Bear with me, because this post might go a lot of different ways. I’m not sure yet how it’s going to turn out. What I am sure about is I need to get these thoughts down and share them.
We are going through a rough time in America right now. This struggle really began back in the late 1970’s, and hit its stride in the 1990’s. There are a lot of dynamics to the struggle, but there are two important factors that I want to address: religiosity and its creeping influence on our politics; and the idea of what America really is.
We’ll start with religiosity. American has always been a country of two minds in regards to religion. We’ve been a majority Christian nation since our founding, but the founders themselves deplored most forms of Christian worship and churches. They tried to build into our system a “wall of separation between church and state” (Jefferson). The idea was that no religion would ever be able to dictate to others how they must act or worship. And, while that ideal was very quickly ignored, despite it being enshrined in the 1st amendment (see: reasons given for slavery; Jim Crow, Sunday blue laws, laws against swearing, etc, etc), it’s a bedrock of our nation.
Okay, fuck it, I can’t say any of that with a straight face. We’ve been a shit show of religious contradictions from the start. We constantly have politicians who push religious beliefs into the forefront of policy decisions, despite those beliefs having little bearing on the reality of things on the ground. Up until very recently, it was pretty much impossible to get elected unless you were Christian, whether or not your views were progressive. We constantly push religious beliefs as “truths” despite there being little evidence of the sort.
In the 80’s, religiosity got a boost from the “Moral Majority,” which was really a very vocal minority of voters. And right-wing politicians grabbed onto their shirt tails, regurgitated their views as policy, and rode them to wins in three straight Presidential elections. Their opposition to homosexuality, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment were key parts of the Republican platform. And these views were so powerful, that even progressive leaders like Clinton had to bow to their views in their espoused beliefs (don’t ask, don’t tell being a prominent example). While the MM died off in the late 80’s, their power carried on through the 90’s and the 2000’s and today. It became a staple of right-wing politics that Christian morality was the only morality worthy of protection and enshrinement in law.
I’m an atheist. You can imagine how I feel about that. On some topics, universal truths, Christians are correct. Thou shalt not commit murder. But of course, the same folks who push that view believe murder is TOTALLY okay if state sanctioned as punishment for criminal activities, and these same folks happily pushed for more executions. Having seen the dozens of stories of criminals being freed in more recent years due to new techniques at examining DNA evidence still on file, I wonder how many innocent men and women we’ve put to death based on faulty eye-witness testimony alone, or falsified police evidence. The rule is “Thou shalt not commit murder,” period. End of discussion. If you believe your religious text, the debate ends there.
Let’s just say that some branches of Christianity – usually those with the most power – seem to be hypocritical in the expression of the very ideals they subscribe to and leave it at that. That’s being pretty damned generous of me I think. But the upshot is that conservative politicians lean heavily on their evangelical voters, and cow-tow to their every belief, despite the fact that many of those same politicians bear about as much in common with them as a wolf does to a sheep. It’s expedient to pretend to care, and garners them a very captive audience that votes reliable for the members of their party.
So there’s the base. Let’s call that the foundation of this shit show.
The real problem comes when we talk about what America is. Right now, there are two competing visions, and the better propaganda seems to be on the side of the folks with the religious base. There is the “rugged individual” vision, which says every man, women and child is on their own, and will pull themselves up as a measure of their work.
Stop right there. That view is noble, and there is a grain of truth to it. Those who work hardest tend to achieve a bit more than those in similar life cirumstances. But it completely ignores the institutional barriers that are in place that means a poor person, particularly a minority, who busts their ass and works hard is still MUCH less likely to make any progress than a rich white person does. Case in point: Donald Trump.
Say what you will about Donnie’s father, the man worked his way up the chain. He did it through a variety of good old boy techniques. Most notably, by being a raging racist with membership in the KKK. But he worked hard, built a company, and by the time Donnie boy comes into the picture, has wealth and influence despite coming from modest, middle class circumstances. He built up his influence through political donations, winning government housing contracts (more on that soon), and shielded himself and his family from any of the usual failings of the wealthy. Well… not all apparently.
Donnie is nothing like his dad… except for the racist part. We’ll toss in sexist, too, though maybe daddy was a pig as well, I don’t know. I will assume so, since usually it’s learned behavior. But I digress.
Donnie never had to work for anything in his life. He was sent to private schools, given tutors, luxuriated in the lap of a wealthy life. His school career was unremarkable except for those who have stated he lacked any signs of intelligence. Had he been born poor, he might have one day worked his way up to middle manager of a used car lot with his skills. He certainly can sling the bullshit.
Instead, he was given the reigns of daddy’s housing company. And a million dollar loan to get going with. He promptly started discriminating against minorities in the public housing projects they got contracts for with the government. Oh, but he wasn’t found guilty he will tell you! No, he WON those cases! By settling out of court and paying huge fines. Usually when you settle in cases like that, it’s because there’s a clear preponderance of evidence that proves wrong doing. In this case, actual staff members testified that they were told if colored people came in to rent, they were to say the apartment wasn’t available. The inspectors ran a sting and sent in black families, and then white families… and the apartments not available to the blacks were suddenly available to the whites. It’s not like a sexual harassment case where there’s no evidence other than he said, she said, but you settle to make it go away. So out of the gate, less-than-average Donnie breaks the law and shows his racist tendencies. Way to go, Donnie.
I could now tell you the story of a kid born poor who worked hard and pushed themselves and achieved something great. There are a few of those. Want to know how many? So few that we use the ones we have as motivational stories to try and inspire folks. I could tell you MY story. Tell you how I was born into poverty, how my dad was injured at work and laid off for two years, how no one would hire him because of his injury though he applied to every job he could find (eventually landing a gig washing jock straps at the high school for the football time, fucking humiliating but he took it), how we survived on government cheese, food stamps, and donations from churches during that time, how we had no heat in the middle of a Maine winter and sat huddled in front of electric heaters waiting for our school buses. I can tell you how hard it was to move forward from that background, how college felt out of my reach for a long time, and how today, years later, I make more money in one year than my dad probably made in his entire lifetime of work. And yet I’m not rich or famous, still struggle to get ahead, pay off student loan debts while managing a mortgage and kids and on and on.
The fact is, most people who are rich come from a well-off background. They were handed the keys to success by the wealth that surrounds them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, either. But poor people are one bad injury away from destitution, no matter how hard they strive to work their way out of their situation. I could have been injured by a drunk driver, or one of my kids could have gotten cancer as I started my IT career. And wealthy people know other wealthy people, giving the child of that family more opportunities for advancement quickly into good jobs and careers. Poor people generally know other poor people, who are struggling just as hard as they are. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both came from affluent middle-class households who could afford to buy them computers. We couldn’t afford a fucking Atari. Those with money will pay for things for their kids, including college. Poor kids have to assume tens of thousands of dollars in debt if they want an education.
Rugged individualism is a wonderful story about America. It’s bullshit. One person didn’t ride out into the west and build it. It took thousands and thousands of immigrants, poor people working together, to build this nation. That’s the other story of America. The great melting pot that built something great together.
Over the years we’ve moved away from the idea that everyone will pull themselves up by their bootstraps if only they’ll try, and if you don’t, it means you’re lazy and no good and worthless. Trust me, I heard those words directed at me and my family. That’s how the poor are treated. Walk up to the check out in a grocery store with food stamps in your hand and see what comments you get from those behind you in line. When I was a child, it was humiliating; now it just pisses me off. But it’s an untrue story that misses the reality of the situation, that the greatest reductions in poverty, the greatest increases in upward mobility, came when we instituted social programs that helped those at the bottom work their way out of it, gave them a safety net when it all went wrong. So why, then, do so many poor vote for conservatives, the very people who are insulting them and telling them they are terrible people and not trying hard enough?
Well, religiosity is one reason. The other is propaganda. During the 1930’s and into the 1950’s and 60’s we built up a social safety net. We’d grown tired of the divide between the handful of “haves” and the great masses of “have nots.” We begin to believe that government could have another purpose. Not just military defense, but protecting and caring for its citizens, giving them greater opportunities. The less citizens have to worry about things like education, healthcare, transportation, etc, the more they can focus on improving their lives. And when things went wrong, whether or not it was their fault, we decided we should give them a hand and help pull them back up together. Instead of furiously paddling our own individual little rafts through the rapids, we could lash them all together into something better and more stable.
We built up systems for this. The FDA to protect our food supplies and test new drugs so we weren’t ripped off and/or killed by them. The EPA to keep our air and water clean, to stop our rivers from catching on fire. We created Social Security and Medicare so people could retire and live in dignity, not poverty, after lives of working hard and struggling. We fought for fair pay for fair work, benefits for employees, and a government that protected those hard fought gains. Medicaid for the poor so they could have healthcare.
This really pissed off the conservatives. I mean, like seriously pissed them off. They came to resent all the largess of our nation, despite the fact that our economy thrived, that poverty declined, that upward mobility increased. They saw this as anathema to that story of rugged individualism they’d sold themselves on. Never mind that no one ever truly made it on their own. Even Donnie and his family didn’t make it on their own, they required massive infusions of wealth through government contracts to get rich. Without government housing funding… where would they be? Probably not remotely as rich as they now are. Our tax dollars built the mansions that those pricks live in. Think that over before you start thinking how hard they must have worked to get ahead.
What’s wrong with this model? Why can’t government focus on its people, helping them achieve the great things they are capable of? How many Einsteins and Picasso’s have gone through their lives unnoticed and unrecognized, unable to share their talents because they were born into poverty, spent their whole lives struggling to make ends meet, and never had the opportunities to thrive?
There’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with this. That’s what good government is, a government focused on making sure it’s people have the things they need, even when times are tough. Government that takes care of the important, serious, difficult things that folks can’t afford on their own: healthcare, transportation, vital services, child care, education. Doing some of these things made us a great nation; doing all of them would keep us great. We didn’t get great by letting everyone paddle their own boats, we pitched in together and shared the load. That’s what great nations do, and explains why the quality of life and general happiness level is so much higher in Scandinavian countries where they’ve absorbed those lessons and apply them.
It does take a village. She got that one right for sure.
But conservatives twisted this belief. They framed it as “the nanny state”, mocked it until even some progressive leaders were too embarrassed to fully back these ideals. They preferred the people paying their own way, even if it costs them WAY more individually to do so, with WAY worse outcomes. If everyone paid into healthcare via taxes, we’d have one great big pool of insured folks, and that would drive down costs. It would also mostly end the private health insurance industry and remove the middle man on our payments, which further reduces costs. And it would ensure ALL Americans have access to good healthcare. All doctors would take the same payments, because there’s only one person paying the bill: the American taxpayers. Doctors costs would go down, because they don’t have to learn new insurance systems every couple of years, and fill out different forms for different insurance plans. It’s a huge win for the economy, more money into everyone’s pocketbook. Yes, we pay more in taxes… but yes, we actually pay LESS total! It’s like buying food in bulk, your costs go down and you can feed more people with the same amount of money.
Taxes are not evil, my friends. No more evil than paying shit loads of money to companies that give you shitty service and/or kill your service when you need to cash in on it. Health insurance companies used to do this all the time. You’d pay for years, but the moment you got sick they would refuse to pay, make it too hard to get benefits, or simply kick you off the plan for any reason they could find. Lots of folks went through this. It was an absolute mess, and we did nothing about it for a long time. Even ACA, a first step, fell far short of what was needed to make the system work right. Only single payer, Medicare for all, will work.
I prefer government protecting my interests, not protecting the interests of rich ass wipes who take my money and screw me. Every single bad thing we have right now is because we have warped our government systems to favor the rich, favor corporations, take away protections from the people. I have faith in the civil servants who serve their nation, not for profit motives, but because it’s the right thing to do. Corporations have proven time and again that they cannot be trusted with the keys to vital services that we all rely on. When profits are the goal, ethics tend to slip and slide until they’ve been left behind. See: Donald Trump. The man has zero ethics.
I read a thread yesterday on Twitter about what it was like for an American in Sweden. It was wonderful. Yes, they have less disposable income because taxes are higher. But they also don’t worry about things happening that will destroy their lives, because the government has their backs. You got injured? $50 to see the doctor, maximum of $150 a year you have to pay total for visits, everything else is free. People show up at your house without being asked to check on you, provide wheelchairs and other necessary items for free, to assist you with getting back on your feet. Childcare for $100 a month… a MONTH! We pay more than that a WEEK for crappy daycare. Lots of schools to choose from, great public transportation, amazing internet with municipal fiber and ISP’s competing for your business. It’s a wonderland it seems. Note that these systems also mean we liberals have to adapt and modify our own beliefs. Sweden has a lot of public AND private schools to choose from. They all teach to the same standards, have the same requirements for teachers, get paid from the public pool of money. The reason our private schools suck is because they take money FROM the public schools and don’t have to live up to the same standards. If they did, they’d be better for it.
We waste billions on the military, and keep cutting these types of social services. We believe only in profit, and in doing so we demean our very lives. I go to work not because I make some huge profit, but because doing work is meaningful and puts food on my table, a roof over my head. It doesn’t matter if my work is building widgets, or a house, or shoes, or providing transportation for seniors… I work to live, I don’t live to work. Nor do most folks. You see, the real problem is our relationship with types of work.
There is private industry work. We overvalue this tremendously, have built up a mythology around it. This is the only type of work right-wing politicians talk about as having value. Never mind the very fact that THEY are civil servants not creating real products or profits and see no contradiction in these views. Private industry includes all products, all services, everything. Making shoes? Great! Investing in overseas markets? Awesome! As long as someone is profiting from the work, it’s considered valuable.
And there is public work. There is no profit motive here, only a desire to help people get something they need. That may be helping clean up toxic waste sites (left behind by private industries who were willing to profit from their work, but left huge messes behind for others to deal with). It might be providing meals to seniors shut up in their homes. It could be assisting children with medical care. Or checking out books in a library for the public to read. Whatever the case, this work is done not to generate profits, but to provide something that is missing by private industry, something private industry should not control because it won’t reach all people and/or won’t be a price all can afford. Something that should be free for everyone to have access to, so they can better their lives, stop worrying about their difficulties, focus on their families and whatever work it is they do.
What the right-wing politician would love to do is find a way to monetize every public job. Turn them all into for-profit industries. Schools? Hell yes, we can make a ton of money there. Jails? Sure! Electrical grid? Absolutely! And every time they’ve privatized a public service, what have the outcomes been? Crappy service, higher prices, less people served, worse outcomes, a push to “force” people to have to use the service (see: private jail industry) so they can make more money. Or all of the above. In order to promote this mandate of “the only good business is private business,” the GOP have taken to using various tactics to undermine government services. They starve them of funding so the produce poor outcomes; they villify them publicly to lower public trust in them; they create fictional families who abuse the services so they can claim they need reform or outright cutting (Reagan’s famous example of welfare mothers comes to mind, tens of thousands of people who were sucking down welfare and refused to work, which was patently and provably ridiculous, but sold to the American public).
Public service is one of our noblest jobs. It’s sacrificing personal reward and riches to help you fellow American. That’s a good thing, and I’m tired of seeing public workers shit on by right-wing politicians who have worked to undermine them so hard and for so long. It used to be something we all agreed on, but it didn’t play well with the right-wing public, so conservatives ditched support for such ideals to bow and scrape to the tower of money that flowed their ways.
Taking care of each other is not a bad thing. It does not make us a nanny state. It makes us a great nation that shows how we pull together and support each other. Maybe there’s intrinsic jealous wrapped up in this. The old “I work a labor job every day to put food on the table, why should I support someone who is disabled? Or who makes paintings?” I say “why the fuck not? You expect me to pay for your roads so you can get to that job, even though the painter might never need that road. There are tons of things you take for granted already that we share the cost of. There’s a few more we can share the cost of, and it’ll cost you more in taxes, but a hell of a lot less overall because we shared the load.”
It’s a different version of America, one not founded in getting rich, but on caring for each other. A model that Sweden and Norway have enacted. The poverty rate in Sweden is 7%, one of the lowest in the world. They might be able to poo poo every other measure, but that one you can’t ignore. They have what they need to thrive, they share with each other, and they may begrudge the taxes, but they know it would be a hell of a lot worse without them. So why can’t we? We can’t we celebrate public service, share the load on healthcare, college and trade school, recognize the internet should be a municipal utility and not a vast profit margin for unscrupulous corporations?
We can. Maybe one day we will. Maybe the current GOP administration is exactly what we needed to kick us in the ass and get us there. The shit show as the catalyst for the good times ahead… it’s a nice thought. But until we reach them, we’ll keep fighting and clawing and scraping our way to that better vision of the future. Because I refuse to accept that profits uber alles is the thing that will make us great. It never has before, and it’s time to stop buying into that law, and selling it with a bible in our other hand. Profits should not be our religion… service to each other should be.
This was long. But I needed to say it, even if it’s rambling at times. I’m not an essayist, I’m a novel writer, so take it for what it’s worth.