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Raging Against the Machine
If it feels to you a bit reminiscent of 1968 these days, that’s because it is.
And that’s a good thing.
It’s starting to look like 2011 was the year of Basta!, when people finally woke up and found the voice with which to say Enough! To say that it comes in the nick of time is like saying that Rick Perry could afford to study a bit harder. In fact, this development is long overdue.
I don’t see much evidence to suggest extensive linkage between the various national uprisings we’re witnessing, or even much of a contagion effect – except perhaps in the Middle East – but nevertheless a host of countries have produced unprecedented popular dissent movements over the last year. In fairness, it’s probably accurate to say that 2011 actually started in 2009 in Iran, but this year alone has seen major uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Greece, the UK, the US, and Israel, among others. Now, even Mother Russia has been added to the club, while China appears to continue along on something of a slow boil.
Such developments often come in generational waves. The events of 1989 might be an example, though they were more regional in nature, and were the product of a singular cause, the collapse of Soviet hegemony in its neighborhood. 1968 provides the better exemplar, when France and Mexico and the US and Czechoslovakia and other countries rather spontaneously and rather separately experienced highly significant near-revolutions. Though the direct relationship between these respective events was rather tenuous, they shared a common ethos of a young generation rejecting the inheritance they were being offered by an older one whose core value system – rooted in materialism, war, prejudice, hypocrisy and multifarious forms of planetary destruction – was, oddly enough, increasingly found wanting.
It strikes me that we’re seeing some of the very same sort of behavior today. That’s no surprise. Indeed, the only shocker to me is that the response has taken so long, and that it continues to be so tame. The foolishness of our day’s ruling class day is epic in its proportions. As if that isn’t bad enough, foolishness is actually a far too generous diagnosis. Like, say, a Newt Gingrich or a Barack Obama, these are not stupid people, and therefore the malady which besets us is far worse than some product of world class bumbling. More than anything, ours is time characterized by greed, on a scale which can only be compared to a Hitler or a Genghis Kahn, or other great historical predators. That may seem like a ridiculous stretch, but one look at the political mechanics behind our policy indifference (on a good day) to the threat of global warming alone produces an indictment few figures in history can match. Add in the wars based on lies, the absence or dismantling of social programs in order to feed the greed of untaxed billionaires, the mortgaging of our children’s futures to pay for the same, and more, and you’ve got a pretty grim bar tab the oligarchy has run up there.
Lucky for these agents of destruction that heaven and hell is just a myth to feed the little people they exploit so adroitly. It sure would be funny to watch what would happen if one of them actually started believing in that crap and felt compelled to do some serious truth telling, a la Bullworth. Well, funny, that is, for about five minutes, until that individual inevitably came to experience a rather inexplicable but nevertheless quite sudden and quite enduring absence of consciousness. Must have been something he ate. The Lobster Cyanide, perhaps.
I’d feel a lot better (which is far from saying good) about what they’re doing to the rest of us if I thought they were mere idiots. It’s just unbearable to me to know that our demise is instead the product of a combined greed and cynicism that is all but unfathomable in its scale. These sociopathic Masters of the Universe have learned just how easy it is to animate and motivate the pathetic army of clones amongst the hoi polloi to do their bidding and hand over all manner of riches to a one-tenth of one-percent who have long ago exceeded even the capacity to spend the additional sums. What mutant DNA or childhood trauma causes a billionaire to rabidly pursue further billions at the cost of millions of people’s basic livelihood and dignity? And what missing CPU chips make it so easy for those millions to exchange their modest perch in the middle class for a nice war or two against a brown-skinned dictator who only yesterday was on the CIA payroll, or the warm feelings that come from some tasty racist, sexist or homophobic discrimination closer to home? The mind fairly reels.
Ah, but here we are, nonetheless. It’s quite amazing when you think about it. Just at the same moment when particle physicists are on the verge of unlocking the secrets of the Higgs Boson, you can still get tens of millions of slobbering American rednecks to dance in the streets over the prospects of murdering some poor mentally retarded SOB on death-row in Texas whose drunken lawyer slept through the trial, and whose appellate court ‘justices’ didn’t see any harm in any of that. Did I mention that the individual in question was not part of the one percent?
At the same time, however, there is some good news, which is that such idiocy seems to fast be going the way of, say, the novelty of Paris Hilton. It’s yesterday’s titillation, today’s embarrassment. Part of that, at the risk of being crass, is owing to pure generational replacement. Older people in America – as a generation, certainly not always as individuals – are simply more ignorant, malevolent and backward compared to their grandchildren, which would be more problematic than it is except for the fact that they are at least decent enough to be dying off.
Meanwhile, though, what makes 2011 2011 is the growing sense that waiting for Grandpa Bucephelus to do the right thing and help heal the planet a bit by departing from it is no longer enough. Young people are staring down the business end of both barrels of a wholly bleak future right now, and – go figure – they’re not happy about it. And, no, thank you very much, Mr. Perry, Ms. Bachmann and friends, they’re not very interested in trading their quality of life for a blivet full of prejudices, phony wars, or some laughably contrary but far less laughably pernicious shuckster’s moral lessons derived from the tribal skirmishes among certain Jordan river valley nomads thousands of years ago.
Yeah, imagine that. You take a bunch of twenty year-olds, load them up with debt from all the misadventures and crimes that you (adding special circumstances to your original felony) refused to even pay for, show them a future of living at home with mom and dad while fighting amongst themselves for the honor of toiling away in an unpaid internship at some soul-numbing corporate palace of predation, and – surprise, surprise – they get a bit rowdy in response. Like I said, the only questions are why it’s taken so long and why is the response so tame?
That latter question may grow moot over time, as it did, for example in Libya. Meanwhile, though, despite the seeming spontaneous and indigenous quality of each of these various national uprisings, it seems to me that they share three things in common.
First, the participants recognize an absence of real democracy in their governing structures. In some cases, such as Egypt’s thirty year dictatorship complete with sham elections where HMFIC Mubarak would win over 90 percent of the vote, this is more obvious than in others. Like, say, for example, the American system, where sham elections instead consistently give more than 90 percent of the vote to the two wings of the same Corporate Party. Regardless of whether you have the choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or are merely confined to voting for Tweedle D. Dumb alone, people everywhere seem to be recognizing that they in fact have no choice, and thus no democracy, at all. If Americans, for example, ever had a one-person-one-vote system, they sure don’t anymore. Now it’s strictly one-dollar-one-vote. Heads, corporate America gets subsidies, deregulation and externalized production costs; tails, you pay their taxes for them. Usually, though, it’s heads and tails, at the same time.
Which brings us to the second characteristic that these cases have in common. It’s not an accident that real democracy is off for an extended holiday in each of these countries. It must be, in order that the kleptocracies these nations have actually become can continue to function, largely unimpeded and uninterrupted. Turn your nose up in haughty disgust at Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe if you want (and you definitely should), but I’ve got some bad news for you. Bad Bob’s ugly regime is only different in scale and overtness from those of Egypt, Russia or the United States. To choose what is merely the most prominent example, right now the United States spends more on its military than all the other countries of the world combined – that’s nearly 200 nations, for those of you keeping score at home – and yet has no serious enemies anywhere on the horizon. Gee, I wonder why that is. Then there’s the case of global warming, which appears to merely be the greatest threat to imperil the planet since the last massive meteor hit and wiped out most life on Earth. No biggie, though. I’m sure it’s all just a massive coincidence that we’re doing nothing about the collective future of ten billion people and the fact that filthy rich, well-connected fossil fuel peddling corporations would lose money if we did.
All of which leads to a third commonality in each of these cases, which is that of young people surveying the landscape of their future and being a whole lot less than excited about the wreckage they see already strewn thereupon. And what’s not to like? Corporate loyalty to employees and lifetime tenure in good career jobs went out with the transistor radio. Public commitment to inexpensive quality education got real quaint real fast when investor bots like Mitt Romney figured out there was money to be made there. Thirty years of tax cuts for the wealthy have to be paid for, and those folks sure as hell not going to be doing it, leaving the tab to you and me instead. The one environment on the one planet we have has been knowingly pissed away by corporate Strangeloves who have absolutely set the all-time world record for sociopathy. But, hey, so what if it’s hot and stormy outside? These kids will be hunkered down in their parents’ basements for the rest of their lives, anyhow, at least when they’re not serving up double mocha lattes.
I am amazed at how long people stood by and watched these conditions develop, especially outside of thuggish dictatorships like Russia or Egypt, where dissent came with real and permanent risks to one’s health. Shame on Americans, in particular, for being so stupid and lazy as to buy into the transparent lies and distractions of the Age of Reagan, and sacrifice their futures and those of their children in exchange for the occasional infantile satiation of their worst tendencies toward violence and bigotry. Aren’t you glad we got Noriega, now, Billy Bob?!?! Isn’t that satisfying, even though you don’t have a job or a house anymore? And thank god the queers can’t get married, eh?! Building a wall to keep Mexicans out sure is satisfying, isn’t it? Yeah. Too bad, though, that we had to trade away the middle class for those seedy little thrills, and drive the country so far into the ditch that we actually solved our illegal immigration problem. Mexicans have literally stopped coming to the US because they can get as much jobless poverty as they want just by staying home, without the nasty demonization crap from drunken gringos trying to paper over their insecurities.
A recent piece in the New York Times summarizes our condition well: “In a Bertelsmann Foundation study on social justice released this fall, the United States came in dead last among the rich countries, with only Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey faring worse. Whether in poverty prevention, child poverty, income inequality or health ratings, the United States ranked below countries like Spain and South Korea, not to mention Japan, Germany or France. … No nation has ever lost an existing middle class, and the United States is not in danger of that yet. But the percentage of national income held by the top 1 percent of Americans went from about 10 percent in 1980 to 24 percent in 2007, and that is a worrisome signal.”
But America’s short-term future looks even more dismal than the present, if that is imaginable. The Republican presidential field this year could have stepped off the set of any B-rate Hollywood horror film. Or maybe “The Sting”. True to form, a good half the candidates are straight-ahead shucksters, pure and simple, who have borrowed directly from the pioneering Sarah Palin’s playbook. It turns out that you can make a boatload of money in Republican politics without actually having to do anything remotely onerous, like, say, knowing something about the issues (China has nukes?) or actually serving a full term in office. Two of these confidence men have actually been the GOP flavor of the month at some point this year (four, if you count Palin and Trump, who were so skilled at the game that they never even got in before getting out), and one of those two now looks like he’s going to win the nomination.
Somebody (I wish it had been me) recently described Newt Gingrich as “a dumb person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like”, and boy is that ever the truth. He might also be understood as an amoral sociopath’s idea of what a good person sounds like. You can get just about everything you need to know about Gingrich from this one exchange between him and Wife Number Two (of three, and counting) in an Esquire feature published last year:
“He asked her to just tolerate the affair, an offer she refused.
“He’d just returned from Erie, Pennsylvania, where he’d given a speech full of high sentiments about compassion and family values.
“The next night, they sat talking out on their back patio in Georgia. She said, ‘How do you give that speech and do what you’re doing?’
“‘It doesn’t matter what I do,’ he answered. ‘People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.’”
It’s worth noting, by the way, that Gingrich had asked his third wife to marry him before telling his second wife that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce, and that this repeated the pattern of how he left his first wife. But now he’s Mr. Faithful, Mr. Pious and Mr. Moral, lecturing the rest of us on proper codes of ethical behavior. This from a guy who proposes scrapping child labor laws. This from a guy who would deny the Palestinian people even the essence of their identity in order to pander yet further to the Likud Lobby and its stranglehold over American politics. This from a guy who – as Barney Frank rightly notes – is more or less singlehandedly responsible for the poisoning of the well of American political discourse these last two decades. This from a guy who ditched his first wife on her hospital bed as she was recovering from cancer surgery, so that he could marry the woman with whom he had been having an affair.
What kills me is that tens of millions of Americans could want to put this obviously tortured soul in the White House, drooling, chanting and hollering in response every invocation of violence and hatred he casually tosses out like so many rhetorical hand grenades. But then this is the nature of our politics. There is this incredibly sick segment of the country – people who look to politics as a chance to vindicate their resentments, justify their hatreds and exonerate their stupidity – and the contest among the GOP candidates is to find the individual who can throw them the most red meat. If you’ve watched the crowd response at any of the debates these lot have been conducting the last few months, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But it’s been there a good long while. Reagan got elected, in part, because he promised to kill more foreigners than Carter would. No joke. Lil’ Bush ‘won’ his first term (as did Clinton, in part) pretty much on his record as a proud and overt serial murderer of Texas death-row inmates. Then, this dress-up-macho Vietnam coward ‘won’ his second term by out tough-guying a dude who actually did fight in a real war, or at least Bush did so in the minds of these very unwell Republican voters, whose capacity to grapple with the cognitive dissonance driven by avalanches of pesky factual data makes Lindsay Lohan look like a paragon of mental health by comparison.
So there is every chance that Brute Thing-Itch might be the next American president. I thought for sure it would be Tough Guy Rick Perry, instead, but GOP voters surprised me by demonstrating that they actually do have a stupidity threshold of some sorts. It’s perfectly fine to tell them the most obscene lies (like where Palin says she reads “all” them journal thingies, or when Mutt emphatically changes his position on everything imaginable). You just can’t reveal that you’re as dumb as a Texas governor (even if you are one) on national TV by doing that deer in the headlights thing. If you’re gonna list three things, well godammit, you need to come up with more than two. (Christ, Fool, just make them up if you need to! Like that would be so out of character for a GOP politician or voter.) Anyhow, call it tough love if you want, but Republican voters appear to have their standards, and Oh-Shit-I-Left-My-Brain-Back-At-The-Ranch-(Again) Perry doesn’t seem to meet them. I guess when national politics is part of your personal mechanism for avoiding embarrassment, it’s important that your candidate not play the drunken fool in front of millions…
Anyhow, it now looks like Fig Newton could well be standing on the inaugural platform in January of 2013, and I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing in the short term or the long term. I’ll be delighted to see Obama humiliated and destroyed, for one thing. My antipathy toward him (and Bill Clinton) in many ways surpasses that for the GOP line-up of thugs and bugs. All of the above have the same fundamental commitments to the same cadre of ruling plutocrats, but Obama and Clinton have also managed to destroy the New Deal Democratic Party and the reputation of progressivism in the bargain. And their deceits have been all the more treasonous because of the millions of progressives (including loads of young people, politically mobilized for the first and possibly last time in 2008) whose idealism, compassion and genuine love of country they’ve so callously trampled upon.
On the other hand, now that Obama is ramping up the Big Lie machine once again, many of those people will get just what they deserve. What was that line Bush mumbled about fooling me twice? I’m astonished to see progressives gearing up to be abused a second time by Obama – who is all of a sudden sounding like a progressive again – like they’ve walked right out of a Stockholm Syndrome field manual or something. Are we talking about the same guy here? The one who put the actual bandits who wrecked the economy in his cabinet? The one who has not prosecuted a single Wall Street bankster? The one who bailed those thieves out, but has done nothing remotely serious for the unemployed and homeowners? The one who pretends to fold in every negotiation with Republicans? The one whose staff regularly disses progressives?
That guy? Hey, liberal idiots. I have a question for you. Do you really think this bastard is going to become FDR in his second term? Do you really think he’s going to seriously slash military funding in order to save Medicare? Do you really think he’s going to rescind his deal with the insurance industry in order to provide genuine public health care access? Do you really think he’s going to replace Timothy Geithner with Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz? I mean, this is a guy so beholden to Wall Street that he pretended not to have the courage to nominate Elizabeth Warren to the new consumer affairs position she invented. Are you really going to be wooed by him again? If so, if you’re so easily abused by your political class, you might as well line up to be Newt’s fourth wife for all the street smarts you’re displaying.
This country – and likely this global economy – are going to have to go through a shit storm over the next two or three years, and in many ways I’d much rather have some GOP jerk in the White House to make things worse and get the blame than another four years of Half-a-Bama, carrying water for Wall Street while dissipating the anger of stupid liberals who cannot recognize their own enemy just because he puts ‘D’ after his name, and especially if he does so while being black. We have to get to the point of utter rejection of kleptocratic politics in this country, and the way I see it, a second Obama term drowns that process in molasses, while the sure to be utterly egregious Gingrich could instead be the perfect lightening rod to fully energize the street. The guy is a disaster in every way imaginable, and is a plague I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy (that would probably be Gingrich, anyhow), but right now he might be just the chemotherapy needed for a very, very sick country.
Yes, we’ll lose our hair and vomit continuously.
But perhaps we’ll finally destroy the cancer of greed which has metastasized in the American body politic.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.