Are Americans Ready for a Retreat from Utopia?

Americans take so much for granted despite mounting evidence that their way of life is under siege.  I may be more able than most to grasp what’s happening because I did not grow up in the United States. I grew up in Jamaica when there was no government welfare to speak of, and the destitute depended on charity to stave off starvation.

I recall hearing about the dreaded “poor house,” and I imagine the Colonial government provided it, such as it was. But there were no food stamps in Jamaica then.

There was no Medicare or Medicaid, no Social Security – just the churches and a few kind hearts.

For example, I recall a modest lodging house in Port Maria where “gentlewomen” who had fallen on hard times could find sanctuary.

But the bitter fact was that for the mass of the people poverty was the norm. And for far too many, survival was in doubt.

Returning to Jamaica in the Sixties, I remember hordes of homeless children sleeping on shop “piazas” and begging for pennies, their parents seeking a livelihood in England or America.

And my memories teem with visions of the old and enfeebled, and the physically or mentally disabled, clogging the streets of Kingston, accosting passers-by to seek alms, and scavenging through trash cans in the alleys behind the stores.

I remember a fetid slum festering in West Kingston, breeding disease and crime – and the drug culture that would spread gang violence throughout the land (photo above).

Was it ever like that in America? Long ago, perhaps, in the Appalachian mountains or the ghettos of big cities?

I suppose it must have been.

By the time I came to North America in the mid-Fifties, the culture of Utopia had begun to take root. Through the ensuing decades, universal health care evolved in Canada, the civil rights movement claimed legislative and social victories in America, and a series of Democratic administrations in Washington extended the policies of FDR and promoted the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I remember President Lyndon Johnson proclaiming the dawn of “the Great Society,” and I imagined the twin nations of North America would one day achieve a kind of Utopia and set an example for the world.

Today in North America, “the government” accepts responsibility for the welfare of its citizens – much more so in Canada but in the United States, too.

While the Utopian movement seems to be alive and well in Canada, however, it seems to be falling into disrepute in America.

My grandmother used to say that “love flies out the window when poverty stalks in through the door,” and now that hard times are afflicting the United States, I see the tradition of compassion withering.

With the yawning gap between rich and poor becoming wider by the day, with 14 million people unemployed and almost 46 million people on food stamps, and with a rising anti-welfare chorus from the political right, America is in danger of losing its commitment to tomorrow. And that includes a spreading each-man-for-himself, devil-take-the-hindmost attitude.

Ironically, the wealthy are using their vast resources to convince the poor that America can no longer afford a social safety net.  Instead of accepting the tax rates the nation so desperately needs, the super-rich are buying ads, hiring public relations firms and lobbyists, and funding “astroturf” movements in a massive brainwashing operation.

If they succeed, you can expect a headlong retreat from a half century of Utopian ideals.

Is America ready for that?