This piece was in The Observer sunday newspaper today, and I feel it catches a current thread of concern for a friend, which exists in the UK. It certainly got me thinking. I've been rightly flamed in the past for being blase about terrorism, not realising just how big the adjustment is for you all as we Europeans have lived with it for 30 years or more. My apologies for that, and for the length of the article.
Crunch time for Uncle Sam?
At first glance, life goes on as usual. Broadway shows are sold out, as expensive and as slick as ever, with scarcely any sign of any anti-terrorist security. The Weather Channel, with wry good humour, hammers out its forecasts of yet more snow and storms. The American suburbs sprawl across what was, until recently, virgin farmland; houses and plots are garlanded with extraordinarily kitsch lights, Nativity scenes and imitation reindeer. It's the United States 2003.
But it's not the same. A remarkable number of houses have no Christmas lights. The McDonalds in deserted downtown Philadelphia next to the City Hall, now fortified against potential terrorist attacks, had only one woman at the counter. It had no decaf coffee or shakes, much to the dismay of its few, down-at-heel, mainly black, customers, whose desultory eating was vivid testimony to the company's first-ever quarterly loss.
The queue to see Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, snaked around the block, meaning a 45-minute wait. It was a potential terrorist target, it was explained, and every tourist had to be treated as a potential member of al- Qaeda.
The attack on the World Trade Centre has got under America's skin. A close American friend, puzzling with me why poll returns continue to show how the vast majority of Americans believe in both the devil and personal angels while the rest of the West has either become secular or more subtle in its faith, argues that it is a psychological guarantee against a level of insecurity that otherwise would be insupportable. Most Americans are a pay cheque away from a disastrous drop in their standard of living and the erosion of what was never a very robust safety net over the last 20 years has heightened that sense of being at risk.
Even while I have been in the United States, a Congressional failure to continue the temporary extension of social security from 13 to 26 weeks has, almost casually, placed 750,000 unemployed Americans close to destitution. It has been little reported in the mainstream media, but on the streets people know the implications.
Now there is terrorism to worry about, too. There is a tendency in Europe, with our long experience of the IRA, the Red Brigades, ETA and the rest, to want Americans to become less hysterical about the risk. After all, the chances of any individual suffering a terrorist incident are much less, say, than being involved in a car accident; you just have to get on with life, as we have had to do in Europe for many years. Yet, standing before Ground Zero's grim 20 acres, you can't fail both to be moved - and stunned - by the void.
The dust alone is still damaging the health of thousands of New Yorkers in the vicinity. The manner of the victims' commemoration is profoundly moving - you can only feel solidarity. It's hardly surprising that every American city, with its cluster of skyscrapers, considers itself as much a front-line target as New York.
Under a different administration and with a more balanced political discourse, 11 September could have been the moment for a national coming-together, a trigger for a re-engagement with America's fundamental problems at home and abroad, and a moment to find ways of addressing insecurity in all its dimensions. But, instead, there is George Bush and Karl Rove, his Machiavellian political adviser.
There is no political advantage to American conservatism in lowering risks, including, now, that of terrorism. Fearfulness rallies Americans to the incumbent, and is exploited well; it opens more rather than less conservative opportunities.
John Dilulio, a recently departed Bush administration official, has gone on record in Esquire magazine as saying that in the White House, policy-making is entirely driven by politics: 'What you've got is everything - and I mean everything - being run by the political arm.'
And that means giving the conservative coalition, from the Republican's corporate donors to the pro-life anti-abortion lobby, as much as possible of what it wants, even if the resulting policy is plainly self-interested or stupid. I still gape at the flagrancy with which organised corporate lobbyists determine policy.
Under Bush, many have simply moved from the lobby they ran to take up key positions to put in place the tax and regularity breaks for which they once lobbied. Deputy Interior Secretary Jay Steven Griles is a former lobbyist; so is the same department's solicitor, William Geary Myers III. It is as if key posts in the Home Office were occupied by lobbyists.
This month sees the thirtieth anniversary of the Roe versus Wade judgment, which, in effect, legalised abortion. It is a continuing affront to a resurgent conservatism determined to use its intellectual, cultural and political ascendancy to restrict and reduce abortions. It is determined to mark the anniversary with a statement of legislative intent. The argument that has been won elsewhere in the West is here still contested, and again the same technique is employed. Anti-abortion lobbyists are shamelessly appointed to key federal commissions, so, beneath, the radar of what is, in any case, an impoverished public debate, gradual social gains are reversed, preparing the way for legislation to set the seal on the process.
For all but the enormously rich, this is a tough and unforgiving society. This has been my first visit since researching my last book, The World We're In, and while the conservative dominance is even more marked, equally the cracks in the edifice are beginning to show. If only American liberals could develop a coherent narrative, along with a group of convincing political leaders to sell it, they would find a ready audience.
There is all the tinder for an anti-war movement over Iraq as powerful as that against the war in Vietnam. Distressed corporate America is considerable and growing; even in areas like criminal justice policy, popular opinion is wondering whether denying ex-prisoners access to social security and public housing forever - one of Clinton's so-called welfare 'reforms' - does anything more than create a permanent criminal class beyond the reach of society.
Now even the pro-gun-control documentary, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, has been a surprise box-office sensation. The country is definitely on the turn.
Which is why either being simplistically anti-American or, alternatively, an uncritical follower of a foreign policy that is about to be fiercely challenged within the United States equally makes no sense. Rather, the task is to hold America to account for the values it purports to stand for. America's real friends are those who will do just that.
Jan 5, '03
Don, that was such a good article that I printed it out. I've always been opinionated, but never active in politics until this year when I assisted a democratic campaign for a state representative position. We lost. Next time around I intend on being more active, I for one, have had enough.
My parents are living on social security disability, $1300 a month. My dad used to bring home three times that amount as a butcher. With diabetes that has him legally blind in one eye, the other eye going, and a partial amputation of his foot working as a journeyman butcher is not viable anymore. He simply can't see well enough to do it. This is a man who has worked at something since he was 13( I need to say stepdad here, my real dad died 2 years ago) He has paid his taxes, he has carried insurance, he has done everything that an American is expected to do. Now because he can no longer be productive, both of my parents have been thrown to the wolves. For 18 months after he had to quit working he had to carry COBRA insurance, it is insurance that one can keep at a higher rate, from the employer insurance he and my mom were covered with before he quit working. This cost $800 a month. My husband and I helped cover that, now his COBRA has run out on Feb.1 and the only insurance that will pick him up because of a pre-existing medical problem is Blue Cross/Blue Shield and that does not have any prescription drug coverage. In order to get that coverage a separate policy has to be purchased. The two together will run just short of $600 a year. My husband and I are now at a point that we can't continue to help with these costs, our oldest is in college and the expense of that is straining us now. We make too much money to have any grants and such. My dad has to be on social security disability for 2 years before he is eligible for medicare, and that won't happen until April. My mom may be eligible for medicaid but we don't know yet,the state has had the paperwork for 6 months now with no answer. Of course then there is the issue of finding a physician who will take medicare or medicaid because the reimbursement rate is so low. And even if they get medicaid it may not have a prescription drug benefit. If my parents have to pay out of pocket costs for meds it will run over $800 a month. My mom is on oxygen full time, as well as BP meds, and various breathing meds. I'm am so angry over this situation I could just scream. Tomorrow I will be calling my state rep to find out why the medicaid application is taking so long, at this point I don't know what further to do. We have been working on how to handle this for over a year now, knowing eventually that the COBRA would run out. My parents have sold their home, and live in a nice trailer that me and my husband bought for them. They have sold one vehicle because my dad can't drive much anymore so there is no need for two. Every bit of savings has gone to medical bills. They have nothing left.
This year we spent the least we have spent on Christmas in 5 years. We have to make sure we hang on to what we have. I guess what really got me about the article is that I didn't even decorate for Christmas the way I usually do. Most of the outside lights stayed in the boxes, as did many of the inside decorations. I just didn't feel like doing it. What decorations went out are the ones that are important to my kids. We rarely go out to dinner anymore, both myself and my husband are working overtime not only to pay for Ray's college, but to help my parents where we can. I have no objection to working hard, nor for paying for my kids college or even helping my parents. Families just do this. What annoys me is that I know that Ken Lay is still walking around with his millions, will not go to jail or have any consequences for ruining the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people. The corporate culture is inbedded in the Bush administration, a mediocre student who still has difficulty with the English language. If the Chrisitan right has their way, I will be living a life on their religious convictions, not mine. And mine are most definately not theirs. In the meantime the drums of war have not quit for over a year. To me all of this is not something that the present administration is doing for the good of the country or it's citizens, but only for the good of their party and their contributors.
Yes, I am mad as hell. We had best get used to having to deal terrorism, it is not going away. And in the wealthiest country in the world we had better figure out how to take care of those that once took care of us!
Thanks for letting me vent!
Jan 5, '03
Excellent, excellent posts.
Jan 5, '03
a goodly percentage of Americans believe the end of the world is near. On TBN [Trinity Broadcasting Network] the date for Christ's second coming has been announced as 2018. No wonder the official policies to pollute, exploit and gamble.
My response to my nation's response is to redouble my efforts to be informed, active and hopeful. Some one [was it Mother Theresa?] said,"we work to change the world so it doesn't change us."
Jan 5, '03
Maureeno, I always chuckle when I hear someone has a date for the end of the world. The bible says no one will know and it will in the blink of an eye. It also says the wealthy have a much chance in getting into heaven as a camel does going through the eye of a needle. Ken Lay, YOUR GOING TO HELL! And all of those just like you.
Oh, I made a mistake in my previous post. Insurance and prescripton drug coverage together for my parents will be nearly $600 a month, not a year. If I could only get it for that price for a year.
Listened to Dean Howard (D) New Hampshire, who has announced his presidental candidacy, on Face the Nation this morning. He is direct and to the point. I'm going to have to look at him and John Edwards (D) North Carolina a bit more. Can't say any of the other's that have announced do much for me. John Kerry of Massachusetts is too old line democrat for me. And of course there is Al Sharpton, OK BLLLLAAAAWWWW. :roll
Jan 5, '03
I'm kinda liking John Edwards (D) so far, but it's still early.
Jan 5, '03
Edwards came from very humble beginnings, self made....no wealthy parents with connections paving the way for him. I like that a lot. Makes me feel like politics can still be for the everyman/woman. He's a beginner, for sure, but that could be a postive thing. He deserves a close look.
Oh yeah, thanks for the article Don!
Jan 5, '03
I agree that John Edwards may be our best bet. I'll be watching him closely.
Jan 5, '03
Excellent article, Don, thanks for sharing it.
Jan 9, '03
As well as I recall, from reading, the last century had the world sceduled to end around 1918!