Friday, April 18, 2014

Disgusted and Optimistic

Matt Taibbi is a breath of fresh air.

I went to hear him talk the other night about the content of his new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. 

It’s the kind of book that makes your eyes glaze over at the title.  “I know, I know,” you want to say.  “And do I look like somebody who needs more bad news?”

But I’ve always had a perverse streak.  I remember a conversation with my friend Harriet many years ago now.  When she went to movies, she preferred comedies, she said.  There’s enough misery to go around. "I don’t have to pay to walk into a dark movie theater to see more."

I took – still do – the opposite view.  When I see misery depicted on screen or in literature, I am comforted by the fact I’m not the only one aware of what’s going on.  Documentaries on how this country is falling apart don’t cheer me up, exactly.  But they do give me confidence all is not lost.

I’m convinced what’s really wrong with this country is what’s wrong with democracy itself.  It’s too idealistic to work.  You can’t have a bunch of people all working together for the common good.  Sooner or later people get lazy.  And greedy.   Can’t have them sacrificing their own pleasure for the welfare of others.  Just doesn’t work.  Not for long.   Not in a country big enough to be an empire, anyway.  Maybe in Denmark and Holland.

What's bugging me lately is less all the things that have gone wrong than the lack of evidence that we have what it takes to put them right.  I’m convinced that self-centeredness has now worked its way into the infrastructure.  We have evolved into a bunch of “I’ve got mine” rich folk – and I don’t mean just the 1% - who can’t imagine giving a little of their vast wealth to bring about universal education anymore.  Libraries for every town.  Universal healthcare.  This abomination of a healthcare system called Obamacare that we’re all celebrating (and yes, I’m glad the sign-ups have reached eight million and made fools of the Fox Network naysayers) is really just another of our many victories for corporate America.  Sure, people gain.  More people have less to fear about getting sick than before.  But mostly it’s about how the rich get richer, just as most things are of late.  We've sunk back into the age of the robber barons, now in a 21st century setting.

I can’t stand to watch TV news anymore.  Again, it’s the corporate media that filters out any challenging question one might want to ask about the United States as a place gone wrong.   Why did we not get hauled into an international tribunal when we unleashed the war on Vietnam?  Why were American war criminals never prosecuted?  Worse, why were we permitted to do it yet again, in Iraq?  This time there was less innocence.  Most people learned early on that the war was initiated by people who used 9/11 to carry out a plan for imperial gain long in the planning.  And still we did it.  And still nobody got hauled into court for being a war criminal.  A million lives lost or smashed on the rocks, but Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and their ilk still get invited to express their opinions on current events as if they were simply reflections of a just another -– no biggie – political ideology.

Close to home, we can’t fix the broken infrastructure, because we can’t tax ourselves to pay for it.  Because the information-challenged who believe Jesus was a Republican are suckered by corporate America into thinking that government is bad, and taxes are theft.  We can’t do anything, Matt Taibbi says, because not only is the Supreme Court in the hands of corporate America, so is the Justice Department.  And with Congress acting like a parliament of whores, that’s three for three.   Scalia and his buddies enable corporate America to buy its politicians, the Justice department jails the poor and gives the superrich a free pass, Congress is bought by and held in thrall to the agents of corporate America.

This is not a review of Taibbi’s book.  I only just ordered it and have not read it yet, so I’m going by what I heard him say at that talk the other night and by the several reviews I’ve read.  (One of the best, I think, is Peter Richardson’s in Truthdig.)  But I'm waiting for somebody to come along and tell me he’s got his facts wrong.  Something tells me that’s unlikely to happen.  We’ll see.  Until that time, I find his citing of evidence of how we seem incapable to go after banks too big to fail, executives too rich to jail, powerful and disturbing.

Taibbi’s approach appeals to me.  I agree with him that straight-on exposure of malfeasance doesn’t work.  If it did, Ralph Nader would be a hero instead of an also-ran.  Noam Chomsky’s arguments would be parsed, edited for readability and debated.  I think he’s come to realize that Americans are so lulled into complacency that hard-hitting fact-finding is proving to be a dud.  We’ve reached the stage where things are so bad there’s little left to do but laugh.  The Weimar Republic generated cabarets.  Today we have Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert and Bill Maher, all of whom make news more relevant and comprehensible than once-reliable ABC and CBS.  Taibbi himself is leaving Rolling Stone to work with Glenn Greenwald on a satirical online journal they're calling First Look.  The goal is to combine humor with outrage.  We can hope for more like his often quoted description of Goldman Sachs:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere.... The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
We’ve met the enemy and he is us, said Pogo.  We are the reason democracy doesn’t work, not the corrupt representatives we send to Washington or our state capitals.  Not even the system that makes them believe they have to join the world of pay-to-play to get anything done.  We’re not going to fix things by waiting for the heroes.  We have to get the word out about what’s going on, and that means getting attention, and that means we have to recognize the zeitgeist is all about being entertained.

So bring on the cabarets.  Bring on the Bill Mahers and the Matt Taibbis.

One of the most frustrating aspects of living in a dumbed-down America is listening to how often lazy thinking passes for wisdom.  “All I need to know I learned in kindergarten!” somebody says, and we smile and say, “True, true.”

Bullshit.  We learned a lot of bullshit in kindergarten.

"The truth usually lies in the middle," for example.  Listen to our wise old men and women who tell us, eyes at half-mast, that we need to talk to each other instead of preaching to the choir.  Sounds so reasonable, right?  But listen to the what follows from that.  “The right has Fox Network and the left has MSNBC.  The right has Sean Hannity and the left has Rachel Maddow.”

Once you’ve dumbed down enough to think that sounds like wisdom, you’re done for.  You fail to ask, “Just a minute – which one has the facts right?”  Sometimes the truth is not in the middle. What's missing, if you make that mistake, is critical thinking.

It’s good to teach your kids to compromise, to share their toys.  Compromising for adults is another matter.  We know we shouldn’t compromise on child abuse, but we have allowed ourselves to believe we should give evolutionists and creationists equal time.  Climate change scientists and “bible-based” believers equal time.   That’s not wise.  It looks like a good idea because we’ve lost touch with fact-based knowledge and given anybody with an opinion equal standing with anybody else with an opinion.  Hi, we say.  I’m with Stupid.  I run the place on even days, he runs them on odd.

Americans have become intellectually lazy.  And cowardly.  And it’s beginning to show.

Fortunately, the muckrakers are still at it, so all is not lost.  Have a look, for example, at the first hour of the Years of Living Dangerously series. 
Then there’s Jimmy Carter’s latest, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, in which he makes a case for stopping what we’re doing to recognize the plight of women around the world, and lays the blame squarely at the feet of our patriarchal religions.   In the process, he takes on America’s imperialist ambitions in a way he failed to do when he was younger, as governor of Georgia and as president.  It’s refreshing to take note of his sharpened claws.

I’m dividing my time between Jimmy Carter’s book and one by German author Andreas Altman.  It’s called Das Scheißleben meines Vaters, das Scheißleben meiner Mutter, und meine eigene Scheißjugend  (The shitty life of my father, the shitty life of my mother and my own shitty youth.)  It’s an autobiography of a kid whose father was an SS murderer and whose mother simply tuned out.  He spent years in therapy and mental institutions trying to get out from under this legacy.

It is of a piece with a discussion I heard recently on German television about whether Mein Kampf ought to be taught in German schools.  Turns out the Allies gave the rights to the book to the Bavarian government and the copyright runs out this year, and that means it’s a free for all.  That’s a topic for another time, but I just mention it to point out that Germany is still struggling – and often not doing all that well – with processing its Nazi past, both nationally and,  in Altman’s case, on an individual level.  The scars are deep, even now two generations later, and there is much left to do.

Which brings me to the question of why we have never really processed our legacy of genocide of the North American Indians.  Or of slavery and segregation.   Why we allow ourselves the conspicuously false illusion that our progress in race relations (I do see real progress) suggests we can go on hiding some of the most devastating consequences under the carpet.  Like the fact that the Democrats lost the South over civil rights for blacks and have never gained it back.  That there are still Southerners waving the Dixie flag despite its clear association with slavery, ignorant of the obvious parallel with the swastika.  If you're white and you think I'm exaggerating, ask a black person.   Like the fact that blacks fill our prisons and our inner cities and are involved far more than whites, both as perpetrators and as victims, of crime and violence in our cities.  A problem which might go away if we put our resources, not just financial, into universal education, health care and job creation in an effective way.  In preventing the poverty of the inner city where blacks continue to live at a disadvantage in terms of access to the nation's wealth and acquisition of knowledge of the larger world.  If we recognized the essential contribution to democracy of watchdog journalism.  If we dismantled our system of too-big-to-fail, too-big-to-jail and created a national community on a more equitable basis.  It’s hard to look at things honestly and fearlessly.  So much easier to displace and dissemble. 

Why do we put our hope in a man like Obama, who, when he gets into office, continues to keep the corporations going at the expense of the rest of us, continues to keep Guantanamo open, increases the use of drones, when there is evidence (at about minute 1:02:00) only about 2% of the people they kill are actually Taliban fighters, who continues to withhold evidence of torture as official government policy?  Why do we persuade ourselves he’s a good guy (I’m talking to myself now) when he does so much to advance the case of civil rights for gays and lesbians and miss all the evidence he’s just another (maybe) good guy at the top of the monied-class oligarchy, caught like a fly in honey in the self-serving American imperialist way, where what comes to mind first when seeking political solutions abroad is the military?

I know that I’m simply reflecting disillusionment with the human capacity to live up to its own espoused values when I get down on America.  We're not the worst society on the planet by a long shot.  But for those of us raised with the myth that we are the people chosen by God to bring democracy to the world, it's especially embarrassing now to realize how very silly that sounds today.  We are running seriously behind these days.  We're 17th in educational performance, 23rd in gender equality, 46th in freedom of the press, 26th in child well-being, 99th in "peacefulness", 89th in global connectedness, 31st in condom use at first sex, 125th, tied with Congo, in GDP growth per capita.  2nd in child poverty among some thirty modern advanced nations (Romania has us beat).  Oh, and 1st in number of super rich, 1st in breast augmentation, 1st in putting people in jail and 1st in death by violence.  

So I'm not simply measuring ourselves against perfection, rather than a more realistic ideal.   The extent of our failures, from global warming, to loss of abortion rights, loss of voting rights for blacks and other poor people, failure of the banking system to keep the economy healthy and equitable, failure of Congress to police itself against fanatics who would shut down the government and destroy the nation’s credit simply to prevent universal health care – that’s all real. I'm not simply looking at the glass as half empty. 

I know the the trick, as always, is to find the middle way, not destroy or ignore the good because it's not the perfect, not mistake cynicism for reality, and not stop getting out of bed in the morning.

I don’t think it’s hopeless.  It’s just very bad, and the fact so many people don’t know or want to know it’s very bad, is maybe the worst part of it.

There are bright spots.  Amy Goodman seems to be more visible recently.  We still have publications like Mother Jones and Rolling Stone and The Nation.  We have Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart and Matt Taibbi.  Bill Moyers.  Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich.  Frank Rich.  Seymour Hersh.  And those are just names off the top of my head.  It’s not true that there is no coverage of the shit that is happening as our dysfunctional two-party system fails to deliver.

And Michael Lewis’s exposure of corruption in the stock market has made the best-seller list.  And David Sirota commented in the news this morning that there may actually be a way to correct the problem Michael Lewis exposed.  

So the bad news is American democracy is fractured and stuck in the mud and most people don’t care or know what to do about it.  And with the failure of the media, it might well get worse.

And the good news is?

I guess the good news is we’re not dead yet.

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