National amnesia

Aging is one reason for forgetfulness. What's the Tea Party's excuse?

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click to enlarge WHO WAS THIS GUY? He was in Casablanca, we think. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
WHO WAS THIS GUY? He was in Casablanca, we think.

O haven't they stopped for the doctor's care,

Haven't they reined their horses, their horses?

Why, they are none of them wounded, dear,

None of these forces.

At our age, we and all of our friends know someone struggling with memory loss: over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's. Often, we sit around a table and conversation dies as we try to remember the name of the guy who played Ingrid Bergman's husband in Casablanca, and we're all drawing a blank and thinking maybe we're next. Later, during dessert, someone suddenly shouts "Paul Henreid!" and we feel relieved, we can sleep tonight — but not without that tiny nagging that returns when we can't remember if we've turned out the kitchen light.

This worry seems natural, but when I mention it to younger friends, they almost always say, well, they can't remember anything, either. And when I put my head to it, I think I was always pretty forgetful ("Where's my wallet? Where's my keys?"), though I'm pretty sure my memory, at 77, is worse now.

But lately, I'm getting another impression: we seem to be amnesiac as a country. Is there such a thing as national Alzheimer's, where plaque shuts down the brains of millions of citizens, spreading like a cranial oil spill in some Invasion of the Brain Snatchers?

We've all seen months and months of shouting, surging groups, Greek choruses waving anti-Obama and tax placards. They're overwhelmingly white, male, straight, part of our church-going working middle class, and Republican — though they often deny this. "I'm Libertarian, I'm Independent" — OK, but they vote Republican.

They're disappointed and angry. They feel they're not doing well, though they're not underfed. People of different colors seem to be taking over. The valedictorians in their children's schools have names like Nguyen, Estrada, Chu. Last year's National Spelling Bee champion was Kavya Shivashankar; this year the youngest speller in the contest is her sister, Vanya (8). In the NBA basketball playoffs, the best player is LeBron James. The Tampa Bay Rays are off to a good start, and their most valuable player is Carl Crawford (whose early hero, before he turned to baseball, was Hakeem Alajuwon). So the Tea Partiers' resentment, which is understandable, is focused laser-like on a half-black, moderate-liberal man who's the only person who can possibly lead us out of this mean-minded madhouse. But he doesn't look like them, or talk like them. Neither does Michelle: she's the anti-Sarah Palin. We're in a recession, so the crowds look at this couple, and for reasons too deep to articulate, their blood boils.

They forget that the reason the bankers and others took such wild "risks" (no risk for them) was that Reagan loosened the financial rules in the 1980s, with the coup de grace delivered in 1999, led by John McCain's advisor, Phil Gramm, repealing the Glass-Steagall Act that served to regulate our finances.

The mob rails, again understandably, about the deficit, but they forget they supported the Iraq war, our first war fought on borrowed money, unsupported by taxes. (Instead, to keep people from complaining, or even asking questions about it, President Bush pushed through tax cuts. Hurray for George Bush!) This will cost over a trillion dollars, but it's far more than that, when one considers the ongoing human cost — and it's still a lose-lose disaster, as bombs detonate daily in Baghdad. The last sane thing that Dick Cheney said was in 1994 when he warned us about getting involved in the "quagmire" of Iraq. But Republicans forget this, as they blast the cost of the health care bill, even though that money at least will go to Americans.

Some of the signs at the demonstrations say things like "No free Health Care in the Constitution!" They forget there's no free education there, either, or Social Security or Medicare. There's no mention of slavery, or — until amended in 1920 — women's right to vote. The Constitution is marvelous, but needs careful amendments to keep up with changing times. I'm OK with the right to bear arms, for example, but I think we should put something in about Uzis.

Of course a question could be, do these protesters really forget? But if they believe what they're saying, it's even more disturbing. A great party is being overrun by an angry and terrified splinter group. The first casualty is truth — Death panels! Communism! Bankruptcy! The second is compromise, harder and harder to arrive at, despite Obama's efforts (his health care bill is a compromise!). If this group succeeds in taking over the Republican party, the third casualty could be America.

O it's broken the lock and splintered the door,

O it's the gate where they're turning, turning;

Their boots are heavy on the floor

And their eyes are burning.

—poetry from "O What is that Sound" by W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

—Peter and Jeanne Meinke will be at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown next week. Peter will be reading poetry and fiction for his 55th Reunion at Hamilton College, Clinton NY, on June 4.

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