Calhoun’s Can(n)ons for Sept 18, 09
Former President Jimmy Carter’s recent remarks to NBC’s Brian Williams was a welcome breath of fresh air in what too often has turned into a weird psycho-socio-political, Jung/Freudian chthonic brew that’s been swirling around legislation that’s supposed to be about “health care reform.” As with most things, the health care debate too often isn’t really about health care.
Here’s what it’s really about: fear, money, power, class, hypocrisy, race, status, politics, subtext and “morality,” the usual suspects in a country constantly in denial about its history and its ongoing reality. In short, all the usual suspects that we are taught from an early age NOT to discuss honestly in polite company.
Here’s what Carter observed, “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barak Obama is based on the fact he is a black man, that he’s African American. . . . I live in the South, and I’ve seen the south come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country that shared the South’s attitude towards minority groups at the time, particularly African Americans. . . . And that racism inclination still exists.”
Here’s one of the signs carried by some “tea party” participants: “I want my country back.”
Here’s the subtext of that Cri de Coeur: Bring back the good old days of the white, Anglo Saxon power structure, the days when uppity minorities knew their place and a poor working class white man could feel he was better than . . . well, somebody.
And here’s the missing reality that nobody wants to honestly discuss in polite company. For at least 20 years, The American Dream World has been slowly turned upside down. The working class has been gutted, well paying manufacturing jobs have moved offshore, to the benefit of the corporate bottom line. America doesn’t make very much any more; it just consumes what others have made. That’s not a sustainable model for any society. Meanwhile, the middle class has been systematically diminished as the nation’s wealth (and tax breaks) were deliberately moved to benefit fewer and fewer groups at the very top. The consolidation of Corporate America, the rise of “Wall Street,” the marriage of corporate and congress has given us an unbalanced wealth distribution not seen since the days of the Robber Barons at the turn of the century. Toss in an economic collapse, add in a racial demographic shift, with “minorities” soon to be the “majority” in a few years, and you have the makings of a revolution.
But what kind of “revolution,” will depend on how honest we can be with one another about what has happened to this country while we were all in a trance shopping at the Mall. That’s why Jimmy’s ear for subtext is so valuable. A son of the South, he, better than most, hears what may be inaudible to many others. He knows the code, the wink-nudge, the unspoken look. He knows too the hidden fears, the dark heart, the history.
And it isn’t just a “southern” history. It’s American. It’s Apple Pie. And it is dangerous.
President Obama, in his address to Congress, set the discussion about “health care” into terms of “morality,” and “character.” What kind of nation are we that we continue to allow millions of our fellow Americans to sicken and die because they can’t afford proper medical care? No other “civilized” country does that. Only in America.
And we do that because we haven’t had an honest national dialogue about the real meaning of the founding documents we pretend to cherish, you know, all that stuff about all men being created equal, or equal justice under law, or equal opportunity or level playing fields or promoting the general welfare, or all of us being Americans and being in the same boat. All nice sentiments, useful for rhetorical flourishes on the Fourth of July, but the reality is this: In America, wealth, power, class and status are what we value, not “equality.” The rich powerful citizen is of value; the poor citizen is not. That’s the American “character” as it is lived in real time.
And it is of supreme irony that so many of the millions of people who have been systematically devalued and dismissed are the very people who voted for politicians and policies that devalued and dismissed them. And so they show up with signs about getting their country back from some illegitimate, black socialist commie Hitlerian usurper, not realizing that the old system they want back was the one that kicked them to the curb in the first place. And the only way they have any hope of hanging onto their piece of the American Pie is to understand that promoting the general welfare is meant to include them. But that will only happen if they insist that those who live on Main Street have as much, if not more, value than a corporate entity known as “Wall Street,” that lifelines have more value than bottom lines, and that the citizen is first in line, not under the stairs hoping for a few patronizing scraps.
Because we ignored that simple idea, we’ve brought ourselves to a crisis in search of solutions. Which means we can recalibrate, we can change directions, we can reassess our values and priorities so that we can change the way we treat one another and change the way America does business. But we can’t do any of those things unless we understand more clearly the meanings of the messages we are sending to one another, messages full of history, text, subtext, myth, reality, all being picked up by Jimmy’s finely-tuned ear.
And in those messages are some critical questions: Exactly what is it that people think they “want back?” Just what do we really value? What are our priorities? Is the country we have we created at this point really the one we want to live in and leave to our children?
If not, then it’s time to start working to form a more perfect union -- One honest brick at a time.