Tuesday, December 21, 2010


It seemed appropriate, on the longest night of the year, to ruminate a little on something that has been troubling me about my country.

First, let me start by saying that I have no silly illusions about what a certain strain of Americans like to refer to as our "exceptionalism". We're often a nice big ol' country. We have our moments of greatness, but we have our moments of great shame, as well. And I can't imagine where anyone gets the ridiculous notion that the United States has EVER been about "liberty and justice for all".

Something like a fraction of one percent of the residents of the U.S. in 1790 could vote at all. And throughout our history our politics has been influenced, and occasionally overwhelmed, by the wealthy and powerful. That's not a bug; that's a feature. The Founders distrusted the rabble, and intended that men (and they WERE men; they'd sooner have given the franchise to an anthropoid ape as a woman) of stability and property were the best choice to guide the nation, and so it has been.

So most Americans were left to shift as best they could. And, for the most part, that best wasn't all that bad, provided you were white, and lacked some disabling handicap like Irishness (for much of the early 19th Century) or Catholicism (until the latter part of the 20th) or too much zeal for the "rights" of people like blacks or women or gays or workers or...

But the U.S. didn't suck compared to, say, the Belgian Congo. You were free to say what you liked (provided you didn't care whether you had a job) and free to go where you wished and do what you wanted. This also meant you were free to starve: the law, as Victor Hugo said, in its impartial majesty forbid rich and poor alike to steal bread and sleep under bridges. You had a certain limited social mobility, which was more than you had as a serf in Russia or a peasant in Japan, say.

But you were still pretty much at the mercy of the Great and the Powerful. If the banksters fucked up and crashed the economy - which they did with great regularity in the 19th Century, only they were called "panics" then, and nobody but the little people who lost their farms or shops thought they were anything but business as usual - well, that was too bad for you if you got hosed. It was a red-meat society, and the bloody end of the bone usually got shoved in your face if you were a farmer, or a laborer. Get old? No kids to take you in? Well, gee, there's always poverty and death. Get sick? No money for medicine? Well, gee, there's always the neighbors' soup. Oh, and death. Get broke? Well, gee...

That was life and that was all there was to it.

For a brief time in the late 19th and early 20th Century a group of people tried to do something about this. These "Progressives" and "Good Government" types were an oddly disparate bunch, ranging from social reformers like Jane Addams and Upton Sinclair, radical Reds, muckraking journalists, and some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the U.S., people like Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carmody. It looked like the strange concatenation of "reformers" might push the U.S. into some sort of less-oligarchic society - not some sort of communal kumbaya-singing egalitarian utopia, but at least a little less brutally devil-take-the-hindmost.

But first WW1 came along, and then the "return to normalcy" of the Twenties helped sort of push things sideways a bit.

Until in 1929 the wealthy and the banksters shit the bed.

A worldwide Depression, like love and a cough, can't be hid. Even the dimmest American prole pretty much knew they were hosed, and who hosed them. And worse, for the oligarchs, now there was the horrible example of Soviet Russia, where the rope and the lamppost loomed for those white-spatted gentlemen and their delicately scented ladies. FDR, that cunning aristocratic hegemon, rammed through enough reforms to make the country a little less harshly Darwinian, convinced that the elites had to give up a soupçon of their power in order to keep the rabble happily at work.

And y'know what?

It worked.

For twenty years the Republicans, the bought-and-paid-for party of the wealthy and the financiers, was driven into the hustings. For the first time there was a sort of national pension in the form of Social Security; getting old and sick didn't have to mean getting poor, too. And, mind you, in the Thirties and Forties, and even into the Fifties and Sixties, American poor really meant poor; Third World poor, hookworm-and-pellagra poor, living in a tarpaper shack poor. Don;t let the GOP tell you that the "antipoverty" programs failed. Until the Sixties about a quarter of Americans lived in this real shithole poverty. Since then the number has been about 12-13 percent. Food stamps, AFDC - that stuff worked.

Mid you, it ain't life at the country club. But it beats starving.

For forty-some years, from the late Forties into the late Eighties we managed to get as close to a real robust middle class as we've ever had. And a hell of a lot of that was done by raising working people, people who had been paid jack shit by the people who made millions from them, into that middle class. This was done through a whole combination of industrial and tax policy, by technical, commercial, and educational advances, by the realization on the part of smart companies that better-paid workers bought more stuff...

Of course, it didn't hurt that after WW2 we were the last man standing. And that we had a hell of a lot of spare cash and a hell of a lot of Third World places right in our own country that we could pave, electrify, Green-Revolution, and industrialize.

But you have to think that it couldn't last, and it didn't.

First the country split over whether black people should be people first or black first. A lot of the old racist genes burst out, North and South, and drove people who should have been thinking of their own well-being into the arms of people who had no interest in that well-being but were perfectly willing to use the hatred to shove the dumbass crackers back into the poverty hole - where they would be happy to go provided the nigras went there first.

Then we were told that Greed was Good, that we needed to let the people who could do card tricks with money, who could spin tales into gold, do that tricking and spinning and make piles of cash. Because a stray dollar or two would blow off those piles and hoo-baby, might land in your lap.

So for the past thirty years we've been walking back the Great Change. Back to where we started, the Gilded Age, where the Rich were Different than You and I. Back to a time when the big decisions were made for you by the people who Knew Better because their daddy had made pots of money. Back to a time when the Golden Rule was Who Has the Gold Makes the Rules.

Again; our country has always been that way. But for a bunch of decades we managed to paper it over, a little. We padded the sharp corners of the coffee tables and baby-gated the economy so the little people didn't tumble down the stairs and break their brains.

Well, that's done and dusted.

I've been watching my country change over that time. And it seems to me that we haven't gotten any smarter, or stupider. Any kinder or meaner. Any better, or worse. We're just people, same as we always were.

But for a moment, a couple of decades, it seemed like we had a chance to move ourselves to a place where wealth and power meant a little less than they had, where more people got to have a piece of the nation than before, where the oligarchy was a very small bit less...oligarchical. Not much, not a lot, but a little.

And that moment seems to me to have passed.

Just two years ago the same malefactors, the same spinners and tricksters, managed to do as much damage to our national welfare as anyone had since that day in 1929. But this time...where was the outcry? Where was the change? Where were the consequences. We thought we'd rearranged the "system" to prevent another President from fighting secret wars. We were wrong. We thought that we would never see Americans torturing helpless captives. We were wrong. We thought that you couldn't play lotto with bank's money and skate away from the wreckage when your little scheme crashed.

Boy howdy, were we fucking wrong.

So on this, the darkest day of the year, it seems to me that our country seems a little darker as well.

What do you think?


Pluto said...

You don't leave much room for us to interpret the data any other way, Chief. But I wouldn't have argued with your thesis before you made your argument.

Pluto said...

The bigger question is not where we are, but where we are going. Will we change course back to the good old days, go someplace much darker ("So, Lord Vader, how would you like your tea?"), or some other place not yet imagined.

My bet is on the third path for two reasons:
1. Because we seem to be setting ourselves up for one of those slap-downs that history likes to dwell on. Sort of like Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. And you know how well they did...
2. Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition

FDChief said...

Pluto:I don't see a way back to the New Deal society. Roughly a third of the American electorate has lost any sense of self-interest in favor of worrying about God, gays, and scary brown terrorists. A good tenth or so is just fucking batshit crazy - the "Cheney Tenth", I like to call it, from the 14% that still give Deadeye Dick a "like" on Facebook - and about another third is so whipped and passive that they will give the Right what it wants rather than listen to them whine.

I don't think that we'll take a real Nazi-style turn into dictatorship, though. The Dark Side is not yet that strong in us.

Instead I see us going the way of Hapsburg Spain or the late Roman Republic; calcifying, the class distinctions becoming less of a continuum and more rigid, with a larger permanent underclass and a small oligarchy more obviously running things at the top, losing ground to the newer, hungrier societies in Asia, South America, even perhaps Africa (though they're worse off than we are by several orders of magnitude - no, on second thought, forget Africa).

I think a lot depends on how stupid we are overseas. If we can get a grip on this mania we have for tossing ships and men around like poker chips at every penny-ante brushfire war that calls itself "Islamic" we might stand a better chance of preserving some capital at home. But I see us as the Spanish in the 1600s, trying to suppress heresy everywhere and, in the end, getting nowhere.