As far back in social history as you care to look the pervasive social conflict has been between haves and have-nots. Kings and vassals, gentry and peasants, nobility and bourgeois, landed and serfs, rich and poor. We have not today early in the 21st century evolved much beyond that kind of social differentiation if at all with the 1% and the 99% gulf. In spite of a wide array of attempts to ensure political accountability and social equality the social contract has been and continues to be relentlessly undermined by greed. Greed for money, power, property, possessions, notoriety/fame, sanctimony – you name it and there are people hungry for it. There being no such thing as “enough” for some people it is, for them, an unremitting obsession. Since we live in a finite world it is a given that there is just so much of everything to go around; it follows then that the more some have the less there is for others to have. As Adam Smith, the 18th century Scot social philosopher, put it, “Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality … Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
Obviously in a competitive world with limited resources there must be winners and losers and in this contemporary American society it seems losers worship winners and despise fellow losers. A neat trick of brainwashing in which losers more identify with winners and which, paradoxically, impels them to act against their own best interests. Winners take more and more leaving less and less for the majority and with disregard for the social consequences thereof. Sadly what is taken includes the future of young people. This then is the essence of the 1% / 99% conundrum, #occupywallstreet, and the basis for claims and denials of class warfare.
It used to be the case that the 1% didn’t seem to feel any need to be subtle or discreet but that seems to be changing as public awareness of the disparities increases. Conspicuous consumption seems to be on the wane, and is now increasingly replaced by denial of disparity, and that is all the more disingenuous and dangerous. Politicians who identify with and are themselves members of the 1% have stood before television cameras to bald-face declare there is no such thing as class warfare, as did the current speaker of the US House of Representatives not so long ago. Perhaps these folks sense something dangerous may be afoot. As an aside, one must wonder just who the House of “Representatives” represents; I’m certain it isn’t me or anyone I know. Contemporary American politics is probably the best worst-case example of how money and power are at the root of every civil law and regulation proposed and passed. It’s all about money and power and, increasingly, about religion – Christian religion.
Is there a Republican war on the separation of church and state? The founders of our American democracy so cherished that freedom they left England in opposition to a state religion. On March 26th, 2012, on the steps of the US Supreme Court, presidential candidate Rick Santorum declared, “Rights come from our creator, they are protected by the Constitution of this country. Rights should not and cannot be created by a government because anytime a government creates a right, they can take that right away.” Now there’s a declaration for you and I’ll bet the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are rolling over in their graves. The framers, it is clear, were not deities, they were – guys and they created the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Santorum recently sat through a Louisiana Christian preacher’s sermon during which the preacher shouted out for anyone who wasn’t a Christian to “get out” of the country. We are truly on the outer fringes of sanity and civilization. We could be losing our balance and heading for an Inquisition if someone like Santorum becomes president.
Is there a Republican war on women? In Idaho, State Representative Chuck Winder questioned whether or not women understand that they have been raped. A woman in Texas described how she was required to listen to a physician describe a “gravely ill fetus” before she could abort it. Then we have Georgia State Representative Terry England who, in matters of abortion, compared women to pigs and cows before his legislature. England was speaking in favor of a bill that would require women to carry to term a dead or dying fetus. In Mississippi, Rennie Gibbs has become the first woman to be charged with murder following the stillbirth of her baby. In Arizona lawmakers are moving a bill through their legislature that would allow an employer to fire a woman using birth control as a contraceptive.
Is there a Republican war on the poor and disadvantaged? Wisconsin Representative, Republican Paul Ryan is proposing a budget that would, in the words of The Huffington Post, ravage “programs for the poor, elderly, disabled, young, veterans, jobless, and students” because he says, programs such as food stamps, health insurance, Pell Grants, and veterans’ hospitals are “demeaning”. Incidentally, Ryan, himself, is not a veteran but he was an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile driver. Among the casualties of Ryan’s proposed reforms and budget cuts would be Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; in addition veterans care would be cut by 13%. Ryan’s claim is that a social safety net, “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.” When a veteran comes back from Afghanistan without his legs knowing of Ryan’s concern for his dignity will certainly make a difference. Half of the savings Ryan is claiming for his budget come from health insurance programs. Ryan himself, as a US congress person, has health care paid for by the taxpayers that exceeds any other government health program.
What about money and politics? David Koch, one of the two billionaire Koch brothers has stated publicly that he will spend $60 million, a bit more than chump change, to defeat President Obama in the 2012 elections. The Koch brothers also gave generously to the current governor of New Mexico during her election campaign in 2010. Another of their protégés, Scott Walker, current Governor of Wisconsin, is now facing a recall election following his first year in office. Walker recently stated rather disingenuously that he should have “anticipated there would be money and resources brought in from other places” to defeat him. Of course he didn’t mention where his own money comes from. Not to worry, bubby, the Koch boys have your back as their greatest fear, in David’s words, is that, “If unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.” Imagine that! One of Walker’s first acts as Governor was to disenfranchise public employee unions, including teachers. The same agenda has taken place in many other states as well.
So now what? We are, I believe, at a defining moment in the history of the United States. In all of my 74 years on the planet I cannot recall anything quite like what is going on now. Even during the most virulent period of the anti-Vietnam war protests there was a sense of one country, one people disagreeing. No, I’m not forgetting outrages like Kent State or the bombing of the Army Math building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin – Madison (I was there, I heard the blast.). We have certainly had our moments as a society, as a country, as a people. Somehow each moment segued into the next with a better situation than what preceded it. Those were times, however, when the media were not so entirely pervasive and when any nut case with an anti-social agenda could not so readily spew venomous hatred over the airwaves or internet as do Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox “News”. Glenn Beck in a recent internet post declared the possibility that the unarmed young man who was shot to death in Florida a few weeks ago was the attacker. Beck supports the claim of self-defense by the self-appointed vigilante who killed the young man. Beck used his web site to slime a dead kid with insinuations that the kid may have smoked marijuana at one time.
What can we do to stem this gruesome sociopathic red tide of hatred and disinformation? The narrative has been, as you can see from the foregoing, largely in the hands of right-wing sociopaths and political opportunists funded by billionaires with an anti-democratic dystopian agenda. With some politicians it seems not a matter of what will they say next but of what won’t they say next. The right-wing agitators are getting most of the media attention right now and it’s time for the voices of humanity, intelligence, and reason to speak up and occupy the narrative. This is a difficult assignment; it is too easy to get angry and vituperative in response to such outrage. Instead it is necessary to become quietly deliberate and persuasive without making people feel talked down to or patronized. It will take patience, and truthfulness. The future is being constrained by greed and when there is nothing attainable to aspire to but joblessness or low-paying survival wages the future is foreclosed. A Las Cruces newspaper recently ran an opinion piece by a right-wing academic whose opinion was that New Mexico needs lower wages and lower taxes on corporations. This guy preached the gospel according to ALEC at a church in New Mexico and sponsored by the so-called Rio Grande Foundation. Nuff said!
The public must be educated. The public must understand we are all in this together, that the divide-and-conquer tactics being employed to pit social groups against each other is a deliberate, well-financed strategy. The opposition is wealthy, influential, and powerful. Right now they own the space we need to occupy. Occupying the narrative, you will be educators and skilled warriors whose task it will be to help the enemy destroy themselves. Teach about ALEC and its sponsors. Teach about legislators who introduce and pass legislation written for and by international corporations for their own benefit. Teach about the corrosive influence of money and religiosity in politics and the public space. Teach about politicians who will sell themselves for a trip to a vacation resort or even for a cheesy banquet. How cheap are they selling themselves for? Aren’t their constituents supposed to have first dibs on their loyalty? Did we elect ALEC or them? Do constituents have to ply their elected officials with resort trips and cheesy banquets to have public interests represented? These are the lessons you can teach, the questions you can ask. It’s a dialectic, it becomes a narrative joined by all who want an equitable political future – who want a future.
This essay appears in the April edition of Light of New Mexico