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O Neighbor! Where Art Thou?

by Alf Nucifora

Let's get the mea culpas out of the way right upfront. I've done my fair share of things I'm not proud of, questionable behavior, not to mention unthinking actions borne of weakness or stupidity that make me shudder with disgust and remorse every time they surface unexpectedly from the sub-conscious, where I'd prefer they remain buried. No doubt I'll be party to more of this same malfeasance before I die. In my defense, I learn from the mistakes and try not to repeat them. And I don't believe in moralizing. As long as your behavior doesn't hurt others, you get a free pass. Catechisms, commandments and church dogma I leave to those who feel they need it. My God's a pretty forgiving type who allows more leeway than the religious Torquemadas and mullahs would permit. I must admit to one grievance that induces a phantom heart attack every time I read about it. It's the hypocrisy of conservative politicians and evangelical churchmen who preach stridently about the wages of sin and mandate how the rest of us should lead our lives, all the while breaking the very same rules in private. We're seeing a lot of that lately.

Admission and disclosure aside, I still never fail to be amazed by the continuing decline in societal values, the type of core behavior that defines a nation and its people, in contrast to the external profession of piety and chest thumping that one sees so commonly at prayer breakfasts and on Thanksgiving Day.

The proverbial road warrior tour has a way of heightening the senses and tuning the radar when it comes to the behavior of one's fellow citizens. A recent multi-city trip reminded just me how bad it's become. As with the affect of liquor on the brain and tongue, (heretofore known as the Gibson Syndrome), travel seems to bring out the worst in people and reveal the true inner self.

Let's start with Philadelphia. Aside from its tired, industrial decrepitude, and the unhealthy eating habits of its hoi polloi, the city's denizens carry about them a faint sense of larceny, an "I'll screw you if I get half the chance" attitude reminiscent of New Yorkers, but without the New York cheekiness and charm. On two recent trips I fell victim to the shady practices of the city's notorious cab fraternity. Allow me to express my prejudices about cab drivers as a breed. These are people of questionable hygiene habits, lacking in tact and civility and generally possessing the scruples of a Nigerian scam artist. The Philly fraternity did nothing to break the mold. Both incidents involved obvious over-charging and double-billing. There was also the case of change returned for a $20 bill when the driver knowingly accepted a $100 bill proffered by mistake.

I think I understand the concept of greed. I've been motivated by it myself on more occasions than I'd like to admit. It's an alluring temptress particularly when one plays at the edges of what is good, bad, questionable or acceptable. How many people really think that Martha Stewart was guilty of egregious behavior when she allegedly traded on inside information? But there comes time when the decision is unambiguous and demanding of a clear, right-wrong decision. From the respected c-suite to the envied world of the hedge fund manager, all the way to the lower levels of the taxi rank, the accepted practice today seems more accepting, even admiring of rule-breaking and the "every man for himself" ethos that is espoused and encouraged by political leaders and media pundits alike.

In Atlanta, it was Hartsfield-Jackson's loud, and officious TSA automatons, lording their supremacy, smug in the cocoon of authority invested in them by a gaudy, fabric patch and its dispensing Homeland Security master, equally intent on proving its worth by enacting useless, time-consuming iconic gestures aimed not at securing the peace but in keeping the citizen-traveler in a constant state of fear, and reminding him just how powerless he is against the mighty power of the state. These TSA types, cheaper to hire than the development cost of more reliable electronic scanners, apply rules without deference to logic, a bureaucratic corps wedded to its own blind ignorance and respect for ritual, much like the slow-walker at the pedestrian crossing intent on proving, by lazy saunter, who's in control of the roadway real estate. With their 3oz smugness and Ziploc self-importance they represent the narrow-mindedness of an old South rather than the liberating spirit on which Atlanta has prided itself for so long. Why must the terminal experience mirror the flying experience? Have the barbarians so infiltrated the skies that the cagers and the caged are forced into a new power dynamic based on barked commands and orderly queues?

On the political front, where venality and hypocrisy know no depth, we see situations that stagger the imagination for the crudeness of their spirit and the baseness of their intent. How does one explain to one's children or the Sunday school class, the recent Corker-Ford senatorial battle in Tennessee, decided in the end by the singular issue of race, in a state hardly known for its tolerance and enlightenment? They went to the old Jesse Helms playbook one more time, this time with a sucker punch to the groin inciting the never-dead Southern neurosis associated with sex of the white woman-black man type. We were supposed to have outgrown this crude appeal to past prejudices. Not so if one subscribes to the slimy philosophy of a Karl Rove or the unfiltered venom and snide sarcasm of the eloquent Rush Limbaugh, judging from his recent pontifications on the alleged Duke Rape scandal.

Where talk radio excites, a forgivable transgression given that that's its raison d'etre, and its best practitioners are expected to be the most effective provocateurs and mind benders, organized religion, Christian and otherwise, retreats to the shadows whenever its bone fides is put to the test. How else to explain the hatred and absence of love and understanding that spews from its clergy ranks on issues of homosexuality and gay marriage? Let me make sure I got this right. Jesus loves all his creatures? Even Dick Cheney's daughter? Right? "My religion is better than yours" face-offs, Terry Schiavo abominations, virulent abortion rhetoric, stem cell research street fights and prayer-in-the-school debates do nothing to convince this man that Jesus' will is being done. Love and enlightenment have given way to fear, ignorance and a cultural regression aimed at taking the nation back to the dark ages of the 1950's.

As a lover of all things American, even from childhood, and a confirmed and appreciative citizen of 21 years, I still don't see the need to express my fealty with flag lapel pins. The amber waves of grain and fruited plains don't get me misty-eyed. The Golden Gate or Brooklyn Bridges, perhaps, on a more receptive day. Iraq debacles may concern me but most of our citizens' failings I attribute to bad leadership and current prevailing political philosophies that play to the dark side of the national character. Give us sun, and allow us to breathe the air of enlightenment, and the best in us pours from every pore. We can be inspired to great thoughts and deeds. Look at the immediate post-9/11 period when the nation rallied and before the instinct to unite was corrupted by the fear invoked by political expediency. We're a good people, but sometimes I despair. Take a trip in a Philly cab, cross swords with the TSA martinets at Hartsfield-Jackson or run for office in old Rocky Top and you have to wonder if it's too late. While the nation's hardware remains top shelf, has its software become corrupted?

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