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Monday, November 02, 2009

Don’t Know Much about History

The French Revolution is something overlooked in American education, at least if you listen to conservatives. They seem to have completely blocked out any lessons we learned about relinquishing all power and wealth into the hands of a select few plutocrats and their usually worthless progeny. I always ask conservatives to point to an example of the sort of society they envision for America. They seem to be nostalgic for the America of the era of Leave it to Beaver, but I think their views better describe 18th century France. I also happen to think that America can do a hell of a lot better than America in the 1950s.

I am now living in the land of my forefathers, in a country that once suffered as much or more than any other in Europe from the excesses of the wealthy rulers; where poverty and misery were much more common than prosperity and happiness; where enormous riches were enjoyed by the very few. The Spain of today is a country with an incredibly strong middle class and where even the very poor have the right—constitutionally guaranteed—of free medical care and education. American, on the other hand, seems to be abandoning its middle class, completely forgetting about the poor, and stacking everything in favor of the richest few.

America was mostly built by immigrants from Europe who wanted a better, more egalitarian society in which all men would be equal and with equal opportunities. After hundreds of years of struggle to reach this point why do so many American conservatives seem to want to return to our awful past where the rich got richer and the poor poorer? With America’s drastically quick slide into huge income disparities only a fool would believe that the poorest in our country are on equal terms with the fabulously wealthy. In the past 30 years we have dismantled many of the safeguards for the poor that we spent the better part of the 20th century literally fighting in the streets at times to achieve.

Conservatives and libertarians say a lot about wanting more individual rights and that these rights are somehow sacrificed when a society tries to work collectively to achieve desired goals. Christ, just mention the word “collectively” and these folks will be out in front of your house with torches and pitchforks. Our almost complete inability to come to an agreement and work together is why we are so far behind Europe on things like mass transit and health care. And don’t even think about raising taxes on America’s top 1% or the middle class mouth-breathers will go completely ballistic. I guess that middle class conservatives see America’s widening gulf between rich and poor as fruitful territory for television programs like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

But we aren’t talking about rich people, folks well off enough to have a big house, even a mansion. Our new elite have amassed a dangerously high percentage of our resources. How could we possibly expect that an individual who earns tens of millions of dollars annually is going to be equal under the law as our most humble citizens? How can anyone think that we aren’t creating a new royalty that lives outside of the law and miles above the standards of most of society? How could anyone see this new royalty as anything but a threat to our democracy?

Somehow we have come to the point where many Americans view taxes as government theft of private resources. Somehow we have reached a point where many people view the government as evil. The last time I checked we lived in a democracy and that means we are the government. If there is anything wrong with our government it is that citizens have relinquished control of it to the elite. With less than 50% of citizens voting in any given election it is certainly a lot easier for a few to control things. For example, if blacks in America complain that they don’t receive adequate representation in our political process it is their own damn fault for not participating in that process. If blacks voted in numbers that reflect their constituency politicians would be terrified of their power. Instead they keep themselves out of the power struggle by telling themselves that voting is a waste of time.

A few questions I would pose to the anti-government conservatives is this: How do we keep from returning to the sort of plutocracy we threw off in the 18th century when we are allowing a few individuals to control so much of our wealth? Once the citizenry has relinquished all power to wealthy individuals and corporations how do expect the needs of the people to be met? If we completely abandon the poorest among us—which we have—how can we expect them to respect the laws of society and how do we deal with that eventuality?

There was an article recently in the New York Times about a rent-a-bike system in Paris that has been heavily vandalized by disenchanted poor youths in the city and surrounding suburbs. The rent-a-bike system seems to represent the new bourgeois in Paris and is therefore a source of resentment among the disenfranchised youth. Solving this problem is going to be more than a police issue but a matter that will deeply challenge the modern ideal of French equality and mobility.

We have much bigger failures in America than a few damaged bicycles, and we have an even bigger bridge to build to our poorest citizens if we expect them to ever contribute in any meaningful way to our society. I see no way to do this without addressing the widening gulf between rich and poor in America, at least this is what history has shown again and again.