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Hopes for the nation, world in 2010
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Each year seems to bring incredible advances in technology -- at least in those areas that satisfy our basic urges -- weapons of war, computer games, iPods and the like. Less so with respect to areas that should really be at the top of the priority list, such as medical breakthroughs and new energy sources.

But as we take stock and look backward, it would seem that human behavior hasn’t changed much since the days of the cavemen. We still tend to settle our disputes in belligerent manners. Huge disparities continue to exist in living conditions, in educational opportunities and in resource allocations. And it's politics as usual. What is happening today would probably seem familiar to the ancient Greeks and Romans and those who preceded them.

The current furor over health care reform typifies the problem. I’m not referring to the differences of opinion over the content of the bill itself. Rather my focus is on the process.

Despite the importance of the issues, the state of the economy and the clear unhappiness that the general public has expressed with respect to Congress, it’s business as usual. The length of the bill is incredible. The House version was 1,990 pages. The Senate version was 2,074 pages, plus a 383 page amendment, introduced at the last minute and all written in “leagalese.”

It is not surprising that, senators, on the way to vote on the bill, when stopped by an interviewer who asked, “Have you read the bill?" were unable to answer “yes.” On a TV show the day after, neither the Democratic nor the Republican spokesmen were able to quote details with any authority and had to give evasive answers to questions of fact raised by the moderator. Much of the complexity was to assure that the needs of special interest groups were protected. I often think it would be nice if we had a constitutional amendment that said that no bill before Congress could be longer than four pages -- double spaced -- and that it had to be written at an eighth-grade reading level.

Additionally, billions of dollars have been appended to the bill in the form of “pork” to satisfy the needs of particular members of Congress to court constituents who provide funds or votes for their re-election ... again, another way of buying their votes for the bill. When questioned about this in a TV interview, the majority leader of the Senate disdainfully dismissed the interviewer by indicating that this was the way Congress operates. As if there was a mandate to add pork to any bill. It would be nice to see the House-Senate conference knock most of this out ... .

But most disturbing was a relatively new way to throw ethics and integrity to the wind. The Congressional leadership overtly purchased votes by offering special provisions to particular members of Congress (and their constituents), at the expense of the rest of the country.

Enemies, even those who spread terrorism from outside (like al Qaida) are tough to deal with. But if a nation is strong internally and vigilant these threats can be managed. Hitler’s attempts to bring England to its knees in World War II by massive bombing of civilian targets and, later, by the use of buzz-bombs, just hardened British resolve.

Similarly, during WWII, Americans willingly made sacrifices. Many put themselves in harm's way, going off to fight. Those who stayed at home did without, through rationing and other means, and threw themselves into the task of supporting our troops and the war effort overseas. The nation came together. But when the system starts to decay from within -- when integrity is devalued and trust evaporates -- the outlook for the future becomes dire.

The “special” concessions which the Senate leadership made to various states (really to various senators) in order to win their votes runs counter to traditional American values.

I’ll illustrate with only one of these maneuvers. Part of the 383-page, last-minute amendment contains a section which exempts Nebraska from certain provisions (and costs) of the bill. One of its senators, beholden to no one except the voters of his home state, was able to negotiate special treatment for Nebraska which will come at the expense of the rest of the nation.

This situation provides the people of Nebraska with an opportunity to make an important and dramatic statement. They can declare themselves, first and foremost, as Nebraskans and enjoy their special status (assuming the provision survives the process that still lies ahead).

The other is to declare themselves as Americans, slap the wrist of their senator hard and reject the special status that he believes will win the hearts and votes of his constituents. Like the bill or not, we should all be in this together. I find it heartwarming to see that many in Nebraska are questioning their senator’s position. Congress must wake up, before it’s too late, to the great wisdom of Pogo’s insight: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I hope 2010 will bring many changes. Here, at home: 1) improvement in the economy; 2) in a reaffirmation of the qualities of personal integrity; 3) in the re-establishment of trust in our institutions; 4) and in the recognition that the good in each one of us can be projected outward to encompass the nation and even the globe. It’s a lot to hope for.

In the world: 1) for peace and the building of bridges between otherwise hostile communities; 2) the ability to eliminate more of the diseases and the poverty that plague so many; 3) and the ability of nations to work together in building a better future for all.
It will only happen one way, if each of us does what he or she can to make it so. The task is daunting, impossible for any single individual. But working in concert we can make almost anything happen. The secret is in recognizing this power and not being put off by the fact that each of our individual contributions may be small. The mighty oceans are formed, drop by drop, as the rain collects in rivers and streams and comes together. And pressure on Congress, voter by voter, is the only way to create the tidal waves needed to effect change in that institution.

I hope that 2010 will be a wonderful and healthy year for you and those you love, and that you will get much satisfaction from your efforts to help make a difference in this world. It can and should be a wonderful place for all.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.