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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Passing Years, Passing History

July 1, 2016

I was driving my grandson home from middle school recently when I suddenly realized how much more of U.S. history I’ve lived through than he has.

In my mind, I counted off the presidents of the Eric Freedman Era — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama — 12 of 44, or more than 25 percent of the presidential panoply and divided equally between Democrats and Republicans.

Calculating it another way, I’ve been alive for 28 percent of the 240 years of U.S. independence.

Curious, I browsed the library shelves to look at U.S. history books because I wanted a better sense of how much more current middle-schoolers like my grandson must learn than we did at their age. I settled on American Experience: The History and Culture of the United States through Speeches, Letters, Essays, Articles, Poems, Songs and Stories (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2012) by Erik Bruun and Jay Crosby.

If this book had been published when I was born, it would have run 681 pages, excluding the index. Instead, it runs 859 pages plus an index. Readings from my post-natal years begin with President Harry Truman ordering the U.S. into the Korean War, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine’s “Declaration of Conscience” denouncing fellow GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s demagogy and Carl Sandburg’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry. They end with Gov. Scott Walker signing legislation to repeal the collective bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin in 2011.

A brand-new edition would be even thicker with another four years’ worth of history. Perhaps it would culminate with the latest proliferation of mass shootings, the rebounding U.S. economy, the rise of ISIS and the history-making nominations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

But these ruminations also carried a troubling realization:

The United States has been at war for most of my 67 years, from Truman and Eisenhower’s Korea to the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon conflict in Southeast Asia to the Bush I Persian Gulf War to the Bush II-Obama wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There were other military actions as well, as when Reagan sent U.S. troops to invade Grenada invasion, when Bush I sent U.S. troops to invade Panama and when Clinton sent U.S. forces to multiple missions in the former Yugoslavia.

Even so, that list still left periods of peace — or at least not active combat.

My grandson, however, has spent his entire life in the longest-running era of American wars abroad. All three of his presidents have been commander-in-chief of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops engaged in active military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor is there evidence that either major party nominee for president would bring a swift end to U.S. military engagement, let alone help guide either of those nations to peace and democracy.

I’m not sure what triggered these thoughts. Perhaps it was the campaign season’s misleadingly inflammatory rhetoric about “making America great again.”

True, sometimes America — or at least its leaders — has wandered off the track of greatness — the wars in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq come to mind, as do continuing racial, economic and gender disparities, the proliferation of firearms violence, continued erosion of voting rights and political participation, anti-immigration hysteria, America’s mega-contributions to climate change and the tragic underfunding of public education from preschool through college.

And like the Great Recession that began in the Bush II administration, the decades-long deindustrialization that Michigan and most of the rest of the country have experienced is not a failure of American greatness but the result of global economic factors and technological changes beyond any single nation’s control.

Even so, our country’s overall record on a comparative global scale is clear:

If greatness is measured in a nation’s military power, America remains great. If greatness is measured in a nation’s economic power, America remains great. If greatness is measured in a nation’s economic opportunity, America remains great. If greatness is measured in a nation’s political rights and freedom of expression, America remains great. If a nation’s greatness is measured in wondrous, publicly owned natural resources, America remains great. If a nation’s greatness is measured in the music, theater, dance, literature and other culture produced, America remains great.

If a nation’s greatness is measured in its attractiveness to the poor, to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, if that nation still lifts its lamp beside the golden door in a heart-felt promise to the world, then America remains great. And that’s the kind of greatness and conscience and responsibility and leadership I want for my grandchildren.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

June 30, 2016 · Filed under Freedman

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 C Begnoche // Jul 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

    It is amazing what the man says and then gets away with. “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers they would have done no less”. Forgiven him or cheered him on? People who support him say he tells it like it is, but Hitler had the same type of appeal to Germans in the 1930’s. And no, I am not saying he is evil, just that I do not like his tactics and am bothered that they work with so many Americans

  • 2 C Begnoche // Jul 1, 2016 at 9:01 am

    Trump

  • 3 C Begnoche // Jul 1, 2016 at 9:08 am

    It is amazing what Trump says and then gets away with. “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers they would have done no less”. Forgiven him or cheered him on? People who support him say he tells it like it is, but Hitler had the same type of appeal to Germans in the 1930’s. And no, I am not saying he is evil, just that I do not like his tactics and am bothered that they work with so many Americans

  • 4 Chuck Hadden // Jul 1, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Very nice writing and thoughtful.
    Well done Eric

  • 5 C Begnoche // Jul 1, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Sorry. Those responses are to a different article.

    I enjoyed Passing Years a lot. The history books don’t get longer, someone cuts them. But that is a whole new topic…

  • 6 George W. Bird // Jul 1, 2016 at 10:35 am

    Eric
    Your description of our nation’s greatness is accurate and elegant. Dispite this, there are a significant number of individuals that are not happy with their current QOL (quality of life). Why? Our nation is a system. Each of the items you identified in relation to greatness are components of the system. Systems, however, have emergent properties that are not present in its parts. For future generations to have a desirable QOL, it will be imperative to focus on the interactions among our nation’s parts. This is a difficult challenge in a world of almost three times more people, than the 2.5 billion that were around in the year of your birth.

    Thank you for using the word “nation” (country or United States of America) and not the term “home land”!

  • 7 Anagnorisis // Jul 2, 2016 at 3:07 am

    Perhaps this writer does not follow the police and prison log, the offshore banking scandal, the ghetto gulags, inequality, bureaucratic buffoonery, faltering educational system, lying politicians, economic cliffhanger, industrial waste or looming tectonic subduction. The rose garden is still pretty but there are thorns.

  • 8 Jean Kozek // Jul 3, 2016 at 10:28 am

    What a great article to read and think about on this 4th of July. Was America ever great meaning perfect? No. Have generations of Americans often attempted to make America better? Yes.

    I’m thinking of the 60’s. It was a time when a generation attempted to make America better. Americans learned that not all citizens had a chance to vote so the Voting Rights bill became law. It was a time when some citizens lacked equal rights so an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was championed. It was a time when many realized that all Americans were not treated equally and fairly. And many Americans tried to make America better.

    It was a time of war in Viet Nam when Americans questioned a war not intended to protect our freedoms or our border. In fact, it was never clear why this war was being waged. It was a time when citizens felt it was their responsibility to question elected officials on foreign policy decisions. Those in charge never convinced Americans that the war was justified; instead, they argued that we had no right to question them. Love or Leave It was their motto.

    Americans who want to “Make America Great Again” seem to be a group that is uncomfortable with our diversity of nationalities, ethnicities, religions and values. They ignore our history; instead they imagine that at one time every American looked like them, prayed like them, thought like them. No wonder they are anxious and angry and seem intent on threatening others.

    It seems that a slogan like Make America Better fits my thinking that there’s always need to improve on the ideals of our country’s founders. To work for a more perfect union. To care that all people are treated equally and fairly and justly. We must accept that there will ALWAYS be some people who insist they deserve to be “more equal” than others.

    In fact, now seems the time for conversation not about slogans or politicians but about how we want to improve the well being of Michigan residents. Do we start by insisting that voting is encouraged by again allowing voters to elect officials rather than officials reorganizing districts to protect their elections? Do we demand a return and support of public education or do we prefer that corporations for profit take over this responsibility? Do we support our children with affordable after high school education or do we continue to create more financial obstacles to discourage their hopes for a better life? Do we insist that our infrastructure be improved to promote safe roads and water for everyone? How do we want our tax dollars to be spent? What can we agree on should be our priorities for spending? These issues shouldn’t cause division; they should lead to a feeling there is much we have in common with our neighbors so we can work for a better state of Michigan.


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