Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Long Goodbye

I'll miss the United States I grew up in. As I child, I saw and felt a number of things that didn't sit well with me, but I had what is no doubt an irrational trust that these things would be righted. I was suitably freaked out by the Cold War and the arms race that accompanied it, but I trusted that mutually assured destruction was an adequate deterrent. I did fear an accidental explosion, but, again, I believed in the notion of fail safe, even after seeing the movie of the same name. I believed that I was surrounded by adults who would keep me from harm.

I had no such optimism about civil rights, having witnessed the Jim Crow South as a young child. That experience did, however, prepare me to appreciate what was accomplished by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The face of the fifties, the Nelsons
I actually believed in George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Ozzie and Hariett, and all that crazy 50s hokum. As much as I liked that face of America, I liked rock 'n' roll, Bob Dylan, the counterculture, and protesting the Vietnam War even more. Now that was an identity I was comfortable with, and I thought it was just as American as Eddie Haskell and the Cleavers, even more so because we had discovered some real values of love, kindness, sharing, and a desire for real freedom for all Americans.

Okay, I might have been wrong about the 70s, but...
As the 60s and 70s progressed, I could sense that the promise of freedom for all in America was becoming true both legally and culturally. I felt freer and quite optimistic. Even the Watergate scandal was, I felt, a vindication of the rule of law, not simply a glimpse at the soft underbelly of corruption in politics. We had rooted out the evil it stood for.

Camp David Accords
I was an unabashed fan of Jimmy Carter and am to this day. He was ahead of his time on alternative energy, should be credited with beginning to modernize the armed forces, forged the only meaningful peace treaty ever signed between Arabs and Jews, and could have done more if he hadn't been dealt a lethal blow by the Iranian hostage crisis. His stand on human rights as a central value of the U.S. looks so moral compared to George W. Bush.  He was a dignified, humble, and honest man, rare in a president. Maybe he didn't manage Congress well and backed down too easily (et toi, Obama?). He has, as a former president, had a positive impact on both our country and the world, and he has largely rescued his legacy in his long retirement.

Things declined rapidly under Ronald Reagan. Many people don't remember how Reagan took on the labor unions and gave them some punishing blows, striking at the heart of the middle class. His tax policies were the beginning of a new resurgence in income inequality that continues to this day. The Iran-Contra scandal -- and its long and flaccid unwinding -- showed that corruption and hypocrisy can be tolerated by those ideologically inclined to do so. Reagan's policies initiated what could be called the Great Stagnation, the beginning of the end of the middle class, with most new wealth going to the top and never trickling down.

Bush the elder's contribution to this continuum was not nothing, but he continued the Reagan years and belief systems. Oh, he won a war and presided over a recession that was his undoing, if only because his blue blood made him genetically disposed to looking insensitive to the plight of everyday Americans, which he was, like his son who would later follow him.

The Clinton years were a respite to the ongoing American decline. Poverty rates declined dramatically, and by and large the Clinton scandals were made up. The Lewinsky affair was a national embarrassment on several levels, not the least of which was the idea that oral sex was a legitimate reason to toss a president. The return of budget surpluses amid a true economic boom was a plus. The repeal of Glass-Steagall was not, and we'll be regretting that stumble for some time. Also, enshrining the heads of Goldman Sachs as the watchdogs of the Treasury drew an arc to cataclysm we'll be reeling from for years.

If I screw this up, can I still keep the flight suit?
George W. Bush was too epic a failure to describe as an "arc." It was more like the descent into a deep crater. All of the events are chronicled: tax cuts one and two; not one war but two, neither of them funded; Medicare Part D that set drug costs at unsustainable levels that add continually to the national debt; the flawed and callous execution of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that haunt us to this day; a complete abdication of our responsibilities as humans, Americans, and citizens of the world with our lawlessness at Guantanamo, coupled with our adoption of torture and indefinite detention; the dramatic increase in poverty rates coupled with stagnant wages for the middle class, along with more and more income inequality as the rich got the bulk -- as in the Reagan years -- of any new wealth. There's more, much more. I leave it to you to enumerate further.

I know, hope is not a plan.
We come to Barack Obama. He wouldn't be such a disappointment if he hadn't promised so much, either in what he explicitly said or in the way he said it. There was so much promise, but he didn't deliver.

Of course he was hobbled from the beginning by economic circumstance. He was mercilessly pounded by an intractable opposition in spite of solid majorities in Congress. He produced a reasonably balanced health care reform law; he managed TARP well enough, if only in letting it unwind the way it was arranged when it was handed off to him by Bush; he showed grit by bailing out the auto industry, saving jobs; his stimulus package did save jobs and averted a depression, one we may experience anyway. Obama, too, can point to foreign policy victories in the war against terrorists -- though his use of drones is disturbing -- and his wise handling of the Arab Spring.

Let's offer Obama tax cuts in exchange for ripping his heart out.
But talk about unwindings, we've been experiencing a long one beginning with Obama's failure to stand up to Republicans -- and recalcitrant Democrats -- on the Bush tax cuts during the 2010 lame-duck session. Since then, it's been one remarkable cave-in after another, on a whole range of issues, from the debt-ceiling debacle to the most recent apparent lack of guts on the payroll-tax-holiday extension. Along the way, human and civil rights have been seriously imperiled, first with such tacit acceptance of Bush-era illegalities, and later with the failure to try detainees in public courts where they belong and the failure to close Guantanamo. Now, we're on the brink of watching Barack Obama allow a law to pass, without a veto, that could lead to American citizens being detained indefinitely without habeas corpus or public hearing. Shameless is not strong enough a word. It's the final nail, and yet it feels as if there are more nails to hammer and more disastrous shoes to drop. One, it seems, may involve the beginning of the end of Medicare, just as an aging America needs it the most.

It's cheaper to give bankers money than to prosecute them.
When they write the book on Barack Obama, a dismal coda will be the way the Fed, while managing to sustain growth with smoke and mirrors, kept shooting bazookas-full of money to the banksters and the bastards that caused all the financial mayhem in the first place. I accept that an honest opinion can be held that the world financial structure had to be saved, but I would have preferred -- and I mean this sincerely -- that those bazookas of cash were pointed at the people whose homes were being foreclosed upon and whose livelihoods were being destroyed one job at a time. Let the wealth trickle up for change. We know it doesn't trickle down.

It's been dismal watching the inept way our law enforcement mechanisms have failed to prosecute white-collar, financial crime while our local police forces look more and more like paramilitary units as they sweep through the Occupy movement's encampments in Homeland Security riot gear in the middle of the night. However you view OWS and its tactics, this blatant disregard for the well-being of practitioners of non-violent civil disobedience throws a bad light on our current American culture.

Adding to -- some might say spearheading -- our decline are the Republicans so bent on destroying Barack Obama that they have forged a true contempt for the American people and our plight in the middle of the unraveling of our national economic model. When we'll come back is anyone's guess, but it won't be with the help of the Republican Party, which believes in growth through destruction of cherished American institutions.

Right about now, in an essay like this, comes the usual declaration that I hope Barack Obama gets re-elected, along with a return to Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. And I admit, I don't have it in me to say I'll never vote for this abysmal failure because it's true, that I fear even more a Republican sweep of all three branches of government, especially in the wake of Citizens United and the never-ending free money it delivers in a political era still dominated, yes, by the likes of Karl Rove, Dick Armey, Ari Fleischer, Rupert Murdoch, and the Koch brothers. I shudder -- as if for real zombies, vampires, chainsaws, and Blair witches -- to think of that America.

Cutting spending creates jobs. (hehe)

In the end, I guess this could be what America's long goodbye looks like: zombie ideas instead of real zombies, and the eventual abdication of electoral power by a hoodwinked and bamboozled population of people who believe in "taking responsibility for their own actions" and living a life "based on faith in God and Country" and "it's our money and we should decide how to spend it," even though taxes will no doubt go up or be maintained on the subservient 99% while they all but vanish on the 1% who have underwritten the bamboozlement.

 It's depressing, this long goodbye, but that doesn't mean it's not underway. This journey from naive child to worried senior citizen has taken a lifetime. I wish I had another one with which to fight back.

Maybe they'll let me come back as George Carlin...

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