L. Neil Smith's
Number 278, July 4, 2004

"It would be worse than dying."

Now and Then
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

This summer, my parents are celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary. An event of this magnitude requires a celebration of course, and I'll travel back home to be there for the festivities.

While I've been preparing for my upcoming trip, I've noticed that a few things have changed since 1954 (not that I was there then, mind you—I'm sure Mom would like me to make that clear). Obviously, the technological advances in the last fifty years have been awesome as have the corresponding improvements in the quality of life. But other things haven't gotten better, and it's those that have particularly struck me in recent days.

In 1954, the rate of divorce was less than half what it is now. People who married then were in it for the long haul unless something truly unforgivable occurred within the marriage. Acceptable rationale for divorce then meant such things as cruelty, adultery, or desertion. Most couples, providing they lived to a reasonably healthy age, would celebrate their 25th, 40th, and 50th anniversaries. But in 1969, a Miami lawyer by the name of Stanley Rosenblatt proposed in a publication called "The Divorce Racket" that we move to a "no fault" type of divorce instead of requiring some demonstrable blame for one partner or the other. He hoped to put lawyers out of work in divorce matters as well as to make divorces easier on those doing the divorcing.

Unfortunately, one thing that Rosenblatt didn't take into account was the upcoming generation's general lack of desire to do anything that required too much effort. When "but I'm just not happy" became a legal reason for divorce, people got divorced more and more often. The divorce rate climbed to an all-time high in the 1980's and early 1990's (all too accurately referred to by some as the "me" decade). Surely some of these divorces were due to abusive or adulterous behaviors, but many more than that were the result of "this is too much work for me" reasoning, and that in turn was common because divorces became too easy to get. (Rosenblatt's other mistake was in not realizing just how rabid some lawyers would become in generating more work for themselves.)

By now, a 50th Anniversary is even more rare and precious than it was in the past. Statistics from "Divorce Magazine" indicate that, as of the year 2000, the percentages of married people who reached milestone anniversaries like their 25th (33%), 35th (20%) or 50th (5%) were lower than ever. A less mathematical and more emotional (though significantly less objective) picture can be seen in the microcosm of my own life: My parents have a few friends who have been widowed, but none who have been divorced. I, on the other hand, literally have no one in my own local circle of close friends who hasn't been divorced.

My parents, I'm sure, had some hard times in their lives and their relationship. For example, they lived in an almost unbelievably small mobile home while my father was stationed far from home in the Air Force, and their later attempts to start a family proved to be a difficult and long term struggle; after his discharge, my dad started his own business, and my parents lived in a small apartment in the basement of the building and both worked long hours until they could get it off the ground. But they came through these stresses with the marriage intact and perhaps, even stronger because of them.

Meanwhile, couples today frequently decide the stress is just too much or the frustration more than they're willing to deal with, and they're off to divorce court accordingly. Plenty of those marriages, too, might have come through the other side of adversity and been even more rewarding for both partners if each had only had the necessary maturity and commitment to see it through. Unfortunately, that level of commitment is becoming almost as uncommon as Golden Anniversaries, and Rosenblatt's well-intended "no fault" divorce idea is as much to blame as is a "me first" society.

My parents taught me responsibility, commitment, and hard work were critical attributes for success in both my private and professional lives. They proved those lessons by their own example. One thing I should have learned better but didn't was my father's admonition about credit: "If you can't afford to pay cash, you don't need it." Of course, that lesson is far less simple today when such things as cars and houses are such pricey items that almost nobody can simply open a checkbook and buy them outright. But in general, the concept is still rock solid and it's one that I ignored to my detriment when I was first out of the house and living on my own.

Once I managed to dig myself out of that financial hole, I also became an advocate of payment up front and in full. But new rules and regulations don't make that easy any more! Want to rent a car? You can't, not without a major credit card. Want to get a major credit card? You can't, not without a credit history—which essentially means a history of not paying up front and in full for things. Want to buy a plane ticket? You can still pay cash, but you can also expect to see federal agents on your doorstep shortly thereafter as cash transactions for plane tickets are considered telltale markers of such crimes as drug-running or terrorism. Want a telephone, cable TV, or electricity in your house? Not without a credit check and a Social Security number, you don't! There are rules and regulations everywhere to be followed, and every single one of them requires more and more personal information from each of us. (It can fairly be said that this may have become so in large part because too many people are not to be trusted to keep their contractual word.)

My parents married in Alaska where my dad was stationed at the time. To get there, my mother and her bridesmaid took several flights. All of them were on turboprop planes, and I can remember her telling me of the noise and the turbulence of those rides (her first time on an airplane as it happens). But she and her wedding gown arrived in time, and the small wedding took place as scheduled. Today, jets get us where we're going far more quickly and smoothly. But all of the time we save in flight is more than made up for by the time we spend on the ground going through the many hoops set up by the Transportation Security Administration in the name of security.

Like sheep, we line up in airports to be processed, never really understanding that random searches actually do mean "random," and that many who most nearly fit the profile of "terrorist" are ignored lest someone cry "racism" while kids and grandmothers are taken aside. In my parents' youth, authorities who conducted random searches like that would have been run out of town on a rail both for their offensiveness and their ineffectiveness; today, we're told that we're unpatriotic if we don't approve the methods chosen by the TSA.

A frequent flier I know told me she doesn't really mind the security measures if they'll keep her safe; I told her that they weren't really very effective and suggested the ultimate in safety would be provided by letting passengers who wished to carry their firearms do so. She was horrified, and told me she'd rather be searched. In other words, she trusts poorly trained, largely uneducated and uncaring government employees working a low wage and thankless job more than she trusts gun owners who, as a group, are typically far more responsible than the average citizen. (For the record, despite the trip being a long one, I'll be driving rather than subject myself to air travel security measures which are about to include the intrusive—and also largely ineffective—CAPPS II Program.)

The propaganda spread by a government that is of the firm opinion that we need its interventions if we are to be safe, healthy, and free has taken firm hold; the fact that the latter of the carrots held out by the federal stick isn't even a real option any more doesn't seem to matter to many. Compounding that apathy is a generation that will be the first in decades that isn't likely to live better than its parents. We can blame higher tax rates and a global economy for that, of course, and we won't be entirely wrong. We can point out higher population densities and a struggling public education system to share some portion of blame as well. But the real fault—and the one that underlies all of the other problems we have—is a growing disinterest in and disrespect for commitment.

The people of America's previous and eminently successful generations were committed to their jobs and to doing their best work, not their "good enough" work. Their word was their bond. Their marriages struggled through thick and thin, but they did make it through. Family was paramount. They were better educated in high school because they buckled down and worked—and because their parents and their teachers disciplined them if they didn't behave themselves—than many college students are today. And their idea of safety involved a little common sense and a big stick (or a handy shotgun), and a whole lot of personal responsibility.

On the occasion of my own parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary, the best gift I can give them is to reflect on the lessons they taught and the lives they've led. Many of us could do far worse than to do the same thing. And the best thing that we can do, perhaps, is to finally take our parents' lessons to heart. When we do, I suggest we also take the time to teach our children not to live as many in our generation do, but to look, instead, to Grandma and Grandpa.

We may not generally live better than our parents. But our children and our grandchildren might if we step up to some of our own responsibilities once and for all. Good examples, taken along with a healthy dose of skepticism for the federal behemoth and a distillation of a love for liberty, will make all the difference. Just as the downturn is largely ours, let the turnaround also begin with us, and our generation will have served. I assure you, our parents would be proud.

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