Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A People's History of the New Millennium

Like many of us born well back in the past century, I spent a great deal of my life knowing I would have an opportunity given to few in human history: that of living into a new millennium. Since we tend to endow round numbers with enormous symbolic significance, I did a lot of wondering about what things would be like once the magical year 2000 arrived. I am not the late Howard Zinn, nor do I possess even a fraction of his knowledge or passion. For the benefit of those younger than I, though, I am going to try to write an accurate account of the way I and many other people in America have experienced the past eleven and a half years. It has certainly not been what I or we expected, or hoped.

During this long decade I have moved into late middle age and have had my share of personal triumphs and setbacks. In this summer of 2011, though, I have been finding my sleep troubled by dire forebodings of things I never thought I would live to see, and have been following the news cycle in a state of numb disbelief. Events unfolding in the public realm seem to me to threaten our very survival as a society. How did we get here?

In the year 2000 we lived through the most extraordinary presidential election in American history. The result was, to say the least, disputed, but the candidate who clearly lost the popular vote nevertheless managed to seize power. He was aided in this coup by the fact that his brother controlled the pivotal state of Florida, but his success was sealed by the most extraordinary act of judicial activism I have ever witnessed. Instead of allowing the democratic process to continue, the partisan Supreme Court stopped the gears of democracy and arbitrarily anointed a winner.

This unelected president then proceeded to act with the arrogant self-confidence of a leader who believes he has received a ringing electoral mandate. Having inherited the soundest economy in living memory, he began his term with an array of tax cuts that virtually guaranteed huge deficits in the near future. The result was not the creation of more jobs or of a more robust economy. It was, rather, an ever-widening gap between rich and poor that has now made the United States one of the most manifestly unequal countries on earth.

A devastating and unparalleled attack on our nation then led to one of the most misguided responses ever undertaken by a sovereign state. Letting the man responsible for the attack go free, our country proceeded to wage vicious war on a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the events of 9/11/01. We waged that war - which has turned out to be one of the longest in our history - entirely on credit. No attempt was made to raise money or to ask anybody outside of the military to sacrifice anything.

Meanwhile, the unelected president took advantage of the huge surge in his personal popularity that followed the disaster, not to further the common good, but to systematically dismantle the regulatory net painstakingly constructed since the Great Depression. Thus, he made it inevitable that we would see a repeat of that experience. When the catastrophe struck late in his second term, the unelected president gamely proposed a huge "bailout" scheme that would save those most responsible for it from any adverse personal or financial effects. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor reached epic proportions, and a huge group of permanently unemployed citizens solidified into a permanent underclass. The national debt, brought on by the enormous tax cuts and the two wars, reached unimaginable proportions.

The successor to the unelected president accomplished extraordinary things during his first two years in office, including what I believe to be the most important achievement by the US government in nearly 50 years. If that achievement is allowed to reach fruition, we will no longer be the only advanced country on earth that does not provide health care for all its citizens. A huge blot of shame will have been removed from our national conscience.

It is not humanly possible, though, to undo eight years of damage in a mere two. Since we elect our Congress every two years and have short memories, 2010 saw the party responsible for the damage swept back into power in Congress. It is at this point that events went from bizarre to surreal. The huge national debt brought on by the unelected president and his policies was now blamed on his successor and his party. More tax cuts were proposed, even though the wealthy corporations who had benefited from the last round were still sitting on huge chunks of uninvested capital. Drastic cuts in social programs were demanded: cuts so severe as to virtually guarantee that the permanent underclass we have created will live out their lives in abject degradation. Any attempt to stimulate the economy or create jobs was simply abandoned, in the hopes that the national economy could lift itself up by its own bootstraps: something that the history of the past century had clearly shown to be impossible. The one course of action that could actually solve the crisis - raising taxes, even on the obscenely wealthy - was rejected a priori.

It is at this point that the current Congressional temper tantrum over the national debt ceiling began its chilling, devastating course. The party in charge of Congress seems actually willing to default on the nation's debt - not the hypothetical future debt, but the debt that we have already incurred - in order to bully the president into beginning to dismantle a century's worth of social progress. The realization that this could actually happen is what has been keeping me awake at nights, gripped by foreboding. As someone who grew up to love this country and what it represents, I very much fear that I am witnessing its death throes.

This has been the most heartfelt post I have written in a long time, but it is the honest, unadorned truth. Barely over a decade in, this is how I see the events of the new millennium. As this long, hot summer of 2011 drags on, I am watching my country progressively lose its sanity and its soul.

While I am currently disgusted with the government, though, I still think there's a chance the American people are better than this. If we can remember that this illustrious nation consists of individuals, bound together in community, and that we do more than serve the giant corporations and the billionaires who run them, there may still be hope. I am on the lookout for signs that there are still others who believe this as well.

1 comment:

  1. Keep an eye on the the recall elections in Wisconsin. Could be one of the "signs" you seek.