My favorite country music artist of all time is the late Merle Haggard. Yeah, Willie and Waylon are high on my list, but Merle’s life was a country song personified, and he produced some simple, yet memorable music. I’m thankful that I had the pleasure of seeing him perform — at the old Silver Moon in Buena Vista, Georgia, back in 1994. He looked a hundred years old then. He was 57. Life had taken a toll.
After a rough and rowdy youth, Merle turned his life around and became a huge star, but he seemed destined for the dust heap of country music history before jumping to a new record label and releasing the brilliant “Big City” album in 1982. On that album was what would become the ACM Song of the Year, “Are the Good Times Really Over?” with the classic line “Are we rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for Hell?” Released in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam and in the midst of a recession in Reagan’s first term, it was supposed to be both a hypothetical question and a wake-up call for Americans to get their act together.
Today, four decades later, that questioning song title and that questioning line are echoing in my head. “Are the Good Times Really Over?” “Are we rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for Hell?”
Sorry, Merle, but I believe the answers are yes and yes. While I don’t believe in a “hell” and don’t think a snowball will roll very far with our warming climate, I no longer think America can turn herself around.
If you think that sounds like a defeatist attitude, you’re right. After what happened in Uvalde, Texas, last week and all the worst things about America on a seemingly endless loop, I’ve kinda given up on things getting better. I just brace for the next round of disappointing and/or disgusting American problems.
The shootings will keep happening, followed by thoughts and prayers and calls for action and days of media coverage and endless conspiracy theories. Some will hold their children a little tighter. Others will hold their guns a little tighter as they thank God for the Second Amendment — you know, that one about a “well-regulated militia.” There will be a lull. Then another teenager will go out and purchase a couple of assault-style rifles, 1,500 rounds of ammunition, and it’ll happen again. And again and again and again and again and nothing will change.
Any efforts at common sense gun control will be seen as a “slippery slope,” so the preferred approach to school safety will be armed personnel every 50 feet, hovering over children like stormtroopers. Or nutjob lawmakers who actively spread false rumors about a shooter being transgender, “peach tree dishes” and Jewish space lasers will claim it’s a mental health issue (no irony there). Others will say we just need to pay attention to “red flags” while not seeing the hoarding of ammunition and weapons of war as red flags, nor the biggest red flag of all — the love of guns. I’m glad I have a gun; I don’t love it. The same folks will spout the anecdotal evidence of good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns while ignoring the empirical data that toddlers kill more folks with guns than good guys take down bad guys.
Meanwhile, up the street, Canada takes action.
For decades, good folks have called for an end to the fleecing of America’s sick and for pharmaceutical companies to quit gouging those in need and gaming the system to keep cheaper drugs and generics off the market as much as possible. Health care just gets more expensive in America. The legalized extortion middle man known as private health insurance will only grow more powerful. America doesn’t have to worry about Mad Cow Disease as much as Cash Cow Disease, in which every sickness presents an opportunity for profiteering.
The whole idea of Supreme Court justices having lifetime appointments may have sounded like a good idea when folks lived to be 55. Now ideologues can impact lives for decades even while citing the words of folks who once tried “witches.” These ideologues will claim to be constitutional originalists while entrenching evil and utterly un-American concepts like gerrymandering and the infusion of money into elections. Those who are worried that the revocation of a woman’s right to choose could be a “slippery slope” toward taking rights from gays and minorities will be admonished that their “slippery slope” argument is utterly ridiculous. The “slippery slope” argument is reserved only for guns, meaning that if you take away weapons of war, next will be BB guns and Nerf guns.
Income inequality grows, the rich are taxed less, and the working poor are convinced that they must stand up and defend the likes of Elon Musk even as they pay higher percentages in taxes than he does. They decry how good the poor have it. If only the poor contributed more, we could fix this economy. The bottom 20 percent of Americans, by percentage, give the most to charity. The top 20 percent, by percentage, give the least. The bottom 40 percent are audited at higher rates even as they endeavor to follow the rules, while the top 10 percent are audited at lower rates even as they endeavor to skirt the rules, legally and illegally. And the consequences for the bottom 40 percent getting busted are devastating. The consequences for the top 10 percent getting busted are almost nonexistent — in fact, many working class folks will fly your name proudly in their front yard.
American companies rake in record profits as they cite inflation and being at the mercy of the markets. A couple of decades from now when electric vehicles devastate the oil industry, those same profiteers will be in D.C. begging for bailouts. And they’ll get all the bailout funds they want, and then some.
You can work a respectable job — or two — and still not be able to buy or rent a decent house without foregoing such luxuries as vacations, secondary education or electricity.
The ineffective two-party system only gets worse, polarizing people and paralyzing progress. The electorate grows willfully ignorant, selecting its information inside of delusional bubbles while losing the ability to see issues from multiple angles. And more and more of that ignorant electorate are becoming the elected. We are a nation of followers who proudly praise those without integrity, honor or souls. And all elections are rigged. Just ask Georgia’s “Jesus, Guns, Babies” GOP gubernatorial primary loser Kandiss Taylor, who is convinced she won the recent primary after garnering 3.4 percent of the vote. And real issues that actually impact lives are ignored as the pitchfork-toting masses come after Mickey Mouse.
We have a nation where the dominant religion is Christianity. But while so many of those Christians claim to love Jesus, they don’t seem to agree with Him or follow his teachings. I mean, don’t get Jesus started on how he feels about those who hoard wealth — especially here in America where those very folks are worshiped as demi-gods. Atheists don’t believe in Jesus, but they agree with him much more than the average American Christian.
Institutions that are supposed to protect children seem to be some of the ones that prey upon them the most, all while citing the evils of cartoons and reading books about kids with two dads. Meanwhile, if a chain of convenience stores had the same track record of child sex abuse that some of these cherished institutions have, they’d be shut down immediately and banned forever.
I’m ready for the predictable “You can move out of the country whenever you’re ready” comments. Yes, I can. But I didn’t screw it up. I love everything America could have been and has had ample chances to be. It’s just too late to correct this stuff in my lifetime. I’m not leaving America, even if it left me. And, yes, there are countries in worse shape than ours. But there are many in better shape. I would love to live in some of them, but, again, I didn’t mess this country up. Besides, I hate moving.
The people ruining America can negatively impact my life — though not nearly as much as millions of others — but they don’t have ultimate control over whether I’m happy or not. The people ruining America are growing in power, and they are going to dominate this country for at least the next 20 years. I’ve accepted that. Doesn’t mean I won’t fuss, whine, write or shout about the evils around me or that I won’t make fun of them, but I don’t have the burden of thinking I can change anything.
I’m gonna go about my life and enjoy every moment I can. I can love America and be disappointed in her at the same time. I’m not miserable, just resigned to the decline. My heart ain’t strong enough to fluctuate with America’s up and downs and downs and downs. I’m 51. I just feel 100 some days. Like today.
I know the proper thing to do after a tragedy like we saw last week is to offer some glimmer of hope, to reinforce the ideals of America, and to inspire hope. You came to the wrong place. I’ve got hope for some things. I’ve got hope for Canada. I’ve got hope that there will be a cure for cancer soon — not one you can afford because someone needs to get rich off of cancer, but still. I’ve got hope for my favorite football teams next season. But not for America. And when you’ve got more hope for the Atlanta Falcons than for America, that’s saying something.
And, yes, fans of real country music, I realize everything I’ve written today has me on “Walkin’ on the Fightin’ Side” of Merle. Oh well. mama tried.
My 22-year-old son lives half a world away in Australia, studying and starting his adult life Down Under. When you get some perspective from the outside, America must look like a mess, which it is. There’s probably not a snowball’s chance in Hell that he’ll ever move back. I can’t blame him. Still, that crushes me, as a dad and as an American.
It’s strange dichotomy: I live with the pain of not having my son here — and also the gratitude that he is somewhere else.