States of Disunion
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“They’ve got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
’Til someone that we like can be elected.”
— Tom Lehrer, “Send the Marines”
As Dorothy Gale said in The Wizard of Oz, people come and go so quickly here! The last time I sat down to write one of these columns, Hosni Mubarak was well into the 30th year of his reign in Egypt and it looked virtually certain that he would continue as that country’s president until he died — whereupon his son Gamal would succeed him. Only a lot of people in Egypt had other ideas, and the success of a series of street protests in dislodging the equally long-serving and out-of-touch ruler of Tunisia inspired restive Egyptians to crowd into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and try the same thing. After 18 days, they succeeded — sort of; Mubarak and his hand-picked vice-president, Omar Sulieman, stepped down, but the Egyptian military, which has run the country since they got rid of the British-supported monarchy in 1952, announced they were taking over, dissolving Parliament, suspending the constitution and ruling by military committee until they can organize elections.
It’s been fascinating to watch the radical-Right hypocrites of talk radio and Fox News dance around the struggle of the Egyptian people and ultimately come down on the side of Mubarak and his U.S.- and Israel-friendly dictatorship. The same people who eight years ago said it was the bounden duty of the U.S. to spend thousands of its people’s lives and billions of dollars to oust Saddam Hussein from the presidency of Iraq are now piously telling us that it wasn’t any of our business to decide for the Egyptian people who their leader should be, and the Egyptians in the street were denying the rights of their countrymen who wanted Mubarak to stay in office. They whined about the Muslim Brotherhood and the possibility that it could build on its 25- to 30-percent popular support to take over the new government and turn Egypt into another Iran — and they made it clear, as they had previously in the Gaza Strip (where the U.S. and western Europe refused to acknowledge the result of a free and fair election because the “wrong” people won), that when confronted with the possibility of real democracy in an Arab country — not the sham we imposed on Iraq — they much prefer a dictator who can be counted on to aid Israel in maintaining its genocidal blockade of Gaza, as Mubarak did.
The Egyptian struggle bounced the fallout from President Obama’s State of the Union address off the media, but in a weird way the two events interlinked. In Egypt people united to overthrow a probably corrupt and certainly clueless ruler in hopes that new leadership would get what was traditionally the Arab world’s most economically advanced country working again and creating jobs for its people. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Obama proposed a series of big ideas to get his people working again and to develop his country’s economy for the 21st century — notably high-speed rail transportation and a variety of energy alternatives to fossil fuels — and, flush with their election victory in the House of Representatives last November, Republicans sneered at him as usual, trashing every program he advanced without suggesting anything constructive of their own.
It wasn’t always this way. By coincidence, I happened to watch Obama’s State of the Union on the same day I saw a PBS documentary on the building of the Panama Canal. The confluence of those two programs forcefully brought home how different today’s microscopic-minded Republican party is from its past, when Republican presidents routinely proposed major, game-changing infrastructure projects — Abraham Lincoln with the transcontinental railroad, Theodore Roosevelt with the Panama Canal, Dwight Eisenhower with the interstate highway system — because they understood, as today’s Republicans do not, that the private sector alone cannot develop a vibrant modern economy. It takes government spending — and lots of it — to create the public investment in education, transportation and economic pump-priming that allows the private sector to innovate and thrive.
Years ago in these pages I argued that if the 1980’s had been called the “Me Decade” — in which, under the malign influence of Ronald Reagan, American politicians definitively stopped asking their citizens what they could do for their country and started asking them if they personally were “better off” — the 1990’s could be called the “No Decade.” It was a decade in which we were told over and over again that the age of big government was over and that private investment — particularly in telecommunications and a new something-or-other called the Internet — would create limitless prosperity, but we’d still have to put up with substandard schools, crumbling cities and an industrial base that was allowed to rot as corporations shifted manufacturing elsewhere so they could pay workers pennies a day and count on local dictators to arrest or shoot them if they tried to organize.
Never mind that the Internet was itself a government creation; it was developed by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research and Projects Administration (ARPA) and originally called the “Arpanet.” Before the words “Al Gore” and “inconvenient truth” took on a quite different joint meaning, he embarrassed all the self-proclaimed anti-government libertarians and anarchists in the computer world by saying he had taken a leading role in the creation of their new toy. They ridiculed him for claiming to have “invented the Internet,” but Vinton Cerf, one of the two people (along with Tim Berners-Lee) who more than anyone else actually did invent the Internet, said Gore was right: as a U.S. Senator he’d taken the lead in getting the Arpanet enough government funding so it could advance from a private toy of Defense Department-contracted professors and think tanks to the globe-changing force we know today.
I had hoped that events — particularly the Clinton administration’s economic policy, which used the tax revenues generated by the Internet boom of the late 1990’s to erase the massive budget deficits of the Reagan and Bush I administrations and balance the federal budget for two consecutive years (1999 and 2000) for the first time since the 1950’s — would put an end to the “No Decade” and expand both Americans’ sense of possibility and their awareness that a strong public sector was essential to realizing the American dream. Alas, that didn’t happen; instead Bush II’s ruinous tax cuts for the rich (just extended in a corrupt deal that had the stink of “bipartisanship,” which in today’s political world generally means the Republicans playing attack dogs and the Democrats rolling over and playing dead) gave away the Clinton surpluses and put the federal budget back where the Republicans want it: so deeply in deficit that they can piously proclaim about any government initiative they oppose on ideological grounds (which basically means anything government does other than killing or punishing people), “We can’t afford it.”
What’s been astonishing to watch over the last two and one-half years — now that Obama’s 2008 election is looking more and more like what Debussy said of Wagner, “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn” — is how industriously Americans are organizing, petitioning their government, demonstrating and, on occasion, even shooting each other to support and extend a regime that proudly and unashamedly proclaims the people’s powerlessness. At least the attempts by conservative governments in Western Europe to cut spending on people’s basic needs have been targeted with mass protests against them — and through much of the less-developed world, with Egypt as the most recent example, people have taken to the streets to demand real democracy and a greater say in their own governance.
Meanwhile, who’s marching in the streets of the U.S. today? The Tea Party, a movement secretly bankrolled by billionaires aimed at destroying government power and thereby eliminating any challenges to the giant corporations that really control our lives. Decades of brainwashing by Right-wing media, especially talk radio and Fox News, have convinced most of America’s working class that their enemies are “illegal” immigrants, public employees, organized labor, college professors and the usual standbys: people of color, women, Queers — and their protectors are the huge companies that in the real world have stripped America of its industrial base and thereby eliminated millions of working-class jobs. Since 1968 the Republican party and the American Right in general have shrewdly “played” the racist, sexist and homohating prejudices of the white working class and put it so firmly in their corner that a key ingredient of Obama’s victory in 2008 was reducing the margin by which he lost the white working class to “only” 10 percent. In 2010 the Democrats lost it by 30 percent.
In a nation with real class consciousness, private-sector workers wouldn’t be saying, “Why do government workers get defined-benefit pensions? Why aren’t they stuck with 401(k)’s like we are?” Instead, they’d be saying, “We deserve pensions as good as the government workers get. Why don’t we have them?” And it’s not like their employers can’t afford them. Contrary to popular belief, there really is an economic recovery going on in the U.S. in 2011 — corporate profits are way up and stock prices have largely recovered from the bath they took in 2008 — but only the rich are benefiting. Secure in their place in a globalized economy, American employers are not only shipping jobs overseas but selling their products elsewhere as well. As Harold Meyerson wrote in the March 2011 issue of The American Prospect, “Americans confront a grim new reality: Our corporations don’t need us anymore. … Their interests grow increasingly detached from those of our workers, our consumers — and our economic future.”
What this is leading to is a Marie Antoinette economy in which a tiny handful of super-rich people at the top can continue to make mega-profits and spend them in lavish displays of wealth like those economist Thorstein Veblen, writing in the 1890’s (the last time American economics and ideology were so skewed in favor of the rich), called “conspicuous consumption.” (There’s an ultra-high-end restaurant in New York in which, if you can afford it, you can literally eat gold; it’s ground into a fine powder and sprinkled on your food like pepper.) They don’t have to worry about the increasingly impoverished masses because they’ve got an impressive array of mass-media outlets convincing them, the way the Church convinced the peasants in Europe, that having a handful of people at the top own and run everything and everyone else live in misery and squalor is simply the way the world was meant to be.
At least they don’t have to worry about that until somehow the veils lift and the people realize they’re being screwed, and who’s screwing them, and turn out in the streets to stop it. That’s what happened in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917 and in Egypt in 2011. And if there’s any hope for this country, it lies in the thin but still present possibility that somehow the overwhelming majority of working-class Americans who today are (in John Lennon’s words) “doped with religion and sex and TV” will see through the fog their corporate overlords have created for them and turn their anger against their real enemies.