Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The History That Never Was

“After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, the former slave-owners sat down with the folks that they had beaten and exploited and treated miserably (including rape and murder) and said, ‘Sorry about all that. I hope there are no ill feelings. Now that we’re equals, let’s work out your salaries, improve your living conditions, figure out a humane work schedule and a plan to pay you back for all the work you did for free. Why don’t you come over to dinner tonight and we can discuss it over a nice hearty meal. And hopefully, there will be time to socialize and I can show you how to play the piano and maybe you can share that dance and body percussion I’ve seen you do. You know, I’m really looking forward to getting to know you. I think this new relationship will work out so much better for the country and all of its citizens.’ ”

This is what I tell my 8th grade students as they look at me with confused or horrified faces, thinking “Hmm. I don’t think he quite got that right.”  To put it mildly. So I ask, “Do you think that’s what happened?” And of course they answer, “Like NO!!!!!”

And they’re right. But think about it. Why not? Wouldn’t indeed it be probable that everyone, former slaves and slave-owners alike, would be happier and the culture and the country and the world be refreshed? That we would be one step closer to Paradise on Earth?

But the study of why not, while depressing down to our toes, is the story of how privilege works, how ‘follow the money’ explains 90% of 90% of the worlds’ evils, how difficult it is to break patterns that have gained momentum over generations. After all I know and all these years of disappointment and all my naïve notions shot down one after another, I still believe in the essential goodness of human beings and the way social structures can keep us from being our best selves. We get caught in the trance of money or power or sex (the three lower chakras) and get swept down the river into the cesspool of human decency gone bad. And our still confused notions about race and our inability to wholly heal the damage we’ve caused and continue to do because we refuse to change the basic narrative is an enormous part of what our country needs to recover some sense of true north, it’s not the only one by any means.

Robert Reich’s superb book, The Common Good, is a straight-to-the-point exposure of how financial greed (also the cause of the institution of slavery and the rationale for continuing it and the inability to accept its demise) has sacrificed any sense of decency in American public life today by three hidden changes that dealt major blows to our health as a country. In short and in his words (p. 90):

1)   Whatever-it-takes-to-win politics disregarded what has been the basic rule of good government, based on equal political rights— enabling only the most powerful players to extract all the political gains.

2)   Whatever-it-takes-to-maximize profits rejected what had been the unwritten rules of corporate responsibility, based on obligations to all stakeholders— allowing CEO’s, Wall Street and investors to extract all financial gains.

3)   The first removed all constraints on gaining and keeping political power. The second eliminated all checks on unbridled greed. Put them together and we got a third thing: money pouring into big politics in order to change the rules of the game in favor of big corporations and the wealthy, so they could rake in even more. (Trump’s recent tax bill a case in point.)

Reich’s book has opened my eyes to the real villains in our current state of unchecked greed and power. Of course, the KKK and the Neo-Nazis and their like are odious, but the folks that have caused the most damage are those nattily-dressed rich folks driving in their limo to the Four Seasons restaurant, the people most Americans aspire to be. It is their “Wolf-of-Wall-Street” mentality that has fed the homeless crisis, people getting evicted from homes, people losing jobs, people who then look to a demagogue like Trump to point the finger to the wrong place—Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, libtards and the like. Once a culture accepts—“Money for me at all costs and damn the common good,” it’s a long slippery slide to the bottom of human decency.
In a paragraph similar to my slavery one above, Reich wonders:

“As they gained more wealth and power, the 1% could have made a different choice. They could have used their political and economic clout to get better schools for all, comprehensive job retraining, wage insurance, better public transportation and expanded unemployment insurance. They could have pushed for universal health insurance. They could have paid for all of this by accepting, even lobbying for, higher taxes for themselves. They could have strengthened rather than fought off unions and pushed for laws giving workers more rather than less voice. They could have demanded limits on campaign spending.”

And again we must ask, “Why not?” Indeed, this is more likely than the abrupt turn-around at the end of slavery because really, how many Mercedes and yachts does one need? These folks could have continued living comfortable and luxurious lives with room to spare and that same time, given back so much to the common good. Did they? Reich’s punchline:

“They did the reverse. They spent more and more of their ever-expanding wealth to alter the rules of the game to their own advantage. We are now living with the consequences.”

So these are the historical choices that could have been made, but weren’t and aren’t. This is a glimpse of the history that never was. But yet could be. Why not?

Langston Hughes asked these same questions in his remarkable poem from 1936: Let America Be America Again. As the poem swells to its conclusion, he says:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be… 

From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again.

The Occupy folks got it right. We can't count on the 1% to do the right thing. We need to bring back the governmental/ economic checks and balances that keep our common life more just, more equitable, more sane and more fun. Let's do it, folks!

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