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American Failures: August, 2020

It’s probably unpatriotic and maybe treasonable to talk about American failures but they are now so glaring that some 12 minutes of read time seems pardonable in this Age of Twitter “discourse.” That such obvious failures, if admitted at all, are politicized relative to which side of the Blue/Red street you are one is itself a notable failure. I mean we can’t look around and identify in complete correspondence as to what we see.

When we look at worldwide response to the Coronavirus pandemic, we see the toll the virus is taking but we also see more adept response to it than our own American one. When we look at how well other autocrats are doing in their own Will to Power autocratic aims, we see they have been checked more effectively than has Donald J. Trump in our own country.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was prevented from shutting down Parliament so he could make the Brexit deal on his own. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that shutting down the sovereign body in the English Constitution, the Parliament, was unlawful. The Supreme Court of Brazil is presently investigating Bolsonaro on a variety of charges. The charges parrot those not made against Trump in the U.S.

In short, Boris Johnson was stopped from cancelling English Constitutional law and tradition to oblige his own will to do things his way, and Bolsonaro’s gangsterism has been exposed and is awaiting a Brazilian Supreme Court reckoning.

The Political Failure

Not so in the U.S. President Donald J. Trump has thus far run over our sacred institutions and democratic defenses like a Panzer tank Wehrmacht and he’s heading toward declaring another bogus state of national emergency or copy Hitler’s 1933 Reichstag Fire Decree imposing martial law. He’s primed to do either before or after the November election.

Any study of his behavior since his candidacy in 2015 tells us that threats to his own will mounting, as they do now, before the election will put him in a frenzy. He’ll resort to autocratic actions because he’s not built to accept defeat. This makes him an exemplar of king of the mountain American style entrepreneurship. However, both he and that style remain pathological.

He’ll declare a state of national emergency and may go as far as declaring martial law after the election if the election results are somehow delayed, most likely by his own machinations. He is already laying down the strategies of chaos he will use to undermine the legitimacy of that election.

In the midst of the noise of a never ending social media cannonade, street protests, aka riot and looting, Congressional subpoenas thrown in waste bins, and further bending of the Republican Party knee to presidential will, Trump will announce sadly how he is forced to declare martial law to save us all from the chaos caused by an election rigged by the Deep State.

We’re focused on this but also on how poorly the self-professed richest, most advanced nation in the world has responded to the Coronavirus pandemic. Response has been uncoordinated, unbelievable given the great need to husband resources, centralize statistics, and create a nationwide plan for testing, tracking, and isolation. All the failures here trace back to President Trump, a man not able to centralize and coordinate as needed but not only perversely unwilling to try but equally perversely undermining efforts to save lives, livelihoods and the life of our democracy itself, to quote Speaker Pelosi, tagged “crazy” by our very stable president.

It is truly mindboggling as to how a self-professed stable genius barely literate and so transparent in his buffoonery and vindictiveness became the president of a country priding itself on its check and balances, its democratic Constitutional traditions, and its enviable humanitarian contribution to the world.

More fantastic is the fact that no defenses supposedly inherent in all this grandeur we tout have managed to kick Trump out of office even though he has trampled daily on them in public view. Of course, since what is public has been now privatized/personalized, we no longer have a public sphere, or Facebook has become that. This itself is a tragic failure.

President Trump has monetized the presidency in plain view; he’s removed people, departments and agencies that might stand in his way. Most recently he’s said he’ll respect the results of the November election if he personally decides those results are legitimate. Instead of then denying his candidacy because such terms are in violation of the integrity of the vote in an electoral democracy, we are now waiting to see if he’ll get away with denying the loss he is surely going to face.

And why wouldn’t he get away with it?

When people warn not to count out a Trump defeat in 2020 what they mean is they’re once again ready, following the failure to convict after impeachment, to accept that we have no built in democratic defenses against this mockery of a tyrant, that we are ready to accept his corruption of democratic discourse, institutions and practices.

Some have no idea what those democratic principles are or they question their equitable disbursement. Some too have a better understanding of how rich guys always get what they want and so remain cynical across the political spectrum. Perhaps this same contingent of Americans have experienced less of the grandeur of our democratic principles and so they don’t mind seeing all of that “defunded.” Many see less grandeur in our institutions and more utility in breaking windows.

The Economic Failure

If you wanted to break windows in 2016, Trump came forward as your man. The only problem is that he cares more for a window, especially any in a Trump Tower, than he does for those who love him and follow him on a mad path to destruction of what is claimed, without the nuances that thought brings, to be a totally unjust, rigged society. He’s angry and mad and that’s okay with so many because it mirrors their own anger.

What seems clear is that besides our political system proven now to be a very poor security system for keeping a autocrat from taking over, we have an economic system, one in which we are “free to choose in a free enterprise” structure, that has converted a faded yearning egalitarianism into a clear cut case of rule by the wealthy, a plutarchy operating without much interference behind the cloak of all those same grandiose checks and balances that failed to keep a buffoon from taking over the government.

Neither our political nor economic travesties would have gotten as far as they have if we could have been able to do three things:

1. Stop personal wealth from reaching the obscene levels it has;

2. Reduce the percentage of voters who can’t distinguish reason-based argument from claptrap to a harmless number;

3. Require all social media ownership to hold broadcast licenses and reinstitute the FCC Fairness Doctrine, “a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the FCC’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced.”

This last is an absolute necessity because cyber platforms designed only to draw eyeballs so as to attract advertisers are fast tracks for conspiracy theories, misinformation, subversion of elections, idiocies of so called juvenile “Influencers,” and do no more than create a sandstorm of opining that preempts the unity, coherence and continuity of thought.

Receiving such an unsorted mess easily, quickly, conveniently, voluminously, 24/7 is not an asset but a huge problem. A failure to identify our failures in a concerted, conjoined manner begins here.

Politically, Donald J. Trump’s presence in the White House is a travesty; a re-election of this travesty would end all pretensions of “American exceptionalism,” which is probably the silver lining here. Economically, the fact that, quoting Bernie Sanders, the wealthiest three families now own more wealth than the bottom half of the country is an unspeakable travesty. Would you believe that anger may start knowing this travesty?

Any argument made that those three families had some value, their accomplishments and hard work and so on, equal to about 160 million people is an insult to those 160 million people. Any argument that those 160 million always have a chance to reach the magnificence of the three families but were too lazy, too stupid, at the wrong place at the wrong time, and without the Darwinian will to win is a lazy, stupid, wrongheaded argument.

The Education Failure

Education has not proven to be preventative. If it had been, Trump would not be in the White House and we wouldn’t now be living in a plutocracy. What an established plutocracy does is own the avenues to the development of mind, or, in this case, the degradation of such development.

How is it possible to get a wage earner whose wages are fixed while productivity and profits increase to vote for someone who runs on a ticket that rolls out a carpet for the rich expecting them to pass their winnings on to their workers? What sign of this having happened have we seen in the last forty years?

Quite simply, poor and immiserated lives are for a public viewing, but those same “Losers” never get a chance to see how obscenely indulgent are the lives of the “rich and famous.” We’re covering the Covid-19 tragedies among the poor but not where the rich have escaped to and how they are “sheltering in place.”

Profits were never shared with workers but rather all that surplus went to the purchase of a bigger yacht, a more exclusive golf club membership, yet another “retreat” home, exclusive private schools, a house full of tutors, nannies, gardeners, cooks, and therapists.

Instead of outlawing billionaires and moguls of industry, we’ve coddled them in the ludicrous hope that the way they “grow” the economy necessarily means workers benefit.

We wouldn’t be in a society fractured into the immiserated and the aggrandized if all this could be understood and that understanding developed through education.

Secretary of Education DeVos is now pushing for all schools to be opened because this amounts to a fast track to hollowing out public schools so that any form of for-profit education can take over.

Wealthy parents won’t send their children into Covid-19 dangerous classrooms. They’ll either send them to private schools in Switzerland that control admittance or hire private tutors. Poorer families will be anxious to receive federal vouchers to hand over to for-profit institutes that will blossom once such a federally funded voucher program is in play. Tax funding for public schools will then decrease leaving public schools subject to further attack by those who want to make a buck on education.

Education as a business is not offering innovation through competition but simply taking the money and passing it on to shareholders. It’s the last marketing frontier than Wall Street financial operatives will not let slip by them.

What has gone on with for profit higher education institutes, such as Trump University, aka Trump Wealth Institute, who are on the receiving end of federal financial aid money given to students, is now set up, with DeVos’s guidance, for the lower grades.

We cannot forget that the Federal Government is capitalism’s nemesis, except when its monies can be funneled into corporate pockets. At this moment, Covid relief funds are being hijacked by financial institutions, like hedge funds who set themselves up in tax haven countries and yet claim relief fund money based on sly connections to the U.S.

It is analysis, interpretation leading to understanding that can halt an obvious ploy to turn education into more of a marketing frontier than it already is becoming.

That understanding is gained through education, not simply STEM, which meets the technological needs of a post-industrial society, but an education in critical thinking, interpretation of texts, including even the eruptions of Twitter, and an increase in an erudition that forms a comparative frame by which everything said and written can be placed. Erudition by its very nature is history-woke.

In a plutarchy a great amount of money is spent not to educate but to own minds, to work at minds the way advertisers and marketers work at linking their product or services to your needs, desires and choices. It is far easier to create all three of these than to run after them to discover what they may be.

Once the disposition of mind and personality are tied to what is being sold the whole enterprise of thinking goes on not outside that linkage but within it.

For example, a racist doesn’t have the thought of what racism is in the same way that anyone protesting with Black Lives Matter thinks of racism. Rather the racist thought is connected elsewhere in a non-incriminating, non-judgmental way, possibly a noble way. The thinking might be that whites are under attack by people who aren’t white and want to replace them. This racist then is fighting for a cause, one that is not abhorrently racist but rather is a courageous, patriotic, American effort.

Racism here then becomes a proud defense, not a dark devil of our human natures. And because there is a heroism to it, an Alamo like last stand against Mexicans, a stand at Little Big Horn against the Sioux and the Cheyenne in defense of Custer, these monument statues to the victories of white supremacy have become such a brutally hot issue.

At bottom, what the racist is fighting for in fighting for those statues is the protective alibi, a defense of the ego so as not to accept indictments Black Lives Matter, for instance, is bringing to white attention.

That this defense extends into a defense of America, of its roots and history is something that Trump preys upon in his fantasy creation of himself as a new “Old Hickory” defending the honor of America. That he lays out who the villains are so clearly on Twitter is a requirement of the fantasy.

Hatred demands villains named. This is swallowed by so many and confuses so many more because the level of critical thinking in the U.S. is on a populist MacDonald Happy Meal Tic Toc level. So much may go so low in American culture, but critical thinking cannot go low and remain critical.

Critical thinking has always faced the perversion of human passions engineered mostly by the rich and powerful. In our millennial clime, the conduits of such perversion are so much greater than ever because they are conducted online and offline. The online corruption and degradation of critical thinking has been sudden and enormous. Because such great profits are reaped by this new platform of reality, criticism is scant and always seen as useless.

Social media, the narrative goes, will not disappear. If it can be used by any to invade our elections, then so be it. We are told to learn to live with that, with whatever cybertech brings to market. That kind of thinking itself reveals our failure to defend ourselves against a dominating economics, a politics so dominated, an education so dominated and a cyberspace that enables all of this in the name of progress.

American Character Failure

The fourth and final condition/situation/failing that has allowed a Reality TV ego into the White House and this pandemic to get out of control is the American temperament, one that has been slowly forged since Reagan reversed the order of hero worship in the U.S.

We went from the Working-Class Hero who emerged from a heroic WWII GI Joe, the Everyman grunts who fought and returned to working class lives to the Wall Street player epitomized by Gordo Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. From watching Life of Riley, lunch pail and job at the plant, to the Lives of the Rich and Famous.

A sense of personal ambition, of an enlightened self-interest that proved to have no light in it has risen above any societal obligation. What this has amounted to is not only a de-socializing and division of any sense of a common Good, as the country split into winners and losers but also a distancing of any affective connections with those not in your socioeconomic set. We now have more hate, fear and suspicion of others than anything quoted as the Beatitudes.

That we should wear masks for the protection of others during this pandemic is a bridge of human interrelationship we can no longer cross.

The Monopoly game of juiced up financialized player capitalist economics was of course destined to make most losers and few winners, an obvious result hiding behind the insulting stupidity of “trickle down,” a redistribution of wealth that no one has seen happen but all still believe exists. The story behind this takes us back to education failures.

And so, money didn’t distribute but compounded at the top and froze at the bottom while at the same time a sense of privileged rewarding, deserving and self-commendation, a sense of personal exceptionalism as fraudulent as a sense of American exceptionalism, went on at the top and a sense of befuddled loss and destined extinction ignited into anger by Trump was the Loser’s lot.

Amazingly perverse has been the attraction to a billionaire by those who should be condemning an economics that produces billionaires and leaves their wages frozen at the monthly bill worries level.

Based on Thomas Piketty’s work, Dave Denison in The Baffler writes: “Billionaires are bad for the economy. Billionaires are, morally and socially, an abomination. . . The multi-millionaires will always be with us, but no more billionaires.” However, only a believer in Oz as a real wizard would doubt that Trump’s tax statements will reveal he’s a crook, and so no more than a charlatan who has deceived a country that hold rich men of business as gods into believing that he is one of those gods.

This wealth divisiveness is itself a virus long established in the U.S. before the Coronavirus showed up. Gated communities were meant for those who wanted to avoid contact with others. Percentage wise what this means is that a top 20% is doing all it can to distance themselves from some 80%. What money can buy works to clearly announce differences. Within that 80%, 60% avoid the neighborhoods of the bottom 20%, and do all they can to inscribe their differences.

There’s then a hardening of the arteries of imagining the communities outside one’s own, as the top 20% find the everyday life of everyone else inconceivable but also threatening, those in the middle live in fear of those below them, and those at the bottom seek the escape of drugs and Internet porn, video games, gambling, and sports.

Presently, Trump is trying to draw the fearful lot into his net of fear of a comfortable class being invaded by these Inconceivables.

Skin color came into the American cultural imaginary with a lucrative black African slave trade. That launch, if you will, into our “one nation under God” thus began at ground zero and has pretty much stayed there. When this “one nation” split as it has into Winners and Losers, people of color were to be found on the Loser pile because they were already assigned that spot back in in “late August 1619 when ’20 and odd’ captive Africans first touched the soil at Point Comfort (now Fort Monroe National Monument), part of England’s new colony in Virginia.” (National Geographic History Magazine)

It should not be a surprise then that the poorest in the country, a quintile where Blacks and Latinos have greater presence than at the top quintile, have the hardest time meeting the conditions recommended to beat the virus: shelter in place and avoid small quarters and close contact.

Wage earners need to work and return to houses a wee bit smaller than Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin’s 29.5 million-dollar New York City apartment, the domicile Mnuchin returns to after arguing against continuing the $600 supplement to unemployment benefits during this pandemic. These people might be disincentivized and thus not pursue a job at Goldman Sachs, accumulate 400 million dollars doing finance deals and own a plane as he did.

This is only the freshest example of how what Hillary called “Everyday Americans” don’t get on the wealthy’s GPS of what conceivable.

It is certainly a failure of American education to create an electorate informed and discerning enough to keep Trump out of the White House and thus prevent the appointment of Mnuchin to control the economic well being of those whose hardships he cannot imagine or comprehend.

It is also a failure within the hearts and minds of the American populace that remains numb while it is quite clear Trump and all the president’s men have decided to let this virus run through those least situated to survive. He imagines that they’re on “the dole,” vote Democrat and aren’t Trump Industries clientele. Their lives are not only inconceivable but expendable.

It’s not just a disgusting economics that has created our plutarchic divisions but also a compliance by Americans to this order and the diminished level of humane understanding it has generated. What we now see is a widespread self-absorbed self-interest and a disinterest in the lives of others as well as an unformed sense of what society is and how it fits in with personal ambition.

Failures in politics, economics, education and the character of the American people themselves have left us with a presidency that haunts us now and will in the future as well as a pandemic that we now see cannot be checked by such failures.

Whether this presidency can be checked in November and whether the pandemic will end with the silver bullet of a vaccine is to be seen.

However, the pandemic will have already taken the lives of those already set up by economics to lose, and Trump will have already done damage to our now lost belief in the indomitable defenses of our democratic institutions. How much is recoverable is something we may see.

History tells us nothing about the waters in which we now swim, history not offering experiences of two dimensions of reality, online and offline, confining itself to old school one world and its realities. And our failures to respond to them.

Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Dark Affinities, Dark Imaginaries: A Mind’s Odyssey .

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