When the Lights Went On

I just had cataract surgery. The doctor replaced the clouded lenses in my eyes with high-tech plastic. The results were amazing. In the supermarket I stood in shock, trying to absorb the real colors of vegetables and fruits. Outside, the Olympic mountains, 30 miles west, jumped into my front yard. That first night, I turned on the lights in a darkened kitchen and it was as if someone had replaced 60-watt bulbs with 100s.

The thing is, my sight had deteriorated so slowly that I’d never understood the depth of the problem. I’d just walked up closer to read signs. I'd just assumed that colors were as I perceived them.

I’m not here to tell you about my eyes. But cataracts are a great metaphor for the steadily clouding lenses through which I, and I think many others, viewed what was going on in this country until the recession switched on some very bright lights.

I knew--and wrote about--the problems. I knew that wage differentials had been growing since Reagan and that middle class incomes were stagnating while the rich gained all the ground. I could see the growing gap between rich and poor making public discourse toxic and polarized. I worried about the power of K Street and the complacency of the media. I could see the pieces.

But I didn’t see the big picture clearly, didn’t see how at a certain point these problems represented a national crisis that threatens not just our nation’s politics but its soul.

The lights went on for me when those clueless car execs took their private jets to Washington to beg for our tax money. When the cretins at AIG who caused the problem demanded their bonuses for putting the country on the brink of ruin. When the collapsing dominoes exposed the full consequences of Government looking the other way while greedy people ran Wall Street as a casino. I finally understood that these events were failures not just of politics and governance, but of culture. They were the inevitable consequences of our nation and its leadership losing any operating concept of the common good.

That loss is killing our creative capacity for solving tough problems. It is undermining our future.

Now there are restructurings and soon there will be some kind of re-regulation that I hope is tougher than the ideas broached so far. Wiring diagrams will shift. A few heads will roll. Congress will pass compromises that mostly avoid the real issues. People will take credit for “fixing” problems that are sure to return because the core cause isn’t addressed--there are far too many citizens for whom “common good” is still a naïve abstraction.

Those citizens didn’t lose their sense of community overnight. They lost it over decades-- seduced by a mindless consumerism that convinced them to measure their worth by the stuff they could buy, ripped off by unbalanced tax policies that lifted a whole segment of the population onto another planet and told them they had earned the trip, and poisoned by the spread of a talk radio that runs on division and fear.

We need to find again the sense that we’re all in this together.

We can, for example:

  • get informed on the issues we care about, including contrary views
  • spend an hour a week communicating our views to elected leaders and to media editors
  • reward character and common sense in the voting booth, from whatever party
  • join our community’s efforts to solve local problems; trust built in small venues can transform larger ones
  • be wary of media that pander to one point of view, even if we share it
  • go to events sponsored by cultural minorities that are strange to us
  • speak up respectfully in public forums and listen respectfully to views we don’t share
  • let that family member on the opposite political pole know that you love her/him
  • take our kids to political rallies and city council meetings and explain to them what’s happening and why it’s important; encourage our kids’ school to do the same
  • sit on our anger even when that’s hard.

It took decades for our sense of community to deteriorate and we won’t rebuild it in an instant.

There will be instances when common ground can’t be found, but they will be far fewer than we think. The naïve people are not those who believe that we can come together to solve our problems, but those who think we can survive apart.