The Big Picture
I was watching television today and had one of those moments where the interconnectedness of bad things (of which I was already well aware) gave me that sinking feeling. It all started innocently enough with a Ditech.com ad for a mortgage for up to 125% of a homes value. I turned off the television and reflected on some of the concerns I'd had in recent weeks and called O. We chatted for a spell and then I was back to reflecting. To appropriate a cliché, I think culturally we have cancer, and I think we're addicted to the malady. On a blank slate, what are some of the hallmarks of a great society (prior to their decline)? I would submit, tolerance (ethnic and religous), prosperity, education, freedom of expression, advancement of art and science, health/healthcare, and compassion. No, that's not a complete list- just what I'm focusing on at this moment. How are we (in this context, "we" means the United States- having never been anywhere outside of this country, I feel ill-equipped to assess any other nation) doing these days?
Tolerance- I read this last week an article about a 9 year old girl in Paris, Texas that was sentenced to 7 years in prison for shoving a teacher out of a doorway at school. No knives, guns, grenades, etc. A shove. The teacher was unhurt. Seven years in the pokey. Oh yeah, and she's black. I have no misgivings about being especially "in touch" with the black community, but I am not blind. Color of skin still matters everywhere. That's shallow and embarrassing. Now add reactionary hysteria about Muslims. The only problem there is that the debateable issue over extremism is ONLY portrayed with the Muslims. What of all the scary-as-hell Christian extremists? Nope- only the Muslims are scrutinized. Further, US cultural ignorance is so endemic, that Sikhs are being attacked as Muslims. For the benefit of those who went to public schools, Sikhs are the folks that wear the wrapped fabric headgear and are from India. They have been badly treated by Muslims and fought to keep Muslims out of India. As such, they have some atributes (beyond the headgear), such as wearing bangle bracelets, and carrying a dagger at all times that, when taken at face value can be easily misunderstood.
Prosperity and Education- We're in deep shit here people. Subprime lending, and the longstanding trade imbalance is going to come home to roost soon. No one seems to fathom the year to year deficit, let alone the cumulative national debt. I'm no economist, and I've certainly made foolish mistakes (that led to bankruptcy- so feel free to challenge my opinions), but I've become acutely sensitive as a result. As I interpret our direction, I think we're heading toward a new kind of slavery. Huh? Yes, I'm not being flip or sensationalistic- I believe this. Observe the manner in which the middle class has had negative savings this last year, and then look at how we are encouraged to (not) manage our money. Sub prime lending has run amok, and Ditech.com will lend you 25% more money than your home is worth. Add to this, many markets having over-valued homes (in the case of Seattle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just reported that housing here is 30% overvalued). You can do the math for yourself on this one. Add to this mix predatory credit card practices, and the tactics of short term loan outfits, such as tax-return refund loans, which work out into the hundreds of percents, and the ubiquitous check cashing stands that are found in poor neighborhoods and where military families live. Funny how in an almost completely "Christian" Congress (with few Jews, one Muslim, and the first admitted atheist) that the laws would permit this kind of usuary ("neither a borrow or a lender be" anyone?). At any rate, the means by which the middle class is being removed from it's financial power are staggering, and the coffers are dwindling. I'm trying to imagine the outcome when a large portion of the middle class go into default, and who benefits. I can imagine the housing market being upended with foreclosures (this may already be happening in some areas), but there are bigger consequences. Social Security (and damn near ever other government program) are funded by taxes on the middle class. Now that bankruptcy is more difficult, I see ugly futures for lots of people who will be beholden to their creditors, and maybe this is the strategy. This is the angle I was thinking about when I said a new era of slavery is being fashioned. What could a creditor ask of you if you were beholden to them? With a friendly administration such as this, I think possibly anything. Also, as the coffers of the middle class empty, and there are fewer and fewer of them, expect secondary eduction to faulter. Trade and technical schools will replace them and a classical education will fade from memory. As people learn less and less, we will lose any remaining competitive edge internationally, but worse, we will be more easily led like sheep- willing to believe that we are fortunate and blessed by an unseen God that annoints the hand of our great leader. It pains me as well to see how unable my addle-minded countrymen and women are able to remember ANYTHING these days. I think it's television's fault. Abu Ghraib is news for a few days, but Anna Nichole Smith gets months of play. I can't find a study that breaks down to the individual voter level, the correlation between secondary education and votes for Bush, but at the state by state level, the states with more college grads tended to vote against W.
Freedom of Expression (including speech)- You need not refer to Michael Moore to see the damage to the First Amendment (for those of you who attended public schools- it's the freedom of speech, press, religion, and peaceable assembly and the right to petition the government, although fuck lot of good that last one is anymore). If you disagee with what's happening (and what you are paying for to boot), then you "embolden the enemy" and are not being patriotic. Anyone who honestly and truly believes that, please go drink a tasty glass of bleach. The jingoistic rhetoric designed to have us form opinions solely from emotion and without any cerebral action are poison. Why we as a nation can't ask ourselves one simple question, (who benefits?) is evidense of how we have faultered.
Advancement of Art and Science- Two words: Stem Cells. Two more: Terry Schiavo. When I was 1, we had a man on the moon (you know, in theory :)) and now we send high tech sticks up to poke at shit. Great. We used to have supersonic passenger planes that could go from New York to London in about 2.5 hours. Now, we celebrate the A380- a flying barge that takes more than twice as long. Why? Because we're not at the top of the value system- money is. There is no financial incentive for supersonic travel- we're all cattle that can be moved about in any economical way the big money favors. 10 hours on the tarmac? Tough titty. Complain about it and we'll put you on the "no fly list". Aside: is there or should there be such a thing as an inalienable right to fly? Controlling who flies is a limit of freedom of assembly in my book. And how about art? Do we dare say that Maplethorpe fucked it up for everyone, or was it already a lost cause? We have a little bit of original art in our home, and the most valuable bit is a large wooden horse made by a native american artist that I bought for my daughter from the American Indian College Fund (shameless plug- collegefund.org- check them out, they support tribal colleges and are nice folks). Even this I suppose would only have an insurance value of $1000-ish, but it's never been appraised or anything. My point is this- who has original art these days? Anyone supporting the arts? I don't feel that I'm doing enough, and I take great enjoyment from it. And don't get me started on music...
Health and Healthcare- We eat petrochemicals. Did you know that McDonalds Chicken McNuggets are >50% corn and corn byproducts, and also contain a legally permissable amount of butane. As in lighter fluid. We're so far removed from actual ingredients, that any tirade about the omnipresence of corn syrup and modern obesity (of which I am included) is laughable. I'm also diabetic and have been having trouble of late controlling my blood sugar, despite increased activity. I decided Monday to make a concerted effort to eat very few starchy carbs, and instead try to eat more fresh fruit, meats and cheeses. I can tell you that at times I'd kill someone for french fries, pastries, and shit food. I'm now looking at it like an addiction and I'm amazed at how hard it is to resist. I'm hoping that there will be a plateau or point at which I "break" the desire. On the plus side, my blood sugars are MUCH improved. The core question I suppose is whether or not I will be able to live this way permanently. Back to the big picture though- I'm convinced that our disproportionate health problems are coming from our diets, and this is nowhere more pronounced than with the poor and young. I fail to see that as a coincidence. As for the institution of healthcare, I don't know that I'd endorse a system of socialized medicine per se, but I think that'd be better than what we have now. I tend to avoid institutionalized things, however healthcare is now and undue influence in other life decisions- particularly in matters of employment. I for one, have to consider health insurance in any job opportunity, and I know many people that remain in jobs that make them miserable for the sake of continued health care. Yet another control mechanism driven by the dollar.
Compassion- I am very inconsistent with charitable giving. I gave a healthy chunk of change to a local outfit in Colorado that would feed the homeless. Their big drive was always around Thanksgiving, but the goal was to take in enough to spread across the winter. Conversely, I rarely ever give anything to panhandlers, although they all ask me, as I still make eye contact with people (how very un-Seattle). I should do more. I didn't give anything to the Katrina/Rita folks. I didn't give to the Tsunami folks. I don't give to the ACLU, Greenpeace, the NRA, or UNICEF. I'm not all that giving with my money. If there is any redemption in my efforts, it's that I try to help the people I know. This has mostly been a matter of giving time or effort to help accomplish something. I've also bought computers and given them away from time to time, in an effort to help bridge the "digital divide". All that being said, I'm not remarkably charitable, and I don't know that I'm all that compassionate, but I am selfish. I think it comes from jaded cynisicm, but I am not alone in this. I think I can partially explain this too. We are both overwhelmed and distrustful. The Red Cross is an embarrassment to charitable organizations, and many fair criticisms can also be applied to the United Way as well. On top of this, there are so many needing help- the 9/11 families still are hurting and the workers are suffering, New Orleans is still wrecked, and we can't even properly care for our wounded soldiers. It's disenchanting to say the least. I think we fare a little better on the compassion front, in circumstances where we allow ourselves to emotionally engage the subject. We cared about the Kursk, the Sago miners, and the Beslan School Massacre, but not so much about the Rwandans, Iraqi's, or Palestinians. How can that be, when all deserve our compassion? I believe this is evidence of another nefarious control- a thought control. This is to me the scariest control of all, and I think it is our biggest failing.
On balance, we are demonstrably declining civilization and I fear that there is no one waiting in the wings to replace us. I wish I knew how to wake people up and engage them constructively about this subversion. I wish it wasn't necessary, but then Jefferson was spot on when he said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.