samedi 18 juillet 2009

And that's the way it is

Before there were women,
Election night 1964

Harry Reasoner, Roger Mudd, Eric Sevareid, Mike Wallace, Robert Trout and Walter Cronkite

The television of my childhood. The console with its large built-in speakers sat in front of the plate-glass windows of our single-story tract ranch house in suburban Syracuse, NY in the early 1960's. A black and white image broadcast The CBS Evening News, The Wide World of Sports, Lassie, Mr. Ed, Daktari, Lost in Space and The Disney Hour (it's true, Walter Conkrite did channel Walt Disney, now that they mention it), Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone, The Late Show with Johnnie Carson (I watched from the hallway until my mother gave in and let me come sit and watch), and -- if we were really lucky -- Cinderella and The Sound of Music. That was before The Sound of Music ran every Thanksgiving and It's a Wonderful Life became the Christmas staple. My list could go on.

Television asked you to be patient. Your favorite show broadcast in its time slot, and if you missed it, you had to wait until the reruns in the summer, when there was a better chance your mother would let you stay up to watch it.

Television was stable, and nothing was a more stable fixture than Walter Cronkite at our dinner table, announcing the count of the US soldiers lost in Vietnam every evening, informing us of the marches in Selma and Washington, the bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little "negro" girls, the national guard opening fire at Kent State, students falling, the first steps on the moon, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, and the shame of Watergate. He was a voice who told us who we as a nation and as Americans were.

Ever since I moved to France as a permanent resident, married to a French man, and actually lived more of French culture than sidewalk cafés and cinéma, museums and monuments I understood what de Toqueville meant when he said that American democracy loves comfort. I understood, too, how little our two revolutions really had in common, and what I love is how much the present political atmosphere feels like the French Revolution (the 97% rose up against the 3%), which was a true revolution.

Ours, as someone I know said -- in reply to my longstanding argument that ours actually had next to nothing whatsoever in common with the French Revolution, with which ours is compared as the inspiration of the French in their own, and which fact is commonly taught in our middle and high school years, and even as early as elementary school (at least when I was in it), -- he learned in graduate school, was really but a rebellion.

In our American colonial rebellion, I argue, the 3% got the 97% to help free themselves of taxes to the crown, with a nice helping of freedom and rights along the way, inspired, it is true, by the Enlightenment philosophers, but with much of the work to improve the lives of the 97% left undone. They have continued to delude themselves into thinking they are just like the rich, only they don't have as much money, but the opportunity is just around the corner. Our "American Dream". A cynical convenience of the ruling class to keep everyone else satisfied in the idea that ours is a society without class.

But there is a greater consequence. A society without class creates desires that are unrealistic, ambitions that cannot be fulfilled; those who make money selling those who have little things they don't need on credit they haven't earned don't want them to know how short-term and dangerous is their game of self-enrichment. The rich get richer, while the middle class joins the poor. Le pouvoir d'achat French President Nicolas Sarkozy called "purchasing power" during the election as candidate, promising the French that he would put more wealth in their hands if they voted for him. It's the economy, stupide.

Give them the notion that they can afford more, and they will be happy, but the French have long known what Americans do not like to accept, and this, in part, explains their long faces and long-suffering fatalisme (you know, what Americans traveling in France take for French rudeness): that economies cannot grow forever, that human beings should not work 10 hours a day, 50 weeks of the year, and not every child is "above average". Their cars are not only smaller and consume less, they can drive more kilometers. Their electricity is not only nuclear and hydro powered, but wind turbines dot the landscape. Their health care is not only available, it is available to all and affordable. Their salaries do not buy as much, after taxes to pay for their health care and retirement, but they are more equitable, their vacation time affording them time to spend with their family and friends. Life, they know, costs. Everyone, they accept, deserves dignity and basic services, like education, health care and a decent retirement, and everyone will pay for that. Their middle class exists, their working class lives well enough, and the rich contribute more than everyone else; everyone has a place in the Republic.

This is the time, thanks to Wall Street's implosion under the pressures of greed and derision, corporate America's melt-down under the load of the costs of retirement and health care, and the GOP's unraveling right along with them, leaving the lunatic fringe and white/right supremacists as its only constituency in its refusal to see all Men as created equal and the march of society's progress, for that revolution; for the 97% to take charge and create the society and the government worthy of our founding documents.

And, here is one moment that sums up the thoughts of a man with his finger on the pulse of American society and politics on the existence of a ruling class in America. Note that the edge of regret, as though forcing himself to speak of something he would rather not have to, much less acknowledge.

And that's the way it is, Saturday, July 18, 2009.

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