mardi 3 mars 2009

La solidarité in America: the second Enlightenment revolution

Solidarity, peeps, that's the word.

Now, where did I see that just yesterday? Ah, yes, Joan Walsh in Salon.com, Class Warfare? Bring in on.

Yeah, baby, I say let's bring it on now! It's about fucking time.

Leave the US and you really start to wonder what they put in our middle and lower class water supply -- all those billions of bottles of Poland Spring, or the Hudson Watershed -- or add to our McDonald's menus and Happy Meals (McDonalds strong in every quarter of 2008, with double-digit growth in operating income and "return of $5.8 billion to shareholders through shares repurchased and dividends paid, including a 33% increase in the quarterly cash dividend to $0.50 per share for the fourth quarter – bringing our current annual dividend rate to $2.00 per share". Time to add McDonald's to my Starbucks holdings!) to keep 99% of Americans so tame.

I mean, did you really believe that it was the sheer force of the American Dream that kept all those people in line -- you in line --, thinking that if they didn't complain, they, too, might get to be fabulously rich like the people who run the companies for which they work, but never, ever see, except in the quarterly reports?

C'mon, admit it, it's true. That and the endless stream of credit card offers with 0% interest for 6 months for balance transfers. It was like getting gas at the dentist's office! The no down payment mortgage offers from on high. I mean, they wouldn't offer me a mortgage if I weren't really going to be able to pay it, right? This is America. Every family their own home, and AAA mortgage ratings. It has to be solid.

Pop!

Hey, was that the .com bubble? No. That burst a few years ago. Damn -- wait a minute! What's this bubblegum pink slip? What? Wait! I need that job! I have a wallet full of credit cards loaded with medical bills, mortgage payments, gas purchases for the car, my student loan payments, and all that stuff I bought at the mall and Circuit City -- the stuff the president told me to buy after 911, remember, you know, to keep the economy strong? -- to pay.

So, I propose we focus on the newest class: the nouveau riche. What do you think?

They didn't ever get it. See, that's why "riche" is in the name of their class. They are the reductionist class; let's take the money and forget those old values. Who needs them, anyway [Ed. note: read D.H. Lawrence's Women Inlove for the answer]. Or, if they do, that's their problem. Tant pis and let them eat cake. Ha ha ha! Peels of silvery laughter.

Marie Antoinette had her excuses. She was young and sheltered. But, let's leave everyone's head on, shall we?

Like, why in hell are we so polite with those strip-mining our salary potential and local, state and national tax base? Sh, it's a secret, but you know the property values in the newspapers of affluent communities, the ones that tell you how much that monstrosity with a water view, indoor lap pool, in-law suite, caretaker and nanny quarters, multiple garage and state of the art home gym and theater and billiard and Xbox 360 and Wii rooms went for? Don't tell anyone, but those aren't the real prices paid. Those are the declared prices. The ones negotiated for the property taxes. The market value was much higher, and paid in cash above the declared value for the mortgage.

It was common knowledge in my old home town. You should have seen how upset people got when it was announced that the taxes hadn't been reassessed in, oh, at least a generation and maybe it was time to send the tax assessor around. Vacations were extra long that year.

"My [bonus] money, down the drain for things no one needs, like public education. Like I need that when I take my kids to the most elite pre-kindergarten in town in our twin, armored, blacked-out minivans. Like their kids would actually stand a chance of getting into Groton and Harvard if we threw our money their way. Let their parents make what I do. How presumptuous of my architect to think that her child deserves what ours do -- oh! Hello! Please, make yourself comfortable in the office while I give the housekeeper her instructions, and remind me to talk to you about the dog room and automatic door. We'll need plenty of storage for her things and a sink. I'll be right back."

The pre-kindergarten that virtually ensures entry into the right private schools and colleges. The one that young mothers pretending to be in playgroups for their babies' emotional and social development are actually there to engage in espionage and sabotage to make sure the other babies won't be chosen over theirs.

It's a vicious, vicious world out there, and heaven knows the competition is just awful. Thank God we all use Huggies and Pampers with tape closures now. Much safer than diaper pins in some circles. Now, there was that push toward ecologically friendly cotton clothe diapers... an effort to bring those pins back, after all?

Meanwhile, the rents were exactly what was announced in the agencies -- forget the papers, you wouldn't want to live in those --, and were a fortune for nothing. You can rent a whole house in Moosesucks for half my rent in Greenwich on a sort of 2-bedroom railroad flat in downtown, next to one of the PJ's. If we'd only needed one bedroom, that would have made it a much nicer apartment. As it was, it was a kindness to them not to invite any of my son's friends parents over. I'm still looking for the 18th century or early 19th century English novel with the paragraph about social equality being measured in china and silver sets, and never inviting someone who did not have at least what you did, and never less. Unless it was the pastor and his wife. They shouldn't have as much, or be able to put out as good a table, anyway, unless it was a very tolerable living, indeed.

But of course you're right; who'd want to live here? I do.

Solidarity.

I wondered when, or if, the day would come when this word would make the press in the USA. To be frank, I certainly didn't think, only 6 years ago, that it would be this soon. Even middle school kids use this word with remarkable frequency and ease here in France, la soldarité, d'être solidaire.

When we were first living here and Sam was playing soccer still in Rosny sur Seine with the kids from the Val Fourré. It's hardly an upper middle class sport here, and we had been warned before our move, and by virtue of being us and American, we attracted a fair amount of interest. Sam didn't speak French yet, that first year, and he went to school in Paris (ridiculous, now that I think about it. Sort of). One afternoon that first fall, a boy whose own parents had emigrated from Northern Africa came up to me and asked if it were true that we were American. I said it was. He was impressed -- the United States of America still makes people dream here, even when Bush was in the White House --, and he asked me if we liked it here. I said that we did. So, he asked me what the biggest difference was. I knew this wasn't the sort of kid to want an answer in multiple-paragraphs, but there was so much to say.

I looked at him and thought quickly about the things he would understand most immediately, the ones that made the most difference in his life, and my own, and I said that the biggest difference is that in France basic human needs are met by the government, instead of relying on the employer to do so, when employment is very precarious in the US because employment law protects the employer, unemployment benefits are quickly run through, and jobs are not always easy for everyone to find. I gave the example of universal, government-provided health care, la Sécu. I also mentioned the lack of vacation time, making it hard for families to spend much time together. Time up. He nodded.

"Ils ne sont pas solidaires aux States," he squinted up at me against the evening sun, nodded again, then turned and ran back down to the playing field to join the others.

Now, granted, the Parti Socialiste makes it its life's work to teach this sort of vocabulary to those most in need of what society offers the average and the least among its members through the government here. It's also no coincidence that the communists hold power in the poorest immigrant communities, although these political figures are not "commie reds"; they are people who believe in the economic and political philosophy of Karl Marx, and they haven't really been very realistic about the failure of the biggest experiment in putting his ideas into practice, nor about from where money comes, but there's a reason for this. A good reason: we can't all be rich and secure, so we had best be just and secure.

Maintaining extremes does seem to have a way of maintaining a juster and larger middle. Can anyone figure a way around that, please?

Meanwhile, I am enjoying watching my fellow Americans back home come to terms with what it really means to fight an Enlightenment revolution, and not just what we were taught in elementary school.
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