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The Sickness in the American SoulDaniel Johnson Salem-News.com
Daniel Johnson's 100th article on Salem-News.com.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - “There is a great tendency in this country to refuse to see what is right in front of everybody’s eyes.” says Bob Herbert in a recent New York Times column.
Not Economically Viable
As you read this, there are tens of millions of Americans who are sick at heart, in despair; overwhelmed by desolation, hopelessness and despondency. Some are suicidal; some are near suicidal. These are your friends and neighbors who have lost or are about to lose their homes, their jobs, their self-respect—and in every case their place in society. For tens of millions of people the American dream has become a nightmare.
These are people who have come to rely on food banks, food stamps and private charity just to eat and feed their families (One in eight Americans, and one in four children, are on food stamps). They have been ground down in front of their children who will consequently internalize feelings of inferiority and impotence. Cast aside by society, many will give up, thinking—what’s the use?
Dr. Irwin Redlener, is a pediatrician and president of the Children’s Health Fund in New York. He says: “We’re looking at all these cuts in human services — in health care, in education, in after-school programs, in juvenile justice. This all points to a very grim future for these children who seem to be taking the brunt of this financial crisis.” The impact on children, he says is “frightening.” He said to Bob Herbert: “We are seeing the emergence of what amounts to a ‘recession generation.’” 
In the Michael Douglas movie “Falling Down”, Vondie Curtis-Hall plays a man protesting outside a bank because they will not approve him for a loan. Eventually, a police car arrives and takes him away because he loudly protests to all and sundry that he is, according to the loan officer, not economically viable. This is the economic condition that increasing numbers of Americans find themselves in. Their crime? Believing in America and the American dream.
What is right in front of everybody’s eyes is the fact that America, for all the mythology and pretending, is a savage society. It’s all about business and making money that goes right to the founding of the nation. As forty-two year old Canadian freelance writer Brennan Clarke wrote in 2008: “As the holder of not one but two undergraduate arts degrees… I am quickly reminded by the working world that being intelligent and capable is no longer enough. You have to do something that makes somebody money.”
Money and its acquisition became objects in themselves in the actual founding of America. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Advice to a Young Tradesman:
“Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but six-pence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that his only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides….Money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again it is seven and three-pence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.”
“The business of America is business,” said Calvin Coolidge in 1925. As sociologist Max Weber had written only a few years before:
“The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to the capitalistic rules of action.”
The capitalist cosmos is even more overreaching and overbearing today and even more socially destructive. As Charles E. Wilson, president of GM said during hearings to become Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense in 1953: “what is good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa”.
After exactly one year of writing (and 100 articles) for Salem-News.com and observing, analyzing and commenting on American society, I have come to see the United States through different eyes.
America is a kakistocracy (rule by the worst), and by this I don’t mean President Obama and his ilk. I refer to the capitalists, the money men, who through their greed have nearly (and may still) destroyed the global economy. (Andrew Cuomo said: “They think of themselves as kings and queens.”) I don’t need to elaborate on what they have done to American society. You can see it all around you; read it in the newspaper headlines; and hear the news anchors belaboring it. (You might live in one of the 25% of houses whose mortgages are underwater.)
David Brooks writes: “In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.”
Here are the income/unemployment figures as of late 2009:
Bob Herbert: “We still have a hideously dysfunctional public education system, one that has mastered the art of manufacturing dropouts and functional illiterates.”
As Susan Jacoby writes: “Our lack of a national curriculum, national teacher training standards and federal financial support to attract smart young people to the teaching profession all contribute mightily to the mediocre-to-poor performance of American students, year in and year out, on international education assessments.”
In 1988 Jon Miller, director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, conducted a survey of Americans for the National Science Foundation asking people about 75 questions to test their knowledge of basic science. The results showed that more than half—about 55 percent—of adult Americans didn’t know that the Earth revolved around the sun once a year—of the 72 percent who answered correctly, 17 percent said one day, two percent said one month and nine percent didn’t know. Miller concluded that “on very basic ideas, vast numbers of Americans are scientifically illiterate” (Associated Press, Oct 24, 1988). Based on a similar survey from 1985, the result was that only about five percent of adult Americans could be considered scientifically literate.
Twenty years later New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in a column appropriately titled “Clueless in America” (April 22, 2008) reported that “Ignorance in the United States is not just bliss, it’s widespread. A recent survey of teenagers by the education advocacy group Common Core found that a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900.”
He ended his column saying “nearly 20 percent of respondents did not know who the U.S. fought in World War II. Eleven percent thought that Dwight Eisenhower was the president forced from office by the Watergate scandal. Another 11 percent thought it was Harry Truman.”
Bob Herbert: “The United States is broken — school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding — yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each.” 
I had a lengthy email conversation with a Texan named Don a few years ago. I sent him an article which he immediately classified as a typical "liberal blame article”. He wrote:
“Well, I will say anyone born poor, who stays poor, is lazy or stupid. If they're stupid, well then they are doomed. If they are lazy then there's hope. My grandmother was born in a farm house with dirt floors in western Arkansas. She left home at fourteen heading for the ‘big city’ of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She never looked back. Everything she ever attained she did on her own and she left poor behind. She even paid off her house. My aunt and uncle paid off their house. This bs about being poor is just that, bs. In this country there is no excuse for staying poor unless you fit that one single category. STUPID, it's incurable and those are the few who need to be taken care of.
“As for the battlefield class, that's a lottery. Those who go in do it to get a 'free' education but roll the dice that they might get shot at. They fit in the category of those who are willing to help themselves and that's fine. Class warfare is for the liberal set. I don't give a damn how much some rich person is worth. I can, if I try hard enough attain similar status. The accumulation of wealth is not big on my radar screen. Like most people I'm content with comfortable. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer is total bullshit. This is not a zero sum economy. Also the poor in the country have satellite dishes on the roofs of their houses with a car and a pickup in the driveway. That ain't poor. People need to shut up and quit being lazy.”
The article I had sent was written by George J. Bryjack who wrote:
“We have the highest degree of economic inequality in the industrialized world. The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute notes that while the wealthiest 1 percent of stockholders account for just under 50 percent of all stocks by value, one of every six children lives below the official poverty line.”
He wrote that in 2003. We know things are worse today in every dimension.
I gave up emailing Don after that and he never wrote again. I wonder what his position is today, as a reactionary social conservative, to the economic meltdown which has affected the majority of people who could not today be classified as either lazy or stupid? It’s also a fair indictment of American society that many young men have to risk their lives in order to get ahead, when their luckier brethren do not. On this Bob Herbert says: “The idea that fewer than 1 percent of Americans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and that we’re sending them into combat again and again and again — for three tours, four tours, five tours, six tours — is obscene. All decent people should object.”
Paul Krugman, on the need for health care reform: “In every other advanced nation, insurance coverage is available to everyone regardless of medical history. Our system is unique in its cruelty.” (italics added)
Writes Bob Herbert: “We’re not smart as a nation. We don’t learn from the past, and we don’t plan for the future. We’ve spent a year turning ourselves inside out with arguments of every sort over health care reform only to come up with a bloated, Rube Goldberg legislative mess that protects the insurance and drug industries and does not rein in runaway health care costs.”
I am not just cherry-picking “liberal” columnists. Even David Brooks, a bona fide conservative says:
“The United States is becoming a broken society. The public has contempt for the political class. Public debt is piling up at an astonishing and unrelenting pace. Middle-class wages have lagged. Unemployment will remain high. It will take years to fully recover from the financial crisis.”
Meltdown of the states
The economic catastrophe that is California is well known. But most of the other states are suffering as badly, or worse. As Bob Herbert writes: “Taxes are being raised. Draconian cuts in services are being made. Public employees are being fired. The tissue-thin national economic recovery is being undermined. And in many cases, the most vulnerable populations—the sick, the elderly, the young and the poor—are getting badly hurt.” 
The bigger picture, he says, is that “the states are in the worst fiscal shape since the Depression. The Great Recession has caused state tax revenues to fall off a cliff. Some states—New York and California come quickly to mind—are facing prolonged budget nightmares. Across the country, critical state services are being chopped like firewood. More cuts are coming. Taxes and fees are being raised. Yet the budgets in dozens and dozens of states remain drastically out of balance.”
A few items:
The dooming of America?
The sickness at the core of America’s soul is selfish greed based on the misguided idea of American exceptionalism. Virtually from the beginning, Americans have believed they are a special people chosen by God. As a nation they believed (and continue to believe) that they had the God-given right to rule the earth and do whatever they wished.
This has made America a rogue nation. Over the last century or more, they have overthrown and undermined legitimate governments all over the world. America, even today, feels no hesitation in starting wars and invading countries on the flimsiest (even bogus) pretexts.
Over the last half-century, with only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has gobbled up more energy and resources than any other nation. Americans today use a quarter of the world’s energy and fossil fuels.
On average, one American consumes as much energy as
The average individual daily consumption of water in America is 159 gallons, while more than half the world's population lives on 25 gallons.
Did you know?
Can such profligacy continue? Not very likely. I never would have imagined it even a decade ago (before 9/11), but it appears that we are seeing the unravelling of the United States before our very eyes.
This does not mean that the physical country or its people will disappear. But a reorganization of the middle of the North American continent is overdue.
As Bob Herbert concludes: “If America can’t change, then the current state of decline is bound to continue. You can’t have a healthy economy with so many millions of people out of work, and there is no plan now that would result in the creation of millions of new jobs any time soon.”
The United States is what I have come to see as an artificial country, i.e., it is a patchwork of regions who have little or nothing in common other than pretending they belong to one nation (just like what is called the former Yugoslavia). Texas and California (25 and 36 million people, respectively) are so different than the rest of the country, that the citizens would probably be happier as their own sovereign countries. The same applies to the New England states as a group, and some of the states in the Pacific Northwest. There are other fracture lines, as well. A decade, a few decades from now will Europeans, Chinese and Japanese be talking about “the former America” just like today they talk about the former Soviet Union?
I can already see the comments by some American patriots declaring me wrong on every count and saying that America is powerful and will always prevail. They are in denial, arguing against the global evidence. But I’m not actually counting America out, not quite yet. There’s an old saying that God looks after drunks and fools.
Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place
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