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Gary Horton: Appreciate American progress

Posted: April 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.
 

The Signal last Friday published a “Right Here, Right Now” column in which Betty Arenson condemned American modernity while sentimentally praising an agrarian, pre-running-water, pre-electrified, limited-government America in which, somehow, suffering itself was its own virtuous reward.

Anti-modernity moaners and groaners are generally older and less diverse than occupants of today’s diverse America, so it’s understandable they may feel so much has gone wrong and passed them by.

Still, despite what they may want or wish, nostalgic memories and reality are rarely correlated.

Arenson fondly recalls a time of struggling farm life when “Yes, we had less, but there was also less government intrusion.”

Back then, she boasts, government didn’t care what chemicals you put on your crops or what light bulbs you plugged into your (maybe) electrified farmhouse.

Our hard-working (European) immigrants showed up through Ellis Island with united values of denial of any government “free stuff.”

No doubt, Arenson’s youthful farm life contains valid fond memories. But Arenson’s gauzy nostalgia also overlooks a century of government victories over prejudice, injustice, ignorance, pollution and poverty nowadays combining to make our modern, diverse nation so great.

In her dreams, Arenson remembers government only as an intrusion against personal freedoms and not as the promoter of the very progress upon which we now rely for so much of the joy, comfort, protection, and safety in our lives.

American modernization and strength came not just through individual effort, but also by public policy, infrastructure investment, public education, taxation and funding, and regulation of unrestrained industry and capitalism.

Just as bullet trains, road development and subway routes today may divide us and create controversy, decades back, interstate construction, rural electrification, dams, water projects, public education investment, and yes, even health care initiatives then created controversy, but ended up improving our lives in ways that few today would forfeit.

A century ago, government initiatives poked and prodded us along toward 100 percent electrification. Today, government promotes efficiency in the use electricity, and yes, Betty, that does include modernization in everything from light bulbs to refrigerators to air-conditioning.

We may want to call efficiency programs “government intrusion,” but like original electrification efforts, efficiency is just another step in our continuum of modernity.

Aronson decries governmental intervention in farm and workplace practices but forgets pollution and workplace risks before government stepped in — when private industry failed.

Most of us recall when the pesticide DDT use was common and commercial agriculture nearly wiped out entire species of animals and increased cancer in humans before big government and the EPA finally rescued us from a stubborn and dangerous chemical and farm lobby. Would Arenson bring back DDT?

Arenson decries “intrusion” in business but forgets the incredible smog and pollution we endured in Los Angeles and elsewhere before the fledgling EPA and AQMD outlawed our “right” to pollute with incinerators and leaded gasoline.

We burned our eyes, lungs, and raised lung and breast cancer with our “freedom to burn whatever” until what many thought an overreaching government finally outlawed practices we today plainly regard as dangerous.

Arenson longs for the days of Ellis Island immigration, when most arrivals were European, while overlooking the grotesque discrimination existent in the same era, when Americans of color couldn’t vote, couldn’t enter certain professions, couldn’t attend most schools, couldn’t ride buses, couldn’t eat in restaurants, and in too many folks’ minds were somehow something less than fully human and certainly not fully American.

Ellis Island described but a small (and relatively Eurocentric) portion of the American immigrant experience and overlooks so much of what propels our nation today.

Arenson’s selective memory also overlooks the vast poverty propelling Roosevelt to establish Social Security and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty raising opportunity for Americans who’d previously been passed by.

Suffering, it turns out, is not a virtue for virtue’s sake, and generational poverty is a force that must be overthrown.

Finally, she decries “America’s military weakness” but overlooks the cost of our past military overreach when we lost 55,000 in a misguided Vietnam War and another 10,000 for Bush’s adventurism in Iraq.

Arenson forgets that guns are most effective when left in holsters; after decades of militarism run amok, our current president fully understands the costs and perils of the excessive gun-slinging in our past.

Revisionary sentimentalism is fine, but it’s more the stuff retirement home patio chat than serious political discourse.

America fought hard for modernity, civil rights, clean air, clean water, workplace safety, justice, and equal opportunity. Fanciful false memories promoting past periods of rampant pollution, racism, ignorance and poverty are counter-productive to positive progress.

Let’s humbly appreciate how far we’ve come, committing to ever push America toward a brighter, more just, modern and real world future.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.

 

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