As a youngster, I thoroughly bought into the pervasive nationalistic glorification that told us our country and its system was the world's best.
Back in the profusely propagandized ‘50s, questioning the rosy portrayal of U.S. life that government, media, and all thought-shaping societal institutions uniformly conveyed just wasn't something you did.
Unless you were a McCarthy-defined "communist", in which case criticism (however correct) was categorically dismissed as the insane ranting of evil Reds.
Profound inequities, injustices and outright systemic failings did in fact glaringly exist, and they couldn't successfully be kept hidden beneath a layer of "America the Beautiful" sugar coating.
In places like Montgomery and Little Rock, and later with unprecedented viciousness in Selma, our white majority was forced to finally face up to the racism that kept descendants of slaves under bigots’ thumbs -- or hanging from Southern trees -- almost a century after the supposedly emancipating Civil War.
Meanwhile, as the American space program experienced a series of humiliating launch-pad explosions, the Soviet Union, a country we’d been incessantly brainwashed to think of as backward and crude, had jumped spectacularly ahead in the race to the moon.
It was achingly difficult to come to terms with the idea that a nation of supposedly nothing more than babushka-topped, female street sweepers was whipping our ass in the heavens above!
It added to an incrementally growing body of doubt fueled by Alabama police dogs tearing peacefully marching protesters’ limbs, ultimately culminating in napalm excruciatingly searing anguished children’s flesh in faraway Vietnam.
Somewhere in that continuum of change purchased through pain, importantly furthered by the emergence of feminism and a gay rights movement heroically born with the name “Stonewall”, I personally veered from the misled herd.
As did countless others, in the iconoclastic youth uprising of the ‘60s that would make history.
But progressive historical advances can be set back, and years of conservative counterattack have returned us to an attitudinal equivalent of the benighted Eisenhower era.
From fresh witch hunts (witness Ward Churchill), to a newly opaque, blind patriotism (cheering the Iraq fiasco), it’s the same old, reactionary same old.
And, once again, we’re unwarrantedly imagining ourselves the best society on earth, with plenty of manipulative assistance by demagogic George Bush.
But, apart from our dubious status as the world’s only remaining military superpower, just how “advanced” are we at this particular moment?
Fundamental injustice at home
Before getting to comparisons with the rest of humanity, let’s ponder a couple of deeply disturbing statistics about our internal condition.
There are as many Americans living below the official poverty line as the combined populations of Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Tennessee. (William Quigley, Ending Poverty as We Know it: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage, Temple University Press, 2003)
In only four of America’s 3,066 counties can a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage afford to pay rent and utilities on a single-bedroom apartment. (New York Times, "Study Finds Gap in Wages and Housing Costs," December 25, 2004)
Attribute this largely to a Wal-Martized economy where sweatshop friendly mega retailers cut the legs out from under local, community benefiting businesses, forcing our consequently beleaguered working class ever closer to rock bottom. Desperation on Main Street is measured by the diminishing number of days that even a two-breadwinner family’s paychecks last, as bills relentlessly mount.
That isn’t the better lives for their progeny our parents and grandparents so glowingly envisioned. It represents an unacceptable betrayal of their fondest hope, and the hallowed American Dream itself.
If the wealth U.S. labor creates through its arduous toil isn’t going to its rightful producers, who’s getting it instead? More troubling statistics:
* The top 1% of Americans has the same wealth as the bottom 95%, and the top 15% control almost all financial assets. So much for average citizen being part of an “ownership society.”
* Over the past half-century, corporate taxes as a percentage of federal receipts have plunged from 34% to 7% while workers’ tax percentages have proportionately grown.
* The top 13,400 households in the U.S. have the same annual income as the bottom 96 million, according to David Cay Johnston’s book, Perfectly Legal (Portfolio, 2003)
Conservatives say we’re knocking our country by raising these pivotal issues. Justice-minded critics are allegedly being unpatriotic. Pardon me, but we shouldn’t take lessons on patriotism from mouthpieces for corporate/financial fat cats who find tax havens offshore and set up low wage manufacturing facilities in the Third World after closing plants and killing jobs in Everytown, USA!
And let’s not buy into the scam that executive “expertise” or “business acumen” need to be massively compensated. It’s mid-level managers and even secretaries who make corporations hum on a daily basis, not bosses frequently lazing on the golf course. The federal minimum wage has been frozen at $5.15 an hour for eight years. If it had kept pace with CEO salaries since just 1993, it would now be $15.71. Nothing justifies such class-warfare unfairness!
The healthcare and education divide
Wealthy Americans go to the Mayo Clinic when they get sick. They send their kids to Harvard or Yale for top-notch educations. But what about our country’s working poor, or the unemployed, particularly in persistent pockets of urban and rural poverty? They must suffer with no medical insurance. Their children often attend shoddy, severely under-funded schools.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Only 90 miles away is an example of what can be achieved when even underdeveloped countries devote themselves to meeting their people’s fundamental requirements.
Lest readers think its only leftists who laud Cuba’s accomplishments, World Bank president James Wolfensohn (certainly no friend of socialism) said, before reporters in 2001: “Cuba has done a great job on education and health.”
In fact, the Latin American School of Medicine, near Havana, provides free, excellent medical training for over 8,000 students from impoverished parts of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and also the U.S. According to an Irish Times article (Dec. 21, 2004), students commit to returning to their home communities to meet local medical needs.
80 U.S. students are currently enrolled, mostly blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans from disadvantaged areas. Unable to afford medical training in their homeland, they’ll ironically come back from a poor, U.S.-embargoed country that’s routinely described as a “failure” in our propaganda to provide essential care in U.S. ghettos, reservations and other enclaves of destitution in the richest nation on earth.
American schooling? Not only is it being disastrously undercut by Bush’s profits-before-people outlook (one-third of his proposed budget slashing would target Education Department programs), but our emphasis on hard science -- crucial to future technological leadership -- is being sabotaged by conservatives. Their fundamentalist religious absurdities replace reason, rationality and the empirically proven with Creationist nonsense while other conservatives press for more business-related college courses, aiming to foster additional bourgeois entrepreneurs.
Conversely, countries that will be our rivals for world dominance tomorrow (such as China), are graduating massively more mathematicians, physicists, engineers, etc., than we are.
It’s not hard to predict the national debacle that will ensue unless this suicidal trend is reversed.
Falling behind the rest of humanity
George Bush’s abject fealty to the “haves” and “have mores” makes life increasingly difficult, and dangerously compromised, for millions of ordinary Americans. Despite the persistent myth of U.S. living-standard leadership, we’ve become a nation shamefully trailing the pack in decisive social indices.
According to a 2003 report issued through the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, the United States ranks 27th among 163 nations in social progress, on a par with Poland and Slovenia.
School spokesperson Richard Estes says U.S. development has essentially been “on hold” since 1980, the dawn of the Reagan era. “Chronic poverty is the greatest threat to social progress in the United States,” he continues. “More than 33 million Americans -- almost 12 million of them children -- are poor. Contrary to public perception, the majority of poor in the United States are members of established family households who work full-time and are white. No other economically advanced country tolerates such a level of poverty.”
Other problems thwarting American social advancement include sluggish economic growth, stubborn joblessness, difficult access to appropriate health care, and crumbling schools in our urban cores.
Using data derived from the U.S. State Department and the CIA World Fact Book, the website Geography IQ provides rankings of world countries in many categories. The U.S. stands 36th in infant mortality, 38th in life expectancy, 70th in literacy, and 99th in GDP-real growth rate, tied with Uzbekistan.
While more recent data may swing the foregoing positions marginally one way or the other, an overriding, embarrassing reality remains: the wealthiest country on this planet doesn’t translate that enviable status into the mass betterment of its entire populace.
On the contrary, as elites prosper, the general citizenry sees its relative standing decline. The rich have clearly become a parasite to our host!
Since that exploitative phenomenon has been the primary triggering factor in every once-great civilization’s demise, America has a vested, wholesale interest in doing right by its workaday majority. That certainly can’t be achieved by a federal budget that hurtfully deprives workers, the poor, the elderly, veterans and all additional, vulnerable constituencies while obscenely lavishing Big Business and the Pentagon.
We must move from conservative politics rooted in selfish service to a monopoly capitalist, defacto plutocracy and its steadily more aggressive war machine to populist progressivism that places people -- all the people -- above narrow, private profit.
Do we have the collective will, and sense, to act quickly enough to save ourselves from what will otherwise be a socially fatal combination of misplaced priorities and unmitigated, upper-crust greed?
Or have we already been taken, like dutiful sheep, across the Rubicon of our inevitable, national doom?
Dennis Rahkonen, from Superior, WI, has been writing progressive commentary and verse for various outlets since the ‘60s. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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