Say, Don’t You Remember? I’m Your Pal
The Fourth of July used to be one of my favorite holidays. Its location midway through the summer was a nice kick, and it was a good occasion for grilling before the money dried up and it got too hot to go outside. But beyond that, I had the idealist’s love of America — or at least the idea of America. No doubt I was, and am, a far-left liberal who preferred to focus on the work that needed to be done instead of dwelling on the accomplishments that had already been made; and I figured out a lot time ago that American exceptionalism was largely a tool used by the bosses to keep ordinary people from discovering the value of solidarity. But I still felt pretty swell when I thought about the uniqueness of the American experiment, the mutable genius of the Constitution, the nation’s vastness and beauty, its infinite potential and boundless opportunity.
That’s not really the case anymore. Two years of unemployment will suck a lot of the patriotism right out of you; one year of hard living will take the edge off of your sense of pride; and six months of desperate poverty will make you lose sight of ideas like hope and possibility. But beyond that, twenty-five adult years of dealing with a body politic increasingly infected by right-wing extremism and money-lust, twenty-five years of watching the unions die, the middle class shrink, and the Democrats turn into technocratic centrists while the Republicans retreat into the gilded palaces of the 19th century — all culminating in what almost everyone is too polite to call a second Great Depression — has left me wondering what has happened to the shared idea of being an American, and what we can do about it.
It would be easy to say that I’m just bitter. Of course I’m bitter; it would be impossible not to be, in my position. And it is tempting to say that my perception of what American government has become — and what, because of that, America’s perception of itself is becoming — is merely a byproduct of that bitterness, an old man’s ranting against a system that has let him down. So many of the things I believe today would have struck me, when I was younger, as conspiratorial blame-tossing, unrealistic ideological blindness, premature crack-pottery. I cannot deny the changes that are only in me. But I am not alone. I am not unique. And it is not only from people like me, people who feel abandoned and ashamed by the system they once believed in, that I hear echoes of my own arguments. I hear from men in high places as well as low that the game has been broken, the rules have been rigged, and that the playing field has been moved to a more advantageous location. I see statistics that tell me that it is not just in my mind that things are worse than they have ever been. Out in the world outside of pop culture and iPads and cheap rhetoric, the pool table has been tilted, and all the balls are rolling towards pockets that are already filled.
Certainly it is not necessary to point out that money has poisoned every single aspect of our public life. Of course, everything costs, from electronic gadgets to tanks to pension plans; but the absurd and self-evidently incorrect notion that government (and everything else) should be run like a business has, more than anything, led to the reduction of our Congress to a body of timeservers who impede rather than enact the workings of the state. A Supreme Court built to favor has allowed a flood of private money to swamp the electoral process. The priority of every ‘news’ organization in America is to turn a profit, not report the news, and even troublemaking progressive media must depend on the investment dollars of well-meaning capitalists. The bare essentials of a society — law enforcement, disaster prevention and recovery, medical care, education, the maintenance of public lands and infrastructure — are increasingly being handed over to private enterprise, and since it is an unchanging rule of a capitalist society that them that’s got is them that get, the results have been predictably dreary. The notion that every aspect of society must be designed to facilitate private gain has had a devastating effect on the whole idea of public life.
Worse still is the fact that not only is everyone being forced to play the same game, but that the people running it are making up the rules as they go along. It would be one thing if it were merely a case of making everyone compete in an open market; it’s a terrible system around which to build a society, but it’s at least a system that can be gamed. Market capitalism, though, has been completely and thoroughly rigged by those who have already won the game to ensure that they keep winning, and everyone else keeps losing. Flushing the political process with money — in short, making sure that legislators are purchased instead of elected — means that you can dodge any accusation of cheating by simply having someone change the laws on your behalf. The years leading up to and following the great collapse of 2008 have provided all the evidence one could want that for the very wealthy, risk has been publicized and gain has been privatized to an unprecedented degree. And at the same time that the personal wealth of America’s millionaires and billionaires have been declared worth protecting with the assets of the citizenry, the poor and struggling among those citizens have been judged less and less worthy of getting help from that same stockpile of public largess.
All along, the drivers of these changes, of the reinforcement of private wealth and the marginalization of public good, have been right-wing libertarians, and the crowning irony is that they inevitably present their plans to wreck state commonweal as an expression of ‘freedom’. This is a curious freedom indeed; right off the bat, for example, it designates the state as the primary force of oppression and the frustration of liberty, when in fact, as Bob Black noted almost 30 years ago, it’s the bosses who issue “more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade”. The state as authoritarian monster is an accurate description of government an increasingly small number of nations, while who controls government policy and shapes the direction of the global economy can be seen all over Europe, Asia, and North America as financial institutions, not governments, dictate the terms of national policy and impose inequitable ‘austerity’ policies on their client states. Anyone who has ever been poor will tell you that you’re never less free than when you have no money. And of late, the rank lunacy of the definition of freedom as how much money you have has become embarrassingly explicit: corporate executives who engage in fraud, manipulation, and book-cooking that can bankrupt a nation rarely receive more than a slap on the wrist, while people at the bottom of the economic ladder are increasingly being sent to private prisons for accruing public debts. America has become a country where we can literally throw a teenager’s whole life away for robbing a fast food joint, but when a financier, through greed, deceit and incompetence, pisses away enough money to support thousands of families for a lifetime, the President himself will praise him as a genius and his bank as an exemplar of responsibility. When a small and protected elite utterly dominates a helpless majority, that is not freedom, no matter who comprises that elite. A system that will go to any length to destroy the rabble at the bottom and defend the masters at the top is not one that I can recognize as American in any sense I ever learned.
This, above all else, is the aspect of contemporary political life that bothers me the most — the idea that those already vastly rewarded in life are to be protected at all costs, yes, but especially the idea that those at the bottom are expendable, worthless, to be thought of only as human capital to be used up or excess waste to be disposed of. It is this attitude that has scuttled our civil life; and it is this attitude that we must correct if we are to retain anything like the promise of our foundational documents. And if I have any hope left, if I have any vestige of the idealism that once made this day so sacred to me — that led me to follow the late, great Paul Fussell’s advice that Independence Day should be the one day of the year that we should say only good things about the United States of America — it is that we can do this. I don’t think it’s too late to restore the idea that we are a nation indivisible, not a faction of billionaires controlling an increasingly desperate labor market. I don’t think it’s impossible to change the system enough that liberty means something more than licence powered by money, or that justice can be more than a word that produces a nasty cynical laugh. I believe these things because they have happened before. Not early; not often; not always, and never enough. But by great struggle, by inches, by the kind of consensus that rewards everyone rather than privileging a few, and by recognition that we made every law that governs our country and thus we can unmake them and remake them, we have made amazing things happen, not with the cooperation of the bosses but despite their interference.
I recently came across an archive of posters created by and for the Works Progress Administration under FDR, the man I will never stop thinking of as the greatest president America has ever had. I highly recommend it for its incredible aesthetic beauty, but there is more to it than that. Looking through each one, seeing what programs it was intended to support and what goals it was designed to achieve, is like glimpsing an alternate universe where the government actually cares for its people — and does something about it. Each poster reflects the values of a political class who believes that everyone in its sphere of influence — nursing mothers, workers who might want to learn more about current events, unemployed people who have a skill or a trade that might be worthwhile to someone who doesn’t know them, retired people who have mastered a craft in their old age, girls who want to learn magic tricks, musicians whose careers have been shipwrecked by economic turmoil, farmers who need to find about about advancements in agriculture, kids who are interested in science but don’t have proper books, local artists trying to make a living, tourists, writers, tenement dwellers — is valuable. It is this recognition that everyone has potential, worth, and value, and that by supporting a system that valorizes the privileged and ignores the poor, the nation is cheating itself on every level, that helped lift the nation out of a murderous depression. It was this conviction that created the best-educated working class America has ever seen, quelled a century of labor strife, and laid the foundation for the liberal consensus of the post-war world that led to the longest single period of economic prosperity the country had ever seen.
Further, it is that recognition that is desperately needed today. It is the willingness to accept that every member of the long-term unemployed, every minority decaying in jail for some meaningless crime, every mother who deprives her children out of want, every person who cannot improve a home because they cannot afford one, every student for whom a college education represents not a key to a better future but a hobbling weight of debt, is a resource that we are throwing away — and the will to do something to correct that — that will get us out of our current troubles. Of course, the conservatives and reactionaries will resist the way they have always resisted; they hated FDR even then, belittled the gargantuan accomplishments of the WPA, and have spent all the remaining years trying to convince people that it was all a waste. But the greater danger is from the moderates, the technocrats, the ‘realists’ who tell us that it was a different time, and that we can expect nothing like that to happen today for the usual reasons of triangulation and an unwillingness to confront intractability from the rentier class. They are looking for a nebulous ‘third way’ in hopes that you will forget that the second way still works just fine. They are hoping you ignore their ambition, their defense of the status quo, and their cozy relationship with the bosses; and that you follow the path of austerity (or, at least, austerity for the working class) instead of remembering that the New Deal worked at a time when the economy was far worse than it is today.
Of course, we cannot completely replicate the successes of the past, because it is a different time with different political realities. But we must regain the belief that we are a nation of people, each of whom has value and potential as a citizen, and not just a geographic cluster of winners and losers. And no, I don’t have any program plans for how this can be made to happen; I’ll leave that for another day, because for me, the 4th of July has gone from being the day I praise everything great about America to the day I wonder about why it’s gone so wrong. (I’d really love to believe this is all about my own bitterness and disillusion, but if the country has lost me — someone who never really believed much in the Dream to begin with — how many others, who truly held the Dream close only to see it systematically dismantled, has it lost?) But it’s time to do whatever needs doing, and that may start with backing up our praise for this country with some actions that will restore its status as a country worth praising. We can no longer sing the glories of what is available to a shrinking few.