Cruel DeVos

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I.

TRUE STORY. MY WIFE teaches grade school. In addition to the stories I can tell, and the ones my many friends who teach or are married to teachers can tell, during the school year, I hear a new one practically every day.

Here’s one: several teachers noticed that three siblings (third grade and younger) were digging through the garbage at school. Turns out they were looking for food to take home for the weekend since there would not otherwise be enough.

Here’s another: one of my wife’s fifth grade students broke down in class one day, and explained she was having trouble studying for the standardized test—a whole other topic—because she hadn’t eaten and was hungry. A few teachers pitched in to get her fed, and take some snacks home. Turns out her family was homeless and living in a motel.

My wife, a veteran with more than a decade’s experience in public schools, is not easily upset: it’s been her practice for years to keep extra non-perishables in her desk for the kids who can’t concentrate on empty stomachs.

This is not Appalachia, or even the most desperate inner city; it’s a county less than thirty minutes from the nation’s capital (the state of which is itself a never-ending metaphor for all we need know when it comes to equality, opportunity and our collective genius at hurting the most innocent and vulnerable amongst us).

Another story. Several years ago, she noticed one her students hoarding ketchup packets from the cafeteria. He was bringing them home in case there was nothing to eat.

(The Swiftian irony of this last anecdote is one that surely would have Reagan smirking in his grave.)

The worst one? For me, it’s the story of the student who claimed he wasn’t hungry at lunch time. Because he was embarrassed. He didn’t want to admit he had no money. My wife could literally hear his stomach rumbling as he pretended he wasn’t famished the same way Republicans pretend they care about people.

ii.

Never mind Trump. One need look no further than Betsy DeVos to understand the true depravity of the contemporary state of all-things GOP.

(Yes, Trump is the oozing pus from the Id of America’s underbelly, but if there’s any silver lining, it’s that light does expose the rot. Our Toddler-in-Chief has emboldened an element of our society we thought had either fizzled out or at least was content to spew its spleen safely—and anonymously—online. The smart money says this is not a fad or a trend; it’s a virus that’s required centuries to fester and one megalomaniacal half-fascist to bring to a feverish boil. It will, nevertheless, be flushed out and retired to the sewers of our lower frequencies, hopefully forever and sooner than later. Or, even more optimistically, Trump continues to do damage to the “brand” we figured George W. Bush had so indelibly done, and our next contender can do what Obama never had the heart or stomach to bother with: making a compelling case for Democratic politics with a heavy side dish of populism. As we know, first the Tea Party, and then The Donald wormed into the post-2008 vacuum and stole all the oxygen, which halfway explains why we’re where we are, today.)

But to fully understand the next-level sociopathy of our present administration, we must look at DeVos. Unqualified? Duh. Ignorant? Yes. Not only wealthy, but married to the King of Pyramid schemes that prey upon the poor and gullible? Even Dickens at his most heavy-handed would throw this away as clichéd opportunism. But there it is; only in America can we have and know so much and insist on making it worse for everyone but the .01%

iii.

Did you catch any footage of DeVos’s hearing? If you have a strong stomach, you should, especially if you think the criticism of her has been over the top.

How about the footage of her speed-walking away from a group of protestors?

These fanatics have been insulated by their money and blissful ignorance so long they’re flummoxed (and genuinely frightened) by the slightest resistance. And all of them (look at ongoing embarrassment of Republicans scurrying away from their own town halls, or The King of the Cowardly Cretins, Mitch McConnell, doing everything possible to avoid any public scrutiny of his healthcare bill) have no means to debate or defend themselves when challenged. Classic bullies.

Take DeVos’s brief confrontation with some citizens who dared oppose her, on principle. What an opportunity: she was on camera and could have totally owned the moment, engaged these people in conversation and made them look unreasonable if they shouted her down. Instead, she retreated like the rat she is. (By the way, this isn’t just normal political resistance from one party to another; that Trump even appointed her—and she accepted the gig—is an act of aggression, a calculated outrage to dismantle the very department she’s long had her sights on, and intended to demoralize opponents.)

iv.

How is any of this different from the way Republicans have rolled since the day Reagan declared government our enemy? It’s pretty much the same, only more so. And that’s where things have crossed all lines of normalcy and decency. Circa 2017, it’s no longer sufficient to merely reinforce the wealthiest and most powerful; the GOP, with virtually no internal dissension, is on the public record (with votes, statements and, importantly, no comments to the contrary) advocating policy that literally takes away the (drastically underfunded) funds from those with the least, and disguise it as “choice”. Indeed, in another moment that Dickens, Orwell and Kafka, tag-teaming with three typewriters and ten bottles of tequila, couldn’t muster the imagination to invent, DeVos invoked segregated schools as a testament to the empowering benefits of “choice”. (No, seriously.)

Extolling the alleged virtues of the free market, no matter what contrary evidence accrued, mostly worked wonders for the Republican party these last few decades. We now are at a point where they’re acting, in concert, to raid the already paltry provisions of the disenfranchised. And to what end? Funding infrastructure or some national emergency? Of course not. Exactly what they’re after is simple, and truly staggering: to ensure that those born with every advantage will have still more opportunity and money. Revolting in the extreme.

But therein lies an opportunity. Audacity of this level is so breathtaking it’s negligent to become cynical; unacceptable to be indifferent. We’re at a threshold moment, where otherwise apathetic spectators must determine if they are, at long last, disgusted with the direction we’re headed. Doing nothing, at this point, is abetting evil. (And this includes not just going toe-to-toe with the True Believers across the aisle—many of whom, of course, stand to be most drastically impacted by all these reverse Robin Hood policies—but the pampered and recalcitrant nitwits who still insist Hillary Clinton was, at best, the lesser of two evils, or remain third party or bust when we see, daily, the disparity between what Democrats and Republicans do, when in power.) Advice: frame an argument, for once, that puts liberals on the right side of Scripture (what a concept!) and put the stakes in stark relief: it’s no longer a shell game, no more talk of trickle down; this is straight-up thievery, taking from those with the least. I think Jesus said a thing or two about this.

Finally, it’s tempting, even irresistible, to catalog the myriad flaws, hypocrisies, moral failures and rank opportunism that has virtually defined DeVos’s existence. But it’s more effective to look at her as the caricature she is. She represents the faceless figure epitomizing the worst Republican impulses, all untethered by our incurious, incompetent Tweeter-in-Chief. Never mind him, or her, and remember it’s not who she is, but what she represents. DeVos, and her merry band of nihilists, are the boot in the face Orwell warned us about. That is what must be resisted, mocked, defeated.

A final story. One of my wife’s friends, who teaches high school, had a student who was arrested for shoplifting. It turns out he had been doing this from a young age. He was stealing food. To eat.

Think of this kid, and all the other ones, especially the ones with increasingly fewer advocates who can defend or assist them.

Rage against this Machine.

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Reagan & Dickens or, The Money Dread (Redux)

Did you know Reagan and Dickens almost share the same birthday?

I didn’t.

One day apart: Dickens –and his readers– celebrate his 200th birthday this week. Reagan –and his disciples– celebrate his 101st.

Perhaps I’m forcing the irony, but the forces of Nature beat me to the punch here. How wickedly appropriate, equal parts amusing and appalling, that two of the more talked-about human beings of the last two centuries have milestones one year (and one day) apart. It would have been too much, even for ironists, and nihilists for that matter, if St. Ronnie happened to have his 100th the same year as Dickens has his 200th. Small blessings and all that.

And yet, how oddly fitting that we are forced to confront the legacies of two men who could not have possibly been more different, both in their causes and effects.

Dickens, aside from his superhuman productivity and a literary canon that scarcely needs to be commented upon, was the rarest of artists (and human beings) who utilized his prestige to influence the greater good. Driven by his own humble beginnings and torched by a ceaseless drive for justice and equity, he used the power of his pen to account for the forgotten and take the usurpers into account. His depictions of the impoverished did more to change the world than any number of politicians (no matter how well-meaning) ever could. That is the not-so-secret dominion of Art as an arbiter of change, an impetus for our collective evolution. Dickens, in short, was a man who attained riches but never lost his soul. He was unwilling –unable, really– to turn his back on reality and tune out the mostly silent screams of the lower castes who were brought into this world without half a chance. His novels are evidence for the distance we’ve travelled, and function as an unsavory reminder of how little we’ve managed to do.

And then there is Reagan, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies and parlayed that into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back, opportunistically, gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a true believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine apocalypse and helped solidify the middle-class for decades.

You know what happened next: the actor started reading his scripts before rabid fans instead of imbecilic directors and he made moves instead of movies. The movement, not-so-fondly recalled as The Reagan Revolution, built its momentum on a shameful villification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and turned them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people –then; now– understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-less taxes even as young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

You know what happened next: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

And America, where we read tributes to Dickens’ works but not the conditions that inspired them, and a clown shoes clusterfuck of weasels, egomaniacs and moral zombies all of whom invoke Reagan and pimp for his posthumous blessing the way Oliver Twist coveted that extra portion of gruel.

The Money Dread*

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business—and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

Let’s face it: it’s not as though the five or six folks who actually flip the switches and decide who gets what (after, of course, they’ve had theirs) ever consented to this sudden, and by all accounts inexplicable, turn of events. They certainly didn’t plan it this way. And you can be certain they don’t condone it or in any way seek to keep it around if they can help it. But that’s the thing: they can’t help it. They never saw it coming. I definitely didn’t see it coming: who could possibly have predicted this? The guys that—if they were lucky—were going to be chain restaurant managers and counter-jockeys at Radio Shack suddenly had the keys to the kingdom, because they understood how the world-wide-web worked.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.

*excerpted from the novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

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