What is your idea of a paradise? The dictionary describes it as “an enclosed garden of bliss; a state of heavenly delight; a sensation of joy.” If you have ever fallen in love or experienced recognition for a task well done as an individual or as a member of a team, you know what it is. But is it possible for a government to achieve a paradisiacal state for its citizens?
In the 17th century a group of pilgrims known as Puritans decided to create a Garden of Eden in the new world.
In the 18th century the colonists separated from Great Britain and designed a government: “to form a more perfect union; that all men are created equal; with rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to establish justice, tranquility, and defense; to promote the general welfare.”
By the 19th century these goals became deeds as slavery ended, labor conditions improved, free public schools and libraries were built, and entrepreneurs encouraged. The dream continued with writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Longfellow, and Lowell, who criticized our materialistic quest. Many utopian communes criss-crossed our nation: New Harmony, Brook Farm, Oneida, the Perfectionists, and the Shakers. In addition, new faiths were founded: the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, and countless sects seeking their version of Paradise.
The 20th century regarded America as the ideal and witnessed the influx of millions of immigrants passing the Statue of Liberty certain to find the streets paved with gold. This melting pot won two world wars, stopped the expansion of communism, and led the world as a free enterprising system that created a middle class majority.
We have now entered the first decade of the 21st century. What is the future for us Adams and Eves? Before we attempt an answer, I am reminded what Arnold Toynbee, an historian, once said that nations are like persons; they are born, grow, mature, decline, reach a stasis, or die. Toynbee pointed to those who died: ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites, Phoenicians, Persians, Inca, Aztec, Mayans. Those that declined: Greek, Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, Austria-Hungarian. Those reaching stasis: Spain, France, Great Britain.
At what stage is the United States?
Let’s consider some generalizations.
1. Our prisons are filled to capacity.
2. Our borders allow millions of illegal aliens in.
3. The drug trade continues.
4. A majority of our students fail to meet government standards.
5. Gangs and crime permeate some of our schools.
6. Every state but two are bankrupt.
7. The federal government is trillions in debt.
8. The unregulated stock market is a casino.
9. Millions have no health insurance, jobs, homes.
10. Movies are filled with violence and sex.
11. Pollution pervades land and waterways.
12. The media creates news instead of reporting it accurately.
13. Athletes admit the use of steroids.
14. The U.S. admits to the torture of prisoners.
15. The public is not sure about the reliability of voting machines or ballots.
16. Politicians favor their party over their country.
17. Regulators have failed to regulate the market.
The list is long. Perhaps longer. However, Americans are resilient and resourceful. We shall overcome these temporary setbacks. We came through the fatal 1918 flu epidemic, the 1929 depression, and the Cold War nuclear threats of the 1950s.
I do not believe we are in a Toynbeean decline. Rather, we shall prevail according to Thornton Wilder, by the Skin Of Our Teeth. Paradise is not lost. One example is Princeton.
Roufberg is retired as chairman of the Social Studies department at Princeton High School.