Alex Blaze

What is wrong with us?

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 12, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, Congress, France, Greece, health care reform, LGBT, money, populism, protest, socialism, usa

I was in Athens last week, and on Friday there were massive protests against the proposed austerity package the socialist government proposed in order to get Germany and France to back their outstanding debt. People demonstrated in the street, all transport within Athens was on strike, and protested again just yesterday. It makes sense - the austerity package will cut wages, raised taxes, and froze pensions, because Greece has debt equivalent to about 120% of their GDP that they hid for the last decade with fancy accounting (by Goldman Sachs, no less) that couldn't be hidden forever, especially with the financial crisis hitting their country and their banks (which got bailed out by the now-broke Greek government, naturally) hard. And of course workers are expected to pay off that debt.

In the US, workers are being asked to pay off a non-existent debt crisis. The effect is something that people in power love: forcing working class and poor Americans to give up the few social services they have. And yet people aren't protesting. Heck, we're being told that we can't afford a health care system that would cost less than the one we have now and the only people protesting are on the right.

I could go on, but we all know the score - there are lots of problems worth protesting in the US but those protests aren't happening (except on the right). Allison Kilkenny has a post worth reading up that provides a good summary of some of the tactics being used to quell protest:

Here we have the completion of the perfect police state. Citizens are monitored from cradle to grave. Any signs of anger or rebellion are swiftly squelched with medication or "peace officers." The schools step in when the state cannot act to monitor and regulate every movement of students' lives under the banner of "Zero Tolerance."

More after the jump.

When the medicated and monitored children grow into dysfunctional adults, some of who eventually realize their shitty circumstances (complete with shitty healthcare, outsourced jobs, limited resources, poisoned environment, enormous wealth disparity, etc.) and they think about rebelling, they are immediately lassoed with an anchor of bureaucracy. Should you want to protest, please fill out form AYT0754 five months prior to said protest, and pay this fee, and remain in this pen, and please don't make too much noise...

Those few brave souls that break through this wall and do manage to protest are put down at Stage 2 of the Police State with weaponry: mace, sound cannons, tasers, and whatever else the Pentagon desires to test on them. The state will only be too happy to use opiate weaponry next. What a nice, neat way to stop activism! Spray a little Happy in the herd's face and watch them wander off, smiling.

Sinclair Lewis said, "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." I think people expect the end of America's free society to look like a violent apocalyptic scene in some Hollywood film, but that's not how it will happen. Government officials figured out that suppressing riots with bullets is bad PR. They have learned to do it quietly, and in a way where they can claim they're being humane about the whole thing. Look! We don't shoot people anymore! We taser them!

The end product is the same, though. Rebellion is suppressed. Activism is thwarted.

The worst part is that people don't really care, but that's part of the goal as well. Talking about these issues, posting these videos of people being Tased by cops and rounded up and arrested just for protesting and for being denied their free speech rights for whatever reason usually precipitates comments from people justifying suppression, saying that these people could have just followed the law and nothing would have happened to them. So long as people don't rock the boat, they can go on living outside of prison, avoid being electrocuted, and not be killed by cops.

Instead of having a lot of hope in the millennials, which seems to be the fad right now, I don't know why people aren't worried about an entire generation of Americans growing up seeing videos of people Tased on YouTube, with cops in their schools, and regularly having to submit to the police without question.

Thank goodness Rosa Parks didn't commit her famous act of bus protest in 2010. Most people probably would have just said that she should have followed the rules and she wouldn't have been arrested or suggest that she could have just started her own bus company if she didn't like the one that was already set up.

But the problem is deeper than the police telling people not to protest, or bureaucracy making protest harder, or people being told that protest doesn't work. What's been happening is the American population has been slowly convinced that they shouldn't protest.

Our media is filled with massive amounts of misinformation, with an entire cable network being devoted to just lying to people and then hoping they'll go out and do the bidding of the elite who don't much care for paying taxes. The other two cable news networks dumb down the news, chase after unimportant stories, and generally miss the point of why certain events are important or reinterpret them into conservative talking points. Network and print news media aren't much better. Even though they generally get stories right because they usually have decent individual journalists working for them, the way they interpret and prioritize the news serves as an opiate in and of itself.

You can't have LGBT employment protections because we're not going to even talk about it and inform people that folks are fired all the time for being queer. And if we did cover the issue we'd just say that it can't happen because of the explosion of lawsuits it would cause, or the fact that good Christians would get mad, or that the Democrats need to save their political capital for more important issues, like health care, and we'll give you six reasons that can't be passed at 7.

Even if people get past that massive amount of misinformation, there's always the distractions. Bring in the rodeo clowns! Right now, in the health care debate, it's the tea baggers who we're supposed to blame for us not getting a system that works, not the health care industry lobby that dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Congress to prevent change. If only we could convince the guy holding an 'Obama = Hitler' sign that we're right, we tell ourselves, asking how we talk to those racists Keith Olbermann righteously condemns, instead of If only we could stop the system of bribery in the government that locks middle and working class and poor people out of their own democracy.

It's distraction upon distraction, with the ultimate goal of making people focus on the show instead of the substance. And when it comes to putting on a great show, the rich will always do a better job that the rest of us. They can get all the best actors and producers and sound and camera operators and even the media to show up.

All of this is to prevent a fairly simple, clear truth from becoming apparent: people with lots of money don't have the same interests as everyone else. They can't be trusted to look out for other people's interests, and when they are trusted to do so, the exploit that power for their own gain. Every single time. Just like anyone else would.

Americans have ingested a whole new way for talking about politics that covers up that basic truth, complete with its own set of myths. The most pernicious of these is that, instead of talking about the powerful versus the masses, we talk about conservatives versus liberals. It's a neat, clean philosophical dispute, you see. And poor people are on the conservative side! Look at those tea-baggers, what stupid bumpkins they are! Each side must just be ordinary Americans disagreeing on abstract laws that affect no one (and of course they aren't).

Indeed, confusion about how our own political system operates is key to keeping people uninformed, misinformed, and, most importantly, in line. It's hard to get mad at people for literally committing people like you to die because they don't want to pay for their expensive surgery if you believe that:

  1. the alternative is Socialism, complete with death panels, that'll be even worse than now,
  2. the people who believe that the alternative is Socialism are the source of the problem,
  3. the absolute best solution that Congress can pass, for a variety of unfortunate reasons, is one that doesn't really address the core of the problem with our health care system and takes away from women's freedom,
  4. any solution to the problem will take away from me and give that to people who don't deserve it as much,
  5. it's a complicated debate, and I just can't keep up,or
  6. everyone has a lot of charts and numbers and data, so everyone is looking for the best system and they just, in good faith, disagree on what that solution could be,
  7. everyone is looking for the best system possible, but lots of people have basic principles that they just can't violate and they have to be respected, or
  8. I know what's up and it's frustrating but my opinion doesn't matter and there's nothing I can do to change the reality of the situation.

All those reasons are understandable on some level, but they're all a part of the problem. And they're all things that the people benefiting from the current system (to the tune of multi-million dollar bonuses) want us to believe.

What's wrong with America? There's a lot that could be said about that, but living in the official hated Opposite of Real America on and off for five years has taught me that we're not lazier, stupider, or less able to compromise than people in other countries. And it's not like people in other countries are always doing better than folks in the US are when it comes to having a functional government.

This wasn't supposed to be a post about health care, instead about how political power works right now in the US (health care is just the biggest current example). This same mentality applies to many other issues, including LGBT issues, although LGBT people themselves seem to be a lot clearer about their own issues than the population in general is about issues that directly effect everyone, mainly because few people besides us care about them so there's less money being dumped into misinforming people on us and our issues, but don't rest assured that that won't ever change.

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I'm with you about the docility of the American public and equally bewildered at how willing people in this country are to live in such a blatantly unfair society.

However -- and maybe this is kind of nitpicky -- I don't agree with your remark about the "non-existent debt crisis." It's true that we're not on the brink of default, like the Greeks were, but we can't simply borrow and spend for all eternity and hope to have a decent society. Eventually, there's a good chance that our creditors (quite a huge percentage of whom are foreign governments, including China and Middle Eastern oil exporters) will grow tired of our profligate ways and start demanding higher interest rates on Treasurys, which will make borrowing for things that benefit us like education and infrastructure a lot more expensive, to say nothing of programs like Medicare, SS, etc. That will also drive up the costs of private sector borrowing, which will discourage companies from expanding and hiring new people.

There are lots of things we can and need to do to trim down spending -- gigantic cuts in the military would be a good place to start -- but sooner or later, we're going to have to find a more sustainable way to raise and spend money.

And I hate to get all ad hominem on the HuffPo writer, but Dean Baker should be taken with a grain of salt... This is the guy who wrote an article for The Guardian enthusiastically calling for a big depreciation in the value of the dollar on the grounds that it would save U.S. manufacturing, but didn't address a crucial question: "Uh, what U.S. manufacturing?" It's not like we have a large and healthy manufacturing sector that makes a lot of awesome stuff that people all over the world want, like the Germans and Japanese do.

Keynesian economics has a lot of good ideas, but the kinds that Dean Baker proposes would do little more than make Americans -- particularly poor and working-class Americans -- poorer.

A. J. Lopp | March 12, 2010 4:09 PM

"What US manufacturing?" you ask? Read: Detroit automakers, plus Boeing and the rest of the US aeronautics industry.

Despite all the moaning and groaning about bailing out GM and Chrysler, there is one point we need to consider carefully: waging war, whether offensive or defensive, requires vehicles and aircraft, and we cannot wage war against any foreign power that is building our supply of vehicles and aircraft! So ultimately, maintaining this remaining core of US manufacturing is crucial to US sovereignty. (And when you see things in these terms, the notion of "nationalizing" these manufacturing sectors isn't as silly as some try to make it. They are already essentially civilian arms of the "military-industrial complex" that Eisenhower warned us about.)

I have not read Dean Baker's argument about devaluing the US dollar. My point is only that US manufacturing does still exist, and what remains of it it there because the US military capacity requires it.

I'm aware of the auto and aeronautics industries. I would throw in semiconductors and pharmaceuticals/biotech as well.

But my point is that we don't have the large and robust manufacturing sectors focused on value-added goods that countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea do. That's why devaluing the dollar wouldn't help us as much as Baker (not to mention Paul Krugman and a few others) think. We've spent the last 30 years basically encouraging companies to offshore manufacturing in order to increase their profits, which is the root of the problem. The documentary "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags" and this LA Times article go into a little more detail...

SarasNavel | March 13, 2010 4:43 AM

We have a special flavor of subculture in America that has as core values the following ideas:

"critical thought is bad"

"questioning authority is bad"

"outsiders are bad"

"individuality is bad"

And the more devoutly one believes in those ideas (and therefore, the less one questions them), the closer to perfection one is believed to be.

Every member of this subculture is expected and willing to give on a regular basis part of their livelihood to support and grow the subculture. It has gained substantial, if not majority, placement within both political parties; it's values are the ones presented in traditional mass media.

Those beliefs are now the norm, they have become the mainstream.

That is why "we" don't protest the unfairness.

That is why "we" don't mind the parental guidance of authority.

That is why "we" happily do and believe as we are told.

God, that's depressing.

We have TV, fast food, and a mind-numbing pop culture. We also have in NY - no less - permit requirements for any assembly over 50 (something like that). They've carefully BOXED in our voice - forcing us off the streets - into this internet, where most of our frustration is vetted into blogs.

is it that we are boxed in or have we become indolent, pointing to our postings on gay blogs and crying out "I've done my activism, I posted two lines on Pam*My*Bilericoroad

SarasNavel | March 14, 2010 3:00 AM

I think you are very correct in your assessment of the idea of personal mass communication as an emotional safety valve.

Vent enough in *here* and you never get to the point where you have to vent out *there*. And, it's a lot more work and risky to do it out *there*.

Net neutrality may be our Achilles' heel.

Another possibility that I've mentioned before is that the apathy we are seeing is due to incrementalism. When things get bad somewhat slowly or get better somewhat slowly and people are stuck somewhere in the middle, there is a much greater resistance to taking on risk. Hit rock bottom or start from there and you have nothing to lose; angry protest seems like the best choice. But once you've gained enough or have only lost half of what you once had, there just isn't that drive to risk what you have.

That's where LGBT equality stands today, having risen far enough to have something to risk, and that's where most Americans stand today, having lost enough wealth or power to be scared of losing more.

Having lived in DC for decades, where street protests are a dime a dozen, the requirement for a permit is no deterrent for protests. Rather it is more like regulating traffic so that you don't have 2-3-4 protests scheduled for the same time at the same location when the site can only accomodate one.