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March 22, 2016

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I used to like your blog, Michael, & I purchased Sand, & the Desert (nowhere near as interesting as Sand), but now you have decided to talk politics, you have lost me.

Ray - it was a one-off, from some kind of feeling of personal necessity. Sorry you feel this way, but fair enough.

Michael

The US was founded on land theft, then grew up on enslavement and forced labor. After a war that killed 800,000 people, chattel slavery ended (except where it didn't, or where it was replaced by mere individual slavery; read about winter tomatoes here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eve-turow/you-need-to-know-the-slavery-conditions-on-tomato-farms_b_6735842.html). We then moved into rampant legalized discrimination, redlining, and, more recently predatory lending practices that target the poor, but most specifically black and brown people. The idea that we were founded on diversity and inclusiveness only works if you are on the top already. Immigrants who aren't white are still being ghettoized, treated like dirt, and used as political footballs. The fact that poor white people are in the same boat now, having had the brief post-WWII promise of upward mobility stripped from them, is new, only in that is a return to the old.

When Trump calls for the deportation of millions of Mexicans, he's reliving the past, but that stuff was there for him to call on. His bellicose language is startling only in that he is saying out loud the kind of stuff that must have been said behind closed doors when the government was planning, for example, to invade Iraq for no goddamned reason whatsoever, or to assassinate democratically-elected Central American leaders because we didn't want the price of bananas to go up.

I think the problem isn't that the US has changed all that much. Rather, you are finally noticing the ugliness that was always there, but buried under the thinnest layer of hopeful-looking dirt.

You haven't offended me at all. I think instead that you aren't being harsh enough.

Blaize – many thanks for this. It has given me cause to reflect.

I realise that to a certain extent I am viewing things through somewhat rose-tinted glasses, coloured further by youthful recollections. In many ways, my comments on current events are cultural rather than political; I am certainly not trying to gloss over unpleasant history. I was, after all, a graduate student in the US during the Vietnam War and watched the first election of Richard Nixon. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated and riots were breaking out in cities across the country.

And yet, there was (it seemed to me) a continuing undercurrent of the optimism that had always been part of the national character: the late sixties were the last years in which incomes were broadly rising across American society, with income inequality at a low level never to be seen again. Well-placed anger at many social and political issues was expressed not only in riots and civil disobedience but in literate language with thoughtfulness underpinning genuine debate. No, I’m not saying that that has disappeared – far from it – it has simply been, more often than not, overwhelmed by the diatribes of the right-wing and the proudly ignorant ramblings of social media. Those were also the days of the Apollo program, a source of wonder and national pride in science and human endeavour. Today, the extraordinary accomplishments of the Mars rovers – and the people who made them possible – seem to occupy only obscure corners of the news.

I suppose that my perceptions of the US were formed in very different times and through the idealistic spectacles of youth. I will readily admit to some level of naivety in thinking that conditions should improve with time, not deteriorate. But I would still ask where that optimism has gone (slogans about making America great again don’t count).

Michael, I don't know when you stopped living in the US, but I suggest that you missed the counter-revolution here. Perhaps you witnessed Thatcher's version. Americans who believed in British civility and charm felt then rather as you describe feeling now.
Like Washington Roebling, who wrote during the turmoil of building the Brooklyn Bridge that only the study of minerals seemed reasonable to him, I find geology preferable to economics; as regards this one-off post, however, I'll note the view, associated with Robert Brenner, that after thirty years of post-war (WW II) prosperity in developed countries, money grew tighter, profits harder to obtain, and business practices much sharper, with government policy following business interests while wage-earners found it progressively harder to make ends meet. The view is effectively summarized here: https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/01/caputalism/
A full version is here: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/cstch/papers/BrennerCrisisTodayOctober2009.
Hard times and tight money, accompanied by many stories depicting some group or other as a threat to the success of US wage-earners, have in this view produced defensiveness and focus on immediate self-interest, which respond readily to assertive expression of that interest. On the other hand, a similar sense of dwindling hopes has also produced a new movement on the left seeking to recall the qualities that, like you, they see as endangered. In this, the US differs from England, France, Poland, Hungary, and other countries where developments such as you describe are also all too visible but not, to my knowledge, met by calls for social justice.
In sum: it's much easier to behave well when it's possible for most people to do fairly well. Otherwise, "Bad world for poor people." Their hardships, regrettably often, produce anger toward each other.
"Directly he had expressed that thought he became aware that it was familiar to him already in all its consequences. This circumstance strengthened his conviction immensely, but also augmented his indignation. Somebody, he felt, ought to be punished for it--punished with great severity. Being no sceptic, but a moral creature, he was in a manner at the mercy of his righteous passions." (Conrad, The Secret Agent)

Richard - you're right, timing is important. During the years of the "counter-revolutions" in both the UK and the US I was, in addition to trying to help raise a family and working internationally, perhaps rarely in the right place at the right time, and rarely in quite the right frame of mind to appreciate or evaluate sufficiently the omens of these changing times.

I was struck by the analysis in the "caputalism" link you provided and the quote from James Galbraith (whose father I watched speak from the steps of the Harvard administration building during the strike of 1969):

The era of prosperity between 1850 and 1970 has anchored in the economist fraternity the unspoken certainty that constant growth is “normality” but stagnation and crisis “the exception.” Galbraith now suspects: “Whatever worked in times gone may well no longer work today.”

1970 does clearly represent a turning point - see the dramatic graph of income inequality in this piece from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/louiswoodhill/2013/03/28/the-mystery-of-income-inequality-broken-down-to-one-simple-chart/#45eda24e4f48. As described in the article, "From 20 feet away, anyone can see that something bad happened to the U.S. economy in 1968. Prior to that, America experienced rapid income growth that was widely shared. The incomes of both “the ten percent” and “the ninety percent” increased by 80% in just 20 years. We had prosperity, without rising income inequality."

The UK followed exactly the same pattern, perhaps as is often the case, delayed by a couple of years from the US.

Perhaps I'm a living illustration of Mark Twain's view the "The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little." Or that "I was young and foolish then; now I am old and foolisher." For some strange reason, I take comfort in being foolisher. And also wish that Twain was still around - we need him.

An interesting further discussion of political turmoil in the USA is this
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/how-american-politics-went-insane/485570/

Its argument, that effective government, compromised in all senses of that word, has been rejected by both liberals and conservatives--that popular government is now deeply unpopular--strikes me as convincing.

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