The blight of corporate neglect and economic depression was nothing less than breathtaking. The main streets of town after town were boarded up, with only a smattering of dollar stores, payday loan shops, liquor vendors and storefront churches open. Hideously over sized franchise signs scraped the sky in all their familiar impertinence. Big box stores and fast food restaurants were clustered around predictable junctions along the highways in an uninspired, formulaic pattern. It became apparent to me that these islands of banality offered some of the only employment for the people who lived in these regions.
These are the hard truths about America, a “shithole” shrouded in delusions, feckless nationalism and layers of supercilious bravado, where corporations, which siphon hundreds of billions of dollars from public coffers via tax evasion and subsidies, are rarely held to account. Industry poisons the water, eviscerates ancient mountains, and devastates urban and rural communities with impunity. This is the “indispensable nation” where more of its citizens are locked behind bars than elsewhere in the world, and usually for non-violent offenses. Where police murder unarmed people in hotel hallways or for traffic violations and get away with it. Where investment in military weapons that terrorize the poor in other nations is exponential, but investment in veterans assistance is nil.
And yet despite this dire landscape where inequity is exploding and infrastructure is failing at breakneck speed, the supremacist concept of “American exceptionalism” has bamboozled millions into believing they live in the greatest nation on the planet. A comment I read recently on a rightwing social media page underscores this disconnect from reality and parochialism even when it comes to one of its nearest neighbours:
“Canada compared to the United States is a third world nation. Roads full of potholes, slums, and terrible healthcare/short lifespan/terrible infant and maternal mortality. They should let Trump work to save their sad nation.”
The ignorance about “socialized medicine” is the tragic result of decades of indoctrination by the capitalist class. And, by proxy, the insurance industry, Big Pharma and other lobbies that have done their part to crush single payer, universal care. The result has been ridiculously high infant mortality rates compared with other developed countries, skyrocketing levels of bankruptcy due to medical expenses, and the resurgence of diseases associated with poverty, like hookworm. That some still think of Trump as a saviour is risible, but there is a deeper wound that has been ignored by most establishment liberals too ensconced in their privilege to notice. Magical thinking is like a drug. It can easily become a balm to those who face a daily litany of miseries and trials.
As a medical social worker I attempted to assist scores of families and individuals navigate these miseries. But I personally know what it is like to not have any kind of insurance and be fearful of getting sick or injured with no money to pay for exorbitant bills, and then to be handed an $11,000 bill for a few days stay in a hospital. I’ve felt the stigma myself of accepting county healthcare assistance which didn’t even cover a fraction of the costs, and being treated like a social pariah because of it. I also know what it is like to watch loved ones who had no money and, although they were deathly ill, try to leave the hospital because they had incurred $80,000 in medical bills which they knew they would never be able to pay. It alters every aspect of a person’s life and leaves one in a state of perpetual anxiety where the only escape is often found in either addiction, magical thinking or some combination of the two.
Poverty is an imposed oppression, the byproduct of rampant greed and the bastard child of the capitalist class. But Americans who are poor are ladled with both the torment of financial worry and the noxious guilt of feeling like they are defective human beings. The “Oprah effect” has convinced many that their failure to succeed in this inherently unjust system is a personal flaw. It is all about the self and the deceptively cruel mantra of positive thinking. One can see this quite clearly in media and entertainment. Any one who is wealthy is cast in an almost deified light while the poor are punchlines, routinely lampooned as “trailer park trash” or demonized as “welfare queens.”
This arrangement, as the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. alluded to, has been a boon for the ruling classes who, year after year, strip away the last vestiges of the social safety net while they make it easier for them to amass more wealth. By deflecting analysis and criticism of the current order to things like “personal responsibility” they create the conditions of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.” In this kind of society citizens are transformed into “consumers.” Civics and politics are reduced to spectacle. Every political leader is a millionaire or billionaire. Celebrity scandals dominate the media cycle. The wealthy are endlessly lauded for their “accomplishments.” Societal infrastructure and works for the public good are neglected or demolished. Ecosystems are denuded and degraded. And each person becomes an island unto themselves without agency.
History is replete with examples of how this type of framework fails, especially when it is sustained by perpetual war, economic oppression and the destruction of the biosphere. It will eventually break simply due to its dearth of substance and integrity. To be sure, no one knows when this will happen, or how. But we should all tremble before the storm of rage that will rise when it does.
Kenn Orphan, 17 January 2018