Friday, August 7, 2009


Untitled from Andy Biscontini on Vimeo.

As the Summer That Wasn't winds to a close and the sea change some people seem to have been hoping -- or fearing -- would change life in America (universal health care, financial regulation, the prying of guns from cold, dead hands) reveals itself to be little more than a fart in the pool (incremental compromise, bailout bonuses, “take your gun to church night”), I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on what it is that makes this country Great.

Or, more accurately, Almost Great.

Because our Greatness in the world is not, nor arguably has ever been, based on any actual Greatness, but rather on the sustained potential for Greatness, and the ability of at least a portion of the population at any given moment to never stop striving for it, even if that involves shooting ourselves in the foot.

For if our Greatness lies in our potential for Greatness, to attain actual Greatness would be to destroy that which made us Great. Perhaps that’s why we seem to be hardwired to take two steps backward, or at best sideways, for every half-step forward.

Let me confess outright to being an optimist who loves this country and is proud of his grandfather’s contribution to defeating the Nazis. Landing on the moon was also cool. So are jazz, rock and roll, Thomas Pynchon and the automobile.

But optimism based on delusion is foolishness, and the surest way to destroy something you love is to idealize it (case studies: Jack Kerouac, Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, James Dean, Michael Jackson, the Constitution...).

Where the rest of the world’s populations, especially the social democracies of Europe (not without their own serious problems) and myriad local micro-economies of Asia (which will still exist once the current wave of centralized global investment recedes) have grown out of thousands of years of natural civic growth, the United States began only hundreds of years ago with the genocidal scrubbing of generations of existing indigenous civic progress and the imposition of a new and experimental socio-economic paradigm that was simultaneously a social experiment based on Enlightenment notions of human rights (irony noted) and a global commercial venture in the exploitation of natural resources, including human populations.

Rejecting the cynical view that the rights of man were nothing more than rhetoric adopted to sucker a population of hard-up farmers and craftsmen into the Revolutionary Army, I’ll say that the current relationship between those two founding principles is problematic in that, as they have grown increasingly divergent, we only acknowledge the former while living in the latter: the spirit of freedom in the Declaration of Independence is celebrated annually, men and women die for it daily, but the social framework in which we function from day to day is purely commercial.

The actual, hard parameters by which our individual freedoms are defined, be they narrow or vast, are drawn by neither the morality of Church, the laws of State nor the bonds of Family, but by the dictates of Commerce. We all know it. And it’s always been that way.

Everything in our lives depends on it: where we live, if and where we work and how we get there, the decisions we can or can’t make, our social status, our access to opportunity. It is so deeply integrated into the matrices of our existence that it has become inextricable from our selves.

Which, within the context of a Commercial Democracy, should not have to be a bad thing.

But, if left unchecked by social mandate, it can (and has, again and again) quickly become incredibly socially destructive.

Central to the problem as I see it is the fact that there has never been a tradition of open social discourse regarding Capital and its relation to society in the history of the United States.

Since the Declaration of Independence, I can think of only two organized movements to attempt such an engagement between Capital and the population in any significant way: the American Socialist movement of the early 20th century and the latter Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

(RIP, Ralph Nader)

Both were met with brutal oppressive violence, imprisonment and assassination.

Without falling into the kind of conspiratological nonsense that makes it even easier to write me off as a crackpot than it already is, or the kind of studied confrontation that would make me worth bumping off, suffice it to state that historical events make it difficult for me to swallow the argument that our system is shaped by unforced, organically occurring “market forces".

In the abstract, the dominant commercial culture of America, which bears de facto responsibility for one of the larger nations on the planet, for which it has never been held meaningfully accountable, remains terrified by the prospect of publicly acknowledging that the American Dream exists within a framework of an actual, tactile, real America made up of dirt and rock and water and human beings who get cancer from time to time and like to fuck.

Now might be a good time to revisit “The Grapes of Wrath” next to Nick Reding’s “Methland” to contemplate how the processes by which the combination of nature (drought) and unchecked free-market principles (banks) led Agriculture into the hands of conglomerates, and how it left a wake of blight decades wide.

Before you start screaming “pinko!” you should know that I believe in private capital and think it has an important place in the social compact, and that profit and competition can be effective engines for innovation.

But we live in a society in which no such compact defining the obligations of power has ever been articulated (unless you count Carnegie's well-meaning if lopsided "Gospel of Wealth," which I don't).

I also believe that the structural flexibility of the federal system allows for capital to flourish in a manner other than it currently does. Under current practices, the goal remains for individuals to suck enough wealth out of the confusion of the status quo to be somewhere else when the dam inevitably breaks. (See Johnstown, PA, 1889). You don't have to be a socialist to question whether or not that's good for society.

If you’re going to have a government (disclaimer: I consider anarchism the domain of the narcissistic ideological retard), it is the responsibility of that government as an extension, if we’re going to get representative about it, of We the People, to ensure that business is conducted in a way that benefits society and maintains the rule of law and our individual liberties.

As it is, our federal government has never been much more than Commerce’s scapegoat, enabler, whipping boy or attack dog, depending on which party was in power.

There’s no reason profit should, as a concept, negate the right of individuals to earn sufficient means for the opportunity to live a good life according to their abilities. But in this country, as income inequality grows, it has become increasingly unlikely.

And becoming big enough to swallow your competition doesn’t count as “competition.”

The Reagan Revolution has been seen to fruition, and it turned out to suck. Hard.

Until the Republican Party acknowledges that and comes up with a new approach not based on bald cons, they will not be relevant beyond what they currently are – a disorganized, bloated and fragile backstop against an increasingly well-armed, uneducated and angry right-wing fringe.

Meanwhile, the Democrats deserve credit for maintaining the consistency of their uselessness even with a mandate and a majority (sweet Christ what will it take to get Pelosi out of office?)

Barack Obama’s “Philadelphia Speech” is a landmark because it acknowledged the validity of the anger that still lingers in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, and by doing so confirmed the real possibility of the fulfillment of racial reconciliation.
(A beer at the White House? Between a black Harvard Professor and a white Cop? Seriously? I’ll pass.)

But the fact is, we have no problem talking about race in America. In fact, we love to talk about it in the same way we love to talk about real estate – in short-term, superficial and ultra-personalized terms.

Apparently, though, we’re still no more “ready” to talk about Capital’s relationship to society than we are to talk about single-payer health care. (I mean, what’s up with that?)

Nerves are so raw about it that the gentlest intimation of the need for discourse is branded incitement to class warfare – which, let me be very clear, is to be avoided -- and this silence has all but guaranteed the continuity of intransigence. It is assumed that violence is inevitable once the subject is raised.

To be able to address it non-violently as a nation through elective democracy and rational debate would render us truly, actually Great.

Which seems to be more than we can bear.

I don’t know where the voices in this conversation will come from. The easily dismissed postings of un-credentialed outsider thinkers like myself aren’t going to make a dent. But I feel an urgent need to begin to hear them.

The Unions are in the woods and haven’t been articulate since Debs.

I don’t think the Obama Administration has the credibility to address it: Geithner and Summers may know how to talk to bankers and policy-makers but they sure as hell don’t know how to talk to anybody else.

And at this point Rubin, if he really is smarter than the rest of the knuckleheads who claim to have believed that anything expressed mathematically was a good idea (and that the clusterfuck we’re in now was an honest case of putting the chart before the horse and not a bunch of quantitative sand kicked in our faces), might be evil and thus can’t be counted on to come up with anything socially constructive.

Nor do I know where this public discourse will occur, with the media so widely (and deservedly) distrusted, disoriented and chewing on its own tail out of starvation (not to say bought and sold).

But my sense of urgency is not ill-founded.

In the near term, unemployment benefits for millions are about to run out – and indefinite extension is not an answer. In the middle term, at some point a large number of military men and women will have to come home, and they’ll need jobs – keeping them in the army forever is not an answer. And in the long term – Christ, this is the long term. We’re soaking in it.

Admittedly, the outlook for sane national discourse is shaky.

The minority core of “birthers” and ersatz-brownshirts screaming down Health Care Reform at Town Halls is not encouraging. Nor are the moron hippy progeny who attempted to take over the New School last year.

I realize that insulting everybody may not be the best way to establish a non-combative framework for social rhetoric, but accepting that the loudest voices on both sides are idiots seems an obvious place to start.

Yet my optimism remains intact.

Because when I ask small business people from various industries (and political inclinations) what it would take for things to work out for them, after the inevitable reaction of a jaded blank stare and a condescending pat on the head, more often than not comes a string of ideas that, while perhaps unprecedented in recent memory, are rational, practical, real, plausible and, in a real America not governed by the dream logic of vainglorious nimrods, possible.

But I’m not a fool.

I fully realize that, for the most part, we as a nation really just want things to get Back to Normal.

We’re all just waiting for the day when we wake up and find ourselves again on cruise control in Dream America.

Where the parameters of our imagined freedom are as vast as the golden clouds of toxic credit gilding the horizon and the nitwits on CNBC (Complete Numbskulls Bloviating Ceaselessy) again chirp hosiahs to the casino.

Where the world magically resets itself with each morning bell to a new set of ever-fresh possibilities, like the B of A commercial tells us we think it should.

Where we are again free to sweat the small stuff, unfettered by yesterdays, tomorrows, or the responsibility of thinking about anything bigger than how to sell a breadbox because we’re confident that people richer and thus smarter than ourselves are taking care of it.

Where that asshole really deserves to pocket nine digits a year – and if we were that asshole, we would too.

Where our children will never have to learn how to do or make anything, because they will be paid to sit and watch the computer, filled with quality drugs to keep them interested and granted tower-blocks full of a foreign-born underclass to fix their toilets.

And we shall all be forever full of our own sustained potential for Greatness.