I own a small knife about two inches long. It's a silver colored and ornately detailed tool in the style of a Swiss Army Knife. It's astounding to me how many implements fit inside of it: corkscrew, nail file, can opener, scissors and multiple sizes of knives. It was given to me by my stepfather, who received it from his father, who purchased it in Vietnam during the war. On a personal level, it's among the most precious things I own, even if it has relatively little material value.
The man who purchased it was drafted into service and left his small family to fight in a war he didn't believe in. He came back haunted and changed. He was no saint when he left, but the war drove him deep into drinking and anger to help him cope with the trauma. He was killed by a drunk driver when my stepfather was ten years old.
I can see the pain in my stepfather's eyes when the subject of the Vietnam war comes up. He speaks with quiet, anguished venom about the men who took his father away, lied about why and left him a husk of a person.
There's a reason why we haven't seen a draft in this country since Vietnam. The people who lived through those years saw a face of government that was twisted and manipulative. It challenged the very core of the American social contract that formed during the struggles of the Great Depression. What did it say about the "American Dream" when the poor were conscripted by the thousands while the rich could lounge comfortably? What did it say about the struggle for freedom when American soldiers gunned down innocent men, women and children and torched towns?
It was, in part, this display of the dark side and potential potency of government that lead to the rise of modern conservatism. Government had shown itself to have problems, to be corrupt, self serving and a respecter of persons. It's not much of a step from "The government has problems" to "The government is the problem." And thus we have had decades of a constant push for the dismantling of basic social institutions and programs that ensure a certain quality of life for all Americans.
What frustrates me the most is that there is no reason for us to do so. We have the largest, most advanced global economy in the history of the world. There is no logical reason that we cannot provide food, shelter, health care and education to every person on the planet. I lie in bed at night and just dream about everything the human race could accomplish: global high speed transportation, eradication of diseases, environmental conservation.
Even on a smaller, American sized, scale, there is no reason we can't make America's infrastructure the most advanced in the world. There is no reason that people should be out of work or unable to better themselves. There is no reason that some of us should live on the streets while others live in modern palaces.
And yet, as technology advances, it seems to push us toward gratifying the wants of the few instead of the needs of the many. We face an increasingly shrinking workforce as automation takes over sectors of the economy that once needed a human worker. In the future, the service industry, with all its complexities and niches, will not be exempt. Why aren't we truly taking advantage of this new technology? Why are we not cutting work hours and time to give people more freedom to pursue their goals and dreams? We have the resources to do it.
I think that there are two reasons that we seem to be unable to live up to our vast potential. The idolization of profit is so ingrained in our minds that we can only think of it on a small, personal scale. But even more important, I believe, is fear of abuse of the social contract. Every time the government seems incapable of handling veteran's records, every time we learn more about the NSA (no matter your personal stance on it), every time we go and fight another war in a country we don't know for reasons we don't believe in, people are gain more fear and evidence of abuse. We see all the selfish, misguided, illegal and deceitful things that people are capable of that we start to assume that it is all we are.
I see in my small knife the symbol of a social contract broken and I see in my stepfather's eyes the dramatic human impact that can have. But I look at the amazing and wonderful world around me, filled people who are kind and genuine, and I just have to believe that we are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. We have a lack of trust in this country. The people don't trust the government, the government doesn't trust the people. We don't trust the neighbor down the street or the teen in the parking lot.
Lack of trust breeds fear of our fellow humans. Every American is a potential terrorist. That man on the corner might be a thief. That poor person is probably a violent drug addict. And when we fear those around us, we become unable to sympathize with their life and struggles. What did they do to deserve those government handouts? They're just lazy and stupid.
And that's why, even though I own a small knife, I don't keep it on my person. It's why I am just as unlikely to carry a gun. Because I believe in the unlimited potential of a united humanity, I would much rather live my life trusting and respecting those around me than living in a state of contempt and fear of the world I live in.