Let's see if I've got this straight:
- The war in Iraq goes on and on, with no end in sight. Its monthly costs easily outstrip that which both the North and South combined, spent on a 4-year Civil War.
- Recruitment into America's all-volunteer army is at an all time low. In response, the Defense Department has begun working with a private marketing firm to create a database of all U.S. high school and college students between the ages of 16 and 18. Can a renewed draft be far behind?
- Flying in the face of reality, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declares that the "last days of the Iraqi insurgency are at hand." (Is that the right or the left hand Mr. Secretary?)
- Imported oil is now hovering around the $60.00 a barrel mark. In response, President George W. (the "W" is for "Wildcatter") Bush recommends that we begin looking toward that wonderfully safe alternate energy source: nuclear (or is that nucular?) energy.
- More than 45 million Americans are without any form of health insurance. And to make a horrible situation even worse, America's Medicaid program is on the verge of bankruptcy (and you thought it was Social Security that was about to go under for the third time!)
- The United States is without an ambassador to the United Nations. And what makes matters even worse, the Bush Administration's nominee for the post, John Bolton (he of the Harry Reems mustache), thinks the U.N. is about as useless as last year's Chia Pet.
- American corporations are "outsourcing" (shades of Orwell's 1984, where "war" was "peace" and "love" was "hate") jobs by the carload. My god! I just looked at the label of my Izod shirt: it was made in Cambodia!
- Etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum.
OK, you get the picture. Rome is burning all around us. Or, to put things more diplomatically, there is simply no end to the challenges of modernity -- challenges that should easily keep Congress, the White House and the American public engaged in thoughtful, purposive dialogue for at least the next generation or two. With challenges such as these (plus all those that fit into ad nauseum), one would think that the level of debate and commitment would be at an all time high. One might also think that we'd all be keeping our eyes, ears and minds open to policies and programs that might -- just might -- help turn the tide.
One might think . . .
Let's look at the record:
- By a vote of 286-130, the House had the courage to pass the following bill: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." Wow! That will show those flag-burning, pot-smoking, long-haired . . . Wait a second. When was the last time you read or heard about a rash of flag burning? Could it be that the House has aimed a Constitutional amendment at members of the 60s antiwar clique? I thought that most of the long-haired pot smokers were getting ready to cash their first Social Security check. And besides, what is more important: safeguarding American values (like dissenting from policies with which we do not agree) or the symbol of those values?
- The Bush White House, even in the face of increasing opposition, continues to push its revolutionary plan vis-a-vis Social Security. Despite the fact that statistics prove Social Security will remain perfectly solvent for at least the next 40 years, Bush and company blithely march on. And at each stop along the parade route, W's handlers make damn sure that the only people he sees, hears or smells are robotic acolytes -- folks who believe that father truly knows best.
- Vice President Dick Cheney wonders aloud if even Howard Dean's mother loves him. Now there's a high-water mark in American political discourse. Instead of merely taking your opponent out to the woodshed, you question his lineage. Now the debate becomes whose mother loved them more: Mrs. Cheney or Mrs. Dean?
- During a debate on whether or not there is religious pressure or prejudice at the United States Air Force Academy, Indiana Representative John Hostettler proclaims that "Like a moth to a flame, Democrats can't help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians." Further, Hostettler has claimed that there is a concerted effort afoot on the part of the secular, anti-God crowd to put both Christians and Christianity on the endangered species list. What planet is he living on? A conspiracy to annihilate Christians? Last time I looked, Christians were, by a huge margin, the majority religion in the United States.
- Down here in Florida, where neither Johnny nor Janie can read and most new jobs pay minimum wage, the president's brother, Jeb Bush, has asked state law enforcement authorities to reopen the Terri Schiavo case. Now he wants to find out if Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, might have been criminally liable for her death. Now there's a great investment of taxpayers dollars.
And Rome continues to burn.
Back in the year 64 C.E. (that's A.D. to a non-Christian), Rome's last Caesar, the 27-year old Nero, so the story goes, set fire to the Eternal City in order to see how Troy would look when it was in flames, and to serve as a suitable background for a recitation of his poetry while accompanying himself on the lyre. Yes, I know. You thought he was fiddling on the fiddle. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but the violin wouldn't be invented for several centuries. Nonetheless, the concept of "Fiddling while Rome burns" entered our vocabulary connoting standing and doing nothing during a grave crisis.
In point of truth, Nero wasn't the brain-dead hedonist history paints him out to have been. Rome actually was burning out of control. Nero likely set several fires in a vain attempt to slow down the already raging inferno. This is a technique known to all modern forest fighters. Problem is, it doesn't work too well in an urban setting.
Once two-thirds of Rome lay in ruins and the mob began looking through bloody eyes, Nero did what all good politicians will do: he found a way to divert public attention away from the problem. Nero proceeded to blame the Christians for the fire (do you hear that Rep. Hostettler?). In point of fact, the Christians were an easy target. First, they didn't do much by way of assisting to put out the fire. Second, they got it into their heads that the fire was a good thing -- a sign from the Almighty that the Second Coming was nigh. I guess there's nothing new under the sun.
The tendency that leaders have to engage in inanities and trivialities while society burns is as old as Nero. Bush and company are merely the latest in a long, long chain of fiddlers. But that doesn't make it right, and it certainly doesn't make the music any less discordant.
Its time for a new score, a new conductor and a new orchestra -- one with more brass and less fiddle(r)s.