February 14, 2007

The crash of America

From the March 1995 Progressive Review

The premise here is simple: when the plane crashes, find out why.

Simple it may be, but few in federal Washington even seem to notice that the country they came to rule has crumbled around them and fewer still would accept the notion that it might be useful to inquire as to the cause of this disaster. The disaster, of course, is that of the country -- not that of its elite, which still floats like a hovercraft above the roiled waters of America.

To be sure, the more traditional faction of this elite has suffered a significant political blow in recent months, but now there is a new elite, headed by a man who hails from the richest county in Georgia, represents some of the wealthiest interests in the country, and still manages to call other people "elitist." This particular form of demagoguery is far from novel. Nixon and Wallace used it freely but then socio-economically they had better credentials for doing so. By 1978, says William Safire, elitism had already "become a standard blast at anyone with an undue regard for excellence as a criterion for the receipt of money or power."

The old elite, in its purest form, went to Ivy schools, practiced law or investments, and belonged to the Council on Foreign Relations. The new elite has been raised in the groves of advertising, marketing and focus groups, and is representative not of its legislative districts but of the largest trade associations. Its members speak not American but postmodern Orwellian. Listening to their rhetoric is like being trapped at table 129 -- with a bursting bladder and all the doors locked -- during a never-endng congressional dinner of the Asbestos Manufacturers Association. The members of this new elite may be different, yet by income, attitude and isolation, they are every bit as elitist as those they have expelled.

Thus the recent transfer of power was not from elitism to populism, but rather from one elite to another. And it did not happen, contrary to what one might glean from the elite media, as a result of some stunning sagacity on the part of the new crowd, but mostly due to the compounding ignorance, insularity and ineffectiveness of the old.

This old elite particularly prided itself in its wisdom and intelligence, but its greatest true skill was the successful circumnavigation of collective guilt. No embarrassment was too great, no crisis too unnecessary, no expense too inexplicable, and no war too unjustified, that it became ashamed. Instead, its members would rise as one to pronounce it not the time for blame, but rather for moving forward together into the future. Everyone would nod their heads and the foxes would renovate the chicken house once more.

Psychologically impervious to either misfortune or fact, this elite never felt any need for rigorous self-examination. When things got truly out of hand, as when a president was assassinated, a blue ribbon investigation would be called, producing a ritual of introspection that, almost without exception, came to conclusions that were faulty, incomplete or deliberately deceptive.

When members of the elite faltered -- a Kissinger, Helms, McNamara, Abrams and so forth -- their peers moved quickly to protect, rehabilitate and restore them to the pantheon of the wise. Given that more than ten percent of the Council on Foreign Relations -- a sort of Elks Club for the tenured elite -- is composed of journalists, it is not surprising to find the latter often serving as EMTs, reviving some beloved source suffering a momentary attack of imperfection. This service was not, of course, provided to all. For example, surgeons general from the lesser ethnic groups could not expect rehabilitation, nor could individuals whose misdeeds were personal rather than merely an abrogation of the Constitution.

All this was carried out with a numbing smugness. Like the Cromwell described in A Man for All Seasons, the prototypical member of the old elite possesses "a self conceit that can cradle gross crimes in the name of effective action."

But now, without doubt, the party is over. To be sure, the elite does not admit this any more than it admits it exists at all, but to those like myself born on the cusp of the Second World War there is no point to the pretense. We remember the victories and the celebrations of them; we remember men standing motionless for the national anthem in baseball stadiums with fedoras held over their hearts; the jobs waiting for you when you graduated from college; politicians who were revered; newscasters who were trusted; and music that dripped syrup over our spirits and made them sweet and sticky. We remember when there was a right and wrong and who belonged with each. We remember a time when those in power lied and were actually able to fool us. We remember what a real myth is like.

Now, among the young or the ethnic, you can't raise a majority that is proud of this country. Most Americans believe we are on the wrong track. We hate our politicians, ignore our moral voices, and distrust our media. We have destroyed the natural habitats of the southern white pine and of the northern black human. We have created the nation's first downwardly mobile generation, reduced their parent's income, and removed the jobs of each to distant lands. We have sold our downtowns to foreign companies and sold our environment to domestic ones. We have created rapacious oligopolies of defense and medicine, frittered away public revenues and watched indifferently as the slain, the homeless and the miserable pile up. Perhaps most telling, we are no longer able to admire, but only to gawk.

Many of the symbols of America remain, but they have become crude -- desperately or commercially imitative of something that is no longer there. We still stand for the Star Spangled Banner, but we no longer know what to do while on our feet. We still subscribe to the morning paper but it reads like stale beer. And we still vote, but expect ever less in return.

Turning on others

An awfulness has come over us. We have become obsessed with what we should ignore and ignore what we should honor. We seem to have lost capacity for either grace or decency.

Something profound has happened and yet we are not even talking about it. The media won't tell us because it is largely servile towards, or owned by, those who have profited from the debacle. Instead, it daily aggravates our tendency to salve our discouragement by turning on others even more helpless than ourselves. The assault on the poor, minorities and immigrants is not an accident. It is what people do when they're not told what's really wrong, when the media won't let them in on the secret. It's one of power's oldest tricks: to deflect blame downward so the victims fight among themselves.

Nor is the destruction of social programs at every level mere happenstance. With the collapse of America's post-war empire, the country's elite has become increasingly concerned with getting more for itself while getting us to accept less. Hence the New York City budget that cut 24% from social services and added 7% to the police. It is, after all, cheaper to shoot or bury them then it is to sustain them. As Latin American countries have found, the children can live on the streets and the wealthy can hire guards to stand in front of their walled homes and life can be very pleasant as long as you are behind the wall and don't really think about it too much.

There is not among the elite, old or new, even any particular loyalty to this country. More and more, its business is elsewhere; and it is shamelessly willing to use political power to further that business. It seeks a playing field of greatly weakened countries in which stateless corporations and their managers are accountable to no one. The pledge of allegiance has been replaced by trade agreements. The House Speaker talks of America; his wife works abroad.

Thus not only does the American elite lack any sense of guilt for what has happened, it is, like a hit and run driver, leaving the scene of the accident. More and more, those who run this country have the character of wealthy, isolated strangers -- armed but afraid, intrusive yet indifferent, personally profligate but politically penurious, priggish in rhetoric yet corrupt in action. No longer does even national myth connect them with the greater mass of America. Nor, any longer, does politics separate them from each other; Republicans and Democrats have become, rather than choices, degrees of the same thing.

Hi, I'm America and I'm a recovering country

It is long overdue time to admit such things -- and to force our leaders and the media to admit them as well. One of the less observed utilities of the 1960s was serving as a group intervention, interrupting the self-justified intoxication of the elite consensus. This intervention provided the intellectual, moral and psychological framework for much that happened.

We need such intervention now. We need to speak the truth. To admit freely that America has crashed. To tell the story of how America's own elite helped to bring it down. And to argue that, by consequence, they have lost their license to lead.

We further need to commence the sort of inquiry that disasters demand, an investigation into the death of American substance and of the American spirit. Before such an inquiry we might bring such evidence as:

The Vietnam War, the first great public disaster of the post-WWII best and brightest.

The destruction of the America city, beginning with the subsidized suburbanization of the fifties, continuing through the economic abandonment of downtowns in the 70s and 80s, and ending with the Reagan-Bush-Clinton withdrawal of urban aid.

Three decades of mob politics during which the country's elite snuggled up to its intelligence agencies, which in turn made numerous deleterious pacts with criminals, freebooters and drug lords.

The drug war, now more dangerous to black US males than was serving in Vietnam. A barbaric, unconstitutional, and counterproductive battle that has placed large sections of our cities under para-military occupation and has corrupted our political life -- from police precincts to governors' mansions.

The S&L and BCCI scandals, the bipartisan revival of robber baron politics that greatly destabilized our financial system.

The failure to exercise ecological wisdom before large numbers of human lives were endangered, species damaged or destroyed, and lands ruined.

The development of the corporate state in which the government is increasingly reduced to serving ever more powerful oligopolies.

The conversion of medicine from a public service to a corporate exploitive enterprise.

.The encouragement of economic desertion. Through such means as NAFTA and GATT, America has hastened the emigration of its own commercial base.

The failure to halt the growing monopolization of information and ideas in the American media.

The retreat from common responsibility for the problems of the nation's less fortunate.

The nomination of Bill Clinton, a president picked, managed and bankrolled by America's elite. This final error devastated the Democratic Party and made possible last November's right-wing coup.

In each of these instances, the plans were drawn, sold and executed by those who considered themselves among the nation's smartest men and women. And in each case, the nation paid a fearful price. In the end we have been left with a country devoid of confidence, a nation beset by fears, short on jobs, bereft of joy, disputatious, sniveling, without compassion, internationally impotent, domestically catatonic -- in a word, shattered.

While other generations of leaders have failed the country, none has managed to do quite so much damage. The first step in recovery is to reveal how this came about, and by whose hand, and then to tell them to be off.