About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Friday, July 13, 2012

What If We're Not Actually All In This Together?


The news media today is making a fundamental assumption that I'm not sure is still valid.  Specifically, they assume that, no matter which party is putting forth their ideas, both sides of the political spectrum are working to make the United States stronger and better.  They frame all discussion based on the long standing tradition that only the vision of how to improve the country differs, but the end goal is a shared one, that we always try to leave the next generation with a better country than we inherited

But what if that assumption is fundamentally flawed?

What if one side is not actually trying to make the country better and stronger?  What if one side is no longer working for the interests of America, but for the interests of themselves?  What if, in some people's minds, we are not still all in this together?

This is a dangerous assertion; many people would view this as an accusation of treason.  A few years ago, I would have felt the same, and would have believed that it was unthinkable that some of our political leaders are not working towards a better America.  

It also means that all of the media analysis is incorrect.  Budgets are not brave solutions to the countries problems, politicians are not sticking their necks out for the country, and most importantly, both sides will not lead to the same place of a stronger country.  When the media assumes that both sides have our best interests at heart, they create a dangerous implication that no matter who wins, they will try to rebuild the nation and the economy.

But what if one side is not out to strengthen these things?

This is an accusation that gets leveled frequently at President Obama, that he is trying to destroy the United States from within.  He is accused of everything, up to and including being an agent of Satan.  People on the right think he is a Muslim out to convert the country through some sort of jihad, that he is a socialist, bent on nationalizing all industry, and that he is a tyrant, determined to shred the constitution and use it as confetti at the party celebration the death of the United States.

However, in reality, the actual villains that I am describing are some of the leaders of the Republican Party.  It is a very common scenario in psychology to transfer your wrongdoing onto someone else.  If you are a liar, you accuse someone else of lying, if you are a thief, you see theft all around you,  if you are a sociopath, you expect everyone else to engage in sociopathic behaviors.  In short, when you engage in inappropriate behaviors, you see those behaviors all around you because you expect everyone to behave as you do.  You also begin to accuse others of those behaviors to draw attention away from your own misdeeds.  The easiest way to see this behavior in action is when a child does something wrong, and then accuses a sibling of something even worse to evade notice or punishment.  This behavior pattern is discussed extensively in Lakoff's book, "The Political Mind."

This is what I see happening at some of the highest levels of the Republican Party.  They accuse Democrats of wrecking this country, when they are the ones with the blood on their hands.

I do want to note here, I am not saying that all Republicans want to destroy the country, I'm not even saying most do.  There are many on the Right that care passionately for America, and would be justifiably horrified at the accusation that they do not.  I would even include most of the social conservatives in this group.  I would never want to live in a country modeled after Rick Santorum's vision, but I am certain that he genuinely believes that his rigid view of religiosity would make America a better country in the future. I also think that most of the rank and file Republicans believe that they are working for an stronger tomorrow.

No, my accusation is not leveled at the majority of Republicans, it is aimed squarely at billionaire inner circle: Mitt Romney, the Koch Brothers, Karl Rove, Sheldon Addleston and the others at the very top who profit from America's failure.  I would also place some other people in this circle, both in punditry, such as Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and some in political office, such as Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

Why do I think these people want America to fail, or at least not to thrive?  As I said, it is a serious accusation.  What is my line of reasoning to make this charge?

It is derived from Morris Berman's book "Dark Ages America."  I have referenced this book in the past, because I find it to be one of the scariest and most astute critiques of 21st century America.  In the book, Berman diagrams the fall of every great empire and compares it with the current conditions in this country.  The parallels are frightening.

One hallmark of the "End of Empire" is a deliberate decision by those in power to "rape out the system."  In other words, in a declining empire, the rich and powerful take as much out of the economic structure as they can, in order to move that money into the places that they feel have high likelihood of  becoming the new financial juggernaut.  They are on the hunt to invest in the "New Empire."

Any investment in the dying system is seen by these titans as a waste of money that is better used somewhere else.  You can see this attitude in the outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia, while at the same time refusing to shore up any infrastructure in the United States.  Roads, Schools, Utility Grids, and all other public works are literally crumbling around us, and yet, the Republican hierarchy refuses to consider any spending on these necessary repairs.

Improving infrastructure would require raising taxes, the bulk of which would fall on the wealthy, at least under our current progressive taxation model.  This would, of course, limit to some extent the money that they could move to offshore tax havens.  And, I should note, it isn't even just Republicans guilty of this move.  A former darling of the Clinton administration, Denise Rich, recently gave up her U.S. citizenship strictly to avoid taxes.  In this offshoring paradigm, it is rich vs. poor, not right vs. left.

But refusal to replace a decaying infrastructure isn't the end of this move to dismantle everything that makes our country great.  We are selling off national assets such as public parks and other amenities.  Benton Harbor in Michigan was recently forced to sell off a public park that had been willed to the city by a former resident.  The governor appointed fiscal manager is requiring a beloved amenity be sold to a developer who has been trying for years to get his hands on the property.  Never mind the fact that the will explicitly stated that the park was to be public and free for all time.  A few years ago, a mayoral candidate even proposed selling New York's Central Park.  I can't find the name of that candidate, because all Google searches lead me to sites selling multi-million dollar Co Ops overlooking the park.  There are proposals to allow gas and oil exploration in the National Parks, the national forests are being auctioned off for timber companies, and countless other national assets are on the chopping block.

And then we have the refusal to fund the social safety net, and to fundamentally dismantle it where possible.  We want to privatize Social Security, giving that money over to Wall Street.  Similarly, Medicare would be handed off through vouchers to the private insurance companies.  These are just moves to get that money out of the government's hands and into the hands of private business.  After the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, we know how this story ends; the rich get richer, and the rest of us just get soaked.

And this is why I think that the certain people in the Republican hierarchy are not on the side of the United States.  All of the assets, all of the social programs and all of the melting pot attitudes of this country are sacrificed on the altar of profits.  We are being torn apart, both financially and emotionally, to make the gutting easier.  In some cases, we are even dancing towards the gallows where we will be hung.  You see this in the Tea Party fanaticism.  

And this makes no sense if you want a strong America on the other side of the Great Recession.  Our economy, rightly or wrongly, is built on a foundation of consumer spending.  In fact, our absolute need to shop is all that kept the economy going for most of the last decade; we have built the country on malls and services.  Since we have eliminated most of our manufacturing base, all we have left is shopping to move the economy.  Because of this, the only way it will get better is to get people to start spending again. 

Understand, I'm not advocating this economic system, I'm just pointing out the reality of it.  Also, I recognize that changing how the system works, even though it would be healthy in the long term, is not feasible in the short.  Trying to fundamentally alter the system while the ship is foundering would likely sink it as thoroughly as current Republican policies will.  We need to stabilize the economy before performing massive surgery on it.  After we are back to a healthy position, we can examine the wisdom of our system.

So to return to the point, we need to shore up the economic drivers in this country, and the best way, as we learned in the Great Depression, is Keynesian Economics.  Even the hero of Laissez Faire Economics, Milton Friedman, advocated strong economic intervention and stimulus in a severe downturn.  We know that it works, even though it took the massive spending of a World War to finally shake off the doldrums.  

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, has written a book to this effect called "End This Depression Now."  If you get people back to work, even if it is with government jobs of social services, they will have money in their pockets.  And when they have money, they will spend it, especially in the middle classes.  That spending, in turn, drives more employment, which facilities more spending.  It is a positive version of a viscous cycle, each turn of the wheel builds momentum.

So, if we know how to get the economy running smoothly again, why are we not doing it?  I know the story for public consumption is deficits and the burden that the place on the country, but if that was the case, why did we authorize two wars paid for with a credit card?  And why, for the first time in American history, did we not raise taxes during those wars?  Why, if we are concerned about deficits, are we arguing to keep the Bush tax cuts in place?  If we let them expire, we could plug a huge hole in the deficit, without impacting services.  Time after time, we have enacted policies that seem designed to create deficits and devastate the financial security of the government. 

None of it makes sense, if you just view it through the filters that we are told to look at it through.  Why are the poor and middle class having to pay heavy costs, both in regressive taxation and loss of the social safety net, while the wealthy continue to stick money in offshore accounts and build factories in China?

The answer, I fear, is that the rich just want more money in their pockets, and damn the consequences in the long term.  They are willing to sacrifice America, just to have more profit.

And that is not how America succeeds.  It is however, how the vultures thrive.

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