves and gelded news in print ended that public conversation and I believe has a lot to do with the state of America today.
When I grew up, we were taught never to sign petitions, thanks to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and we learned that F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover was collecting millions of dossiers filled with rumors, half-truths and lies about nearly everyone who mattered, just in case they became a “person of interest.”
On my first job as a reporter, working out of the Central Police Station in Cleveland, the captain in charge of the dossiers on local people called me into his office one day in the mid-’60s, shoved a photo across the desk and asked if I knew the guy throwing a rock at an anti-war protest.
“We thought it was you. We thought we had you,” he said.
Then he laughed and pulled out another picture taken three years earlier in Chicago when, as a college student, I was marching peacefully in protest of Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy getting the Anti-Defamation League’s “Man of the Year” award despite being more sensitive to the concerns of Southern Democrats than to those of Southern blacks — even after the Birmingham church bombing in 1962.
Flash forward to the early ’80s when I was working on the city desk of the old Herald-Examiner and it was revealed that Daryl Gates’ LAPD was keeping files on the public and private lives of prominent individuals, using them to blackmail them into obedience and sharing the information in those files with a right-wing group in North Carolina.
It all seems like child’s play now that we know President Obama — like President Bush before him — had no qualms about collecting data on every phone call we make and everywhere we go on the Internet, even using drones, in some cases, to provide surveillance on “possible” troublemakers.
We don’t think anything of it. Most of us think Edward Snowden is a traitor for telling us what we didn’t know, which was something that we should have known. We applaud cameras on every street corner and around and in every business and workplace, public or private.
We are a frightened people. We do not think the choice is between liberty or death any longer.
“Keep me safe no matter what it costs” — that’s how we feel as Americans today.
And it doesn’t seem to outrage us that Republicans in the House will not even take up the bipartisan immigration bill crafted in the Senate, or that the Democratic super majorities in our own legislature in California could care less about what anybody with a different point of view has to say — unless, of course, they are Indian tribes, for instance, and can cough up hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.
This is not the American I thought I would live in when I grew old.
It’s hard to take, but as the Fourth of July beckons, that little boy remembers what it was like to dream of a better world and still clings to hope that one of these days, the people will wake up and demand that government at all levels be inclusive and respectful of those from different backgrounds, with different needs and values.
We certainly aren’t supposed to agree on everything. But this is the house we live in, so we need to treat each other as family. That is the America I yearn for.