"The System Worked"
“The system worked.”
–Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, regarding the attempted Christmas 2009 bombing on an airplane landing in Detroit
The system worked. After an oppressively narrow and empty 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush the Younger stole the US presidency, although he failed to win the majority of votes. The campaign seemed to turn on the vital issues of Vice President Al Gore’s debate mannerisms and the orange tinge of his makeup. Election chicanery, faux news lies, and thuggery in Florida were approved by a particularly unprincipled 5-4 US Supreme Court decision. We knew this meant trouble. Like lambs being led to slaughter, we had no idea how deep. Bush and his evil puppet master Dick Cheney began to act like they’d actually won the election and had a mandate. They eschewed any moderation or compromise, in favor of ideological extremism and tax cuts for the rich. We started sliding into a nightmare decade. The system ratified abuses of illegitimate power.
The system worked. Eight months into the Cheney/Bush administration’s watch, eleven men with box cutters, pilot training and a bold plan hijacked our future and liberty. The US reacted clumsily, plunging the world into war, first in Afghanistan and two years later inexplicably in Iraq. Both these unwinnable aggressions based on lies continue today, seven years later, bankrupting the nation, hollowing out democracy and (in a rare bit of good news) undermining the US empire. US military families suffer the monstrous human consequences of multiple deployments to illegal occupations of foreign lands. Repeatedly doing the same basic things as before in Korea and Vietnam, expecting that somehow things will end up differently this time, displays systematic insanity. The system empowered warmongers, and enriched war profiteers.
The system worked. The 2001 collapse of Enron triggered a continually intensifying class war, culminating in trillions of tax dollars and credits supporting the very Wall Street banksters who crashed the economy. Homeless people and foreclosed, vacant houses proliferate throughout our cities, and poverty invaded even the sacred, middle class suburbs. Giant US auto companies were bailed out, and their workers were thrown out, while efforts to save the planet by converting industrial production to the future green economy languished. A continuing series of corporate scandals expose the ethical and legal rot at the heart of the economy. The system lavishly rewarded financial fraudsters, and savagely crushed working people’s dreams.
The system worked. It did a heckuva job in the wake of 2005 Tropical Storm and Societal Failure Katrina, graphically exposing the consequences of massive inequality, racism and private profit-oriented “security” policies, after a long-predicted natural disaster. The system left the Gulf Coast’s poor people to drown, and then richly rewarded disaster capitalist “recovery” contractors for coming in afterwards to grab their land.
The system worked. A black man and a white woman stepped forward as the corporate-selected leading candidates in the 2008 quadrennial election extravaganza, occurring amid deep, intense and profound social crisis. Obama’s eventual victory reasserted the corporate domination of the so-called Democratic Leadership Council. Clinton, Gates, Summers, Geithner & Co. were appointed as safe hands for the same imperial, military and economic policies that drove the collapse in the first place. The system worked to perpetuate its own power and injustices, and to kill hopes for change.
The system worked. At our last best hope to prevent climatic/ecological catastrophe threatening the whole basis and web of life on Earth in Copenhagen 2009, our so-called (corporate state) leaders looked directly at the ghastly consequences, clearly heard what has to be done to prevent – or at least mitigate – them, and decided not to do so. The system proved unsustainable, unjust, and suicidal.
The system worked. With blinding speed and amid roaring nonsense over “death panels” and “socialism,” it converted health care reform into corporate welfare for insurance and drug companies. Health care options available to everyone – everyone – in other industrialized countries – all other industrialized countries – exotic choices like being able to afford seeing a doctor, will remain unavailable to tens of millions in the US, in an epic economic recession, while we are legally required to buy inferior insurance policies, all in the guise of “reform.” The system is apparently on the verge of destroying our physical, economic, social and emotional health, in order to boost corporate profits.
The system worked. Whenever people denounced the scams of the corporate state, Wall Street, and its political puppets in Washington, or even tried to educate ourselves about the real world instead of the corporate echo chamber, the backlash against such organized, principled and militant social movements – often even among self-proclaimed leading “liberals” – fiercely maintained “THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE,” like a hideous zombie Margaret Thatcher on steroids. The system excluded any and all real alternatives, and defeated all meaningful solutions for working people.
In a democratic society, what “the system” is, how it “works,” and most importantly whom it works for and whom it injures, would all be the subjects of open, robust, informed and effective public political debates. Our public debate was more constrained. We got the wit and wisdom of Joe the Plumber, and the threat of President Caribou Barbie if we didn’t pull the lever for Obama. Staggering under the weight of the military- and prison-industrial complexes, we choose between either trying to cut through the ten thousand tons of bullshit smothering our lives and communities, or groveling in the latest corporate entertainment crap as an attempt to avoid facing these overwhelming realities.
It’s worth considering for a moment why savvy politico Janet Napolitano made such an obviously untrue statement – indeed, it was almost unbelievably moronic under the circumstances. The explanation is pretty simple. A top government bureaucrat like the Secretary of “Homeland Security” needs to believe, or at least to claim, that “the system worked,” no matter what the facts. One implication of this is that they lie to us routinely, all the time. Duh. This widely accepted fact sheds considerable light on the real meaning of the phrase “the system worked.” It works like this: The dominant institutions and powers of our society, aka “the system,” perpetuate their own power and wealth, and they either fool or coerce us into not fighting back or changing things to improve our condition; i.e., they “work.” Simple, really. Deadly, but effective.
The consequences of these institutional dynamics after the last ten years strain human comprehension and the resilience of all life. New York Times Op-Ed writer Frank Rich recently observed that “We keep being fooled by leaders in all sectors of American life, over and over. A decade that began with the “reality” television craze exemplified by “American Idol” and “Survivor” — both blissfully devoid of any reality whatsoever — spiraled into a wholesale flight from truth. … after a decade in which two true national catastrophes, a wasteful war and a near-ruinous financial collapse, were both in part byproducts of the ease with which our leaders bamboozled us, we can’t so easily move on.”
Similarly, Hofstra University political science professor David Michael Green surveyed the last ten years and concluded that:
“Short of the 1860s or 1930s, this was perhaps the most disastrous decade in American history, and it deserves a good goddamed label to celebrate that fine achievement. … If there was one bright spot, it was the seeming recognition by the American public that the full glory of regressive politics was a fairly horrifying prospect to behold, once stripped by a sufficient dose of reality immersion to reveal the truth behind the marketing slogans. Americans seemed to finally come to their senses just a bit, and decide that the thirteenth century was best left in the history books, after all.
But then along came Barack Obama to provide the fitting end to it all. Crushing any sense of possible recovery or redemption (and even his own presidency) on the altar of perpetual obedience to corporate predation, he has now made the decade complete in every way. Not only has he abandoned any meaningful solutions for the multiple crises he inherited, he has absolved by silence the folks who produced those very catastrophes. No, strike that. He has more than absolved them, he has revivified them.
If there is any bright spot in the whole affair, it is that conditions are fertile for potentially big change in this country. But, then, this is America, a place where a corporate milquetoast like Harry Reid defines the supposed left, and is considered some sort of Bolshevik revolutionary. Or worse, I should say that it is an increasingly desperate, collapsing empire America, where the chances that such big change could be really ugly are lots higher than not.”
We’re between the rock and the hard place. In spite of the risks, it’s time to change – indeed completely overturn and junk – a system that works for the fat cats and the power brokers, while it abuses you and me and billions of ordinary people. In the mean time, thanks to Ms. Napolitano for timely and publicly providing the awful 2000 -09 decade with a fitting moniker: The Decade that the System Worked.
TOM STEPHENS is a lawyer in Detroit. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Paul Street coined the phrase.
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