Labor day was instituted as a national holiday in the 1880s. It was meant to celebrate American workers who were building a country of exceptional wealth and, as it would turn out, exceptional international power. But one hundred and forty years later, Labor Day is not a celebration of much of anything. It is a long weekend, the beginning of a new school year and one more occasion to go to the mall and spend money. Labor is not doing well; wages have remained stagnant even in an economy daily celebrated as surprisingly productive. The country is thriving if you look at it from the perspective of those who are daily getting richer. It is not thriving in significant other ways.
These days everyone focuses on the President but that, of course, is just being lazy. There are thousands in positions of leadership in the military, in government, in universities and foundations who daily put one foot in front of the other and do not ever ask themselves where we are going. The country has lost any sense of direction. There are no clear goals. It is every man and every woman for him or herself and those that do not thrive and prosper are forgotten or, worse, blamed for their failure to enrich themselves in the brutal free-for-all.
Here are just two examples of our nation being completely lost, drifting no one knows where and not many people caring.
The current commanding officer in Afghanistan retired on Labor Day. The war, he reminded his audience in his farewell speech, has been going on for 17 years. A war that began as punishment for Afghanistan’s harboring Al-Quaeda is now a war against the Taliban and is, if the retiring commander is to be believed, a war we are slowly losing. But the commanding general in Afghanistan has not once spoken with the President, the Commander in Chief. The President seems uninterested in the daily sacrifices of human lives and the enormous losses of weapons and other equipment paid for by American taxpayers. The military leadership seems content to stumble ahead blindly. Elected legislators in Congress are too busy with their war against the previous administration to consider what should be done with this endless war. In the current electoral campaigns I have not heard of any candidate who speaks out against continuing this bloody engagement.
What shall we think about a country that continues to fight a war simply because no one wants to think about it? What shall we think of a country whose foreign policy rests on public relations slogans. The war in Afghanistan is referred to as “Operation Enduring Freedom.” But this war has nothing to do with our freedom, because a nation that conducts its affairs without any clear goals, without questioning the usefulness, let alone morality, of its policies can hardly consider itself free. Free citizens and free nations make clear eyed choices. We have not made any choices about the Afghanistan war in a very long time.
Here is one more news item from Labor Day that illustrates the total disarray of our nation. A year after hurricane Harvey flooded and devastated Houston, Texas, many of the victims still are unable to live in their houses devastated by the storm. The government agency tasked with assisting the victims of natural disasters, FEMA, has provided some aid but left the reconstruction efforts woefully incomplete. A year later many people still cannot live in their houses and have to live with friends or relatives. These facts are not controversial; their interpretation is. We frequently hear that the continued homelessness of poor folks is not surprising. Their lack of minimal sources is to blame. The poor are poor because they are poor. Such are the profound insights of our commentators.
As a country, we are content to allow people – significant numbers of people, especially children – to live in poverty, to not have enough food at the end of a pay period, to lack reliable transportation to get to work and home again, not to have access to excellent healthcare or education.
These facts alone are shameful but they are testimony to our widespread thoughtlessness. Americans like to brag about how great America is but they don’t think about their fellow citizens who lack work that pays a living wage, who, because they are the wrong color, because they have some infirmity or another, cannot make a decent living — often only because their employer refuses to pay a decent wage. But we see no great uprising of outrage about how some of our fellow Americans have to live in extended periods of poverty. In the current political campaigns economic inequality is a theme. But I have yet to hear a candidate who has a concrete plan for assuring everyone who lives in this country, a life of sufficiency without having to suffer anxiety about feeding their children or making sure that they get the medical care and the education they not only need but are entitled to.
Instead we go on stumbling forward or perhaps backward or sideways. No one knows where. No one thinks about it.
It is important to repeat that focusing on the inadequacies and outrages of the existing President is clearly a way of dodging the larger issues which have been with us for a long time. We have refused and are still refusing to ask ourselves the important questions about why we conduct our affairs as we do, what our goals are, what it would mean for America to be great.
What are we trying to achieve it Afghanistan? Why are we allowing the poor to suffer disproportionately? As long as no one asks these and similar questions we will continue to wander around in our fog of indifference. We will remain a nation lost.