The Meaning of Lives
The release last week of Census data concerning recent trends in employment in the economy has been widely circulated, not only as evidence that things are getting better, but that we have our nation’s Democratic leadership to thank for that. In a particular partisan view, the country is doing fine, and claims to the contrary by the hog-parts real estate fraud running under the G.O.P. banner are simply out of touch with reality. Similar arguments have been made about the crime rate; despite certain people (pssst, Republicans) claiming that there is a problem with crime in America, crime rates are actually reaching all-time record lows, and our citizens are safer than they have been in 40 years.
The problem with this viewpoint — and it is, sadly, a viewpoint, because while one cannot question facts, they have no masters and are always willing to serve anyone who puts a frame around them — is that it depends entirely on who you’re asking. Is the economy improving? Yes, for the middle and (especially) upper class; for the working class it has barely changed at all, or is getting worse. Are employment numbers increasing? Yes, for those who have not been out of work for long; for millions more, who are so frustrated with their ability to find employment that they are no longer part of an active search, they are literally not even counted. Has there been a boost in full-time work? Yes, but it has yet to reach pre-2007 numbers. Have real wages increased? Yes, but again, they have yet to match pre-recession norms, and again, the increases are almost entirely clustered in the upper ends of the economic spectrum. Has poverty gone down? Yes, but to what degree depends on whether or not you factor government aid into the equation; the Census figures do not, and America still has the highest child poverty rate of any first-world nation. A white suburbanite who feels threatened by crime is likely the victim of fear-mongering; an inner city black person who feels the same is simply facing up to reality.
That reality — that there is one set of statistics that applies to the middle and upper classes, and another that applies to the poor — is central to what we mean when we talk about neoliberalism; what we are getting at when we talk about the disappearing differences between Democrats and Republicans; and why, as long as both parties believe that market solutions to economic problems are the only solutions, there will always be an irreducible minimum of human misery in America that stems from the inherent vicissitudes of capitalism. It is a very curious thing, especially in an era where the politics of personal validation demand that we recognize the ‘lived reality’ of human experience, to hear the leader of the Democratic party paint her opponents as peddling a gloom and doom that does not reflect the glorious shining-city-on-a-hill truth of American exception. I have mentioned before how it seems to me that Hillary Clinton is basically running the same campaign as Ronald Reagan did in 1984; while I certainly hope this has the same result for her as it did for him — a devastating blow to the opposing party from which it took a decade to recover — it doesn’t bode well for the kind of policies she’s likely to pursue when she takes office.
“If I listened to him long enough,” Reagan said of the hapless Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race, “I would be convinced that we’re in an economic downturn, and that people are homeless, and people are going without food and medical attention, and that we’ve got to do something about the unemployed.” Reagan wasn’t just arguing about what needed to be done about these essentially economic problems; he was arguing against their very existence, against the idea that we needed to do anything about unemployment. When I hear Democratic voters paint the country, after a mere month of recovery from nearly a decade in the deepest trench since the Depression, make this same argument, I wonder if they truly believe that these problems really exist outside of abstractions made in position papers, talking points, and data journalism.
There are symptoms of this everywhere: the idea that any American who doesn’t feel unprecedentedly safe is just being taken by a ride by opportunistic hucksters, as if the bloody war on the South Side of my beloved Chicago — made possible in part by economic deprivation, incompetent and malicious policing, and neoliberal Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel’s austerity cuts — was not killing African-Americans every day. The belief that anyone still feeling the sting of unemployment or poverty just hasn’t gotten the word about the rosy new figures from Census. The dismissal of pain, of suffering, of utter despair if it comes from someone suspected of voting the wrong way, holding the wrong views, or being on the wrong side of demography. The embrace of Black Lives Matter so long as it represents a reaction to police brutality, but a larger waving off of the Movement for Black Lives’ laser-focused demands for greater economic justice and compensation for the crimes of capital. The tolerance for an 1880s-style contempt for the rights of American Indians to sovereignty over their tribal lands if it gets in the way of corporate profit. And, most of all, the washing of hands of any responsibility for the death of human beings from American military action overseas.
Even as I write this, Clinton found herself needing to make public condemnations of two separate attacks, both labeled as ‘terrorist’ largely due to the ethnic/religious identity of the accused perpetrators, in which not a single person died. Meanwhile, over the exact same period of time, a startling number of innocent people in the Middle East, including nearly a dozen police officers, died at the hands of misdirected American military strikes, as part of a muddled, bellicose foreign policy that Barack Obama inherited and escalated from his predecessor and which Clinton has no intention of changing. These are not abstractions. They are real people, and they are really dead. And they are dead not because of some tentative flapping of the wings of a butterfly in Washington, D.C., but because of direct military action that would not have happened without the approval of our national leadership.
We either believe that human life matters — and not in the racist, ham-handed “all lives matter” way that right-wing tools use to refute Black Lives Matter, but in the way BLM made its name, by pointing out that it is black lives that are most at risk, and that much of America acts as if those lives do not matter — or we don’t. Acting as if poverty, violence, and the right to life of all people, not just middle-class Americans, are important only when they make a difference in the way people vote in national elections is a sign that you treat politics like a sport, and human beings like the Xs and Os in a playbook. Denying that America still has serious problems because it lets you score points over your opponent is a mug’s game. Clinton’s best move now isn’t to minimize the suffering of those who aren’t elevated by the latest set of data; it’s to tell the whole country what she plans to do for the least of them. Anything else is just deciding which lives you think have meaning based on which side of the aisle they’re standing.