Saturday, July 13, 2013
THE END OF E PLURIBUS UNUM?
"E Pluribus Unum." "Out of many, one,"-- "Out of many peoples, we are one America," that's the way our national motto was translated to me in grade school. And it made perfect sense. Out of my Russian-Polish-Jewish grandparents came I, out of Africa, slavery, and, despite at the time when I was a kid in Richmond, Virginia, enforced separation and inequality, came my back-fence contemporaries and closest friends, Elizabeth, Benjamin, Leonard, Albert, Johnny and barely-born Richard Lambert, all of us every bit as American as my playmates Aldie Dudley, David and Billy Haslett, and Freddie Ciucci, the first three descended from Virginia's majority White, post-colonial English Protestant families, the latter an Italian-American Catholic.
We were all proud of our plural backgrounds, and all emphatically considered ourselves part of a whole -- the "one." This is an ideology we absorbed at home and in public school. American unity was a hallmark concept of every Memorial or Independence Day speech or celebration. Even the down-to-the-wire segregationist Richmond Times-Dispatch counted and mourned all the casualties of the ongoing Korean War. You'd have to read the obituaries to tell Black from White.
The lessons of the Civil Rights Revolution to come started with "separation is inherently unequal, " then progressed slowly towards benchmarks of legal, social and opportunity equality. The first, legal equality, adjusting for the imperfections apparently ineradicable from human experience, has been achieved, and the second and third equalities seemed within reach. Just 5 years ago, Black home ownership was rising sharply, in cities, but even more so, in America's suburbs. Both neighborhood acceptance and African-American wealth (for most of the American us, wealth accrues primarily through home equity) were on growing fast, against weakening resistance.
Then came The Great Recession of 2008, and the thing most Americans shared most intensely was fear. And why not, with virtually all the world's media amplifying the self-interested cant of the very criminals responsible for the economic collapse: that the whole global economy was on the brink, that the collapse of today's market-makers would mean the end of the market itself.
Even worse, the media passively accepted the even more self-interested bankers' solution to the problem created by their own dishonesty and greed: swiftly liquidating old debt by rapidly foreclosing people's hard-won properties, letting "the market" reduce the value of a property, but not the value of the unpaid mortgage on it, while continuing to pay themselves unbelievably excessive salaries and even more ridiculous bonuses, apparently immunized against performance.
There was also little media recognition, much less analysis or dissent about the fact that this whole rotten system was being kept afloat by publicly subsidized credit.
Thus did fear roll downhill, infecting those being forced out of their homes, and those who feared foreclosure, and those whose fear was that the wipeout of their equity would impoverish their retirement years, and those whose paychecks were threatened by the reduced amount of spending frightened people could permit themselves. Still, today, after a feeble and unsteady recovery almost universally tarted up by unquestioning coverage by the news media, a majority of Americans is legitimately afraid.
With the first flush of fear came desperation and the Darwinian imperative: save what you can, yourself, your family, the people you care about.
As for the Others? Darwinism says "Fuck 'em."
Look at the popular politics of the years since 2008, they've become all about selective otherization, finding new categories of people to cut off from public benefits, from national embrace, to tell off -- "Fuck 'em."
The media call this "extreme partisanship," but the fact is, neither political party has escaped intellectual and moral, much less policy paralysis, most of it driven by by self-defined purists bent on punishing a growing list of other people, at the expense of any concept of national interest, much less the old idea of "E Pluribus Unum," by which all of us were invested in the lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness of all Americans.
Because they know the policies they promote are morally wrong, the excision of various people from the national fabric is almost always posed as fiscally necessary. But every time someone says, we're cutting some government service or program because "we can't afford it," what they're really saying is "Fuck 'em."
The "fringe benefits" for which workers, public and private, often gave up direct salary payment to achieve, only became unaffordable when municipalities, states, and employers failed to underwrite them. When they did this, these public officials and corporate bosses silently, but effectively said of their employees, "Fuck 'em."
When their dishonest profligacy was publicly revealed, they said it again, "Fuck 'em," out loud, adding equally dishonestly, "We can't afford to do better."
Of course, not all government programs are well-conceived or well-executed, but real painstaking reform on that level is not what is being proposed or debated. Few legislators, even fewer voters know any of the crucial details. In both the Republican-driven, "bi-partisan" concept of "the sequester," not to mention its shallowly political instrumentation by the Democratic Obama administration, the message is clear: we don't care about the details of the cuts or the people affected by them, except as we can exploit them for political advantage. "Fuck 'em."
On reducing, in a time of widespread economic pain and instability, the food stamp program that contributes to (of course, it should insure) the nutrition and health of millions of American families, as well as broadening the market for American farmers and food processors, the debate between the parties, and the 2 Houses of Congress is about "how much?" How much should we fuck 'em?
On denying to Native Americans even the bare protections from the broadscale "sequester" budget cuts afforded to virtually all other poor or marginalized Americans, there was neither significant division nor debate. We "can't afford" to provide native Americans livable homes, or basic health or social services, so.... "Fuck 'em."
On restoring America's infrastructure to a level competitive with the airports, rail systems, road systems with those of Western Europe, the Persian Gulf, China or Japan, a project that would create jobs, improve public services and attract more tourists -- Congress says "can't afford it," and to the people who might do those jobs, and enjoy those services, profit from those foreign visitors, "Fuck 'em."
And speaking of staying globally competitive by making our health care and education services as good as those found in rest of the world's top-tier countries, we're more worried that someone might get more medical care than he can pay for than that he or she might die, more careful about squeezing the last dollar of loan principal or interest out of a college student than caring about the value educated people add to the national treasury and culture.
Every day or week, month after month, year after year, our so-called "political leadership," whatever else they may disagree on, say in a single voice loud and clear, to everyone who needs any kind of help or accommodation or even encouragement from our once-collective American nation: Fuck 'em.
It does have a catchy, chesty sound to it, but somehow, I like E Pluribus Unum better as a motto for our nation to live by.