When I was a child, the world was involved in all-out war, World War II. My Dad was production manager of a defense plant owned by my Uncle. (Dad had served in France in WWI.) Dozens of my cousins and uncles were at war and I was, along with the rest of the nation, too.
We children collected cans, bottles, jars, even chewing gum wrappers (which were then made of tinfoil) for "the war effort." We earned money with our summer lemonade stands and baby-watching (I was too young to baby sit until after the war was over but was paid nickles and dimes for watching my baby cousins while we were all under the watchful eyes of adults).
We took those dimes to school and bought defense stamps, which we saved in books. The books were eventually exchanged for defense bonds. Our money went to the government to pay for planes and bombs. We were proud that we were able to contribute in some small way to make the world free from tyranny of the Nazis and Japanese.
We kids had an immense amount of freedom. No one was afraid to go out at night, even when we traveled to the big cities like Washington DC or New York. I remember riding the subway at night, dashing on first to save seats for the others. Although like most children, we had curfews, it wasn't because of fear.
With the world at war we knew air raid drills and sugar and gas shortages. We stayed home willingly and used food stamps gratefully, sadly aware that others in the world weren't as fortunate as we and thankful for our safe lives.
And we were so proud to be Americans. We didn't talk about the war and our soldiers were careful not to mention where they were or what they were doing. "Loose lips sink ships," we believed, and we didn't WANT to know anything that might endanger our troops.
Even we kids read the reports in the newspapers and heard HV Kaltenborn on the radio. We were so proud that our country could help save the world from fascism and looked forward to the day when all the world was free.
Hollywood made movies about the war, romantic stories we could identify with, about the men and women who went to war, their adventures and the families they left behind. Every movie showed the same pride we felt.
Let me tell you what my America was like. For those of you under 40, it may come as a revelation.
· In my America, there was prayer in the schools, crèches in public parks at Christmas (in fact, sales people actually wished you a "Merry Christmas," instead of the generic, secularized "happy holiday"), and universal respect for individuals who were reverently referred to a "men of the cloth." Hollywood celebrated faith with classics like "The Song of Bernadette," "Going My Way," "The Ten Commandments" and "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison."
· Instead of half-naked, writhing celebrities and smirking savages with pistols larger than their brains, we had athletes, warriors, champions of justice and people of faith as heroes. (In terms of role models, we've gone from Audie Murphy to Eddie Murphy.)
Even movie stars who lived "free love" syle lives kept their private lives quiet and appeared in public as beautifully coiffed and dressed, well-mannered, soft-spoken and kind. They were careful of their images for fear the public would shun them.
· It was universally acknowledged that sex should be reserved for marriage. Those who lived together without the benefit of a marriage license weren't called a "cohabitating couple." It was said they were "shacking up" or "fornicating." The product of their "illicit" relationships weren't "born out-of-wedlock;" they were bastards (a judgment on the parents, not the children).
· Pornography was limited to the shadow world -- to paperbacks and magazines surreptitiously sold under the counter, or arriving in the mail in a plain-brown wrapper. Parents could be assured that children wouldn't encounter sex before the appropriate time. Society treated this volatile aspect of human nature cautiously and respectfully, not as a lurid national pastime that pervades every aspect of our lives. Virginity and fidelity were prized. Indiscretion, promiscuity and adultery were condemned.
· Addiction, too, was limited to society's fringes, to social outcasts. Provisions were made for the treatment -- or incarceration -- of the unfortunates who became slaves to narcotics. But we didn't cater to them by facilitating their addiction, in the name of disease control or compassion.
· Immigrants (who were here legally) were humbly grateful to reside in the greatest nation on earth. They understood that it was their responsibility to learn our language and history and identify with us -- in short to Americanize. Instead of making demands, they accepted obligations.
· In general, our society was more oriented toward responsibilities than rights. The mark of an American wasn't a hand outstretched, palm up, but a shoulder for bearing burdens. Instead of whiny demands, we gratefully accepted duties.
· Crime was an anomaly. In small towns, people frequently went away for the weekend without locking their doors. Except for certain disreputable sections, the streets of our cities were safe for women, even at night. Girls weren't abducted, raped and buried alive in landfills. The rights of the accused were minimal.
· Expressions like "no-fault divorce," "casual sex," "recreational drugs," "undocumented workers," "same-sex couples," "trophy wives," "gender-neutral," "racial profiling," "affirmative action," "church-state separation," "victimless crimes," "sex-industry workers," "symbolic speech," "sexually transmitted diseases," "non-judgmentalism," and "revisionist history" were blessedly unknown.
· Homosexuality was treated as a grievous sin -- or a mental disorder (depending on your perspective) -- not as an innate characteristic conferring minority status. Before they became "gay," homosexuals weren't hated; they were pitied. But they weren't allowed to turn the social order upside down to enhance their self-esteem.
· The FBI, Boy Scouts, police, firemen, military and clergy were respected. Degenerates, parasites, misfits, mutants and whiners were not.
· Americans knew their history, celebrated their past and revered their heroes. They weren't consumed with guilt for the mistakes of the past. Everyone knew that slavery was a great wrong and the Indians got a raw deal. We also knew that slavery was a universal institution and we weren't the first people to clash with an indigenous population. We understood that America's faults were minor and -- on balance -- the blessings we bestowed on humanity far outweighed our mistakes.
· We weren't obsessed with our image abroad -- whether foreigners loved us. We were willing to accept the animosity of the envious and the hatred of our enemies as part of the natural order. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we didn't ask if we had brought this on ourselves by our ghastly treatment of a nation of ruthless warmongers. FDR didn't proclaim that our mission was to bring democracy to the Germans and Japanese (that was a side effect). It was to kill Japanese and Germans and to keep killing them until they stopped killing Chinese and Filipinos, and Jews and Poles and went back where they belonged. The idea of Americans agonizing over whether Mein Kampf was treated disrespectfully in a POW camp for Germans is ludicrous.
· We weren't "multi-cultural." There was one culture -- Anglo-Saxon, Protestant -- to which others were expected to conform. This didn't mean that Jews, Catholics, blacks or Asians, considered themselves less American than those of Mayflower descent. But it was universally acknowledged that America was founded on the heritage of Western civilization, as amplified and transmitted by England.
My America worked. We saved civilization from repeated barbarian onslaughts. We were the arsenal of democracy -- the workshop of the world. Our prosperity lifted boats across the globe. We were happy, self-confident and proud.
And look at us now. We're like a dysfunctional family of 268 million, bordered by two oceans.
It was a beautiful world. God Bless America, even the sad imitation it is now instead of the strong, willing, proud nation it once was.