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Some of Humanity’s Successes and Failures experienced during my Life Time


by Bill McGaughey


I was born on February 21, 1941. What a grim situation humanity faced at that time! Adolf Hitler ruled Germany. The German Fuehrer had conquered France and several other West European countries in 1940 and was about to invade Russia. Imperial Japan had made similarly aggressive moves in Asia. World War II was about to begin.

One of humanity’s great achievements was to defeat the Axis powers in the ensuing war. Germany, Italy, and Japan went from being threats to civilization to stalwarts of the world order. I was four years old when World War II came to an end. With the defeat of the Axis powers, a major threat to humanity had been eliminated.

On the negative side, this war of the 1940s left in place a dangerous rivalry between the western democracies and the communist nations of the Soviet Union, China, and their satellites. Its conclusion had required the use of a terrifying new weapon, the atomic bomb, dropped on two Japanese cities. So we ended one world war only to look at the possibility of another, even more terrifying.

The adversarial relationship between the communist and capitalistic nations lasted through the years of my youth. Humanity lived in fear that a political mistake could trigger an exchange of nuclear weapons that would kill large numbers of people. That, too, did not happen. During the Cuban missile crisis, we came close to a military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union but, in the end, Khrushchev and Kennedy backed away from violence.

Now that particular danger has subsided. The communist regime of governments is no more. Nixon’s visit to China ended the hostile relationship between China and the United States. Reagan and Gorbachev ended the nuclear arms race. By the end of the 1980s communist rule in Russia had given way to a more democratic regime. The Soviet Union broke apart into several separate nations. The Cold War came to an end without a nuclear exchange.

On the whole, I would say that the transition from world war and ideological division to a reasonably peaceful and unified political order amounts to a global success story. In the United Nations, created in 1945, we now have an effective mechanism for discussing and resolving international problems. Humanity no longer lives in fear of imminent annihilation. With several exceptions, the leaders of nations are reasonable persons who can effectively work together to humanity’s benefit.

One of those exceptions is the 33-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. At the moment, this individual, who seems to enjoy absolute political power in his country, is focused on developing a nuclear weapon and a type of missile that can deliver that weapon to other nations. Short of his violent removal, it is hard to imagine how the danger from North Korea can be eliminated.

But I would like to focus on humanity’s successes and failures. The most astonishing event of my lifetime was the manned flight to the moon that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a human achievement beyond parallel. The human species, a product of earthly evolution, had managed to build a machine that would fly to another celestial body and return home safely. There was failure, however, in our abandonment of manned space flights after the moon expeditions. We lost our focus or, perhaps, nerve.

It was said that we had pressing needs at home that required use of our national resources. We had urban ghettos that needed assistance. We had educational failures. We had high levels of unemployment. All these areas of concern brought needy constituencies taking resources away from higher but unnecessary pursuits.

With respect to unemployment, continued progress in industrial efficiency has displaced human labor rendering a significant number of workers superfluous. Machines assume more of the productive function. In past eras, such advancements in technology were accompanied by reductions in work time for human beings. The hours of weekly labor steadily declined during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But then progress stopped. With enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the forty-hour week became a permanent standard. The fact that working hours have not subsequently declined despite continuing productivity increases must be regarded as a significant policy failure in recent years.

Instead of reducing the hours of work, we require young men and women to become qualified to hold jobs by continuing their education to a higher levels. We have record numbers of college graduates. In theory, an advanced education enriches personal life and elevates a society’s culture. In practice, it is an expensive requirement for obtaining reasonably high-paying jobs. The average college graduate today has more than $30,000 in student-loan debt that must be satisfied from future earnings.

The continuing racial divide in America’s must also rank as one of humanity’s failures. The wounds left from the days of slavery have not yet healed. But it has now been 150 years since slavery was abolished. Something in the story of recent race relations does not make sense. Has no attention been given the plight of black Americans? Quite the contrary. Racial injustice continues to be a dominant theme of our politics.

From a white man’s perspective, I would say that the black man’s struggle for equality in the Civil Rights movement has inordinately been elevated to a position of supreme importance in our politics. We have a racially themed morality story. There can be no arguing with this story or any of its conclusions. The oppressed black race is heroic; the oppressing white race, not so much. I, as a white man, must be on the defensive for historic or continuing injustices perpetrated against black people. I, a potential white racist, must continually be policing the content of my own heart.

A related theme is the idea of anti-Semitism. Jews are said to be the victims of unjustifiable hatred directed against them by non-Jews. The same applies to attitudes regarding the state of Israel. Even though Jews constitute a small portion of the U.S. population, their influence is large. The Israeli lobby has long had a major, if not dominant, voice in our foreign policy. Persons who oppose that relationship are suspected of being inspired by anti-Semitic hatred.

This internal set of relationships has put the United States at odds with other nations in the Middle East. Right now, a major issue is the status of Palestinian peoples in territories conquered by Israel during the 1967 war. The U.S. government has long supported the so-called “two-state solution” but this has not been realized.

Lately, the Israeli government has announced plans to expand Jewish settlements in areas of Jerusalem once reserved for Palestinians. There has been no significant opposition. Americans can therefore expect continuing bad relations with Arab and other Islamic peoples in the Middle East.

Summing up, I would say that relations between the black and white populations of America and between Jewish interests both here and abroad continue to be a problem that, to date, shows few signs of resolution. We have entrenched attitudes among antagonistic elements within our population that will not yield to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. But let’s move on.

When I was born, television was an experimental device just starting to be developed commercially. Today nearly 80 percent of the world’s population owns television sets. Ordinary human beings can receive a large variety of programs for free on those sets. One can argue whether or not the programs are of sufficient quality to enrich personal life, but the fact is that television viewing is voluntary. Each viewer has the choice of spending time in front of the television set or not to view its programs.

I would like to comment on the economic arrangement that allows television programs to be viewed for free. The suppliers of commercial products insert their messages into the programming in “commercial breaks”. Lately, I have noticed that a large number of television commercials are promoting brands of drugs. Viewers with health problems are advised to consider purchasing the promoted brands in consultation with their doctor.

I see a threat to personal well-being in this highly organized attempt to turn television viewers into consumers of expensive pharmaceutical products. The decision whether or not a person with health problems should use a certain drug to relieve the problem is one that licensed doctors are supposed to be making. Consumers are not allowed to make decisions to purchase such products on their own. Yet, the television commercials are selling products directly to the consumer with the idea that they will pester the doctors to prescribe those products. It’s a fundamentally dishonest proposition.

Even so, technological progress continues to be a source of good news. Although the United States abandoned the space race, we continue to be developing technologies in other areas. When I was a young man, computers were large and expensive machines owned and operated by corporations. Today, individuals can afford them. The so-called “personal computer”, which costs several hundred dollars apiece, can fit comfortably on a desk. (I am using mine right now to compose this message.) This device has transformed life in several areas.

The personal computer allows individuals to send typed messages to other individuals who are similarly equipped in emails. It allows the user to connect conveniently with thousands or millions of different web sites on the Internet to gather information. Consumers of commercial products are able to purchase those products through computer-generated orders. Some persons like me create their own web sites.

The point is that all this has developed during my life time. For better or for worse, the world is a different place than when I was born. I cannot complain. The nations of the earth have generally been at peace. I have been able to enjoy a reasonably comfortable living in an environment of reasonably free thought. The world’s people are drawn more closely together economically and culturally than ever before.


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