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It was a longtime source of annoyance in my neighborhood. And of anti-government grumbling. For six years, they were building...something. No one seemed to know what.

Later, I learned than people in a nearby housing complex had begun pursuing the project in 1993. It was completed seventeen years later. There was probably an unveiling ceremony, but I got my first look one summer evening when I was walking home with my wife and children.

There, on the island in the middle of the traffic circle at the northwest corner of Central Park, I found myself staring up at Frederick Douglass. It was a powerful statue, I thought. Although its depiction of his famous hair was perhaps overdone, the statue managed to convey his moral authority. He was looking up the boulevard named for him, toward Harlem. Looking north, that is.

But it's more than just a statue. It's an entire monument, with a bronze wall that seems inspired by the Vietnam Memorial, a colored paving pattern evoking African-American quilt design, and an array of granite forms ideal for sitting. The monument is enclosed by trees (that are still small to shut out the city) and by a wrought iron fence with what appears to be a wagon-wheel design suggesting--this is a guess--Douglass's trip to safety, which landed him in New York. Here are photos.

Inscribed in the granite are biographical information and a selection of his amazing words:

Granite block 4
"Whatever may be said as to a division of duties and avocations the rights of the man and the rights of woman are one and inseparable, and stand upon the same indestructible basis." - 1851

Granite block 5
"The flight was a bold and perilous one, but here I am in the great city of New York, safe and sound without the loss of blood or bone.” - 1855

Granite block 6
"Such is my detestation of slavery, that I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. He should be left to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors..." - 1855

Granite block 7
"Of my father I knew nothing. Slavery had no recognition of fathers, as none of families. - 1845

Granite block 8
"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation...want crops without plowing up the land...they want the ocean without the aweful roar of its many waters...power concedes nothing without a demand." - 1857

Pavement
"Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren."
Masthead of the North Star

The project took too long, some reviews have been negative, and for all I know, its funding--Congressman Rangel secured the bulk of it through the ISTEA--may give good governement advocates the willies. Yet in my neighborhood, there is now literally an island of calm amid the storms of the city, a place to honor--and take inspiration from--a great man. Of course, it's likely to mean something special to African-Americans, but Douglass is a hero and role model to people of all colors. Meteor Blades pays tribute to him here.  

One Sunday morning I visited with my sons, who like to climb on the granite forms. A young German couple was there, eating store-bought donuts and taking about a thousand pictures. The woman needed help understanding the words on Granite block 8. A black man in a coat and tie, there with his family before church, provided it, explaining what "deprecate agitation" meant.  

The benefits of a place like this are intangible but invaluable. It enriches our lives, and the soul of the city. It's also a manifestation of government, precisely the thing the right-wing wants to destroy.

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Now that I'm a parent, I'm less selfish. I care about the world more. I'm scared for my children, worried we're going to give them a corroded, crumbling, collapsing, crime-infested, corrupt, conservative, cold-hearted, corporatized country. Already we're tearing up roads and turning out lights.

Have we gotten our heads around what's happeningto the country?

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further -- it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

If anyone doesn't think the decline of the country is real or steep, I point you to this figure, which Glenn Greenwald plausibly cites as evidence that the American Empire is crumbling.

In 1950, the United States was fifth among the leading industrialized nations with respect to female life expectancy at birth, surpassed only by Sweden, Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands.  The last available measure of female life expectancy had the United States ranked at forty-sixth in the world.  As of September 23, 2010, the United States ranked forty-ninth for both male and female life expectancy combined.

But at least we can take comfort in knowing we're taking care of the most vulnerable among us, yes? No.

Indiana's budget crunch has become so severe that some state workers have suggested leaving severely disabled people at homeless shelters if they can't be cared for at home, parents and advocates said.

They said workers at Indiana's Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services have told parents that's one option they have when families can no longer care for children at home and haven't received Medicaid waivers that pay for services that support disabled people living independently.

There are many reasons for the country's decline, none more significant that the corporate-fueled rise of Reaganism, which succeeded in turning the word government into an obscenity. President Obama has, at times, pushed back.  

For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us.  We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

Government is the police officers who are here protecting us and the service men and women who are defending us abroad.  Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe.  Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them.  Government is this extraordinary public university – a place that is doing life-saving research, catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.

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Yet there's no denying that Democrats have contributed to this sorry state of affairs. Although unlike Republicans, conservative Democrats and Wall Street Democrats generally don't attack the concept of government, they preach budget austerity, which aids the GOP attack on government. But the budget slashers on the right and in the center chop their machetes only at programs for the poor and the middle class. There is money, always money, for wars and for weapons systems, for bombs and bank bailouts.  

The numbers never fail to astonish, and no number gets me more than this one.58 percent of the country's discretionary spending goes to the military.

And there are the wars themselves. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes created a little bit of noise (although not nearly enough) when they put out a book arguing that the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be three trillion dollars. Turns out, their estimate was way off. It was too low.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you how war fits into this. I mean, you co-wrote the book with Linda Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War. How does war fit into our problems with the economy?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, war fits in because you’re creating a liability, you’re spending money. And when we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we already had a deficit. And so, these wars were the first wars in America’s history financed totally on the credit card. So, you’re creating a liability, but you’re not creating an asset. So that’s the kind of spending that does weaken the economy, because it’s one-sided. Now, we came out just a couple weeks with new numbers that unfortunately show that our old numbers were a little wrong, in the sense that they were too conservative.

AMY GOODMAN: Three trillion dollars.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Was too little. And particularly what we looked at in a report—we testified before Congress—what we looked at was the large number of troops returning who are disabled. Turned out that the numbers returning disabled are higher than we had estimated. It’s close to 50 percent now. And the cost per disabled, injured troop is higher. So we had talked then about the cost of healthcare and disability payments for our returning troops in the order of maybe a little less than a half-a-trillion dollars. That’s a lot of money. Our new numbers are, best estimate, in excess of $900 billion. These are unfunded liabilities, a moral obligation—they fought for us—unfunded, totally unfunded. The good news is that they were trying to put together a coalition of people who believe in responsible budgeting, that said, "OK, if we’re going to send our troops overseas, we ought to at least put aside the money to pay for the full in costs. The full in costs include the costs of these disabled people.

AMY GOODMAN: So what you’re estimating the cost of both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now at?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, well in excess of the $3 trillion. Before, the numbers that we said were actually three to five trillion. That doesn’t sound as catchy a title as—"The Three to Five Trillion Dollar War." The numbers now are much more like four to six trillion.

$4 trillion on the low end, enough to repair this broken country, enough to alleviate much of the pain caused by budget slashing. But that money is gone. Spent.

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Now, thanks in part to President Obama's Catfood Commission, the political class is fixating on the country's debt, never mind the unemployment crisis, rising poverty, or historically high economic inequality. Never mind that fixating on the debt now is like worrying about the water supply when you're trying to put out a fire.

The debt commission and the effort to preserve Bush's tax cuts for the rich represent massive assaults in the class war. The former targets the safety net, the latter the federal treasury. And they're related, of course: the rich gobble up resources at the expense of entitlements and education and public works--at the expense of the country itself. Make no mistake, those forces securing billions for the rich and for wars are destroying the country, and they won't stop unless we make them stop.

If Democrats can't fight back, they're as useless as their strongest critics claim. I actually think they might in the coming weeks find their voice. And I know that if they do, the American people will support them. Therein lies my hope: unlike a lot of people here, I have faith in the people. And I take solace in the words of Frederick Douglass, who, after all, knew a time in our history darker than this one.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation...want crops without plowing up the land...they want the ocean without the aweful roar of its many waters...power concedes nothing without a demand.

Originally posted to david mizner on Sun Nov 14, 2010 at 10:48 AM PST.

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