“Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” – Eugene Debs
“The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.” – Gore Vidal
It was about a year ago that United Nation’s special rapporteur, Philip Alston, issued a report on the dire state of the American republic. It revealed that upwards of 40 million Americans live in poverty. Among its findings:
- By most indicators, the US is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined.
- US health care expenditures per capita are double the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average and much higher than in all other countries. But there are many fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average.
- US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
- Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow.
- U.S. inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries
- Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
- The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
- In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
- America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.
- The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.
- The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
- In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
- According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries
- The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.
- About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%. Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).
These are staggering figures; but the report resonated with me on a visceral level. I’ve lived all over the United States for most of my life, but it was my crisscrossed traverse across the continent two years ago that opened my eyes to the scale of destitution of which so many have become desperately ensnared.
I drove across the north, south and middle of the United States with my sister several times because we had to care for my mother who resided in Florida. We finally decided to move her back to Canada with us after my father died because we knew she would not receive the care she needed in the States. In those many long days on the interstate I saw what America had transformed into.
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 oversized franchise signs scraped the sky in an all too 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. And the police patrolled every street constantly, making life feel rather like a prison camp.
These are the hard truths about America, a nation drowning 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 stairwells, or hotel hallways, or for routine traffic stops and almost always get away with it. Where domestic violence often spills over to mass shootings which have become an almost daily occurrence. Where life expectancy is rapidly declining in a trend not seen since World War I. Where investment in military weaponry that terrorize the poor in other nations is exponential, but investment in veterans assistance is nil.
And yet despite this landscape of misery where inequity is exploding and infrastructure is failing at breakneck speed, the supremacist concept of “American exceptionalism” has managed to bamboozle millions into believing they live in the greatest nation on the planet. Social media has become a strange place to see this mythology in living colour. One comment on a Facebook post about the refugee crisis underscored this disconnect:
“These people need to clean up their own sorry countries. People all over the world just want to get into America because of its free stuff. It is the greatest nation on the planet!”
The sentiment echoed many others I read that exhibited an extraordinary lack of curiosity and willful ignorance about their nation’s enormous role in creating the miserable conditions these people were fleeing from in the first place. That the CIA supported and aided rightwing coups in these nations (and scores of others) was simply not in their orbit. Another comment parroted Donald Trump’s dehumanization of asylum seekers as “invaders.” Never mind the fact that it has been the US which has invaded dozens of nations, including several in Central and South America over its rather short history. And the reference to “free stuff” is shocking too, considering social services have been drastically cut in most places.
But it was this comment I read recently on a rightwing social media page that I found the most dumbfounding because it referred 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 and short lifespan. They should let Trump work to save their sad nation.”
I’ll admit I had to stop and read that one twice. Of course Canada has many problems, its Tar Sands, arms dealing, and abysmal treatment of the First Nations communities among them, but the one thing that stood out was the ignorance about so-called “socialized medicine.” This is a recurring theme and is the tragic result of decades of indoctrination by the capitalist class of the country. Both ruling parties have long been in bed with the insurance industry and Big Pharma which has derailed every effort for universal, single payer healthcare. The result has been ridiculously high infant mortality compared with other developed countries, skyrocketing levels of bankruptcy and foreclosures due to medical expenses, and the resurgence of disease associated with poverty.
That some still think of Trump as a saviour may be 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, humiliations and trials. As a medical social worker I attempted to assist scores of families and individuals navigate these miseries. My battles were with insurance companies refusing coverage, not doctors.
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.
In contrast I’ve taken a relative to the hospital in Canada for severe abdominal pain and saw her met with immediate care. She was rushed into emergency surgery without ever once having to worry about the cost. This not to say the Canadian healthcare system does not have its problems. It does. And we can discuss them at some other point. But there is no comparison to a nation where ordinary citizens put off vital treatment or medicine for fear of a staggering bill or where GoFundMe has fast become the go to source for assistance with exorbitant medical expenses.
Poverty is an imposed oppression, the byproduct of rampant greed and the bastard child of an ever decadent capitalist class. And the way it is imposed is through food, housing and healthcare insecurity. 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 because of their predicament. 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 its deceptively cruel mantra of positive thinking. One can see this quite clearly in media and entertainment. Anyone who is wealthy is cast in an almost deified light while the poor become punchlines, demonized, pitted against one another or ignored completely. But both ruling political parties espouse these values too. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is on record chiding a young constituent for daring to question this inherently unjust economic order by stating with pride “We’re capitalists.” As if making a religious declaration of faith.
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 a beleaguered social safety net while making it easier for them to amass even more wealth. They have managed to deflect analysis and criticism of the current order by constantly referring to “personal responsibility” as the source of the problem, and this has created what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.” A kind of partially self-imposed oppression of the corporate mind, where 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” while societal infrastructure and works for the public good are neglected or demolished. Ecosystems are denuded and degraded for corporate profit. Each person becomes an island unto themselves without agency. And all of it is normalized by mass media.
History is replete with examples of how this framework often leads to fascism. Neglect of civic education and economic justice create the conditions that enable its rise. Trump, then, shouldn’t be regarded as an anomaly. He is the logical result of decades of neoliberal capitalist corruption in both ruling political parties. And he is pulling the levers that he knows will work in this machine: nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, conspiratorial thinking, racism, authoritarianism, demonization of the press, scapegoating, nationalism, confusion.
Distracting the populace (and the press for that matter) from the real threats to their existence and their day to day economic degradation has become Trump’s raison d’etre. Of course he is downplaying recent dire climate change reports despite the scorched earth in California or the flattened towns on the Florida panhandle because his focus must be on the other, the foreigner, the migrant. He can dehumanize, deport or easily exterminate them if politically necessary. In other words, deal with the “problem.” Climate change? Not so much.
Thankfully there has been push back, but the fundamental narrative must still be challenged. The US is textbook example of neoliberal, corporate capitalism run amok. Most taxes go for a bloated military that slaughters the poor in other countries and protects the interests of the wealthy. But there is entrenched illiteracy in the culture when it comes to this rather odious reality. The military is still adored in most precincts of society, from sports to education to religion. To criticize its’ size or the money ($716 bn) it receives is considered heresy in both ruling political parties. This might explain the impunity an increasingly militarized police force has when they crackdown on dissent or terrorize communities of colour. And there is little to no mainstream public discourse that addresses any of it.
It is the American mind that needs to be deprogrammed of this narrative for there to be any meaningful change. A mind rife with fallacies and delusions about its greatness. An attitude that ignores the reality of its dire condition and instead embraces national myths and fantasies. As long as the issue of class continues to be ignored or talked about in terms that obscure its role in political agency desperate people will look to authoritarian answers and despots that soothe their base fears and prejudices. The gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest will grow ever wider as the ecology and living standards degrade. Neglect in an age of biospheric crisis will become even more normalized. Civil rights and liberties will continue to be weakened and chipped away. As long as capitalism remains sacrosanct and considered irreproachable, the descent toward full blown fascism will eventually turn into a free fall.
Kenn Orphan November 2018