American ideal:
1940s provide map for equal justice, rights for citizens

Watching Ken Burns' "The War" on PBS last week, a longing came over me for that American idealism we loved and venerated in the 1940s.

At the risk of sounding na¡ve in today's brutal political climate of cynicism and partisan hatred, the American idealism we honored was based on the Bill of Rights, on equal justice under law and on a secular ethic that drew its strength from the logic of what we knew as the Golden Rule - treating people as you would want to be treated.

Watching the KNME-TV documentary on the Bataan Death March reinforced that idealism once again, as we listened to the histories of decent, humane and honorable New Mexicans who faced the brutality of tyranny.

Their idealism was about more than survival and winning the war. It was about the importance of living a good American life - not merely a life of plenty and privilege, but a life of service and tolerance and open-minded give-and-take.

These were ideals that moved Americans to begin to right the wrongs emerging from our own history of tyranny, in the form of prejudice and the disasters of economic injustice in a culture that preached not only equal justice for all but also equal opportunity through hard work.

The terrible truths were, of course, that some people didn't have to work at all to be rich, and others worked their lives away barely keeping body and soul together. Some people were born into good fortune and high advantage, and others were born into racial, gender and economic oppression.

All during the post-war period, idealism and cynicism battled for the upper hand in our country, and idealism often found its way, championed by the efforts of people of good conscience in both major political parties and in all groups and economic strata.

The power of American idealism is that it serves equally as a guide to action and as a map of what to avoid in our evolution toward a more humane civilization.

Our idealism is opposed to a nation in which racial, gender, economic and political hatreds destroy civil discourse. It is opposed to unbridled power, and it warns us against political dogma that makes no room for alternative views. Most profoundly, it is opposed to a kind of political sadism that blames victims of social injustice for their suffering.

What World War II taught children growing up in the l940s is clean and simple.

We never wanted our country to in any way resemble Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, fascist Italy, Maoist China, Imperial Japan or any other nation in which free dissent, equality of opportunity and human compassion didn't predominate.

Isn't that what all of us still want deep down, despite class and political party - an America that is free, strong, resourceful, kind and fair?

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
October 5, 2007