Options in America: Kill Yourself or Have a Baby


Time made Vladimir Putin its Man of the Year. Chalk it up as nostalgia for the cold war, when America was great, and a working man in a state like Michigan had two cars, a nice house, a country cabin, a health plan, a pension and a wife who stayed at home, canning fruit and batting her eyes at the postman. These days he has two lousy jobs, she has three and they have negative equity in their home, no health plan and no pension.

A couple of indices of how down many Americans are feeling about the future: The suicide rate among middle-aged Americans has reached its highest point in at least 25 years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported.

The rate rose by about 20 percent between 1999 and 2004 for U.S. residents ages 45 through 54 ­ far more than among younger adults, whose own suicide stats are also on the rise.

In 2004, there were 16.6 completed suicides per 100,000 people in the 45-54 cohort, the highest it’s been since the CDC started tracking such rates, around 1980. The previous high was 16.5, in 1982, a year when there was a terrible farm crisis in the Mid-West.

These days it’s the health care crisis. People can’t even afford to get finished off respectably by a doctor or a hospital, so they have to do it themselves.

The second index of desperation is a sudden spike in teen pregnancies, particularly among young black women. As R.F. Blader wrote a few days ago here on this site, "When we believe in our opportunities, we safeguard our futures. Conversely, we behave self-destructively when we have no hope. For many teenagers in America, the options aren’t heartening. In a society where opportunities are scarce and life is getting harder, getting pregnant puts a positive spin on a vote of no-confidence." Indeed some argue that having babies early is a very rational choice for a young black teen, since her support network of kin are still alive, and her own body not wasted by the toxins associated with low income neighborhoods.

In less than a week America will start trudging through the endless months of Campaign 2008. Worthy Iowans, their quadrennial season in the limelight at its apex, will cram into the caucuses and kick off the horse races. In all the torrents of rhetorical hot air thus far expended, it’s hard to find a single sentence from any politician that could give any comfort to that suicidal 50-year old or the teen with a toddler as her only solace. There are gestures to populism by the Democrat John Edwards, but I’ve not met anyone who believes that there is the slightest chance of substantive reform of health care or a reversal of soaring trends in inequality. The bad guys have a lock on the system.

The default option these days is fantasy ­ a trend in American politics kicked off in this epoch by Ronald Reagan. Reagan knew how to keep things simple. When Reagan died a Pentagon official told me that when Ron became president in 1981, and thus "commander in chief" the Joint Chiefs of Staffs mounted their traditional show-and-tell briefings for him, replete with simple charts and a senior general explicating them in simple terms. Reagan found these briefings way too complicated and dozed off. The Joint Chiefs then set up a secret unit, staffed by cartoonists. The balance of forces were set forth in easily accessible caricature, with Soviet missiles the size of upended Zeppelins, pulsing on their launchpads, with the miniscule US ICBMs shrivelled in their bunkers. Little cartoon bubbles would contain the points the joint chiefs wanted to hammer into Reagan’s brain, most of them to the effect that "we need more money". Reagan really enjoyed the shows and sometimes even asked for repeats.

Reagan set the bar for the level of national political debate. They called him the Great Communicator and no one has moved the bar since. So who cares if his great contribution to the national fantasy "missile defense", aka, "the strategic defense initiative" aka "Star Wars, is now scheduled to consume 19 per cent of the defense budget even though it’s well nigh universally admitted the system is useless. The system is impregnable to reform and everyone knows it.


The Dialectics of Revolution, uh, Recycling

Three years ago some smart leftists in England put together an event called the Battle of Ideas and the mix of provocative

themes, well-run panels and competent speakers worked out well. I was invited to speak at a couple of sessions in the third Battle at the end of this last October and was happy to find its organizers threading a sane course past the rocks on which left-organized confabs usually founder: viz., endless mastication of the obvious; marked disinclination to address any new ideas; overblown preachments to the converted. In fact, on the surface at least, this didn’t seem like a particularly "left" affair, which probably explains why that weekend a thousand people were milling around the Royal College of Art, next to the Albert Hall.

Waiting for my first panel — "Digital Commons: Does Technology Add Up To A New Sphere?" My answer, No — , I thought back forty years to what these days would be called a signature sixties event, namely the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, held over two weeks in July 1967 in a magnificent railway repair shed known as the Round House, built in the 1840s in north London. There was nothing circular about those proceedings. It was full tilt forward to revolution, personal and political.

The Congress was convened by radical psychiatrists led by R.D. Laing and David Cooper. They believed that the violence done to what they saw as those socially victimized persons termed "schizophrenic" or "mad" had common features with America’s imperial violence, at that time being unleashed on revolutionary Vietnam. The affair featured big names and big themes: Herbert Marcuse, Paul Sweezy, Paul Goodman, Stokely Carmichael, Gregory Bateson.

The night before his address I cooked dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Marcuse on behalf of the New Left Review editorial committee. Marcuse was sharing lodgings with Goodman and denounced the latter’s habit of leaving the bathroom door open as he stood in his underwear, brushing his teeth, "flirting his buttocks." Marcuse twitched his behind in parody of the licentious author of Growing Up Absurd as, slightly shocked, our group waited to continue with probing questions about the Frankfurt School. "Too much civilization, not enough Eros," Mrs. Marcuse muttered wryly.

Next day Marcuse admonished the large crowd, many of whom had taken up permanent residence in the Roundhouse, "We have been too ashamed, understandably ashamed, to insist on the integral, radical features of a socialist societyif this qualitative difference today appears as Utopian, as idealistic, as metaphysical, this is precisely the form in which these radical features must appear if…socialism is indeed…the leap into the realm of freedom-a total rupture."

What seemed to seize the crowds at the Battle of Ideas thirty years later were not grand visionary sweeps, like those of Marcuse-history has sidelined these for the nonce-but deflations of what one may term rhetorical, politically correct "mini-progressivism." One panel I eagerly attended, "Recycling Is A Waste of Time," featured a German, Thomas Deichmann, describing the insane recycling regulations now beleaguering the citizenry of Frankfurt. The case for efficient incineration, he asserted, was overwhelming. Most recycling is an utter waste of time, economically unsound and without benefit for the environment. "We should," he counseled urbanely, "be thinking of more interesting things."

Julia Hailes, "sustainability consultant" to companies such as Marks and Spencer and Shell, author of The New Green Guide, listened tautly, as did Julie Hill, author of A Zero Waste UK. Ms Hill gazed at Deichmann as though he were a lead battery in a baby’s bath. Hailes mimed, with as much enthusiasm, albeit less satirically than Marcuse forty years earlier, the pleasures of tossing foil into one kitchen bin, metal bottle top into another, plastic into a third. Recycling, she chirped, made her feel good.

The two didn’t carry the crowd. A man described sorting green, clear and brown glass into three bins, only to see them all dumped into the same truck. A woman seized the microphone: "I go to the dump with my kid each week, to take the rubbish there. Then he goes to school and they do their first day trip, and where do they go?" She paused for effect. "To the dump!" The crowd roared. Mind you, this wasn’t a mob of hee-haw Limbaugh-type reactionaries, deriding all collective social efforts to improve the planet. In this and other sessions, their indignation stemmed from a sense that along the road from the grand visions of ’67 to the pious sustainability mantras and globe-survivalist waffle of our own phase, the vision of human liberation expressed by Marcuse had collapsed into variants of resource management and nannyism, with irksome rules and protocols, none of which had anything to do with onslaughts on capitalist ownership and control.

Back in 1989 I did some interviews on environmentalism and socialism for Z magazine with the left economist James O’Connor. Jim described what he’d told a fellow in the newspaper recycling business: "If you set up a recycling project where your outfit helps to create the conditions to organize social relations of production that make sense, that have to do with fraternity, equality, liberty, and justice, etc., etc., then I’ll recycle my newspapers. Come and tell me when you have done that.

AC: What do you do with your old newspapers?

JO: Throw them in the trash. What do you do with yours?

AC: Throw them in the trash. Back in Ireland with my mother we leave them out for the man from St Vincent de Paul who takes them away for some charitable purpose, thereby maintaining social relations in the sorry state they are today, imploring the poor to pray for relief from heaven. And, needless to say, the poor people of my home town are very glad to have St Vincent de Paul bail them out in their hour of need.

Democrat Found in Republican’s Corpse

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A partially mummified hadrosaur discovered by a teenager in North Dakota may be the most complete dinosaur ever found, with intact skin that shows evidence of stripes and perhaps soft tissue, researchers said on Monday.

They also found a second fossil. The clawed foot belongs to a species of crocodile that may have been dining on the hadrosaur soon after it died in a riverbed.

"It could have crawled up the back passage of the animal, went to get the guts and ended up stuck," said paleontologist Phil Manning.

So Much for Second-Hand Smoke

They Died in 2007: Vincent Sardi Jr., 91. Consummate host of Broadway watering hole Sardi’s. Jan. 4.

Footnote: The item on the Battle of Ideas first ran in the print edition of The Nation.

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