/A lesson for America 

A lesson for America 

By Jim Poling Sr.

The first week of February is a time of reflection for me. A time to remember a shocking – yet inspiring – tragedy that occurred on the North Atlantic a lifetime ago.

The U.S. army troop ship Dorchester was steaming south of Greenland carrying 900 soldiers en route to the war in Europe. It was just past midnight Feb. 3 1943 when the ship was rocked by a German torpedo ripping into its starboard side.

Soldiers scrambled for life jackets and life boats as the ship began to sink. Four military chaplains who gave their life jackets to others stood on the Dorchester’s deck arms locked together and singing hymns as the ship listed and went down. Seven hundred and four of the 900 soldiers died in the icy waters.

My reflections this year include a fantasy in which the Dorchester resurfaces for a day the chaplains on deck looking out over the United States of 2020.  What they see would amaze and likely sicken them.

There has been progress since they left for war in 1943. Average family incomes have increased substantially. The average standard of living became the highest in the world.

Advances in medicine save lives and improve the lives of those burdened with conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Unfortunately the main beneficiaries of better lives are the rich and the privileged. Today an estimated 50 million Americans live in poverty almost 12 million of them children or one in every six children. And 500000 Americans are homeless children among them.

Poor children are doomed to continuing lives in poverty because educational disparity is so huge in the U.S. The best educational opportunities are available to the rich and privileged not those from low-income families.

Canadian children from low-income families are twice as likely as similar American children to achieve higher incomes because Canada’s educational opportunities are more equal.

The most distressing change visible to the resurrected chaplains would be the class structure. They would see their country has developed a class system as bad or worse than the English aristocratic structure they eliminated in the American Revolution.

The American aristocrats of today are its billionaires who use their money power and influence to pile up more and more privileges to pass along to their inheritors.

Authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn note in their new book Tightrope outlining the crisis in working class America that billionaires Bill Gates Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett possess as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the U.S. population.

The four chaplains I am sure would conclude that America an empire onto itself is in decline.

It has become a country of two cultures – the rich who have everything they need and an atrophying working class whose stagnation is breaking down the country’s social fabric with growing anger racism political polarization and stress.

A 2019 Gallup poll found that Americans are among the world’s most stressed people. They are tied with Iranians in terms of stress and more stressed than Venezuelans whose country is a nightmare of poverty hunger and bad government.

Americans have good reason to be stressed. They have health care and education crises that are not being solved because needed political action is frozen by political polarization.

The drug epidemic has ruined tens of thousands of families. And gun violence: The figures are astounding – roughly 40000 gun violence deaths in 2019 including 418 mass shootings.

Some would pin America’s ills on the Trump administration but the problems have developed over many decades.

At the core of America’s serious problems is its John Wayne philosophy. Individuals who are tough independent and need no help are “good guys.” The poor and the weak are “bad guys” who can’t make it because of their own faults. America punishes “bad guys.”

To stop its freefall from greatness the United States must accept that the world has changed. It is a world requiring less hard-nosed individualism and more collectivism which means working to help each other even if it involves self-sacrifice.

That is the lesson of the four chaplains of the Dorchester.

It is a lesson followed by Canada and other strong democracies that provide a leg-up for those trying to get ahead and safety nets for those who fall.