It transported me home to my childhood days, when you could not pass a street corner in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, without children and women begging for food. As an immigrant, you don’t expect to find beggars and homeless on the well-lit streets of cities like Berkeley and San Francisco.
While on the streets of America we have shiny cars and high-rise buildings, the homeless are a nagging reminder that all that glitters is not gold. The sad reality is that we as a nation have our share of social issues to which there are no easy answers.
As we speak, we are in the midst of another season of heated debates over issues such as health care, legal reform, illegal immigrants and insurance abuse. These issues are not new, and it is unlikely we will see long-term solutions in the near future, given the complication of the task.
President Obama’s recent speech to Congress led to raised voices, including by Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, who told the president mid-speech, “You lie!” He later apologized for the outburst.
It signifies how intensely one feels about issues related to public reform, and those on either side of the aisle stay firmly implanted in their belief systems.
As one who considers herself a permanent student of the human psyche, belief systems are a very interesting social phenomenon.
On a one-on-one level, if you think going to church is important, and I do not, we can come to a common ground where we can agree to disagree. You are free to go to church. I am free to stay away.
However, differences in belief systems are not always open to amiable maneuvering. For example, if half of the legislators say capital punishment is a must and the other half says it is inhuman, we are at an impasse. In fact, this is an ongoing issue at present in government circles.
The president thinks that America must implement programs to ensure that all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status, have assured health care. He wants to reform the system whereby insurance companies insure only those who can afford to pay for health insurance.
Many feel that the health care system in our country is a bit of a rip-off, designed to put money in the pockets of large corporations at the cost of those who cannot dole out monthly fees for basic medical attention.
Another ongoing topic of debate is the conservative agenda to uphold the death penalty. On the other end of the spectrum are those who oppose the death penalty, people who feel it is unjust for the government to take a life. This is but one issue that leads to impassioned debates, and there is no simple, clear-cut meeting ground.
We then have the issue of illegal immigration. Over the years, the government and public have been torn between allowing them the right to drive and the right to seek health care. The solutions presented by opposing viewpoints swing between instant deportation versus allowing illegals to become legal and, in the process, gain some rights such as driving and medical attention.
In Pakistan, one rarely enjoyed the luxury of open debate. For instance, if you did not believe in preaching or praying in the mosque, you risked your life if you said it out loud.
The question that comes to my mind is: Is it the government that allows for such debate, or is it the public force that establishes the right to free speech? For example, if the forefathers of the American Constitution had not stipulated free speech in the Bill of Rights, would the American government now abuse its power to thrust down the public throat policies it deemed correct?
This is in contrast to the democratic governing process of coming to a middle ground, where everybody’s opinion is given due audience. Is this not the hallmark of civilized versus backward nations?
As usual, there are more questions than answers. Despite our many challenges, I as an Americanized woman can easily say that on the index of human rights, there are countries far worse than ours. However, that does not preclude us from acknowledging the fact that we still have a long way to go.
There is a long way to go before we can do justice to children being raised in high-risk neighborhoods, among guns, crime and drugs. We have a significant number of elderly people without health care. We have an alarming number of homeless citizens. If we do not take care of these social anomalies, it is bound to get worse.
Instead of using our resources to buy bombs and allowing large corporations such as those in the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries to become richer, we need to enforce a system whereby we reprioritize. The government needs to spend more time and money on social reform, providing the kids of our nation an opportunity to become educated and empowered.
If we do not, the infrastructure of society will become brittle at the core, with the top-heavy margins of society becoming wobbly and eventually crashing down.
• Samina Masood is a four-year resident of Tracy. She is a mother of two who has master’s degrees in both journalism and clinical psychology.