Friday, March 18, 2011

America, Land of the Rich and Dumb

"Right now, this afternoon, just 400 Americans -- 400 -- have more wealth than half of all Americans combined," Michael Moore told tens of thousands of demonstrators who were protesting the outlawing of collective bargaining at Wisconsin's capital last week (and this appalling statistic was verified by PolitiFact).  "Four hundred obscenely wealthy individuals, 400 little Mubaraks -- most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of 2008 -- now have more cash, stock and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined." 

If I had the patience for it, I could muster statistics to show that the story of America as the "land of the free and the home of the brave" is a myth.  Any reader of Howard Zinn's shocking People's History of the United States knows that.  Its infrastructure is decaying and the much vaunted systems of health care and education are in tatters.  States and cities are going broke.  Ever since Reagan peddled the bromide that markets are self-correcting and regulation is bad, corporations and bankers have profited while poverty and unemployment have risen in tandem.  In order to cut the taxes of the wealthy and reduce the power of the disenfranchised, Reagan and the Republicans set out to effectively destroy the central government (in Grover Norquist's words, to "shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub").  Under Bush and now his Trojan horse successor, Obama, they have largely succeeded).

Only the Department of Defense continues to be well funded, allowing the U.S to strut the world's stage as the global policeman.  The Pentagon and the corporate capitalists, who profit from weapons production and sales, are hand in glove.  As an expatriate in Thailand, I believe I now have a clearer perspective on how other people and nations interpret Washington's bullying swagger.   They don't like it.  Despite his premature peace prize, Obama has continued many of the abhorred policies of Bush: support for Israel, Guantanamo and torture, and alliances with dictators in the Middle East who are now being challenged by brave freedom fighters while the U.S. frantically plays catch-up. 
I'm not sure why I continue to care.  Since Berkeley in the early 1960s, I've been politically aware and angry.   I've been mad as hell about racism in the south and the testing of nuclear weapons.  While Vietnam was the central cause of my generation (It's called the "American War" over here), I've also protested the policies and actions of "my" government in Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba, Grenada, the Congo, Lebanon, Panama, East Timor, Iran, El Salvador, Haiti and Yugoslavia (to name only a few sites).  America seems to almost always have been on the wrong side of issues of peace and justice, arming and financing enemies of the people, wherever they might be.

But the filthy rich are only 2% of the population. What about the other 98%?  Why aren't the rest of them shouting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more," like the frustrated television anchorman in the film "Network"?  Many Americans are out of work, their savings savaged by the financial meltdown, health care benefits slashed or denied, the schools of their children gutted by desperate cost-saving cuts as local governments go broke (America eats its young).  The youth serve multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and return home maimed and traumatized.  America has rarely had a very strong left or progressive movement and now their ranks are as depleted as the shrinking unions which supplied much of their muscle in the past.  How many Michael Moores, Amy Goodmans, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomskys and Medea Benjamins does it take to grow and sustain an opposition?  What accounts for the thunderous silence in the U.S. as the know-nothings and fascists take over the political system?

The plain unvarnished fact is that a large number of Americans are just dumb.  They are blind to their own self-interest, fooled into thinking that they are equal to the 400 moguls profiled by Forbes Magazine and might even become one of them some day if their luck turns.  Despite one of the bigger and better education systems in the world (which once was mostly free but now is too expensive for poor students), too many Americans are unforgivably stupid.  They read and believed Ayn Rand that to the victor should go all the spoils, and they bought the Tea Party line that immigrants are the reason they are unemployed and doctors are too expensive.  As long as they have their MTV and "American Idol," their iDevices and juicy gossip about Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, they don't seem to care about what they're losing, the disappearance of collective bargaining, affordable health care and the impending demise of free public radio. The craziest of them think that Obama is a Muslim (when he may be their greatest ally), abortion is murder and gay marriage is an abomination.  They support Israel because that's where Armaggedon is to take place followed by the second coming of Jesus.  Big government and Islam are the enemies they fear most.  Many of these lunatics are college-educated but their minds are impervious to reality.  Because their minds are made up, to point out facts to them is pointless. 

As Pee Wee Herman used to say, "I know you are but what am I?"  I can imagine this riposte from the radical, mostly Republican, right.  Clearly they are in the ascendancy in America right now.  The few liberals remaining are moving to the center to insure any influence they may have left.  After the conservative sweep in last fall's elections, we have the spectacle of the House Environmental Committee being headed someone who denies global warning.  How much worse can it get before the poor, the young and all the other disenfranchised take to the streets as the oppressed have done and are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco (there are more places but I don't want this to turn into a geography lesson)?

Some of my oldest and best friends are rich.  Not as well off as the Forbes 400, but they are certainly comfortable in their dotage.  (With my middling Social Security income, Thais believe me to be unusually rich.) They're good Christians and probably listen to Russ Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  The amazing paradox is that Americans as a whole can be kind and generous, and fill the buckets for relief funds when tragedy strikes different corners of the globe.  Individually however, it's "every man for himself."  There is little compassion for the less well off and any community is either class based or generated by entertainment and sports.  As Paul Krugman recently pointed out, American is divided between liberal relics of the New Deal who advocate social responsibility and those on the right who believe that  "people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty." Conservatives, according to George Lakoff in the Huffington Post,  "really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life." They believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility, and they don't think government should help its citizens. The model they appreciate is the family with a strict father at its head.  Budget deficits for these authoritarians "are convenient ruses for destroying American democracy and replacing it with conservative rule in all areas of life."

So I end, at this uncertain time while waiting to learn about the consequences of a nuclear meltdown in Japan following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, with the thought that "dumb" and "stupid" are perhaps too strong and even inaccurate to label what might be largely a difference in morality, one advocating social responsibility and the other individual responsibility.  America, since the days of the pioneers, has always been directed by the latter view.  The consequences, as Howard Zinn told us, were enormously destructive for the native peoples as well as the environment.  The world cannot afford to be ruled by cowboys.  It is horribly ironic that Japan, where the United States tested its first atom bombs, should become the graveyard for nuclear power.  Without this obviously dangerous technology, the globe cannot sustain its addiction for electricity, much less oil.  We have to learn to put society first and individual profit and wealth last if we want to survive beyond the next few years.


matt oha said...

In history, every great empire in eventually fades and falls. America was "colonized" by religious zealots, established as a country by rich men, and grew and prospered on the back of slaves. It fought amongst its own in the Civil War, waged genocide on its native people, and destroyed its environment in the Industrial Age. And, that's all before the 20th century!

In the 21st century, American politicians are the new "snake oil" salesmen. They want us to believe we need their noxious cures.

It is very easy to trace the downfall of America. Unfortunately, it is much harder to see the way for its future.

Janet Brown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janet Brown said...

Lots to respond to in this--I'm still reeling from the first paragraph--wake-up call! Thanks, Will.

lanivcox said...

Most people don't like being called stupid. I agree with the message and I appreciate a strong opinion but what are you hoping to accomplish?

I think if you want to change people's minds you shouldn't insult them. But maybe your entry was just a rant?

Equality or freedom: choose one.

Anonymous said...

So where do you think America is heading? What will become of American in 10-15 yrs now that gas prices have soared once again?