Saturday, June 30, 2007

God Bless the USA (And No, I'm Not Being Ironic)

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Wednesday is one of the most significant days in the American calendar: July 4, Independence Day. The day when Americans decided to, in the words of the surfer dude character from the movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "leave this England place because it was bogus."

So, 231 years into this experiment we call America, how are things going?

You could look around and think, "not too good." And it seems a lot of people would believe you.

A recent Gallup poll showed that Americans are losing confidence in just about every institution the folks from Gallup cared to ask about. Confidence in "the presidency" was at 25 percent, down eight points since 1996. Confidence in Congress was only 14 percent, an all-time low, down five points. Confidence in newspapers is down a whopping eight points, with only 30 percent of people polled saying they had a "great deal" or "a lot" of confidence in the press.

We're still stuck armpit-deep in a war we actually won years ago but from which we can't seem to extricate ourselves. Despite the claim that "we're fighting terrorists in Iraq so they won't follow us home," a recent report warns that squads of suicide bombers have already been dispatched to the U.S.

We're getting hit with so many scandals around the presidency, some days it's hard to keep track of them all. The president himself seems hell-bent on grabbing more and more power for himself in the name of the terrifying concept he and his henchmen call the "unitary executive": the idea that the president has the "inherent power" to do literally anything, including break the law, if he claims it's to protect America.

Meanwhile, the Congress, which we elected to end this war, goes back to its old habit of knuckling under to Dubbya whenever he says, "Vote my way or the voters won't like you." Well, surprise, surprise, Congress. You voted his way on the troop funding bill and your poll numbers plummeted.

So what is there to celebrate this Wednesday? Should we raise our beers in salute to our country or slump over them in dark bars and mutter darkly about impending doom?

Well, my friends, despite of all of the above, I still believe there are a lot of things to love about America. Some are sublime, some are wonderfully ridiculous. For example:

-- We still have Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show," as well as Stephen Colbert and his "Colbert Report." I don't know how they do it, but they manage to keep us laughing about the absurdities of our government and our society.

-- We still have people in this country like Florida's Dale Rippy. According to The Associated Press, when the 62-year-old Vietnam veteran was attacked by a rabid bobcat on his deck, he "endured the bobcat's slashes and bites until it clawed into a position where he could grab it by the throat. Then he strangled it." Now I'm not automatically anti-bobcat, but you've got to admit, that's pretty bad-ass. "If that cat had attacked a child, it would've been really bad," Rippy said later. Glad that old dude's on our side.

-- Support for the idea of banning "books with dangerous ideas" from public school libraries has declined from 55 percent in 1998 to 46 percent. It has now fallen to the lowest level of support of the past 20 years.

-- Vice President Dick Cheney's influence appears to be waning in the White House, with the war-mongering, power-grabbing holdout from the Nixon administration wielding less and less power in foreign policy. People like convicted perjurer Scooter Libby and the guy Cheney shot in the face down in Texas might be actually due for a Presidential Medal of Freedom for turning the veep into the joke he so richly deserves to be.

And let's not forget the biggest thing: We still have our Constitution -- and people who are willing to support it. Like the judges in the Fourth Circuit who recently delivered a stinging rebuke to King George's idea that he can lock people up on his own say-so without due process. Or people from Dubbya's own party, like Sen. Arlen Specter, who are willing to stand up and challenge the idea that any chief executive can just issue a "signing statement" saying, in effect, "I don't have to pay attention to this law."

There are still people who believe in the American system of checks and balances, that no man is a king over us, and that there is still such a thing as the rule of law. We still have the power to change the course America is on, if we'll take it. And that's an idea in whose honor we can light a Roman candle and hoist a beer.

Back From the Coast

And I had a lovely time, folks. The weather was great, the beach house was fine, although beach re-nourishment has made the word "oceanfront" very much a relative term. What the hell, though, I could use the exercise.

It was an interesting experience being as totally "off the grid" as I was. I decided not to take the laptop, and when we got there we discovered just how basic "basic cable" can get-basically the Big Three networks, FOX, and the Spanish language channel Univision. My kids are now hooked on the telenovela (Mexican soap opera) that Univision plays around the time we usually came in off the beach for lunch. Since they don't speak Spanish, their "translation" of what's going on is frequently hilarious. Other than that, though, we pretty much wrote off TV (even the news!) in favor of long conversations, walks on the beach and in the lovely historic town of Southport, playing guitar, and board games. It was a blast. I actually did do some writing, mostly jotting ideas and lines of dialogue that came to me down in my notebook.

All in all, it was the best way I know of to re-boot my head.

So, what happened while I was gone?