I recently returned from the post office clutching a book of “Forever” stamps raised to a higher power. Each stamp bore an image of the American flag and below it the words Justice, Liberty, Freedom, and Equality, followed by FOREVER; five of each, in a booklet of twenty. Orwell came to mind, for these muscular abstractions of the American enterprise have never been more elusive, never more at risk. In the not too distant past, the stamps’ FOREVERS at least bore some relationship to reality, however spotty. But no longer. They have been subverted beyond recognition.
If rhetoric were the sole gauge, the United States is the greatest country ever, not least because of the perceived truths inscribed on the forever stamps. Never mind that we are the world’s number one jailers (disproportionally of people of color). Never mind that we are the only country in the industrialized world without universal health care. Never mind that we are the world’s largest purveyor of arms. Never mind that in the so-called First World we rank first in economic disparity and last in political participation.
Incredibly, there was less disparity between rich and poor at the height of the Depression than there is today. Even the New York Times, whose interest in the poor tends to be three-quarters voyeuristic and one-quarter heuristic, took note. “Income Equality May Take Toll on Growth” remarked the “yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Characteristically, however, the story linked the fact of growing inequality to the negative impact on overall growth and only peripherally on the fallout of these glaring disparities on 90 percent of American households. “Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well.” Tough times ahead if low wages can no longer buy cheap goods produced by our corporate proxies overseas.
Lack of political engagement by and large is a product of income inequality. Those on the lower rungs of society know their vote doesn’t make one iota of difference. Elections tend to go to the highest bidder; Citizens United merely drove the nail into the coffin of free elections that had never been free to begin with. Presidential debates are sponsored by beer barons and water bottlers and meticulously orchestrated. The two parties, barely distinguishable in a center-right political configuration, have a lock on the outcome. In the last run-up to the election, Jill Stein of the Green Party was ejected from the site of one of the debates – and zip-tied to a chair for eight hours to make sure there’d be no trouble. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “Everyone knows the dice are loaded … Everybody knows that the boat is leaking / Everybody knows that the captain lied. “
Freedom, liberty, and equality are of a piece. If a president puts together a “kill list” targeting specific individuals, including American citizens, anywhere in the world, abrogating hundreds of years of painstaking effort to compel our rulers to observe the rule of law and due process embedded in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, to say nothing of international law– when a president and his high-level cohorts can do all this, then our freedoms and liberty are not just seriously jeopardized, they are gone, gone with the drones. We find ourselves back where we started, stuck with the law of the jungle, unaccountable to any higher authority. No amount of legalese, no Justice Department fig leaf, can obscure that fact. The National Security/Surveillance State, indefinite detention, enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition and targeted killing are part of the same equation — as much of a piece as are justice, liberty, freedom, and equality. In war, as Cicero observed two thousand years ago, the laws are silent.
In light of the above, why not add one more stamp, one that both completes and negates all the others — “FOREVER War”.