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A Vietnam Vet on Joe the Plumber
Reflections of an Average Joe
by WILLIAM P. O'CONNOR

A limbless victim of a forgotten war sat and watched me run by his wheelchair yesterday. While jogging past him at the Veterans’ Hospital two things crossed my mind. First I thought, despite aching calves and shortness of breath, I was lucky to be a Vietnam Veteran with legs. Then my thoughts segued to past foreign policy blunders and the current race for president. Lately, the candidates’ obsession with Average Joe, Joe Six pack and Joe the Plumber got my attention. I’ve been a soldier, oil rig worker, bartender, truck driver, and firefighter; and unlike the plunger pusher from Ohio my thought streams remain clogged by ideas and facts.

My opinions don’t warrant national attention like Joe the plumber, but I consider myself fortunate. Forty years before I was born, progressive labor leaders fought to get children out of factories and into schools.  Civil Service jobs, like firefighter, were given by political appointment and offered no competitive exams for promotion.  New York labor marches as late as 1914 had children carrying signs that read, “Support the 72 hour week” and “Please let us play on Sunday.” Decent working conditions, minimum wage and fair trade are all benefits demanded by the many from the few.  Before organized labor, employers denied health care, pensions, vacations, or other benefits. Giants of labor sacrificed their lives to get children off factory production lines, and their martyrdom should be neither taken for granted nor forgotten.

Sit in the day room or kitchen of a New York City fire house – which I proudly did for 23 years — and you’ll hear rants about liberals screwing up this country. The God damn left wing, bleeding heart socialists don’t care about the working man. They give our hard earned taxes to illegal immigrants, and minorities on welfare. Despite statistics showing more whites on welfare than minorities, false perceptions like this pervade blue collar America. The corporate media has persuaded Middle America that liberal is a prefix to be followed immediately by bastard. It behooves those in control to keep workers divided; pitting one class of sufferers against the other is a tenet older than labor negotiation itself. To paraphrase Steinbeck: keep them apart, make them hate and fear each other — this is how to turn we to I. 

Although he signed The Civil Rights Act, Johnson lamented it would cause Democrats to lose the South the next fifty years. He was unaware Republicans would use his signature as a wedge between Democrats and wage earners in the North as well. To union men, the Democrats are no longer the party of labor and reform, but the party of minorities, welfare, and affirmative action. It’s no coincidence both Democratic Presidents since The Civil Rights Act have been Southern Governors, and without Perot even Clinton would have lost. A Democrat today has to be a favorite son to carry a Southern State.  Average Joe meanwhile works, reads the paper, watches the news, and between American Idol, the ball game, house repairs, and his kids has little time for political involvement. This limited involvement and television’s convenience make him ripe for manipulation, so he is blissfully unaware four times more of his taxes go to corporate welfare than social welfare.

The existence of a liberal media is the ultimate corporate myth. The mass media is nothing more than a corporate subsidy. If Average Joe gets his news from “liberal” cable and newspapers, why does he hate liberals?  If the media was really liberal, why would corporate America spend so much money buying advertising to support it? The products sold by the media are viewers, listeners, and readers; these “products” are then sold to advertisers. The advertisers are oil companies, investment firms, insurance companies, and banks, not minorities, unions, the elderly or the disenfranchised.  C.E.O.’s of media outlets are not going to risk advertising revenue by being controversial. Consider the reply of William Randolph Hearst when reminded his newspapers were losing a million dollars a day, “True and at this rate I will be broke in 100 years.” His economic interests were so extensive, the point of his newspaper empire was no longer profit. Most media today is controlled by conglomerates with tentacles that extend well beyond broadcasting. In essence, corporate profits are spent to ensure the majority of the Republic stays diverted.  Focusing on tax dollars used to subsidize already successful businesses, or on the astounding inequities in resource distribution would make for an unhappy electorate.  

Nearly everything Joe Six Pack reads, hears, or sees in what the mainstream media euphemistically calls news has a controlled agenda. Moguls like Australian Rupert Murdoch, who destroyed the printers union in London, spend huge money to control this agenda. It is reported he paid 5 billion dollars, over twice what the Wall Street Journal’s stock price was, to purchase it.

After the turmoil of the sixties (the riots in the streets, the demand for social equality and change), the minority who control most of the capital got a bit trepidatious. In response to this turmoil lobbyist Lewis Powell circulated a memorandum on August 23, 1971.  His memorandum insisted business people should support the Republican Party which promised stability. He claimed Democrats encourage social unrest, and assured them with the G.O.P. status quo would be uncompromised by annoyances like social equality or justice. Powell advocated “constant surveillance” of textbook and television content as well as a purge of left-wing elements. Two months later, Nixon rewarded Powell with a Supreme Court appointment, and this highly effective memorandum caused the Republican Party to receive a massive influx of funds from corporations. Democrats, fearing for their ability to compete, jockeyed for access to this cash tsunami. Succinctly, this began the spiraling descent into representative obscurity for the common man. Both political parties sold out the populace that elected them in favor of corporate lobbyists hawking money. The assault on unions, progressives, and the common man that followed has left the American worker at the mercy of corporate generosity. Like Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece, labor is forced to depend on the kindness of strangers, and the result is predictable. There is no job security, no overtime, no decent healthcare plans. Now that American workers have made corporations successful, they leave our shores to ravish the third world where the profit margins are higher. Corporations are enticed by inexpensive labor and minimized responsibilities, and the American worker has been left to fend for himself, jilted for the more productive foreign mistress.

Joe the plumber, stripped of the protection of effective representation, is convinced by the corporate media that wages like Wal-Mart’s are sufficient. Salaries stagnant since the seventies have forced the general populace to borrow on the equity in their homes, and maximize their credit card debt. The bankers and corporations are delighted to lend people money at compounded interest rather than see them compensated with fair wages. Meanwhile credit card companies fled to states without usury laws, like Delaware, to screw Joe even more. Corporations rewrote bankruptcy laws while financiers wiped out his pension and 401 K’s with credit default swaps, derivatives and other sophisticated financial instruments. When the pyramid scheme collapsed, the same banks and investment firms which screwed him for years used a complicit Congress to tell Joe it’s his shoulder they must cry on. Ninety-five percent of the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. is now controlled by 2 % of the population; yet, Wall Street reached into the 5% already spread out among 294 million people to bail out Corporate America. Ironically complicit in this massive transfer of wealth has been Joe himself.  Convinced by corporate media that any sentence containing working man and higher wages is socialism, he has venerated the ruling elite like Reagan and Bush, forgetting true champions of his cause like Walter Reuter and Eugene Debbs. These false idols have done as much to retard the common man’s progress as Robert Taft and Fred Hartley.

According to the Inter Press News Service, the United States ranks third behind Turkey and Mexico for inequity between the wealthiest and poorest households among the thirty countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperative Development. Corporate surrogates like O’Reilly and Hannity make the argument that a progressive tax is class warfare.  But as Warren Buffet said, “Class warfare does exist; my class is winning.” After the tax inequities of the last eight years — almost a trillion dollars a year was shifted from the lower classes to the rich – Obama’s plan to modify this travesty offends Republicans. So the Party of the rich attempt to tar and feather him with slanders like Muslim, Marxist, terrorist, elitist, celebrity, socialist, pervert and the latest, racist.(Are there two of him?)  The Teflon Democrat, however, jets along on the internet easily debunking these slanderers because they’re traveling in slow motion. Slander can’t stick to what it can’t catch. Like Roosevelt in his fireside chats, Obama recognized the internet as the modern political method and mastered it both for fundraising and to reach the electorate. This time the electorate, unconvinced by right wing hyperbole, seems determined to eschew the neocons.

The word liberal comes from the Latin liberalis, or free man. On Joe’s T.V. set, the word is used pejoratively and is code for pinko, leftist, or commie. Traditionally conservatism requires strict adherence to the constitution, separation of powers, smaller government, and fiscal responsibility, as well as separation of church and state. Conservatives don’t nation build; instead, they are in accord with the Constitution that the right to declare war belongs exclusively to the Congress. The reactionaries in power the last eight years have given us preemptive strikes, wire tapping, and suspension of Habeas Corpus along with the largest government, largest deficit, and largest transfer of wealth in the history of the .world. The party responsible for this incredibly insists it’s conservative.

Republicans are fond of calling themselves the party of Lincoln. But as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of post reconstruction America knows, the Republicans of Lincoln’s time were the progressive party. The Republicans were intent on abolishing slavery thereby upending the status quo, and the wealthy Southern Democrats who were adverse to change were the conservatives. The point is political labels change over time; today liberals protect the rights of citizens against the government. Consider it is the A.C.L.U. — long portrayed as a subversive socialist organization– that protects the Bill of Rights.  It is liberals who have done the most to reform social welfare, fight against wire tapping, and want Jesus out of the legislature, ensuring separation between church and State.

Christ is no stranger to me, but I resent the hijacking of any political party by Christians, most notably the Christian Right whose mindset is both insular and alarming. I attend school in the Bible belt of Northern Florida, and sitting in a Biology class where more than 60% of the class refuses to acknowledge evolution is disconcerting. “Christian ministers” in the area proselytize about the damnation of Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, regardless of their lifestyles, simply because Christ is not their God. Right wing media complain of Obama’s connection to Reverend Wright, yet nonchalantly ignore Jerry Falwell’s ramblings about 9/11 being God’s punishment for homosexuality, or Pat Robertson’s alleged encounter with a fifty foot Jesus in the desert. Why is there never a lion around when you need one? Delusional zealots aside, according to the Constitution our responsibility is to keep religious beliefs out of the class room, the courts, and the government. After all, two of our greatest presidents, Jefferson and Lincoln, were self admitted atheists.

A gallon of gas was twenty cents when I was a kid; so I have seen presidential candidates come and go since Stephenson battled Eisenhower. As a teenager, I worked for William F. Buckley’s ill- fated run for mayor of New York and also volunteered in the failed campaign of Barry Goldwater. Both believed in a clear philosophy of separation of powers, small government, fiscal responsibility, and separation of church and state. Contrast that with what the Republican Party has degenerated into: a party where the American dream goes to die.

This year the Democratic nominee has run the finest, most organized campaign I have ever seen. I don’t know how this translates to running a government, but if Obama is sincere there is a real chance he might be a great president. With McCain we aspire to querulous mediocrity, and these dangerous times call for more than that. On Election Day, I will cast my vote along with the conservatives: Christopher Hitchens, Christopher Buckley, Scott McClellan, Colin Powell, and even Barry Goldwater’s daughter. This average Joe will proudly raise his voice for a black man with a Muslim name, Obama.

William P. O’Connor enlisted in the Air Force on August 1, 1966. He served in the Vietnam War from August 1969 to August 1970 in Nakhon Phanom in Northern Thailand. William was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1948. He is a former pub owner and retired NYC fire fighter. He may be contacted at williampoconnor@hotmail.com.