By Diane Vogel Ferri
The slogan “Make America Great Again” puzzles me. No one will tell me when America was great and the assumption is that it is not great now. The state of politics makes one feel that things are definitely not great, I will agree. The notion of when America was great depends on your own personal experience and perhaps your refusal to accept that it wasn’t great for everyone even if it was for you.
Was it back in the thirties during the Great Depression when millions of Americans lost everything they had and were starving to death? No? Was it in the forties when 405,000 of our young men died in World War II? Oh, but remember all those romantic war movies? It seemed great in the movies.
America must have been great in the fifties when we all lived in little middle-class towns like Mayberry and all our neighbors and teachers were white and went to the same church? We like watching the Cleavers and the Ricardos because that’s the way it was in the Good Old Days, right? Oh, wait! That was before the Civil Rights Movement, so there were many Americans being discriminated against, segregated and excluded from voting, from going to restaurants, public schools, and of course, being hanged and beaten for being black. Was that when it was great—when you only had to believe in what you saw on TV?
How about the sixties—all peace and love, right? But that was when those black Americans started fighting back and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for it. Riots in the major cities of the country. John and Bobby murdered too. Then there were the 58,000 men and women that died in Viet Nam—for reasons that are still debatable today—and those same young people came home to be spat upon and treated like dirt. No one said, “thank you for your service” back then.
The seventies seemed pretty cool. Although in the early 70s disabled children did not have the right to attend a public school. They either did not go to school or were relegated to special schools. Hillary Clinton was instrumental, working for the Children’s Defense Fund, in preparing a landmark report called “Children Out of School” which led to the enactment of Education for All Handicapped Children Act (which is now the Individuals with Disabilities Act) ensuring all children the right to a free public education. But even then, disabled Americans had no access to public buildings and parking—not so great, huh?
The 80s brought continuing issues with the Cold War and a massive rally of over a million people in Central Park for a “nuclear freeze,” AIDS began to kill millions of Americans, we were in a big recession. The 90’s brought more involvement in the Middle East with the Gulf War. It was only in 1990 that Bill Clinton passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. So less than three decades ago people in wheelchairs couldn’t get into public buildings like concert venues or restaurants, or use public bathrooms. Before 1990 life wasn’t so great for disabled Americans, including our wounded vets. By the end of the Clinton Administration 1.7 million new jobs were added, there was a federal budget surplus, unemployment was at 4% and the Dow Jones closed above 10,000 for the first time. Ok, the 90’s were pretty good, but the people who want to make America great again reject the policies of the Clinton era so I’m not sure how we’re going to get back to that.
September 11th, 2001 changed America forever and brought real fear into our lives for the first time. We suddenly became vulnerable and more new wars began. We lost over 4400 Americans in Iraq and over 2000 in Afghanistan. American life wasn’t even close to great if you were an LGBT person until 2015 when you finally got the rights to marry and have a family like everyone else in this country. There are over 30 million children that go to bed hungry in America every night and many of our public schools are failing for lack of priorities and funding by our present Congress. There is a lot that can and should improve. I think we can all agree on that. But to suggest that going backwards will make us great is to ignore how far we’ve come.
So that brings us up to date. Which decade or era do you choose as great? When was it great for you personally? Is the fact that it wasn’t always great for millions of other American citizens make a difference to you? Is it okay that so many Americans have been discriminated against, disrespected and hated through America’s history? America thrives because we do move forward—not quickly enough for many of our citizens—but we eventually pass laws and change attitudes that make life better for many Americans. All of the legislation I’ve mentioned have happened just in my lifetime. So we are great now, and can become even greater, but that will only happen when we choose to be united and not divided by our own ignorance and we accept the beautiful diversity of this country, acknowledge that we are more alike than different, and respect the right of all Americans—not just the ones like ourselves.