Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Great Society (after 50 years)

Fifty years ago today, Lyndon B. Johnson gave one of his famous "The Great Society" speeches at a University of Michigan graduation ceremony.

What were Johnson's initial three points?
1. He wanted to see the American city not just be a place to live but a place to live "the good life" (a phrase from Aristotle). He wanted urban centers to be places of community and where you could still see some of the green of nature.

2. He didn't want to see the countryside disappear or be spoiled. He didn't want to see the countryside become a place where water couldn't be drunk or where the air was polluted.

3. Finally, he wanted to see the classrooms of America become a place where learning offered an escape from poverty and where poverty did not keep you from an education.

He proposed a "creative federalism," in which national and local governments cooperated together to work toward these goals.

What came out of it?
1. Civil Rights
I hope no Christian would think that a world where blacks have to ride in the back of the bus or can't drink from the same water fountain as whites is a better world than one where black and white student go to school together. Even George Wallace later repented of his attitude before being forced to do the right thing.

Did they integrate in the best way? I don't know. But there is a time where no amount of conversation will get an entity to where it needs to be. I believe the Civil War was one such time. I believe the 60s were another. It seems like the smaller the level of government, the more likely the majority will run over the rights of the minority and the need for a larger arm of justice to step in.

I'm going to say that this was a good thing from a Christian perspective.

2. The Welfare State
I think there is much agreement that the current welfare system needs fixed. Johnson had noble goals, very Christian goals. Help people in poverty get out of poverty. But what we seem to have is a system that simply perpetuates poverty. It does not empower people out of poverty. It does not lead people to the good life. It more props them up to have a mediocre life, and it does so at the expense of others.

So, again, the goal was very Christian, a society where people are empowered out of misery to a truly good life. The problem is that it hasn't worked, and neither political party seems to have a healthy vision on how to fix it. I love this quote by Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg: "We know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we have done it."

3. Arts and Humanities
Part of the good life is an appreciation of beauty. It is not just making money. It is not just living for pleasure. These are animalistic interests. To be human is to look beyond mundane pleasure to the things that make us a different sort of creature than my dog that spends half her time chasing shadows in the kitchen. Most of all, it means looking to God, but part of what God has given us is a mind to wonder and love. Johnson's attention to the arts and humanities made our culture more human and less animal.

I'm going to call this one a success, an enrichment to our lives as Americans.

4. Environment
Johnson said this to Congress, "The society that receives the rewards of technology, must, as a cooperating whole, take responsibility for [their] control." While at times environomentalists, IMO, go overboard, I think there is a basic common sense here. The chemical spill in West Virginia makes the point. We want business to succeed but not at the expense of destroying drinking water. We don't want our cities to look like this:
Mexico City at one time
There is a middle way, one that leaves our world clean and enjoyable while still letting business succeed. Again, I think if we could remember clearly where things were headed and where they are today, we would overall consider this aspect of Johnson's vision a positive one.
The pattern of history on such things is that, while many people resist change, they end up agreeing with much of what they initially resisted without being fully conscious of it. So many strongly resisted the civil rights movement at the time, but no Republican today would stomach anyone who had the same attitude as their equivalent 50 years ago. The 1960 Strom Thurmond or George Wallace would be looked at today the way we look at Westboro Baptist or worse. So they angrily resisted civil rights at the time and still would consider Johnson a godless liberal. But they don't remember how foul their position was at the time or realize how much of Johnson's values they would now agree with.

My personal take-away is that Johnson's goals were noble and, indeed, very Christian. Much of what he and the Congress of that time enacted was positive. The main weakness would seem to be the "welfare state" that they created. It has not done what it was supposed to do and needs some significant reconceptualization.

But I would welcome a leader in 2016 who had a truly workable vision for maintaining and remaking America as a truly "Great Society."

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