One summer night in the late 1970s I sat in a small living room in western Pennsylvania reading a social history of America in the 1960s.
With me were my mother, my paternal grandmother – a staunch Lutheran -- and her daughter, the church secretary. Sitting aside me was my maternal grandmother – a devout and very feisty, pre-Vatican II Catholic.
She asked me if the book I was reading was “for America or against her?” When I tried to say that it was more complex than that, she went off on a tirade about how this country was going to hell because of the lack of morality. She finished by proclaiming, “There are only a few good women left in America today” – pause for effect -- “and they’re all in this room.”
I’m not sure I’d make Grandma’s cut today, but I think of that evening when I hear the current laments of some Patch commentators and national figures like Glenn Beck.
To hear them talk about how we’re becoming a nation of slackers and degenerates, you have to wonder who these critics are coming into contact with every day. Are their own kids and grandkids like that? Their friends and neighbors? Their co-workers? All of them?
My guess is that Beck and fellow naysayers would respond, “Oh no, it’s not my kids or grandkids who are the problem. It’s not my friends or neighbors who are lazy. It’s all those people on welfare.”
One of the great things about journalism is you get to meet people from all walks of life. In 26 years in the business, I’ve interviewed rich people and poor people and those from different religions, political persuasions and sexual orientations, artists and corporate executives, small business owners and educators, factory workers, students, police and politicians.
While I’ve met more than a few lowlifes and idiots, most people strike me as essentially trying to do well and do good – and that’s true of the food stamp recipients as well as the CEOs and legislators on both sides of the aisle. I might not agree with all the choices they’ve made or their view of the world, but I’ve run across very few who were downright evil or worthless.
Mostly, they’re striving. Yet somehow it’s become de rigueur not to show an ounce of empathy for those who struggle to stay afloat.
On Feb. 3, The New York Times profiled a homeless woman living at a shelter who gets her two children up by 4:45 a.m. to take them to day care and school and get herself to her job as a nurse’s aide. Her commute takes four hours, including six trips on the subway and three on the bus. There’s nothing lazy going on there.
Spend some time in Lehigh Valley schools and you’ll find teens running fundraisers for animal shelters, tutoring classmates and excelling in Scholastic Scrimmage, Math Counts, SkillsUSA, the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Sciences competitions and others. For every teen sexting scandal, schools can show you scores of kids working on positive projects and academic teams that would put my high school class to shame.
So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t join “The Sky is Falling” chorus. We have plenty of problems in this country that are worthy of serious debate. But I don’t understand the instinct to dismiss large swaths of my fellow Americans as worthless. I’ve heard it before.