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A Disturbing Intersection for America
We all face some sort of intersection in our lives.
Sometimes, if we aren’t paying attention, we miss that focal point of decision and stumble across what we might initially think is absurd — like the old yellow-brick building on New York Avenue sporting a 4-foot sign asking (or declaring) “WHAT IT IS” along the awning.
Just what was the “it” of the sign?
Or was the sign telling us that this was all there was, just a vacant, boarded-up building about to be remade into a high-end development.
Intersections are funny things: They can be life-changing and cause chaos, disaster and regret, or they can take us to a new beginning; they can tap something deeper, like a sign that makes you wonder why we are discontented with some “it” that has been a constant in our lives.
Or perhaps the “it” is change; certainly, America is in the midst of great change. But this isn’t the first time we’ve turned things upside down, and it sure won’t be the last.
The economic and political turbulence of the past decade is jarringly similar to the Panic of 1893 and the unsettling elections of 1884 to 1896. Those were eras when extraordinary wealth was created for the elites, and when ferociously competitive elections and ineffectual, corrupt government collided with an agitated, cynical electorate.
Progressives of that previous era — very different from our modern liberal brand — were born of economic dislocation that pressured the establishment, not unlike what is happening today.
In each era, both parties promised reform but didn’t deliver.
Consider Baltimore, ruled by Democrat machine politics for decades. What does the city have to show for that?
A jarring 37 percent unemployment rate for black men ages 20 to 24, a statistic that should be completely unacceptable in any American city.
Disruption and energy should be felt in Baltimore’s ballot boxes, not on its streets as a matter of violent protest and thuggery. Its communities should not allow themselves to be used to keep a political machine in power but then to be promptly forgotten when it comes to governing.
The trend in American culture is to push back against all things big — big government, big banks, big brands, big money. Big political machines are in jeopardy, too — or should be; when that happened in the late 19th century, it produced reforms for a time.
Now we have come to another national intersection, and do we want to go right, left, or stumble toward an unknown path?
Poor black urban youth are not the only segment that has been left behind in America; rural folks feel equally detached and forgotten. So the post-World War II collapse of the model for how America conducts itself actually crosses racial lines, age groups, Main Street and urban communities.
The gap between the societal organizations we’ve maintained for decades and the systems we need today, in order to adapt to a new economy and globalization, is becoming so wide that we can no longer apply more ointments to heal the wounds.
It used to be that both blue-collar and white-collar workers held stable jobs, and living standards for all social classes steadily rose. That model has buckled and bowed until it no longer exists, and people are getting left behind at a staggering rate.
The gap between all things big (government, business, banks), the American people, and their political leaders is greater today than at any time since our little quarrel with England in the 1770s.
We are over-regulated, forgotten and over-taxed by a national capital that has become the Versailles of its time — the seat of not only political power but of unprecedented wealth, with a desire to emulate Hollywood rather than the regular people who have carried the burden of building and protecting that pretentious city.
Nothing brought that image into perspective better than watching a week ago as the cable-news networks covered their own press staffers attending the White House Correspondents Dinner with President Obama, the cream of Hollywood and selected members of Congress — while rioting young men stormed the city of Baltimore.
It was an unsightly, disturbing intersection for America.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org