My People

If I walk west there are mansions along my way, with lawns most green and lovely. As I cross a certain avenue things start to get shaggy, and if on a corner lot there’s a for-sale sign on a cairn of truck tires my diaphragm expands with the deep breath of belonging, and I think to myself — my people!

America, so it’s said, is the land of meritocracy, social mobility, and a playing field both level and just. Here any child can grow up to inherit a hundred million dollars, pump it through Manhattan real-estate, fluff it in the casinos of Atlantic City and Wall Street, and end up leveraged to the balls with the Russian mob.

But the most accurate predictor of where you’ll wind up socio-economically — in America more so than any other wealthy country — is where your parents wound up. Social mobility exists, and was expanded by the GI Bill after WW ll, and cheap (even free) college through the ’70s, but the ladders have been withdrawn over starter-castle walls, and rising stars belie the rule.

Once we used the expression “how the other half lives” to describe the lifestyles of our betters. But of course it was never all of “half,” and even the Occupy movement’s calculus of the one-percent doesn’t slice the pie quite thinly enough. There are one-percenters who earn their money providing useful goods and services, and treating people fairly, who aren’t weaponizing their wealth to corrupt our democracy, or speculating on the rising prices of necessities. But income inequality here is the worst in the advanced world, and it’s not because wealth isn’t being redistributed, it’s that it’s being redistributed upward, while the lower orders squabble over less and less. We’ve been divided and conquered, with the (shrinking) middle class divided from the working class, and both divided from the poor. Taxes on the first two groups create resentment toward the latter, while the wealth of the worthy rich suns itself offshore, in havens like the Cayman Islands.

There have always been working-class stooges, like the Reagan Democrats, conned into propping up the powerful, against their own self-interest. Our past election was no exception. But the role of white, blue-collar workers has been exaggerated. Exit polls showed Republican voters had above-median incomes and an average level of college education. Most were typical Republicans from the suburbs and beyond, plus the usual bigots and bible bangers. The latter, through a miracle rivaling the transformation of water into wine, have distilled the Christ of pacifism, compassion and inclusion into a faith of militarism, greed and xenophobia. If someone already thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old and the animals literally walked two-by-two onto Noah’s ark, the fables from Fox News are less of a stretch. In order to have cognitive dissonance there must be cognition to begin with, and Voltaire’s words have never seemed so true: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

The president’s Nuremberg-style rallies are truly atrocious. And they are filled partly with my people. People full of hatred, fear, and bitterness, aiming their anger, on cue, in all the wrong directions. They wear cammo, not to hide in the woods, but as code for “I’ve got guns.” And one of their top priorities is owning guns to defend themselves from phantoms who … would take their guns away. So keep the flags at half-mast, honoring those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for our high-caliber freedoms, those whose blood will sanctify our school-room floors, and strengthen our resolve.

What the fuck, my people? Look at the company you’re keeping. Do you think those billionaires have your back? That the stock market serves your interest? That the confederate flag symbolizes anything but the cause of white-supremacists who lost a war against the United States while fighting on the wrong side of history? So much like another flag flown in 1930s Germany, at rallies full of disaffected workers resenting tough times, lost wars, and a fallen empire, and stoked with hatred for those unlike themselves, who must surely be to blame. What are these “conservatives” conserving? Not the land or the water or the air. They conserve the status quo, and of course the thing you like about the status quo, the thing you have in common, is the pale skin of privilege. The petty comfort of a cohort just like you.

Thus has it always been, my people, but we’ve torn the scab off this time and the wound goes to the bone. After slavery came segregation and after segregation came incarceration, not to mention assassination. But let’s call all things equal, and tug on our boot straps, shall we? Let’s put this all-important foundational-past nonsense behind us, and stop blaming our forbears, yes? Slavery wasn’t our fault. As I was recently told, black people started slavery, because, of course, there were black slave traders in Africa. As if those wily entrepreneurs decided to hold pop-up sales on the beach, in case any white folks happened by in search of human chattel. On what hate-radio frequency did this idea breech, I wondered. And yes, I encounter people who say things like that. That, and worse. I left my snowflake bubble around the time the scab came off. As jaded as I thought I was, I was actually naive. Do not underestimate the importance of award shows and sporting events being unimpeded by political dissent, or the power of symbols to transcend reality. Stand for the anthem and chant the pledge. Love it or leave it, or else.

Milan Kundera said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” and we have forgotten much, my people. We’ve forgotten that for most of history women could not control their own bodies. Forgotten the grinding servitude under countless popes and kings. Forgotten how free enterprise has sucked at the government teat, time and again, as it sank the economy. Forgotten that capitalism does not equal freedom or democracy anymore than socialism equals tyranny. We’ve forgotten we’re an empire and our wars have not been welcome, save for the one against fascism. And until recently we’d forgotten fascism, but it has leapt from the history books into the halls of power, if it was ever that far removed. We have forgotten we are a nation of immigrants, descendants of slaves, and the survivors of a would-be genocide. We’ve forgotten that Columbus’s men hunted natives for dog food, and Thomas Jefferson owned his own children as slaves. We’ve forgotten that George Washington’s famous false teeth were real teeth — pulled from the mouths of his slaves. It’s believed they were paid for them — does that make it better? We’ve forgotten the gunned-down union strikers, and blacklisted artists, and those made outlaws because of love forbidden. And we’ve forgotten our freedoms were never threatened by those less fortunate than we, only by those for whom enough is never enough. For whom justice is for suckers. Those who count on our forgetting, so don’t forget, my people.

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