April 11, 2011

Deepening the Self-Destruction

We are at a point in American history where, to paraphrase Blake, Bad is Good. This is why I’m rooting for a Palin presidency: if anyone can deepen our self-destruction, it’s Sarah. Meanwhile, two articles just appeared documenting the process even further, so I’d like to share them with you. The first is by my hero and yours, Chris Hedges: “Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System,” which he posted yesterday on truthdig.com. The second is by Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz, titled “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” which you can find at vanityfair.com.

To start w/Chris, then: He points out that the American educational system “celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state.”

[What we have in this country by now, of course, are nearly 310 million stunted human products. Not exactly the best raw material for turning the system around, I’m guessing.]

Talking about the NYC school system, Chris goes on: “In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals [without principles, one might note] and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs.” The problem, he says, is that “To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence.” [Sound like any country you know of?]

But there’s more: “The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business.” And they know that “moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness.” For “Once justice perishes…life loses all meaning.” As Hannah Arendt put it, “The greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

“Unconscious civilizations,” Chris concludes, “become totalitarian wastelands.”

Of course, with 310 million nobodies (stunted human products), what other future is there for the US? Rhetorical question. Let’s turn to Joe Stiglitz.

The data: the upper 1% of the American population is now taking in nearly 25% of the nation’s entire income every year. In terms of wealth, they control 40% of it. Over the past decade, their incomes rose by 18%; those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. All growth in recent decades, and more, has gone to this upper 1%. “In terms of income equality,” he tells us, “America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride.” Joe goes on:

“The corporate executives who helped bring on the recession of the past three years—whose contribution to our society, and to their own companies, has been massively negative—went on to receive large bonuses. In some cases, companies were so embarrassed about calling such rewards ‘performance bonuses’ that they felt compelled to change the name to ‘retention bonuses’ (even if the only thing being retained was bad performance)…. Some people look at income inequality and shrug their shoulders. So what if this person gains and that person loses? What matters, they argue, is not how the pie is divided but the size of the pie. That argument is fundamentally wrong. An economy in which most citizens are doing worse year after year—an economy like America’s—is not likely to do well over the long haul.”

“With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent,” writes Stiglitz (and in some locations, twice that); “with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job and not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from ‘food insecurity’)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted ‘trickling down’ from the top 1 percent to everyone else.”

An additional problem here, he says, is that while “Trickle-down economics may be a chimera…trickle-down behaviorism is very real.” In other words, the rest of the country wishes to live like the top 1%, but they can’t; so they live beyond their means.

With this, it seems to me, we come to the crucial point. Joe writes that “Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is…the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important.” But frankly, except as an abstraction, I find this dubious. Americans may pay lip service to these ideals, but if, as Joe says, the goal of our fellow-countrymen is to live like the top 1%, then there is no getting around the fact that they have no larger vision than making a lot of money. ("In the United States," wrote John Steinbeck, "the poor consider themselves temporarily embarrassed millionaires.") They are not enraged that they live in a system in which one person, Bill Gates, can accumulate $50 billion--not at all. Rather, they just want to accumulate $50 billion themselves. Which brings us back to Chris’ notion of a system that turns out “stunted human products,” Arendt’s “nobodies…who refuse to be persons.” Dummies, in a word; moral and intellectual dummies. The goal of these 310 million nobodies is hardly fair play or a more equitable distribution of wealth or a sense of community (let alone, community); no, it’s getting a larger cut of the pie, period. The vision is empty, and the people are empty. And thus, so is the American future.

Stiglitz was, of course, paraphrasing the Gettysburg Address with his title. Lincoln’s concluding words were: “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and obviously a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. So perhaps we need to complete Joe’s thought, and paraphrase Lincoln’s conclusion a bit differently (pardon the verbiage—or “verbage,” as Sarah Palin calls it): “government of the stunted human products, by the stunted human products, for the stunted human products; which thus cannot help but perish from the earth.”

(c)Morris Berman, 2011