James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Reasons for despair, reasons for hope

By Virginia Martin

While on the Centre for Research on Globalisation Web site recently, I read an article by Carolyn Baker, who wrote that she believes Americans are addicted to happiness, and that we are unwilling to suffer or even accept the reality of bad news. Before we find "fixes" for the problems of war and the economy and other issues, she believes. we will have to pay attention to the bad news, to suffer, and to give up hope of quick fixes.

(For the Baker article, go to http://globalresearch.ca/articles/BAK411C.html)

I agree with much of what Baker says about our unwillingness to suffer and our ostrich approach to facts. We do have a predilection for protecting ourselves from unpleasantness—but I don’t know that it is an addiction, and I don’t think it’s happiness that we are as in love with as much as privilege.

Americans do not seem to me a particularly happy people. The piles of toys (adult and child) in our homes, our stores, shouting at us from newspaper supplements, and drumming away at us on television threaten to sweep us away in a sea of paper and noise, evidence in my mind that Americans are deeply unhappy and afraid. We try to smother our sadness and fear with things and goods and money and our fast pace and television and radio—dumbly, blindly, with seldom a moment for quiet. Runners wear headphones, radios and muzak run in our ears as we wait interminably on the phone. Everywhere, car stereos blast rap, and everywhere, everywhere, everywhere the cell phones. God forbid that one of us should find ourselves in a quiet moment without something to distract us. There’s little room for enough quiet and time to concentrate to read, to think, to listen, perhaps most of all to ourselves, but that’s another discussion.

Born in the United States, we were born into privilege. Throughout most of our history, our geography has given us the privilege of being too distant for other countries to attack us on our own soil. The places most of our foreparents left were smaller countries, most of them, jammed together cheek by jowl. The boundaries could not be pushed out, except by war. Land grew increasingly scarce, until the land that fathers could pass along to the sons (and it was almost always a male privilege) became increasingly miniscule.

In America, on the other hand, the land seemed boundless, infinite. No one even knew the expanse of it for a long time. Every immigrant could have a piece of it in the great American Jeffersonian ideal of a republic of land-owning farmers. Our natural resources gave us great wealth—what seemed like inexhaustible forests and clear waters and wildlife and rich soil and minerals.

Despite the great wealth and expanse of country, we grabbed the land from those who were already here, paid abysmally for it in treaty agreements, and then broke the treaties when it suited us. Some of the leaders of our state of Minnesota are trying to do that now—break an agreement because it turns out casinos are lucrative. We enslaved blacks to work our fields, construct our capital city, build railroads, dig ditches, and, of course, serve as "breeders" in nonconsensual sex to make more "human resources" that could be put to work to make our country wealthy.

In a remarkably short time, the buffalo and passenger pigeons were gone, as was the best land with its fertile soil. Many of the powerless were left with rocky, thin soil, marshland and cutover land that yielded a marginal existence to the most intrepid and strongest of souls—and that not for any length of time. The pine trees that were the source of the lumber baron’s and railroad magnates vast wealth mostly were cleared by the turn of the 20th century.
Our forefathers were loath to give up their privileges and did so only partially and grudgingly, extending suffrage, only to property owners, then all white males, and eventually, blacks, Native Americans, and women. (Of course, it’s still grudging and equality is a long way off.)

The attack on the World Trade Center did change things, but I don’t think that change was a loss of happiness, nor the "loss of innocence," that we hear so much about whenever something calamitous happens. The scales fell from our eyes, perhaps, in that sudden violence—we could no longer believe that the oceans protected us from attack on our own soil. We had lost the privilege of isolation. We learned fear on a level that we had not known before, even probably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the height of the Cold War. And we were angry!
What I do see is not an addiction to happiness but an apparent deliberate blindness not only to our privilege, but to all the stuff —cars, cheap gas, cheap clothing and cheap food, snowmobiles and jet skis, iPods, dazzling "accessories" for our homes and our bodies—we and our children take for granted. We are oblivious to its real costs.

We ignore Wal-Mart’s policies of squeezing and screwing the worker and the supplier to keep prices low—means by which they eliminate all the other retailers. We ignore global warning, made little protest when the Bush Administration withdrew from the Kyoto treaty, or prevented a global climate conference from making any serious headway. People defend their right to drive SUVs despite the war in Iraq. About 60 percent of the people who voted for George W. Bush still believe that there are so-called weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq had links to Al Qaeda.

Images of torture have faded in our minds, and only a few seem to care about the prisoners who have been sitting in Guantanamo for the last 18 months without benefit of counsel or even charges being brought. Most Americans don’t know and don’t care that probably most of the imprisoned in Cuba and abroad are innocents, rounded up en masse; someone must be punished! People are willing to give up freedom to be safe, but don’t notice and don’t care that the measures we take do nothing to protect us, but do take away our freedom—which is the main purpose of the measures.

Carolyn Baker says we take the path of least resistance. I say, we are lazy and in denial.

We don’t want to confront the hard issues. We’d rather be "entertained" by the evening news reports full of human interest stories, sociology, trivia, pleasant banter, and skewed and inaccurate news. We wont spare a little time to learn what is going on.

Not everyone can be or wants to be a wonk, but if we are going to continue to be a democracy—something not at all clear—it would behoove us to at least learn that Iraq had no WMD and no ties to Al Qaeda. Or that Social Security is not in crisis. We eat McDonald’s hamburgers, either unaware or not caring that rain forests have been bulldozed for beef pastures so we can have our cheap fast-food fix, despite the resulting damage—mudslides, widespread damage, death. We ignore the budget deficits and even our own self-interest as unemployment and underemployment grow, as more people face life with no health insurance, as real pay is reduced over the years, and more are forced to work overtime without pay.

I agree with Baker: the bills are coming due, and that it is time now for us to pay. But I’m not sure I’d say "unfortunately."

We may get another chance if we start making payments before the apocalypse. A draft might be a good thing—we’d probably end this war in a hurry if our privileged children had to fight in it. We’re going to have to learn that we cannot keep charging our wars and occupations, that we’re going to pay for the budget deficit and trade imbalances—maybe sooner than we expected. We cannot keep on granting tax "relief" to our wealthiest citizens, or refusing to raise taxes at all to fund our schools, health services, and even basic infrastructures, and local police and fire departments. We are going to have to relearn what we once knew—that decent pay and benefits, an outstanding educational system and help for those who need it for child care and health insurance produces a more prosperous citizenry, who work and pay taxes.

We have to stop letting groups like the Taxpayers League bamboozle us into dismantling the government, and that means paying attention and asking questions.

My despair is that I have come to realize that things are not—as we optimistic liberals used to believe—going to get better in this country, at least not for a long time. I suddenly realized one day that abortion rights, once won, could in fact be taken back, and so could the principle of progressive taxation, and so could the successful Social Security program that keeps older people out of poverty – and oh how the neocons lie and fake numbers on that.

The source of my despair is that many people ignore facts, evidence, logic, and reason, and are willing to vote against their own best self-interest,.

I have believed for a long time now that we would go out with a whimper not a bang. Climate change. Loss of freedom, a little here, a little there, a few rounded up there, incarcerated here without due process. Someone silenced. A peaceful protest halted. The pool of unemployed workers grows, and people fear trying to start a union, get benefits, or even complain about off-the-clock time.

But there are things that give me hope. I find hope that all of you are reading what Baker and others have to say over an Internet that broadly disseminates information (and some disinformation) that you won’t find on your TV or in most newspapers. There is hope in the involvement of all the people who came together in the last year or so in the Democratic Party and in organizations like MoveOn, ACT, Get Out the Vote, not to mention the ACLU, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, and in the actions of all kinds of heroes, many of whose names we don’t know, but some we do: Bill Moyers, Davidson Loehr (a Unitarian minister), FCC commissioners Michael Adelstein and Michael Copps, Mark and David Wellstone. Rosa de la Cueva Peterson (a get out the vote coordinator).

All the people who told the FCC that they didn’t want more power in the hands of a few media conglomerates gave reason for hope. So did the Ukrainian people, and all those who light candles at vigils and stand on overpasses holding peace signs in cold and rain. I draw hope from my sister-in-law, who buys books and leaves them in public places for others to pick up, read, and pass on. There is hope in all of us who stand up, let people know we’re still here, and we’re not giving up.

I find hope that many of the 49 percent who voted for John Kerry are watching events unroll with increasing foreboding and mounting dismay, and speaking up. Violence increases abroad and we know lies and greed have created the chaos; Rumsfeld is challenged by a soldier about armor for the troops, and his answer finally seems to wake up people to his callous and bloody failures.

What gives me hope is that I believe that life reaches toward life. Our bodies’ mechanisms are designed to heal, and the earth tries to repair itself. The plant in the yard angles toward the sun, weeds and bushes grow up around the ruins and return them to the soil, and the daisy blooms in a crack in the sidewalk. If we survive, I believe it will be because that yearning toward life will kick in even though we must first face our destruction and death and what we have done. Margaret Mead’s comment, often used, but not overused, is apt here: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Virginia (Ginny) Martin has been a professional writer and editor for what she claims is forever, but hasn't tired of it yet. After serving in forgettable corporate jobs, then at UPI in Chicago (she worked there during the Cuban missile crisis), and the Chicago Police Department (she was there during the 1968 Democratic National Convention), she returned to Minnesota and became an editor and writer at the Minnesota Historical Society, which she left, finally, thinking to get rich writing technical documentation. She's been an independent for the last 10 years, and most of her work now is devoted to history, which she loves most (while making an occasional foray into politics, which she does not regard as a digression). She currently is researching and writing a book about the Summit-University area of St. Paul, where she has lived for more than 20 years.