Donald Trump: The Man in America’s Mirror

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i. Orwell, Again (Obviously)

Even before the Reality TV circus American politics and, by extension, American life, degenerated into late last year, George Orwell was the go-to guy for so many writers and thinkers. His observations on everything from class to work (and the inexorable connections between the two), to literature and, yes, politics, has often helped inform and explain how things could become, or how they’ve always been.

This has less to do with the critical laziness that declared him our ultimate quote machine and seer of modern existence (it’s amusing to think how many, particularly in the political sphere, have invoked him without reading much if any of his work; like with Shakespeare, why bother to read the books when the aphorisms are readymade?). Rather, it’s for the simplest and rarest of reasons: Orwell was the real deal, a peripatetic and curious theorist, a philosopher one could claim, never mind the color of their collar. Not content to report from afar, he needed to put himself in the mix, as a dishwasher, a soldier, an officer; a sort of restless cylinder distilling the truths and deceptions of the 20th Century. Simply put, there was never anyone quite like him, and this, above all, is why he matters. It’s why he’ll endure; his work is not timeless so much as incapable of aging. This, regrettably, is in no small part because humanity persistently proves the most cynical and saturnine prognosticators somehow uninspired. (Especially here in the United States.)

Still, for both indolent and obsessed, the embarrassment of riches contained in his last two works, Animal Farm and 1984, tends to suffice, sui generis source code. It’s somewhat ironic that of his writings, these two have arguably aged most poorly. Not because what he depicted was improbable, but history has shown them to be, remarkably, almost trivial. We look at the spectacles of Mr. Jones’ farm and our textbooks and think: Been there, done that. After the successive outrages of dictatorships beneath us and across the pond, the mendacity of totalitarian impulses inevitably worked its way west. Between The Patriot Act and color-coded terror alerts after 9/11, it was like life imitating artless farce. (Think about Hitler, in theory; in actuality: virtually everything he did and said is risible, ludicrous, embarrassing. The mistake we’ve made trying to get a handle on him is not what skills or charms he ostensibly brought to the table, but the fact that millions of angry, credulous citizens enabled it, clamored for it. His repellant genius was in knowing precisely what thirst he was quenching.)

 

ii. Are We Not Entertained?

Which brings us to Trumped in the U.S.A., circa 2017.

Just like the man with the funny mustache, a grandstanding, solipsistic and soulless imbecile like Donald Trump could never be taken seriously unless a country didn’t take itself seriously. That’s both diagnosis and epitaph for the circumstances making the improbability (the impossibility) of President Trump our unique national nightmare.

How can—or should—we grapple with the fact that the right wing has made its bacon for decades castigating virtually everything Trump represents? Hollywood, immorality, gambling, infidelity, insufficient fealty (and/or downright sacrilege) regarding all-things-military, wild and easily disprovable boasts (in this regard making him the anti-Al Gore). For starters.

And speaking of Al “Internet” Gore, perhaps it’s as simple as this: politics aside, he played well on T.V.

Something more is at play, obviously. Yes, white racial antipathy is a YUGE factor. To argue otherwise, at this point, is both delusional and dangerous. Scarily, thought, it goes far beyond folks being whipped into a self-abnegating fury by Fox News. It’s the 21st Century, and we’re obliged to wonder: are the better angels of these folks’ natures being corrupted or, at long last, did the right cult of personality disorder finally reinforce the things they want and need to hear?

The hollowness of the Christian right is now irrevocably laid bare, as they don their MAGA hats in support of a man representing practically everything Jesus denounced.

And yes, there’s no question that as actors, athletes and even “Fake Media” outlets print money at unprecedented rates while red states insist on electing people opposed to living wages, Trump can be seen as the symptom, not the disease.

Still, it’s a combination of resentment, rage and denial that make anyone, whoever they are and wherever they live, able to suspend disbelief to the extent that they still, after eight months, support President* Trump.

Sure, we could talk about the undeniable Russian collusion, the unconscionable decisions James Comey made, or the myriad mistakes the Clinton campaign is begrudgingly beginning to acknowledge—none of which should ever let the obstreperous Bernie Bros off the hook. We certainly must contemplate the havoc right-wing media has wrought, a decades-long work in progress which, in hindsight, makes Trump seem almost inevitable. And despite the imperfect storm of factors that contributed to Trump’s win*, the fact remains: it should never have been close. So, even if we come to discover every worst-case scenario and fear is true—that votes were rigged, Russians did their worst, that God Herself made it so—we must grapple with the depressing fact that even Trump probably never realized how incomparably he appealed to every horrific instinct simmering just beneath the surface of America’s cauldron.

Just because there are plentiful reasons to explain how and why Trump happened, it doesn’t mean we should accept it. Or worse, resign ourselves to it. Indeed, as more evidence of the mendacity, cynicism and malpractice (both political and journalistic) pours in, we are presented with an opportunity. And therein lies a sliver of hope for these very ominous times.

iii.                On Tramps and Trump

Revisiting Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, I wasn’t prepared for the shock of recognition that occurred in the latter pages. With his laudable compulsion to be involved in his reporting, the author spends several months as a dishwasher in Paris, and then living amongst the tramps in London. In a scene that could have been written today (In Paris, London or especially America), Orwell complains about the mindless waste of food he witnessed while working in one of the charity kitchens. His companion—a veteran of the rough roads—manages to astound a writer celebrated for not being easily astonished.

“They have to (throw away the extra food),” he said. “If they made these places too comfortable, you’d have all the scum of the country flocking to them. It’s only the bad food as keeps all that scum away. These here tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging them. They’re scum.”

I produced arguments to prove him wrong, but he would not listen. He kept repeating:

“You don’t want to have any pity on these here tramps—scum, they are. You don’t want to judge them by the same standards as men like you and me. They’re scum, just scum.”

…I imagine there are quite a lot of tramps who thank God they are not tramps.

Sound like sentiment we’ve heard once or twice these recent months, as unemployed “patriots” in opioid-infested states clamor for their “big, beautiful” wall?

The cynic might inquire: same as it ever was?

Maybe. But this passage serves as a necessary reminder: the cancer (which is, take your pick: anti-patriotic, anti-reason and most definitely anti-Christian, all three labels Republican branding has brazenly co-opted for decades) metastasized long before a slum lord scion became Tweeter-in-chief.

If there’s any silver lining in Trump’s curious and untenable ascendency, it’s that this monster of our making is no longer operating under cover of darkness, abetted by propaganda and innuendo. It’s out in the open and, for once, some of the (literally) torch-carrying villagers are chasing him, not because he’s a monster but rather a perverse Pied Piper.

Of course it’s depressing that, post-Katrina and Wall Street meltdown, this seemingly ceaseless reminder is even necessary. Race, resentment and political malpractice, again, aside, we are seeing how the GOP rolls when they’re obliged to do something aside from obstructing. Trump’s victory* proved we still hadn’t learned. Does this mean we are not capable of a course correction?

(Regarding malpractice, Obama in particular, and the Democratic party in general, own their fair share of the blame: they had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a forceful, irrefutable case for the efficacy of government and policies that used to be both uncontroversial and bipartisan. To insist that Obama counted on some collective accord just as Trump has instigated a cultural cacophony is at once accurate yet insufficient. Unreasonable hopes, naïveté and overconfidence allowed an imploded ideology to rise, and rally.

There’s plenty of tragedy and dark humor regarding what could have been. The pertinent issue is whether Democrats can, finally (for once?) organize, unify and convert this calamity into…change we can believe in? It’s hardly hyperbole to insist we’re at a threshold moment.)

Books and careers will be created describing how 2016 happened, but if we’re not able to excise this tumor, Trump will endure as preview instead of apotheosis.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings.

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Washing Dishes as Antidote for Apathy

Help wanted sign on the Mexican border.

Tom Sietsema, the excellent food critic for The Washington Post, wrote a fantastic piece about dishwashers (in general) and his experience, as a dishwasher, on 8/7/17.

I highly recommend this piece to anyone, but to be certain, anyone who has never worked in the service industry will be enlightened.

Long and short: Sietsema volunteered to go inside a busy restaurant to see, and feel, firsthand, what it’s like. Why?

Because I wanted to experience firsthand the job that CNN star Anthony Bourdain says taught him “every important lesson of my life,” the one New York chef Daniel Boulud calls “the best way to enter the business.”

There are several illuminating observations, and here’s a short history of why, inside successful restaurants, reliable dishwashers are not only appreciated, but celebrated:

The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so dishwashers in the United States is about $20,000, up only $4,000 or so from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give cleaners the stature of sous chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.

Without them, “everything would break down.”

“We don’t call them dishwashers, but porters,” says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant, the late Bay & Surf in Laurel, Md. “We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant.” Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter’s short sleeves.

When I start my shift at Caracol, an upscale Mexican seafood restaurant in Houston, Keller’s words are echoing in my head: “Everyone in the restaurant depends on you,” he told me. “If there are no glasses, drinks don’t get served. If there is no silverware, tables can’t get set. If there are no pots or pans, food doesn’t get cooked.”

I couldn’t help, reading this piece, hoping a handful of ignorant or apathetic folks might gain an otherwise unobtainable appreciation for how difficult this work is, how important, and how anonymous. With my own considerable experience in the service industry, I never need to be reminded that the most challenging job is done by those who are paid the least. That our restaurants and, not for nothing, our economy, rely on the efficiency of these folks, many millions of whom are casually derided as “illegal immigrants,” is one of the obscene ironies of a uniquely American cognitive dissonance, one that has been utilized to cynical effect by our current president and the imbeciles who support him.

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Why bring politics into it? Short answer, duh. Longer answer, courtesy of the ever-reliable (and prescient) George Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Speaking of Orwell, it was his seminal memoir Down and Out in Paris and London that helped me understand, appreciate and articulate the historical and sociological interstices of injustice. As important, he was the first great writer I encountered who described the marginalized with both empathy and rigor. The typical authority of his observations satisfy on literal and artistic levels:

It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendor –spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth…There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food…the room had a dirty, mixed smell of food and sweat…This washing up was a thoroughly odious job –not hard, but boring and silly beyond words. It is dreadful to think that some people spend their whole decades at such occupations. The woman whom I replaced was quite sixty years old, and she stood at the sink thirteen hours a day, six days a week, the year round.

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Check this out:

A dishwasher in a busy restaurant is a modern-day Sisyphus, sending his load of clean plates, cups, glasses and utensils steaming and shiny up the hill to hungry patrons, only to have a fresh batch of soiled work come back to him, over and over until that last cycle has gone through the long-suffering machine. And yet there’s a satisfaction in this. While it’s repetitious, by the end of the evening there’s an end, an immutable sense of accomplishment, having ensured all the dirty objects have become clean. There’s a cause and effect, a purpose served, that makes even the most demeaning and thankless work rewarding in its way. It’s an occupation everyone should be required to try at point or another, but a job no person should suffer through for more than a few years.

That’s an excerpt from my as-yet unpublished novel, The American Dream of Don Giovanni. Inspired in large part by actual events experienced by the author during his times in “the industry,” it presents, I hope, as accurate a portrayal as possible of this world.

More politics? Definitely.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like Down and Out in Paris and London changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions (and the immigrants providing so much of this industry, and revenue) are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

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Here’s, well, an excerpt from an excerpt. My short story, “No Tengo a Nadie“, is an excerpt of sorts from the novel. (I’ll embed the link to the published piece, below.)

Washing dishes, for instance, is a good job, particularly in light of the alternative options, such as the uncertainties involved with construction work, or moving furniture, or washing windows two hundred feet above the ground, all outdoors, all day, in summer and winter.

Two jobs, the same job. The same work at two workplaces. A necessary and normal routine, because none of the employers are interested in paying overtime. The better jobs, in the better restaurants (where they will provide you with plastic gloves, apron and a free meal each shift) do not come easily. Even if you are fortunate enough to find one, or make the connections necessary to get considered for one, there is always the fear of being replaced: you are easily expendable since the supply considerably outweighs the demand. So, you work.

***

From his cramped corner in the sweltering kitchen, he grabs another steel pan—the same one might get scrubbed clean thirty times in a single evening—and gently places it in the sanitizing solution, always a numbing, not unpleasant sensation after the steaming mess of filthy water. It does not take long for the feeling to leave your hands if you left them too long in the cold, deceptively soothing water, as he discovered once while emptying a drain clogged with broken glass. He didn’t feel a thing until he pulled his shredded hands out into the warm air and saw the blood bubbling through the holes in his rubber gloves.

 

 Read the rest, via the link below.

No Tengo a Nadie (Pushcart Prize Nominated Fiction)

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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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On Health Care: George Carlin Called It

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Nine years ago today we lost not only one of our better comics, but one of our most vital and intelligent voices.

George Carlin was incendiary, he was hilarious, he was often the smartest dude (and biggest smartass) on the block, and he was a national treasure.

He was a “political” comic the way George Orwell was a “political” writer. And as Orwell famously declared: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Like Orwell, Carlin told big truths, and as we’ve seen throughout our human experiment? — ?especially in America? — ?the truth often falls on obdurate ears.

When celebrating a deceased icon, particularly one as full of wisdom as Carlin was — ?it’s typical to say “we could use that voice today”, or similar such sentiment. And while it wouldn’t suck to have Carlin around, assuming the spectacle of President Trump didn’t make him spontaneously combust like a Spinal Tap drummer, the sad fact is he already predicted much of what’s happened (and what might be coming, soon).

He made a career of putting political weasels and their fake piety and false promises in his sights, but it was toward the end when he pulled the fewest punches and dropped a bomb that’s still smoking, more than a decade later.

Check it out: when this, his last, special aired, I remember critics, even fans, suggesting that maybe George had gotten too cranky; that his cynicism had overwhelmed the better (or calmer) angels of his nature, or worst, that he wasn’t even funny anymore. He was funny, but not quite the way he used to be (some people would call that the evolution of a talent, not to mention an already-awakened conscience). Times were different and different tactics were required. Carlin was on the case.

This bit in particular, about the so-called “American Dream”, made for painful listening, but also essential viewing. Remember, this was in 2005, a few years before the (totally predictable) financial collapse, the subsequent refusal of Obama to do anything of consequence to the bad guys, and the impunity with which the Republicans have mostly acted, ever since.

Full of piss and vinegar, sure, but also prescient. Depressingly on point.

And, not for nothing: nine years to the day after he died, we see footage of disabled citizens being physically dragged away from lawful and peaceful protests. Why? Because the Republican politicians are too cowardly to face them. Why? Because in an act of cynicism that didn’t just jump the shark, but the entire ocean, these cretins are quite aware how deeply unpopular their health care “repeal” is. As such, they intend to pass it as quickly as possible, with little to no scrutiny. The media is finally making some noise, albeit too little and possibly too late. And you’d think something like more than twenty million people losing coverage so the rich can have a tax cut might warrant some headlines. Same as it ever was, only more so.

And here’s the thing. Normally I’d reckon that this footage would make for some pretty compelling political ads, come mid-term time. (Or now, for that matter.) Especially with some stats flashing across the screen that detail the number of Americans who could (or will) be devastated by this hideously destructive policy.

And then I think: they’ll get away with it anyway. They’ll shirk responsibility, or blame Obama, or the Democrats. And the sentient amongst us will shake our heads, either furious or shell shocked (or both), while the Republicans, having retained control of the House and Senate, will set about dismantling Social Security.

And we won’t be able to say George Carlin didn’t call it.

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Cheer Up, Trump Haters: It’ll Get Worse!

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WELL, THAT PRESS CONFERENCE was…something, huh? Predictably shambolic to the point of parody. Only more so. Satire and ridicule no longer register; we’re down the faux-golden rabbit hole, and it smells a lot like…urine. The unprecedented combination of incompetence and unscrupulousness on display makes George W. Bush look like Thomas Jefferson. What a national embarrassment. And if we’re counting on the media (many of whom laughed dutifully like dead-eyed show dogs at the appropriate moments, proving the only thing more astonishing than Trump’s truthless mendacity is the imperturbable fashion with which these bootlickers lap it up — for access, for ratings) to hold this buffoon in any way accountable, it’s going to be a long, brutal slog.

Special kudos to Jake Tapper, sitting afterward beside the emptiest suit in modern journalism, Wolf Blitzer, and making a play for his colleague’s crown: that immediate capitulation, equal parts petulant but unctuous, marks a new low in what may become a bottomless pit in the years (months? weeks? days? minutes?) ahead. Like a pathetic nerd willing to endure endless wedgies from the jocks for the pleasure of being in their company, these cowards are pleading with Trump to understand they aren’t the ones pushing “fake news” about a man who started the Obama “birther” conspiracy. For anyone struggling to understand why what Buzzfeed did is not only defensible, but imperative, it’s useful, as ever, to turn to our man George Orwell, who wrote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” That precept, already in grave peril pre-Trump, is going to be tested to previously unimaginable limits in the years (months? weeks? days? minutes?) ahead.

Yet, in a surreal best case scenario for the GOP, even the most plugged-in fanatic can’t keep pace with the outrages and things-that-would-normally-qualify-as-headline-dominating-scandals (Exhibit A: that stunt, during the press conference—with the lawyer spewing falsehood after ruse after gambit to explain why, in fact, there are no conflicts of interest—normally would require, by the laws of irony, a lightning bolt to crash into the room, incinerating everyone present. Exhibit B: the mere fact that a wretched poltroon like Jeff Sessions is being mentioned, in 2017–outside a Top Ten list of most despicable public servants in American history–would usually oblige weeks of discussion and deliberation). We can’t even wrap our minds around the depravity of Trump’s alleged Russian adventures (when The Donald denied being down with water sports because he’s a germaphobe, and some of the press tittered, it was a particularly low point in yesterday’s spectacle), so these types of distractions will likely enable a host of unsavory cretins to coast through their confirmations unscathed, assuming their roles in Trump’s administration.

I’ll confess that after yesterday’s infomercial, I mean press conference, I had a fleeting (however naive) revelation: despite his bluster, once the polling became clear, Trump would not willingly take away health care from so many of the red state suckers. As more folks figured out what’s really going on, and we saw more stories like this, we could count on Trump, quite paradoxically and only because of his colossal ego, to be the unforeseen monkey wrench in Ryan & McConnell’s vision of undoing everything positive, post-FDR.

And yet, we wake up today to discover (once again), by having no shame whatsoever, the GOP is figuring out that in a nation increasingly populated by children, obfuscation without apology (or explanation) is the best way to advance an agenda and suffer minimal, if any blowback. In today’s America, our reality is that a black man giving millions of people health care is many times more politically damaging than a rich white man taking it away from them. Until, that is, they figure out exactly what they had, what’s gone, and the person they voted for did what they thought they wanted

And then, some accountability, at long last? Not necessarily.

Guess what? It can get even worse.

Just after the election results came in, I realized most of what passes for Republican intelligentsia were so many dogs that inexplicably caught the car. Demonizing Obamacare by any means necessary was easy as it was effective, because it didn’t require any action, aside from reciting boilerplate propaganda and whipping useful idiots into the type of frenzy that could make a President Donald Trump possible. But, even the most cynical of these charlatans had to know, once it got down to the nuts and bolts of fucking over tens of millions of citizens, it might prove…complicated. My prediction, cynical in its own right, turns out to have been optimistic (!): I proposed that, if they were smart, Trump & Co. would immediately “repeal” Obamacare, replace it with the exact same thing (never forget, the ACA is a compromise crafted in conservative think tanks), call it Trumpcare, and convert the most spectacular sleight of hand in political history.

But I overlooked one important thing: the current crop of Republicans don’t give the slightest shit about people, or their health care, and we now have the votes to prove it.

It occurs to me that doing this maneuver (in the dead of night, natch), effectively forcing repeal (damn the torpedoes, declare victory, mission accomplished, etc.) without a net — or the pesky collective conscience to fret about how it will play in the media, much less actual peoples’ lives — proves that luck, combined with a brazen will to power for power’s sake, provides (another) miraculous opportunity. If, in fact, today signals the beginning of the end of Obamacare, effective immediately, people will steadily figure out what’s going on (way too late, as always) and they will, of course, be apoplectic. Someone will have to answer for that rage, and it won’t be Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. In a perfect storm so repellent it causes one to ponder the actuality of the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, they’ll use Trump as ballast, impeach him, and tie the repeal of Obamacare to…Trump. And it will work, because enough Republicans (and all Democrats) will relish the idea of jettisoning Mr. Make America Great Again from the Oval Office. A win/win for all involved, right?

Wrong. The unfathomable good fortune bestowed on Pence (and Ryan and Big Mac) will reach wet dream proportions: with Trump gone (and presumably having the stench of failure providing cover) a unified GOP will finally have unfettered access to dismantling anything and everything these sadists deem “progressive”. Worse, they’ll likely have years of accountability-free momentum, because between blaming Obama (duh) and Trump (who, of course, they all hate anyway), they’ll somehow position themselves as the ones who got rid of Obama and saved us all from Trump.

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Trump is sufficiently unconscionable he tends to camouflage the horrifying prospect of Pence as the ultimate GOP fantasy: a perfect amalgamation of Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Jerry Falwell, where mendacity meets opportunism, all gussied up in an aw shucks, superficial piety. He will, without the least reservation, blank-check the most ruthless Ayn Rand fetishists in history, making the Bush/Cheney years seem like a utopia of regulation and civil rights and market stability.

The typically gullible and feckless Democrats will think—abetted of course by an ever-pliant media—that since Pence is calm, soft-spoken and smiles a lot, they can reason with him. And with a shit-eating smirk, he’ll shut them down on every single issue, including ones (privatizing Social Security) that Trump, possibly, would have blanched at. And for every policy that undoes equality or the hope of middle-class advancement (The working poor? Face, meet Boot), credulous sycophants like Chuck Todd will allow weasels like Paul Ryan to frown meaningfully and talk about how none of this is easy, but governing requires difficult decisions and God Bless America.

And best case scenario, in four-to-eight years there’ll be a Bud Lite type of reckoning (the Democrats emboldened enough to campaign on positions that were middle of the road a decade ago), and the GOP (and their enablers in the business community and media—assuming the two entities are distinguishable by this point) will start whining, again, about the debt being amassed to pull us out of the mess, the one no one could have seen coming. That is, unless the hole is not finally too deep, a fantasy that causes so many of our right-leaning members of Congress to arise with Sildenafil-assisted morning wood every day.

Cheer up, things can get worse. Much worse. Impeaching Trump, that big, bloated white whale, may not be the prize we’re after. Indeed, there’s a possibility that keeping him in office may be the only thing preventing the half-ass Ahabs behind him from partying like it’s 1929.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 1/12/17.

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Born In The U.S.A. or, Every Day Is Veterans Day (Revisited)

american_flag_jj

I. Personal

Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.

I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m On Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.

(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, The Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)

Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.

II. Polemical

Check it out:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

(chorus)

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go…

This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

III. Political

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same armchair generals will once again wrap themselves in the American flag; these same couch potato patriots prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems (Revisited)

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i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

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ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

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iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems

obama_superman_statue_by_kindlepics-d5ju8nl

i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

sean-connery_richard-harris_the-molly-maguires

         ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

KeepGovtOutOfMyMedicare-sign-cropped

iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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The “R” Party Putting the “D” in Dysfunctional (And Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and –of course– George Orwell)

In honor (dishonor?) of our dysfunctional government not doing what it doesn’t do best, I think it’s timely and appropriate to revisit a blast from the past (a blog post that was written in February, 2011). But first, if you want to get up to speed about what is going on and what is driving it (i.e., how it happened and why it’s happening), do yourself a favor and read THIS and THIS.

While the piece, below, ostensibly focuses on a movie and unions (then, now), it is also an interrogation of why those who claim to despise government are incentivized (in every sense of the word) to do so, and why, not-so-ironically, making government fail proves government does not work and hence, their work at preventing work works.

***

 

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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Coal Mines, Unions, Big Business and (of course) George Orwell (Revisited)

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit. –George Orwell

Quite by chance (no, really), I saw an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. I remember reading about it last year when I was devouring Hellraisers, the almost literally unbelievable account of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris and their myriad escapades which can only be described as epic. The idea of Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic –with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines. If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric, at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “adminstrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell –just to name two of the more famous and important examples) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed, circumstances were sufficiently dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes–that is a cliche but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally –and fully– occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of cliches) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

 

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

Which, in turn, brings us to Wisconsin and what is really at stake right now. First, before any discussion of current events can occur, one feels obliged to give serious props to Republicans: over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. For one, propagating the repeatedly disproven mantra –to the extent that it is literally taken as gospel– that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias (they succeeded so thoroughly in this that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content so obsessively as to render them supine: their Op-Ed page is now dominated by whacked-out True Believers who would have been laughed out of conservative circles twenty years ago, back in the days when Bob Dole and his minions were devising health care reform that is now considered socialism).

The third is that government does not work: this is a neat trick in which, when they take power, they spend their time ensuring that this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in to clean up the mess and they immediately become small-government deficit hawks. If I was a Democrat operative I would have Cheney’s infamous “deficits don’t matter” comment in multiple TV ads and viral videos. And I would definitely ensure that the first talking point would involve inquiring the suddenly chaste and sober program slashers like Boehner and Cantor (and all of the Tea Party fanatics, for that matter) where exactly they were during the years 2000-2008.

Finally (for now), with much assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, the demonization of unions has been a long work-in-progress. It’s funny, because as much ink has been spilled this week, it’s a perfect representation of all that has gone wrong for the so-called progressive cause that any of this hand-wringing and negotiation was necessary at all. An outstanding –and exhaustive– overview of how this came to be is available, courtesy of Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones: the piece is (perfectly) entitled “Plutocracy Now” and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The gist of his argument is that, during the last half-century (but with a vengeance beginning in the ’70s), as unions lost influence the Democrats simultaneously abandoned them as they courted wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Dems tred lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our aloof and clueless commander-in-chief going to start reminding people that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest .01% (and Mama Cass)? Apparently it does. But even if the seemingly easy battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism–ha!) is a non-starter in 2011, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work week, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist in a vacuum, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

In any event, we could –and in different circumstances, should– spend a considerable amount of time bemoaning the myopia and apathy that led to what transpired in November (and the still-egregious and unacceptable capitulation of the tax increase in December), but the time may at long last be ripe for some sort of reckoning. If there was any doubt about what that imbecile Scott Walker is up to, and what naked partisan interests he wholly represents, yesterday’s embarrassing, enlightening prank call should sufficiently remove any uncertainty. People are finally waking up and seeing what is at stake (today collective bargaining; tomorrow social security!). Hopefully there is sufficient momentum to at least enable the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

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