Recently I’ve been thinking of my grandfather. I didn’t know him well because he died when I was 8. As I reflect upon his life, my memories of him and the numerous anecdotes I’ve been told – I can’t help but wonder what he would think of our country today.
Irving Rosenberg’s story resembles that of many immigrants from his generation. At the age of 16 he escaped Poland prior to Hitler’s September 1939 invasion with his six brothers. His father was a man of great foresight and correctly diagnosed the storm that was brewing from Nazi Germany. My great grandmother opposed her children leaving for America and even chased my grandfather with a broomstick prior to his departure. Thankfully she didn’t get her way or I never would’ve been born.
My grandfather was a self-motivated man of discipline, integrity and values. He believed in self-improvement to get ahead, mastered the English language, and worked hard. Fortunately, he came to this country when the great middle class was beginning its ascendancy following the Depression. During his era, a work ethic was sufficient to establish oneself in a trade and earn a decent living. My grandfather never became an entrepreneur nor did he join the professional class as a lawyer or doctor. He remained a working stiff throughout his life in the garment industry where he rose to be a valued manager in a factory. In those days it was possible for such a man to raise two kids as he did, save his earnings, and even buy a summer cottage. My grandmother never had to work. She had plenty of outside activities in the community but primarily focused on her children. And they were able to afford health insurance for themselves. All this was possible then. His job was never outsourced to another country.
My mother once told me that she remembers teasing him as a little girl while he was figuring out his taxes. An otherwise gentle man he sternly rebuked her and said, “I am proud to pay taxes in the United States of America.” Grandpa Rosenberg was a patriot and he truly believed his tax dollars went for a noble cause: preserving the greatest country in the world. From his perspective America was a beacon of prosperity and decency. It was the country that saved him from certain death, liberated the world from fascist totalitarianism and represented the side of freedom in the Cold War. He was a New Deal Democrat devoted to the ideals of his adopted country. America was standing up for right and giving him a good life. He was therefore quite happy to do his part and pay taxes. It would never have occurred to him to “starve the beast.”
I think about that anecdote with my mother whenever I read or listen to some conservative greed monger earning a six-figure salary and whining about taxes. How many people rationalized putting this President in power simply because of pure selfishness? Many of them claim to be “social moderates” yet they’re quite content to redistribute the tax burden from the wealthiest among us to laborers who can’t keep up with the cost of living. My grandfather would no doubt rebuke me for putting it this way, but I can’t help myself: such people who empowered the reign of indecency sweeping America today couldn’t carry my grandfather’s jock. He was a real man.
To be sure America was not an idyllic place in his era. Racism and anti-Semitism were blatant staples of American life. Gender discrimination was the norm. Blacks were not equal under the law and I recall hearing how his co-workers didn’t want to believe that Jesus was Jewish. It also had to be unnerving to escape the Nazis, come to New York and hear the anti-Semitic rants uttered by Father Coughlin from Madison Square Garden on the radio. He lived through periods of hysteria with McCarthyism and misguided military ventures in Korea and Vietnam. Yet even with America’s imperfections there remained a prevailing sentiment of optimism and progress. The little guy had a piece of the American dream in Grandpa Rosenberg’s America. Stability and security were not simply purviews of the mega rich. Our culture valued work over wealth and individuals like him benefited.
One could also feel reasonably confident in the competence and intentions of our leadership. Eisenhower may not have been as progressive as he would’ve liked but at least one could respect the President. Even the devious Richard Nixon at least had something between his ears when an emergency presented itself – it’s doubtful Hurricane Katrina would’ve played out the same way on his watch. Yes there was corruption, abuses of power, and misjudgments in both parties. America’s imperfections and regulation by fear did not solely manifest itself under the current administration. But our civilization was moving forward albeit with setbacks and traumas. Progress is never a straight uninterrupted forward line but it was the trend for much of my grandfather’s life.
It doesn’t feel that way today. The conservative movement finally achieved critical mass when George W. Bush took the oath of office in January 2001 after decades of political agitation from exile. The results are a staggering display of callous incompetence. These people know how to seize power and keep it. They have no idea how to use it for the greater public good. Under their rule wages have declined while personal bankruptcies, health care costs, college tuition, energy costs, and the number of uninsured and poor Americans continue to increase. The government is populated by incompetent chuckleheads who view public service as an entitlement program for cronies to enrich themselves. Public service agencies such as FEMA have simply become another stronghold for corporate welfare and even national security was hijacked by greed. Hence is it any wonder that this group ignored warnings that Osama Bin Laden wanted to attack America and drew up plans to invade Iraq so the monied interests that put them in power could profit?
My grandfather was also a quietly religious man. Decency and treating others with respect was part of his overall being. He was secure enough in his beliefs that he didn’t need to proselytize to anyone about them. The exploitation of religion to drive wedges between people would’ve disgusted him. Furthermore, the debasement of America’s reputation from torture scandals would’ve have profoundly saddened him I think. For him the “culture of life” was more than a mere slogan – it was how he lived.
As I contrast my late grandfather’s value system with our current leadership I can only reach one conclusion: he would not approve.