A Freeway in Hell

My thoughts on the nature of our late capitalist society. The title should give some clue what I think of that! US 101 or I-80 as metaphor for our imperatives. Besides worrying about what sort of black hole we are speeding into, I like airships. One reason being the almost inescapble desire to have one to get out of a traffic jam!

Location: Sonoma County, California

Grew up a military brat, Californian-in-exile, reactionary libertarian-essentially spent the 70s on Mars, for I am hearing impaired and I did not know what the music was saying. Generally still don't unless I listen to it over and over or find the words captioned on a movie or somewhere on line. Came "back" to California to begin my adult life, have not lived elsewhere since. No regrets there despite our problems here. Have studied physics, more math than most human beings will ever need, worked on spaceship projects (well, one) at JPL. Lived with a wonderful disabled person who lives no more--L Natasha Littletree RIP October 2004. I have a life plan, just kind of vague on some of the short-term stuff.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

But What Does it Take To Acknowledge Everyone Matters?

Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon has gone deep toward the heart of the real conflict between "liberals" and "conservatives" in our country, echoing the wisdom of people like Rachel Maddow who when asked explain that "liberals care about the little guy." As Amanda says, the question is, "Who Counts?"

Wonderfully expressed, as far as it goes.

I still hold that one reason it was possible to twist the word "liberal" into a negative was that the Great Liberal Compromise of the mid-20th century hinged on making the very promise you point out we intend to keep--that all people everywhere count. I think most liberal political leaders and pundits actually meant it.

But the compromise came in when they considered the distance they had to go from American everyday reality to that goal. It seemed evident to most Americans that there really ought not to be any reason why in the great future of the American Century that stretched out before them that all serious problems might not be fixed by the first great democracy that had held first place as a world power. (No, Britain doesn't count, because the position of the British Empire was secured long before the franchise was extended to the majority of male subjects in Britain, let alone any women.) In other words--first of all it was all going to be contingent on an ever-advancing American Empire.

Second, it was going to be contingent on the hope that there were now (by say 1945) no severe structural issues within the USA that could not be negotiated away. That is--racism, homophobia, the second-class status of women, and the condition of the poorest Americans as they were by the end of WWII did not amount to a fatal disqualification of the USA as a democratic nation. You could hold that of course this that or the other oppresion was awful but it was on its way out, or you could hold that calling it an oppression overstated the case or that it wasn't a problem at all really to the enlightened mind. Anyone who believed otherwise could not rationally assume that we'd run our future or the world's any more wisely than any other pretentious world power had done before.

The crises of the '60s did indeed revolve around issues of "who counts?" Did foreign governments which happened to gainsay our dogmas count just because a lot of their people supported them? Did young men (then too young to vote, since the standard voting age used to be 21) count when they were needed in 'Nam, or did they only count _after_ they'd been initiated into manhood by military service as their fathers had legendarily been by WWII? Did people of color count just as much as white people? By the end of the '60s we had women pointing out all the systematic ways they were discounted, and even people of diverse sexual interests (who in 1945 were legally considered both criminal and insane and _certainly_ were not supposed to count) stepping forward and saying they actually did count too. And by then, the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement, which directly benefited mainly rural African-Americans still living in the South because they were mostly prohibitions of systematic denial of basic human and civil rights, had evolved into an explicit critique of the mainstream _economic_ setup that was the main factor in the de facto discrimination Northern, urban "minorities" faced. And programs and platforms that might address those issues immediately raised questions about how much these would take away from whites--whether in the form of taxes on the better-off, or of restrictions on "traditional" practices such as selectively hiring different ethnicities to different types of job. Or of stripping poorer white folks of an inflated ethnic pride of at least being of a superior race, which helped keep _them_ from rocking the economic boat even when they were down in the leaky bilge of it.

At this point, the question for liberalism was, could we make good on the promise? Could we offer people living overseas a way of life so much obviously better than what our rivals offered and they themselves could come up with that they'd freely join our project for a liberal world? Could we reform the obvious problems at home to demonstrate the perfection of the enlightened liberal order? And could any of this be done without completely tearing down and reconstructing on radically different lines the corporate capitalist order that clearly was the locus of American power? If not, would we gradually, in a constitutional, law-abiding way, reform the corporate order out of existance--or would the corporate order call bullshit on the promise and slap down all the pretensions of the various masses that they did indeed matter?

I am quite prepared to be proven completely wrong about my Marxist beliefs that in fact, the welfare of ordinary people and capitalism are in the end completely at odds. It might be nice to believe once again in the sort of optimistic, Tommorowland, shiny future I was raised to look forward to, one that would build on the power of "free enterprise" properly regulated by an enlightened and pragmatic democracy. But scientifically speaking I have to say it looks damned unlikely to me.

I don't think that we were chugging along fine in the 1960s and then we were mugged by a bunch of trogldytes in suits. It looks to me like all the people who uphold privilege, who will risk being oppressed themselves for the chance at spitting on others still lower than them, who accept as natural and inevitable that a few will prosper and the rest had better either serve them, get out of the way, or be mowed down, were in fact continuing a rival tradition just as much a part of the American vision as the Utopian dream of "liberty and justice for all" that has been intertwined with it since before 1776. If we could somehow reset our mindset to 1966 (without jettisoning all the progress made at least among progressive people on ethnicity, gender, ecology, and all that good hippie stuff) we'd just be stumbling back into the same mess within a decade, for the same reasons.

Liberalism was an attempt to lull the beast of privilege to sleep with soft words and lots of comfort food. If "liberalism" is to claim the label for the drive to achieve real human equality and universal mutual respect that we do indeed hold dear, at some point "liberalism" has to fight that beast, and see clearly what it is doing. In the 60s and 70s this did not happen, and so I can see why the term has a bad vibe to it today. Indeed, the hippies and Yippies and SDS and so on used the term about as perjoratively as El Rushbo does today, though with more justice since they were trying to take up the challenge rather than work for the Dark Side.

I don't mind people calling me a liberal, but I will call myself a "progressive," and often enough own up to actually being a Commie heathen space-case. I don't care about the label, I care about the faith that doing right by the little guy is the important thing.