The United States enters the new year a deeply dysfunctional society with a severely fractured political establishment and a dearth of ideas about how to confront either. Police routinely abuse black men and men of all colors routinely abuse women. The closing of the racial and gender gaps is a cruel fiction. The gulf between rich and poor grows ever wider, while the so-called social safety net is in tatters. It matters little that Barack Obama has been a godsend, because the president has been abandoned by fellow Democrats while Republicans, addicted to dog-whistle obstructionism and fighting old wars, have no clue as to how to help govern a nation out of perpetual crisis even if they wanted to.
Students of American history will find a certain perverse logic in this societal malaise, as well as why there are so many pols from both parties bellying up to the big trough called Capitol Hill where they gorge on the gifts bestowed on them in return doing the bidding of a powerful corporatocracy that has become a shadow government. You know, Wall Street interests, defense interests, fossil-fuel energy interests, pharmaceutical interests, and so on and so forth. Besides which, perpetually raising money to run for re-election is a jolly sight better than actually having to do anything to help a struggling middle class, rebuild a crumbling infrastructure and invest in stuff like education.
Back in the day, the Founding Fathers declared that "All men are created equal," and there was no suggestion that they might have been alluding to the little women they went home to each night to powder their wigs for them after the exhausting job of trying to form a new republic. In a knock down-drag out fight that has been going on for decades, women have clawed their way to a modicum of equality, even as many have chosen to continue to walk a step or two behind their husbands, and a woman may even become the next president. Unfortunately for women, today's Republican Party and its handmaiden conservative Supreme Court majority have labored diligently to deny or take away many of the rights that men -- well, white men, anyway -- take for granted. For them, having double standards is twice as good as having standards. Meanwhile, Democrats work on perfecting their coward act.
As for blacks, the Founding Fathers struck a wink wink-nod nod deal that anything having to do with racial minorities, which is to say blacks who were routinely indentured, exploited and oppressed, which virtually all of them were at the time, would be ignored because the third-rail issue of slavery would wilt even the most heavily powdered wig and kill any hope of forming that new republic. In a not dissimilar knock down-drag out fight to that waged by women, blacks also have clawed their way to a modicum of equality, and one is president. And while overt racism has pretty much crawled into the shadows, a systemic and institutionalized racism persists. The selfsame GOP and that high court majority, who like Shakespeare's Iago seem to revel in the pain they cause others, have worked hard to whittle away at blacks' achievements. Meanwhile, Democrats work on perfecting their coward act.
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I saw enough bad police behavior to last several lifetimes during the 21 years I worked for one of Philadelphia's two major daily newspapers. This did not make the unjustified and widely publicized killings of black men by police officers in a St. Louis suburb and on Staten Island in the year past any less vile. It merely reconfirmed for me that until the police in this country are brought under control, there can be no racial rapprochement. That also applies to many police officers' lah-di-dah attitude about the abuse of women, something that is deeply enshrined in our culture whether you are white, black, Latino or Asian.
During my two-plus decades in Philadelphia, officers routinely brutalized criminal suspects and innocents alike with little likelihood of their being sanctioned by their department, let alone charged with criminal offenses. Efforts to reform the department through blue-ribbon panels, task forces and legislative fiats came and went with the seasons and today, 13 years after I left the City of Brotherly Love, its police department remains deeply corrupt and rogue officers -- taking advantage of a powerful police union, weak laws and compliant district attorneys -- continue to terrorize the communities they are sworn to protect.
What for me deeply complicates matters is that beyond the reality that race has never been easy to discuss in this country, even in the thoroughly integrated newsroom where I toiled in Philadelphia, the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island again showed that people find themselves forced to take sides.
Because Brown had stolen a box of cigarillos from a convenience store, he was fair game for a fusillade of bullets from Officer Darren Wilson's revolver in the yes of many people. Garner died from a chokehold administered by Officer Daniel Panteleo, a clear violation of department regulations, while five other officers looked on, but the lines were no less blurred although Garner's "crime" was selling single cigarettes for a dollar each on the street. If you were white and empathized with Brown or Garner, you were soft on criminals, or worse, a "nigger lover."
An overriding lessons from these killings are that they are merely the tip of an immense iceberg, and that the criminal justice system, as we were reminded from the grand jury proceedings in both cases, is hard-wired to disenfranchise victims and their families, especially if they are black and poor, and to protect vested interests.
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Isn't it stunning, just stunning, that in America today being a woman and being pregnant means you can be discriminated against by your employer? Well not really, because we live in an era when the attack on women, whether it be matters of equality or reproductive and employment rights, is relentless.Take the case of Peggy Young, who used to drive for a parcel delivery service. When she became pregnant, her doctor recommended that she avoid lifting anything heavy. Her employer responded by placing her on unpaid leave, and she lost her paycheck, disability benefits and pension. Young's employer was not some mom-and-pop outfit. It was the United Parcel Service, which has nearly 400,000 employees, raked in nearly $55 billion last year, and is one of the largest corporations in the U.S. Young sued UPS under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the case percolated up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she is almost sure to lose despite the fact that her dismissal was plain wrong, women make up 47 percent of labor force, and 62 percent of women who gave birth in 2013 were in that labor force.
There is ample precedent for the high court telling Young to shut up and go bake cookies because it already has smacked down women in cases involving equal pay, medical leave, abortion and contraception. Kind of reminds you of one of those gender-obsessed Islamic states, doesn't it?
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While a recent poll on Americans’ opinions on economic and financial issues found that only 64 percent of respondents said they still believed in the American Dream, the lowest result in two decades, the overriding reason for there being a dearth of ideas on how to deal with our societal morass is that many people are deeply in denial. They not only don't believe their country is in crisis, they still believe it is the best on earth. This is not to ignore that the national snooze alarm does go off now and then: There were mostly peaceful demonstrations following the Brown and Garner grand jury belly flops and outrage over the Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing CIA depravities. There does seem to be a new age of activism, although I have to wonder where these people were during the Iraq War.
The U.S. was indeed once an indisputably great country, and in some respects perhaps the greatest country. I speak not of American Exceptionalism, the belief of neoconservatives and some fundamentalist Christians that God made this nation to spread liberty and democracy to the unwashed masses, in the case of the Iraq war, at point of gun. I speak of a nation where prosperity and success could be attained through hard work, where there were myriad educational and job opportunities, where no infrastructure improvement, be it a dam, rail line or highway, was too ambitious, and where borders were open to people in pursuit of that American Dream.
But in recent decades America's standing has steadily eroded, and today it is indisputably no longer a great country, ranking at or near the bottom among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures.
America is first by some measures, all of them negative: These include infant mortality, incarceration rates and anxiety disorders, as well as that gulf between the rich and everyone else that accelerated during the Bush Recession as the economy tanked and unemployment soared while CEOs and their corporations pocketed record stock dividends and profits. (From 2009 to 2012, a mind-blowing 95 percent of new income went to the top 1 percent). But by other measures, including life expectancy, despite by far the highest health-care costs in the world, as well as obesity, child poverty, commitment to infrastructure development, broadband access and arts funding, America ranks dead last or nearly so.
How America stands in relation to other so-called civilized countries when it comes to police forces is . . . well, criminal.
American cops shot and killed at least 450 people last year, a disproportionate number of them black men; no one is sure what the real number is because police departments are notoriously lax when it comes to reporting statistics that don't make them look good. By comparison, cops in England shot no one last year. Police forces in the U.S. have taken on a nasty paramilitary edge (what happened to community policing, fellas?), while SWAT team raids rose to 50,000 last year, way up from a mere 3,000 in 1980. And does anyone believe that police departments need grenade launchers?
If there is a common thread through all of this societal rot it is a rampant amorality, this in the churchgoing-est nation on Earth. Would Jesus have tortured?
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This hellbent race to the bottom ("We're Number 17! We're Number 17!") has been a group effort, but the three arms of government -- the executive, legislative and judicial branches -- that are supposed to be the custodians of our national interests must shoulder most of the blame, with a big helping left over for a complacent and compliant news media.
Nixon's excesses and Clinton's infidelities aside, the Bush-Cheney interregnum was not merely the darkest chapter in modern American history with its gross distortion of presidential power, it has remained a debilitating presence. While Obama has suffered his share of self-inflicted wounds, as well as the slings and arrows of cruel Republicans and spineless Democrats, the toxic fallout from the first eight years of the decade has compromised his ability to lead America out of the morass.
Congress deserves the harshest criticism because it is so out of touch with all but the most affluent and powerful Americans, as well as that corporatocracy. When I recently reread David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, I was struck by how President Johnson and his advisers had to escalate the Vietnam War by stealth because Congress would never have approved massive troop increases and a sustained bombing campaign because the American people would not have supported them. Contrast that with how Congress has rolled over on gun control again and again in fawning obeisance to the National Rifle Association, America's largest terrorist organization. Never mind that many of us favor toughening weak federal laws and demanded action in the wake of the Sandy Hook and other massacres made possible because of the wide availability of assault weapons, the sole purpose of which is to kill people. Yes, many of us also recognize that the epidemic of shoot-and-kill incidents by police is a direct consequence of our gun-sick culture.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become a branch of the Republican Party and the lapdog of the plutocracy, its hackery evident in decisions from Citizens United to enshrining workplace discrimination and validating civil liberties abuses such as voter disenfranchisement, to protecting Big Pharma from liability for killer drugs and medical devices.
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It was a Come to Jesus, or perhaps a Come to Vladimir moment:
Russian television networks gleefully leading their newscasts with footage from Ferguson as protesters took to the streets, first after the Brown shooting and then after a grand jury was manipulated into the decision to not charge Officer Wilson, some hurtling rocks at riot police, others torching and overturning cars, and still others looting stores. After absorbing a steady diet of assertions from Washington for years that the Russian government abuses its citizens and denies them fundamental human rights, the shoe was on the other foot.
And damned if it wasn't a perfect fit.
IMAGE: "TATTERED AND TORN" BY JAMES DAVID FENICIE
© 2010, IMAGE USED WITH AUTHOR'S PERMISSION
© 2010, IMAGE USED WITH AUTHOR'S PERMISSION