America Takes Its Lumps

History is lumpy. There’s no steady march of progress. America is doing just fine until, suddenly, it isn’t. No one saw the stock market crash of 1929 coming, and no one saw the total collapse of the economy at the end of the Bush years coming either. Yes, there were warnings each time, but no one took those seriously. But in 1929 the margin calls rolled in, and they couldn’t be covered. Sixty years later no one could cover the same sort of margin calls, this time called credit default swaps. It was the same sort of thing that just wasn’t going to happen, because it couldn’t happen.

Then it happened. Things were going just fine, and on a Friday afternoon, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke told Congress that they needed seven hundred billion dollars, to cover all the calls, by Monday, or we’d have no banks and no financial system at all. The world as we knew it would end. It took Congress a few more days than that – getting fifty-one senators and 218 of 435 congressmen and congresswomen to agree on anything will take time – but they ponied up. They had no choice, and much of the delay was also probably caused by the suddenness of all this. Now could this be? Things had been going fine. What happened?

Accumulated underlying problems happened – matters that should have been considered had been dismissed as unimportant, or something that could be dealt with later. The march of progress would be slow and steady, damn it – but that’s not how history works. Dams burst, and that’s true of more than complex economic systems. That was true in the sixties, when the fifties seemed to have been going so well.

That’s how America felt. It’s no accident that one of the most popular television shows of the fifties was Father Knows Best – a gentle sitcom where the father really did know best, every week. There were no real problems, and the last episode aired on September 17, 1960, when there were. Public schools had been desegregated in 1954, and as the sixties began, it became clear that this had done little about the problem of institutional racism in America – the South wasn’t a happy place where the white folks got along just fine with the happy darkies. The civil rights movement gathered steam, there was Selma, there were murders and bombings, and King spoke in Washington, to hundreds of thousands, about how he had a dream, and then Congress actually passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, changing our institutions. Matters that should have been considered had been dismissed as unimportant, or something that could be dealt with later, now had to be dealt with, and they were. People took to the streets, as they did about our war in Vietnam. Father didn’t know best about racial justice, or even common decency, and he didn’t know best about going to war, far away, for vague aims, where we could never win, and where we should have never been in the first place.

The slow and steady fifties were over. Accumulated foolishness – about race and about sending our young men off to war, thinking that required no explanation – had reached a critical point. Perhaps those two things were related. Much of America had lost faith in the way things had always been, incrementally getting better, if you squinted real hard and used your imagination. Those in charge didn’t know best, and the women’s movement was next. Men didn’t know best. Sometimes women knew best, and they joined what might be seen as the same battle. With the pill, something new at the time, there was a sexual revolution too – daddy’s rules about good girls now seemed rather pointless – and of course popular music changed too. That would never be “safe” again, and young people started living in communes, studying Eastern religions. Robert Young and Jane Wyatt – and Betty “Princess” Anderson (Elinor Donahue) – just wouldn’t fit in.

Things had suddenly snowballed, and all of this seemed to be interrelated. Each movement fed off the other, as everything seemed to be being questioned, and conservative America wondered what the hell had happened – the fifties had been so stable. By the end of the sixties they had elected Richard Nixon, the father who always knew best, but it was too late. The dam had already burst. Too much had been ignored in the fifties, and most of it has been corrected. Nixon was the nostalgia candidate. Most Republicans are.

Things did settle down. The war ended. Nixon was gone soon enough, and Gerald Ford and then Jimmy Carter were mostly harmless, and Ronald Reagan was pure nostalgia for the fifties. The first George Bush was a technocrat, and eight years of Bill Clinton were eight years of middle-of-the-road policy, in spite of his sometimes absurd personality, and the second George Bush pretended there were no problems, even when there were. He left a total mess for Barack Obama to clean up, but Obama is No-Drama Obama – calm and cool and careful, in spite of what Fox News and Rush Limbaugh say of him, and Obama is black. He doesn’t often push racial issues. He can’t be the Angry Black Man – he’s the president, and he ended one of our current odd wars and is ending the other. The issues that roiled the sixties – war and race and women’s issues – roil nothing now. The economy is recovering too. All is well, except it isn’t. Another dam is about to burst.

Everyone senses this. The Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries each refused to indict their cops, for killing an unarmed black man, weeks ago, and people are still marching in the streets, all across the nation, and cops keep killing unarmed black men. There seems to be a new incident every few days, but, as in the sixties, something more may be going on, and in the New York Times, Mark Bittman tries to pull it all together:

The police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.

You get it: This is the United States, which, with the incoming Congress, might actually get worse.

It’s one of those perfect storms we see now and then, where one set of discontents feeds off the other, perhaps because they’re interrelated:

This in part explains why we’re seeing spontaneous protests nationwide, protests that, in their scale, racial diversity, anger and largely nonviolent nature, are unusual if not unique. I was in four cities recently – New York, Washington, Berkeley and Oakland – and there were actions every night in each of them. Meanwhile, workers walked off the job in 190 cities on Dec. 4.

The root of the anger is inequality, about which statistics are mind-boggling: From 2009 to 2012 (that’s the most recent data), some 95 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent; the Walton family (owners of Walmart) have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the country’s people combined; and “income mobility” now describes how the rich get richer while the poor … actually get poorer.

The progress of the last 40 years has been mostly cultural, culminating, the last couple of years, in the broad legalization of same-sex marriage. But by many other measures, especially economic, things have gotten worse, thanks to the establishment of neo-liberal principles – anti-unionism, deregulation, market fundamentalism and intensified, unconscionable greed – that began with Richard Nixon and picked up steam under Ronald Reagan. Too many are suffering now because too few were fighting then.

These things are actually interrelated:

In 1970, after spending a year in New York absorbed by concerns seemingly as disparate as ending the war, supporting the rights of Black Panthers to get fair trials (and avoid being murdered) and understanding the role of men in the women’s movement, I — and others – had conversations like this: “Let’s make people understand that all of those issues, plus poverty and racism and the environment and more, are all part of the same picture, and that fixing things means citizens have to regain power and work in their own interests.”

Of course we failed, as others did before and since. But these same things can be said now, and they’re being said by people of all colors. When underpaid workers begin their strikes by saying “I can’t breathe,” or by holding their hands over their heads and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” they’re recognizing that their struggle is the same as that of African-Americans demanding dignity, respect and indeed safety on their own streets.

And of course it’s the same struggle.

Some people see that:

“It’s the same people,” says Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Young people working in fast food are the same people as those who are the victims of police brutality. So the Walmart folks are talking about #blacklivesmatter and the #blacklivesmatter folks are talking about taking on capital.”

The NAACP’s Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a leader of the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, captures the national yearning this reflects. “I believe that deep within our being as a nation there is a longing for a moral movement that plows deep into our souls,” he writes. “We are flowing together because we recognize that the intersectionality of all of these movements is our opportunity to fundamentally redirect America.”

That’s ambitious, but all these movements are about fairness in various forms. Only the context changes:

It simply isn’t right to pay people a sub-living wage with no potential for more, and as the comedian Chris Rock says, employers would pay even less if they could get away with it.

The #blacklivesmatter movement – there’s no better description – is already having an impact as well. Don’t think for a second we’d be having a national debate about police brutality (one that includes many on the right), or a White House plan to examine and fix law enforcement, without demonstrations in the streets.

The initial Obama plan is encouraging but lacking, and that’s all the more reason to keep demonstrating. (What good are body cameras, by the way? The videotape of Rodney King’s beating was seen around the world yet resulted in acquittals; Eric Garner’s choking death, viewed millions of times online, didn’t even lead to a trial, even though police chokeholds are banned in New York City.) Besides, as Sanders says, “Even if every cop were a constitutional lawyer and a great person, if you have thirty percent unemployment among African-American young people you still have a huge problem.”

Even seemingly unrelated matters are related here too:

I have spent a great deal of time talking about the food movement and its potential, because to truly change the food system you really have to change just about everything: good nutrition stems from access to good food; access to good food isn’t going to happen without economic justice; that isn’t going to happen without taxing the superrich; and so on. The same is true of other issues: You can’t fix climate change or the environment without stopping the unlimited exploitation of natural and human resources… It’s the same with social well-being.

This sounds like the sixties:

Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters: A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse.

Increasingly, it seems, there’s an appetite and even unity to take on the billionaire class. Let’s recognize that if we are seeing positive change now, it’s in part because elected officials respond to pressure, and let’s remember that that pressure must be maintained no matter who is in office. Even if Bernie Sanders were to become president, the need for pressure would continue.

Here we go again, except there are opposing forces. There’s this new item in the Atlantic from the University of Chicago’s John Paul Rollert, reporting on a conference on Objectivism, sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute of course, that he attended last summer in Las Vegas, which may be the ultimate Randian paradise, where on your own you can bet it all and win big, or lose it all and ruin your life. Yeah. The slots and other games are rigged so that few can really win, but that’s guys like Sheldon Adelson and the other casino owners there doing their John Galt thing. Grab what you can and keep it all. Losers die, and should, but you won’t – and that’s the way life should be. Respect those who know how to make it big. Forget those who whine. Their problems are all their fault – but it’s never that simple:

A catechumen made his way to the microphone to ask the kind of question one might expect to be addressed by a session titled “The Inequality Debate.” Having spent a few days in Las Vegas, the young man was distressed by the evidence of poverty he had seen on the Strip, which can be considerable, given that Nevada’s tourism and housing industries were devastated by the financial crisis and the state still has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. So much of the presentation seemed to revolve around a dispute between elites over the philosophical implications of inequality, he said, but what about “the street junkies? They are so miserable and they sleep on the street.” His question was simple: “Why isn’t the free market hiring those people?”

ARI Executive Director Yaron Brook’s response began unevenly, detouring through an observation about the malice of minimum-wage laws and a history of the progressive era before turning to the young man’s question. “None of these phenomena that you’re seeing out there, homeless people and so on, are phenomena of capitalism,” he declared. The people outside the gates of The Venetian, hustling in the 111-degree heat, their fates are the “phenomena of mixed economy,” the side-effects of social welfare policies and regulations. They exist despite capitalism, not because of it.

Rollert notes that since capitalism is The Unknown Ideal to Rand, it can safely be defended from “complicity with all human evil” of course, but Ed Kilgore isn’t so sure:

Something else in Rollert’s account struck me as even more interesting that the contrast between Objectivist economics and the actual economy: the irony of a philosophical movement that began as a cult of architecture as the apex of human creativity (in Rand’s The Fountainhead) meeting in the bizarre manmade fantasy-scape of Vegas’ Venetian, headquarters of the man who epitomizes contemporary capitalism’s reality far more than the fictional John Galt: Sheldon Adelson.

Kilgore notes Rollert explaining it this way:

As Rand famously described it, the “essence” of Objectivism was “man as a heroic being” with “productive achievement as his noblest activity.” It follows from this that every great work indicates a great man, making a dazzling skyscraper (Howard Roark’s achievement in The Fountainhead) or a revolutionary engine (John Galt’s in Atlas Shrugged) nothing less than a “monument to human morality….”

The Venetian Las Vegas is Sheldon Adelson’s monument to human morality. The hotel, which opened in 1999, replaced the venerable Sands Casino with a simulated medley of major sights in Venice. You can enter beneath an obelisk tower that recalls St. Mark’s Campanile before stepping onto a moving sidewalk to cross the arched back of the Rialto Bridge and glide into the Doge’s Palace. The actual palace in Venice received over 1.3 million visitors in 2010. The impostor receives 50,000 a day.

Once inside, you have to follow the arcade of shops along a faux canal, complete with recumbent lovers and crooning gondoliers, to find the gilded catacombs that are the conference halls. It’s not easy. Casino complexes are designed to disorient, denying those inside any sign of reality: where they are, what time it is, why, perhaps, they ought to go home already. Every time I turned a corner I seemed to find my way back into the casino, a coincidence that was at once irritating and entirely unremarkable.

Kilgore:

Not to mention appropriate – not just the endless channeling of visitors to the dens of vice and profit, but the celebration of capitalism in the temple of the golden calf.

That’s the other world, where most everyone who works at the Venetian works at minimum wage, and then goes out in the mean streets, where some nervous or heroic cop may shoot them, dead.

Heroic? Josh Marshall explains:

What interests me about these confrontations is this: I think people who are part of, or sympathetic to, the movement tied to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others sometimes miss just what deep wells of support and trust police have in the population. Police officers are consistently among the most trusted professions in the country, as attested in numerous public opinion surveys. That said, respect and trust and deference to police is heavily tied to public perceptions of the threats they protect us from.

One of his readers pushes back:

As one 70 year old Black man who was born and raised in “segregated America” and raised my son in the new and improved “post-racial” America, please let me help you out.

We supporters don’t “miss” the “deep wells of support and trust” police have in the majority population. They have always had such support and trust. It just doesn’t matter here. What you seem to miss is that the reason that such support and trust exists is due to the fact that what they are protecting the majority population from, in the minds of far too many in that population, is us! From the Slave patrollers to the rural sheriffs, to the modern police forces, the threat perceived most vividly by the population they “protect and serve” is that of the (violent) black person. Even a cursory look at the history and culture of this nation will reveal that in popular culture for many decades the majority culture was told to be scared of people of color. The result of this villainization of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow skin is a populace that believes, at least subconsciously, that any stranger with a dark skin is a potential threat. Thus the differing rates of charging and conviction between white and minority populations. It is that perception that drives a lot of the injustice minorities complain about.

I worked for over 30 years in the legal system of this country as an “officer of the court”. I have seen the disparity in criminal charges and sentencing up close and personal. I have seen the biased perceptions of our police result in imprisonment, beatings, mistreatment, and yes, even death. But it is not only the overt physical violence that minorities are subjected to, it is the presumption of guilt that we confront on a daily basis. It is the cop who pulls you over for a “routine” check because to him or her you look suspicious. It is the clerk who keeps a close eye on you when you step into the shop, because “you know those people steal”. It is the assumption that you will never be able to repay the loan you apply for, or afford the car you walk in to look at. It is the surprise that you see in the eyes of someone who has just been told you are a judge, not a bailiff. It is the fear you see in the eyes of an elderly White person who you pass on the street in the twilight hours.

I could regale you with many stories, experiences and scenarios that I, my family and friends have experienced. Not episodes of racism or racist acts in the common understanding of the terms, but just folks reacting based on unfamiliarity, lack of knowledge and cultural stereotypes. But the bottom line is that this reaction is a widely shared one in the majority population. And it can be deadly. They want their police to protect them from the black person in the mugshot on the front page of the newspaper. They don’t question his or her guilt. And they don’t question whatever actions the police take to apprehend them. And they don’t question whether I am any different.

This is what’s really going on:

I can tell you from experience that police officers are just like everybody else – they are not all the benevolent guardians of small children, grannies and fluffy puppies. They do over use their authority, they do have bad days and they do lie, cheat and steal. But just as importantly, they do mostly try to do what they are asked to do. And what they are too often asked to do is… to protect you… from me.

So it’s the sixties again:

Unfortunately Black people can’t change how White people perceive them. That is something they must do. But, we can fight to change how we are treated… and that is something we must do.

There is that, and horrifying income inequality, and rotting infrastructure and an unsafe safety net, and an inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats, and a food system that causes disease, and a dysfunctional and even cruel government, and a sizable segment of the population excluded from work, and so on and so forth. That’s quite a backlog of matters that should have been considered but seem to have been dismissed as unimportant, or something that could be dealt with later. They were neither, and the sixties return. History is not linear and smooth. It’s lumpy, and America is about to take its lumps, again.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to America Takes Its Lumps

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    As with everything else, it seems, your topic is impossible to accurately simplify, but you and the writers you summarize take a valiant stab at it, and I thank you. My own blog, on Dec 14, attempts to briefly describe a Men’s Retreat from which I had just returned. Unfortunately, the notes I took there are still there: hopefully coming to me in the mail, soon. So I can’t quote anything accurately.

    But the retreat speaker, a retired Catholic Archbishop, now in his 80s, hit many nails on the head in his four talks to us. In the first one, he opened about the endless repetitive stories “on CNN” about the four African-American men now in the daily news.

    You know their names.

    He once was rector of a Seminary in rural Maryland, and in some comments about the difference between “learning” and “wisdom” he was recalling an occasion where he invited four African-American psychologists to talk to 190 of his then-Seminarians. In the dialogue section, a young Seminarian rose to comment on his deepest feelings to these well educated Black people. “I’m afraid of you”, he said, honestly.

    And that was the Archbishops point: “learning” is external; “wisdom” flows from deep inside each one of us. In my own words, learning is “objectivist”; wisdom flows from “feelings” that have no reasoned logical roots. Oh, how I wish I had those notes with me as I write….

    He set up the above scenario talking about his own childhood in a city in New York, where on his 9th birthday, he wanted to invite his friends to a birthday party. His Dad was actively dying at home, and his Mother said “no, we can’t, because….” Dad called out “let him have his party”.

    And so it went. As it happened, in his class there was a single African-American girl, fairly knew to the class, and he said he wanted to invite everyone, but not her.

    His mother said, “they all are invited, or there is no party”.

    He made the logical choice – to have the party, and the African-American girl came.

    His vignette was very powerful for me and, I suspect, the other 35 men in the room.

    We knew about our own wisdom, or lack of same, from long experience….

    Then, just a few hours ago, I was talking to a good friend of mine on the phone.

    He’s “objectivist” and pretty aggressively so, a truck driver now who, at 50, is becoming risk averse.

    He was calling from a remote place he’d been sent to pick up a semi load of potatoes for a manufacturing company in his city. The trip out was on very recently icy roads, which are deadly to empty large trucks. He hoped a full truck would be more stable.

    He said he was going to bid on a yard job at his company, and he thought he might have a chance, since three of the four yard men had just been fired for getting in a fight with each other at the yard. One of the three was his friend. The desired job would carry about the same pay and benefits, but not have the risks of over-the-road. He said not many of his compatriot drivers want yard work because they’re inherently loners, and yard work requires interaction. They like being on the road, in control of relationships.

    Being objectivist, he is anti-union, and while most companies model in some way or other union rules for things like pay and hours, the worker is totally at the whim of the employer. There is no contract; no seniority. It’s him against the company, when all comes down to the nitty gritty.

    Of course, we didn’t go there in our conversation – it is Christmas season after all. But I thought of it.

    We are, sadly, a nation of individualists, and that is just where the Sheldon Adelsons of the world want us. We want to pick and choose for ourselves: who we invite to our party; who we choose to help, and on and on and on.

    Maybe I make sense, maybe not. I’ll link your post to the end of my own, and maybe a single person will read it through, and maybe, miraculously, one will read my comment to the end, and maybe even be caused to think.

    Thank you, and Merry Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Happy Holidays, or Christmas Stocking, or Eide, or Santa Claus….)

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