For a year or so at the beginning of the millennium, Americans were swept up in a spasm of unity. We hadn’t had an enemy scary enough to pull us together since the USSR deconstructed in 1991, and now here was one capable of bringing down the World Trade Center with box cutters, a group that had declared they wanted every one of us dead, from the janitors in our buildings to the CEOs. Transfixed by the jihadists, we wrapped ourselves in flags—flag sweaters, T-shirts, decals, lapel pins, even underwear and bathing suits. "United We Stand," proclaimed the bumper stickers, and "These Colors Don’t Run."
To be sure, this unity was as thin as a starlet after a sojourn at a spa. How were we to express it, for example, other than through our sartorial decisions? We pondered the ubiquitous instruction to "report all and activities" and that even more enigmatic command from the New York mass transit system: "See something, say something." The president advised us to carry on shopping, which we did to the best of our abilities, remaining in a state of dazed puzzlement while the TSA stripped off our shoes and our belts and the government ripped away habeas corpus and all the elementary ingredients of privacy.
But whatever resonated with us about the idea of a "homeland" and "one nation, indivisible" was being quietly undercut by a force more powerful than terrorism, more divisive than treason. In a process that had begun in the 1980s and suddenly accelerated in the early 2000s, the ground was shifting under our feet, recarving the American landscape. The peaks of great wealth grew higher, rising up beyond the clouds, while the valleys of poverty sank lower into perpetual shadow. The once broad plateau of the middle class eroded away into a narrow ledge, with the white-knuckled occupants holding on for dear life.
It wasn’t just a "shift," of course, governed by impersonal geological forces. The rude hand of human intervention could be felt in 2001, when the government gave the airlines a $20 billion post-9/11 bail-out, with nothing for the ninety thousand freshly laid-off airline employees. In another deft upward redistribution of wealth, the administration cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans while cutting back on services and programs, such as financial aid, for everyone else. We had never had a gang in Washington as noisily committed to "Christian values," and yet they had managed to stand core biblical teachings on their head.
The results were glaringly visible by 2004, when the Democratic vice presidential candidate announced there were now "two Americas." This was almost certainly an undercount. We had divided into two markets—upscale and downscale, Sears and Saks—two decades earlier, and now these were further subdividing. The middle class, battered by wave after wave of outsourcings and layoffs, scrambled to meet the ever-rising costs of health care, fuel, and college education. The traditional working class, already savaged by deindustrialization, took the low-paying service jobs that were left, trading their hard hats for mops and trays. They crowded grown children and grandchildren into their homes, which they refinanced at usurious rates. They faced speedups at work and cutbacks in pay. When their monthly health insurance premiums exceeded the mortgage or rent, they abandoned the insurance and fell back on Advil.
As for the rich, mere millionaires and the old-money sorts who favor weather-beaten summer homes in Nantucket barely qualified anymore. The upper class split into the merely affluent, who shop at Williams-Sonoma, and the überrich, who had others do their shopping for them, as well as their child raising, bill paying, servant supervising, and party throwing. At the pinnacles of the wealth scale, extravagance reigned on a scale not seen since the late Roman Empire. Freshly fattened CEOs, hedge fund operators, and financiers hired interior decorators for their private jets, slugged back $10,000 martinis at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, and, in one case, staged a $2 million birthday party in Sardinia featuring an ice statue of David urinating vodka.
There was a connection, as most people suspected, between the massive buildup of wealth among the few and the anxiety and desperation of the many. The money that fueled the explosion of gluttony at the top had to come from somewhere or, more specifically, from someone. Since no domestic oil deposits had been discovered, no new seams of uranium or gold, and since the war in Iraq enriched only the military contractors and suppliers, it had to have come from other Americans. In fact, the greatest capitalist innovations of this past decade have been in the realm of squeezing money out of those who have little to spare: taking away workers’ pensions and benefits to swell profits, offering easy credit on dubious terms, raising insurance premiums and refusing to insure those who might ever make a claim, downsizing workforces to boost share prices, even falsifying time records to avoid paying overtime.
Prosperity, in America, had not always been a zero-sum game. Early twentieth-century capitalists—who were certainly no saints—envisioned a prosperous people generating profits for the upper class by buying houses and cars and washing machines. But somewhere along the line, the ethos changed from we’re all in this together to get what you can while the getting is good. Let the environment decay, the infrastructure crumble, the public hospitals close, the schools get by on bake sales, the workers drop from exhaustion—who cares? Raise the premiums, reduce the wages, add new mystery fees to each bill, and let the devil take the hindmost. Only when the poor suckers at the bottom stopped buying and defaulted on their mortgages did anyone notice them.
And where were the rest of us during this orgy of accumulation at the top? What were we thinking as the "invisible hand" of the market reached into our pockets for our wallets? The truth is that most of us were too focused on the tasks at hand to pay much attention to what was going on with the neighbors. We were paying the bills, holding on to the job, occasionally making contact with the children. And when we did take a moment to tune into the public discourse, we heard very little that addressed our frustration and pain.
The war with Iraq, for starters, which had to be one of the greatest non sequiturs in military history. Attacked by a gang composed largely of Islamic militants from Saudi Arabia, the United States countered by invading an unrelated country, and one of the most secular in the Middle East at that. Briefly fascinated by the toppling of statues and flattening of towns, we rallied to "support our troops," although no one could figure out what we were supporting them to do. If the war had been launched as a distraction from the corporate scandals of 2002, as one theory goes, it soon became something we needed distraction from. Five years later, and after the hideous revelations of Abu Ghraib, we’ve spent $505 billion, lost four thousand American lives, and achieved the status of a pariah among nations.
Issues more appropriate to a middle school biology or sex ed class also loomed large. Stem cells, for example: whole political careers were based on the defense of these wee entities and their slightly larger cousins the embryos. Insentient forms of life, such as a woman in a vegetative state, excited loud indignation, while the intact and living received barely a nod. In 2005, top Republicans rushed to the bedside of Terri Schiavo, bypassing the thousands of other ailing Floridians hit by Medicaid cuts. Gay marriage was another unlikely issue seemingly designed to distract us from the ongoing economic looting. How one person’s marriage could threaten another’s is a mystery to me, but whole elections were tipped in favor of the party of wealth, for no other purpose than to spare the public from the spectacle of same-sex embraces at the altar. As for the unmarried of any sexual orientation, abstinence was strongly recommended, along with prayer and cold showers.
Illegal immigrants are our latest distraction, vilified as if they had come to run drugs and collect welfare rather than mow lawns, clean offices, pack meat, and process poultry. There is no welfare anymore, of course, and that may be what makes the immigrants such an appealing target. Twenty years ago, right-wing demagogues had welfare recipients to kick around as a stand-in for the hated poor; today, immigrant workers have been pressed into playing the scapegoat role. The strategy is the same: to peel off some segment of the poorer classes, label them as enemies, and try to whip up rage that might have been directed at the economic over class. There may be reasonable arguments for limiting immigration, but it wasn’t a Mexican who took away your pension or sold you on a dodgy mortgage.
Maybe, too, our critical faculties were dimmed by the habit, endemic in the early 2000s, of magical thinking. The biggest self-help best seller of the last year tells you how you can have anything you want, simply by willing it, and the fiction side of the bookstore is ruled by a young magician in training. Girls are forsaking feminism for a princess fantasy that culminates in weddings lavish enough to bankrupt a couple before they can even take out a car loan. Karl Rove derided the press for its membership in the "reality-based community," and the fastest-growing brand of religion is of the magical "name it and claim it" variety, in which the deity exists only to meet one’s immediate, self-identified needs. It would be shortsighted to whine about rising debts and falling incomes when, with a little spiritual effort, the miraculous could happen to you.
How many "wake-up calls" do we need, people—how many broken levees, drowned cities, depleted food pantries, people dead for lack of ordinary health care? We approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century in a bleak landscape cluttered with boarded-up homes and littered with broken dreams. The presidential candidates talk about "change," but don’t bother to articulate what kind of change. Why don’t we dare say it? The looting of America has gone on too long, and the average American is too maxed out, overworked, and overspent to have anything left to take. We’ll need a new deal, a new distribution of power and wealth, if we want to restore the beautiful idea that was "America."
We could let the nation continue to fall apart, of course— dividing ever more clearly into the gated communities on the one hand and trailer parks and tenements on the other— until we eventually become one of those areas of the world prefixed by the mournful word former.
But I like to think we could find in our hearts some true ground for unity, some awareness of a common condition and collective aspiration. Maybe we could find it in an effort to restore America’s lost glory—the beauty of our land before all the fences and sprawl, the respect we once enjoyed from people around the world. Or maybe we need to find it in the common threats we face, not only from the human enemies that our foreign policy has been breeding so prolifically but from the global challenge of climate change and shrinking supplies of water and oil. And maybe, someday, we would even regain the confidence to extend that sense of unity and connectedness to all of our fellow human beings, wherever they may reside on the planet.
Excepted from This Land Is Their Land by Barbara Enrenreich
Copyright @ 2008 by Barbara Enrenreich
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC
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