Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Once Upon a Time in America
10 March 2015
Once Upon a Time in America
Once upon a time, there was a dream called America. Around the world, people dreamed of freedom to be themselves, to believe as they liked, to make things happen. The country was called the United States, but the dream was America.
After World War II, Europe was a ruin and all its dreams lay in tatters. America, uninvaded, was intact. The dream of individual freedom seemed to thrive there.
In the dream of America, there was opportunity for everyone. You could say what you thought, write it, publish it. You could join a union to get better pay and working conditions, health care, and a pension so you wouldn’t have to work till you dropped. You could go into business for yourself, own property, maybe get rich. It didn’t matter where you came from. In America, you could live the dream – at least if you were a straight white man.
But even as others began to insist on sharing that dream – black people, women, gays – the actual country of America changed hands.
The new America belonged to the rich. They took over behind the scenes, at first, building companies so much bigger and better funded than ordinary businesses that Mom and Pop stores disappeared. The fruit stand could not compete with the supermarket.
If you wanted a secure and prosperous life in this new America, you went to work for a big corporation. All you had to give up were your rights of free speech and association. You had to pledge loyalty to the Company, not to your fellow workers, much less to the good of your fellow citizens.
Once upon a time, America was a dream of democracy. As the decades passed, the reality turned into laissez-faire capitalism: Let money do what it will. Money ruled, and non-rich people were only pawns in the great game of Who Can Accumulate the Most Wealth.
Little by little, ordinary citizens lost whatever influence they once had on the government. Campaigns became so expensive that politicians had to appeal to the very rich in order to get elected. The rich put them in office, and they worked for the rich so they could stay in office.
As this reality became more obvious, ordinary people lost faith in the democratic process. They stopped voting. It was a vicious cycle. The more corrupt the system became, the less citizens participated in it, throwing the contest to the rich without a fight.
Finally the Dream was so undermined, so diminished, such a weak force in the real country of the USA, that the rich – the oligarchs, the true rulers of the system – were able to buy the favors of the highest court in the land. They convinced this court to make decisions that would cement their ownership and perpetuate their power: Corporations are people; and money is speech.
When the Court ruled that corporations have all the rights (and yet none of the responsibilities) of individuals, it gave the rich a way to escape accountability for their wrongdoing. They could lie, steal, cheat, even kill without consequences, so long as they did it in the name of the Corporation. Then, if citizens complained of their crimes, the Corporation would take the blame.
Since a corporation is not truly a person, it can’t go to jail. So if found guilty in spite of all the lawyers it can muster, it will either pay a fine, which it can add to the cost of its products so citizens (“consumers”) end up paying the fine themselves, or disappear, which, not being a real person, it can easily do. The real human perpetrators of corporate crimes walk away from them unpunished.
The more this happens, the more disillusioned people become. They never see justice. In the biggest thefts in history – the Savings and Loan debacle in the 1980s and the recent Wall Street crash – banks took the homes and retirement funds of millions of Americans, and no one has been held accountable. When the highest office in the land was stolen, in Gore v. Bush, the thieves included members of the Supreme Court. Prisons fill up with poor people, and the oligarchs who stole everything from them go free.
Bad as were the results of the Court’s first ruling, the second, in the horribly misnamed Citizens United case, was worse. If money is speech, poor people can’t afford it. “Free speech” joins “justice” as another empty promise. These dull glimmers are all that is left of a dream that once shone like a beacon to the world’s downtrodden masses.
The American Dream has been stolen. If we are ever going to get it back, Americans will have to wake up from the spells cast by corporate advertising, get up off the couch, and act. We must unite, because the Dream belongs to everyone, not just a few. We have to see past all the artificial boundaries set up to pit us against one another – the fictions of race, creed, gender – to act as one people and fight to regain our lost rights.
And we have to carry out this struggle without violence. Our common enemy is a culture built on greed and aggression. Our task is to replace that culture with one built on community and compassion. Our methods must be nonviolent; violence only maintains the status quo.
We know there is no “happily ever after” to this tale. There will always be greedy and violent people trying to rule the rest of us. But that’s no reason to give up.
We are only starting to understand the horror of our situation, and the hope that lies in solidarity. We have barely begun to fight.