In my naïve years—and they lasted until much more recently than I’d like to admit—I could always rely on moral superiority. We’re better than other countries. We’re democratic. We do things openly. For the greater good. We’re all in this together. Not all of our elected leaders will do the right thing, but most will, and their side will prevail. And the biggest whopper of them all: in a crisis, we come together, we fix the problem. The only truism that still applies? We have the ability (including the economic might) to alleviate our long-term problems. Full stop. The sentence ends there because we probably will not do so.
Global warming: The deniers of climate change are cut from the same cloth as Holocaust deniers. They’ve never been to the death camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, so what they haven’t seen does not exist. The global warming deniers—the Koch brothers, for example—see only what they want to see. Call it corporate myopia. Massive floods, huge forest fires, glacial melts, and the rising temperatures of the past few years? Nothing to worry about; these events are simply manifestations of natural cycles. Which really means that they have seen no way to make a profit from these changes. Why confront a problem if you can’t convert the solution into money? If you have as much money as some of the deniers, you’re essentially living inside a protective bubble. Why worry about people outside? If you have that much money, you probably have convinced yourself that you need more. Addressing climate change would no doubt make that complicated, reduce profits. So that’s it for climate change. The deniers will buy another house and move to higher ground.
Crumbling Infrastructure: This is again a problem of sight and economics. Why fix things that aren’t broken? Wait until a bridge collapses, until a highway becomes so pot-holed that cars can’t drive over it, until water mains and electric grids give out and require massive Band-Aids and massive disruption of people’s lives and comfort. President Obama’s (and others’) call for an Infrastructure Bank ought to be a no-brainer, especially because it would create so many new jobs, but why throw that sop to an African-American President who would get all (or most) of the credit? Let the infrastructure and the country fall apart instead of appropriating money that might reflect positively on the party in office. Call it infrastructure gridlock. That’s the only thing that’s going to win.
Tax the poor: Skew the tax code so that corporations and the rich pay a smaller percent of their income on taxes than those at the bottom and in the middle. We’ve read these analyses. Some of the biggest corporations pay no taxes at all. (How do they think they made their money? Selling products to whom? Whatever happened to social responsibility?) Ditto too many people in the top one percent—sometimes no taxes or smaller percentages than everyone else. And those in the bottom 90% keep losing purchasing power, living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to get by. Of course they need food stamps, health care and, eventually, Social Security and Medicare. But the corporations and the rich say these people are lazy, the minimum wage shouldn’t be raised but reduced (so people will work harder), and businesses should only pay people for part time work so they don’t have to pay any benefits.
Health care: Have you purchased a bottle of Tylenol lately? Bought some drops for your eyes? Nasal spray? You don’t need a prescription for any of these items, but they are no longer inexpensive, unless you can buy them only when they are on sale, and most people can’t do that. If you cut your finger, you need anti-bacterial ointment and something to cover the cut. Not inexpensive and these aren’t even major health issues. So let’s say something more complicated happens and you end up in a hospital emergency ward. We’re talking hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. We all know that the American health system is the most expensive in the world. $37,000 is now the nationwide average of billed charges for bringing a child from conception to birth. How do parents pay for that if they don’t have health insurance and the cost of services is more than their annual income? What’s next on the conservative agenda—social engineering? A zero child policy for those without insurance? Don’t even mention Obamacare, since it might actually be more inclusive.
Guns and more guns. Am I going to be the last American who doesn’t own a gun? I don’t even know anyone who owns a gun. So who are all these people who do? You get the feeling from NRA hysteria that everyone out there packs a gun and you’ll only be safe if you do as well. I can assure you that following that logic, I’d be long gone. If students had been permitted to bring guns into the classes I taught for more than fifty years, I would have been shot by a student who didn’t like the grade on a paper I handed back. But isn’t that the real objective of the gun lunatics? Shoot to kill if you don’t like how things are going. If you don’t like your grade. If someone looks at you the wrong way. If you have a bad hair day. Feel better by killing someone. Note that I said “gun lunatics,” because there are people who own guns who are perfectly sane. So why is the dialogue still controlled by those on the fringe? Why do they continue to dominate any rational conversation, even trumping the overwhelming majority who agree that minimal controls on guns are necessary?
The war on terrorism. Another no-brainer. Except for 9/11, more people die from guns or automobile accidents each day than from acts of terrorism. Yet we have spent trillions (yes, trillions) of dollars attempting to thwart terrorist attacks. Was that money well spent? Of course not. If we can tolerate the daily carnage by guns or by automobile accidents, why can’t we tolerate low-figure acts of terrorism? Even large-scale acts, such as 9/11, amount to only a fraction of the yearly carnage of deaths by autos or guns—or even the monthly casualty list. Forget other life shorteners: smoking, diabetes, alcohol—all bigger contributors to mortality than terrorism. I’m not saying we need to stop preventing terrorism, but has it really been worth the trillions of dollars we’ve spent? If we can tolerate the daily deaths by cars and guns, why can’t we tolerate an occasional bomb going off?
The economic collapse. Twice, American greed—American financial roulette—has led to worldwide economic instability: 1928 and 2008. Self-made catastrophes brought to all of us by the abuse of a few. And yet who pays for the errors of the few? The masters of our most recent economic collapse (and I’d go right to the top where the buck stopped and mention Alan Greenspan) are still giving interviews, writing op-ed justifications, and getting richer and richer, but they are not in jail (as are drug abusers). They’ve been economically rewarded, as if they are rock stars, as if there is no correlation between their greedy decisions and the results. Bankers, stock brokers, mortgage charlatans are still permitted to run wild, begging the obvious question: When will they do it again? My guess is much sooner than 2008 came after 1928.
Race: I’ve studied and written about race relations in the United States for most of my lifetime, which is why it is obvious to me that much of the anger about Barack Obama is because he is black. Birth certificates, coded language, the rise of white supremacy groups—and much of the intolerance of Tea Party types and talk radio demagogues. Obama’s failures (and they are enormous) are his own, but they have been exacerbated by covert racism that is alive and well in the United States. In fact, it is growing. There are plenty of white men (including those in the Congress) who want Obama to fail simply because he is black. That’s the dirty little unspoken secret about his presidency. How could these crypto racists let a black man actually get credit for fixing some of the country’s problems? He can’t go down in history for his achievements, so better see that he fails at every noble undertaking he attempts.
Immigration. Unlike in the past, immigration today is also largely a matter of pigment. If the Latinos who are illegal in the United States were of European origin, there would be little outcry or attempts to thwart their citizenship. That’s the first issue here. The second is that they’re smarter than most Republicans want to admit because they’ve already figured out which party wants to break down racial barriers and which one wants to increase them. So the absurd drama of conservative hostility towards immigration continues to unfold, and a man like Marco Rubio is considered enlightened because he has realized that his own people in the United States might actually have something to offer the country. If I were a Latino, I’d want to run as far away from Rubio as possible, but we rarely think clearly when we talk about politics in America.
Politics. I say to our elected representatives, forget that your obligation is to fix problems rather than to create new ones. Forget that you have obligations to anyone but yourself. You have been elected to increase your own personal image (and income), to thwart any program that would be for the greater good, to stay in office forever and make it impossible for anyone to replace you. Do not read or familiarize yourself with legislation presented to you, do not read opinion pieces in the media, do not read anything that might provide you with an opinion that is contrary to your own. Stay the course—your course. You are all that matters.
Austerity. The real dichotomy between austerity and spending is not fear of inflation but fear that money spent on the 47%, or the poor, or the middle class, is money that cannot come to you. You earned your money by privilege (skin color, education, inheritance) so no matter how hard others work, they do not deserve a penny of what you pay in taxes. The county—you profess—is running out of money so quickly that its debt is all that matters. Forget that we were paying off that debt before the Bush tax cuts. Don’t consider any new taxes because we all know it’s government waste that is the issue and no amount of additional money will fix that. So hunker down to that first Bush budget after the tax cuts, which is more than ample to pay the country’s bills. The population hasn’t increased since then. The bills for extreme weather are all a mirage and likely to go away. Band-Aids are always cheaper than repairing anything. Above all, foget the people who haven’t had jobs in years and have given up looking—absolute proof that they are dispensable. Bury your head in the sand and always remember that if you can continue to yell and shout loud enough, you can dominate the dialogue in the country: America’s best years are still ahead of us.
An American Spring. Don’t count on it. The Occupy movement fizzled out. The people who hate America (Conservatives, mostly, but not exclusively), have already figured out that they have little to worry about. People have been kept uninformed by lousy education. They’re more interested in their local Little League team, the lives of celebrities, and Facebook than understanding the serious issues that plague the country. They’re exhausted from figuring out how to pay for food, gasoline, and other necessities. So they aren’t going to rise up and protest, and they’ll continue voting for their local representatives because it’s the other politicians they need to worry about, not the ones they’ve kept in office forever.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.