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Surreality Bites
July 18, 2003
By Gregg Gordon

Bob Herbert, one of two reasons to still read The New York Times (Paul Krugman being the other), wrote recently of the strange phenomenon now being played out in Washington, DC, and most of our state capitals.

"As Mr. Bush moves from fund-raiser to fund-raiser, building the mother of all campaign stockpiles," he said, "states from coast to coast are reaching depths of budget desperation unseen since the Great Depression. The disconnect here is becoming surreal."

I was struck by the phrasing because just a few weeks earlier, writing about the state of affairs in Iraq, I spoke of the "surreal optimism" of the American media - that despite a situation which visibly worsens almost every day, the reports being sent back home still convey the impression that we have just won a great military victory, and that the pesky problems that remain - a little disorder and "pockets of resistance" - are merely the mischief of "Ba'athist remnants" who have no popular support and will soon be brought to heel.

At least I'm not the only one, I thought, who feels this strange sense of unreality that grows with each passing day of the Bush Administration. And then I thought of the 16 months until the 2004 election, and I wondered if this grand charade can last that long. How long can the story lines of our government and media fly in the face of plain and obvious facts that are there for all to see? How long before the whole edifice crumbles?

The day after Herbert's piece, the Times led the front page with a story about the stock market's best quarter since 1998. And while there were the usual cautionary voices, the general message was that the bulls are back, the seemingly endless bear market has ended, and a robust recovery can't be far behind.

Well, I'm no expert, but I wouldn't be putting money in the stock market any time soon. For if a new boom is in the offing, it will be the first boom in the history of the human race to be accompanied by draconian cuts in healthcare, education, public safety, libraries, and public transportation. These are basic services, the stuff of everyday life, and I would argue that a society which is cutting basic services - indeed, that is cutting just about everything except funding for the army and the secret police - is not a very healthy society. It's a society in deep trouble. You don't need to be an economist to see this, it seems to me. It's just common sense. To believe a boom is on the horizon, you would have to believe the way to improve your children's school performance is to cut them back to one meal a day. Is it just too simple for an Ivy League education to grasp?

This much I can promise. Anyone below the rarefied air of the top 20% or so of American income earners doesn't need The New York Times to tell them things are really going better than they think.

And on to Iraq, where the point is not that things are going worse than the Pentagon's non-planners expected. The point is that things are going even worse than the most pessimistic critics of the war expected. And what must the Iraqis think? Saddam Hussein - whose historical parallel was less Adolf Hitler than Al Capone - even a street thug like Saddam, under sanctions, no-fly zones, and even bombs from time to time, could deliver to the people electricity, schools, salaries, and food. And then here come the Americans, bearers of freedom and democracy and geniuses of capitalism, and the whole place goes to hell. I think the only reason things haven't gotten even worse even faster is that the Iraqis can't quite believe what they are seeing. "The Americans can't be this incompetent," they must think. "They must have something up their sleeve." But they're wrong. Under the Bush Administration, we are bluster, bombs, body armor, and when all else fails, bribery. Nothing more.

And that far-off, clattering sound you hear? That's the sound of a horse in the distance cantering down the road, while back in Washington the Bushies feel a draft and know there must be a barn door around here somewhere.

Then the administration's spin reached a level of ludicrousness I thought will never be topped (though they've fooled me this way before). Paul Bremer, America's viceroy for Iraq, came on TV and said the growing number of attacks on US occupation forces actually showed how well things are going. Things are going so well, he said, our opponents are getting desperate. They're panicking. I was practically howling, but neither Bremer nor Peter Jennings even cracked a smile.

But if things are going so well, then this will also be the first time in history that more soldiers were called for after the war was won. Why does no one comment on this most basic contradiction between statement and fact? Or does everyone in the Ivy League test out of arithmetic as well?

I swear I would be in a state of Kafkaesque confusion and despair were it not for the sheer, horrified fascination with which one can watch events unfold and the nation unravel, and the astonishing speed with which they are happening. Surrealism anyone?

Is it not surreal when the oppressed and put-upon editorial writers for The Wall Street Journal shamelessly and viciously spread the lie that the poor pay no taxes, when in fact their taxes are being increased every day - sales taxes, withholding for their health insurance (if they're lucky enough to have any), and everything from community college tuitions to bus fares to traffic fines - even while the services they fund are being cut in our nation's pathetic obsession to let no inconvenience befall the wealthy? Indeed, it is the Social Security taxes of the poor and middle class that are funding these tax cuts for the rich the Journal likes so well. In return, their grandchildren will be the proud owners of a debt they will never escape, primarily for the short-term gratification of some hundreds of, or perhaps a few thousand, decamillionaires. From among these people come those who worry each day about their children being shot at in Iraq, while the lives of the Bush daughters are made even more painless than before. You would think the Journal would at least feel a little gratitude, but no. "Soak the poor!" The Wall Street Journal thunders, or may as well. "Soak the poor!"

Forgive me for dragging the twins into this. I normally wouldn't think of it. But they're 21 now - two years older than Jessica Lynch, and older than many of the exhausted, homesick, and very nervous young Americans now in Iraq. "Bring it on," their father says (and now Tommy Franks - on his way out the door, of course) with ever less convincing bravado. Let those words be remembered by the families of every American soldier who has "it" brought "on" them in the weeks and months to come.

So how about it, Mr. President? Still pumping your fist? Still "feel good"?

Is it not surreal when one reads of people paying $2,000 for a hot dog at a Bush fund-raiser? But then one realizes that for that $2,000, they are also getting tax breaks, subsidies, and no-bid government contracts worth millions. So who is getting the best of whom here? Neither, of course. It's a kickback scheme, pure and simple, and one that would have made Tammany Hall blush. The ones being gotten the best of are those of us who were never even invited to the party, and who never will be.

How surreal must it all appear to Martha Stewart, now facing a different kind of camera? Literally billions of dollars stolen from shareholders, employees, California electricity customers, in a wave of corporate scandals that we don't know yet are over, yet it's all boiling down to a phone call that may have saved Martha a few thousand bucks. But where, oh where, is Kenny Boy?

Or take Jack Welch. A billionaire. One of the richest men in the world. Yet he expected his company to still buy him basketball tickets and magazine subscriptions even after he left. I guess he just couldn't be bothered. Is that perk included for all GE retirees? Just imagine, Mr. Welch, what your reputation would be if your renowned business genius was accompanied by a little humility, or even generosity. Like Carnegie, your name would never die.

Could we call this emerging plutocracy the nouveau ancien regime? They certainly have the same greed that knows no limits, and they are just as short-sighted. But I think the old French aristocracy would envy the brashness, cruelty, and cynicism of their modern counterpart's policies, and they would marvel at their ability to get the common people not only to accept them, but in many cases to enthusiastically endorse them, even while their futures are being mortgaged and their retirement accounts are being pillaged. Well, let's call them that anyway, the nouveau ancien regime. After all, what is a gated community if not a 21st Century version of the old feudal manor?

We have the surrealism of Reality TV, where millions of people watch romanticized imitations of the reality they could actually experience if only they didn't watch so much television. But who can blame them, when the only reality they know consists of either coming home exhausted from their jobs, being terrified of losing them, or - in the best of all possible worlds - both.

I was leafing through a recent copy of Rolling Stone and saw a review for a video game called "Vietcong." "There's a problem in creating a game based on the Vietnam War," the reviewer said. "Battling small numbers of barely visible guerilla enemies just isn't much fun. In Vietcong, it's tough even spotting the enemy, and finding yourself on the receiving end of an unseen sniper's bullet quickly becomes frustrating."

Well, that's pretty much the Vietnam War in a nutshell, I thought. Frustrating, indeed. But the review betrayed no trace of conscious irony. Vietnam? Crappy war. Crappy war game. Nothing like Shock & Awe. Don't buy it.

And how about the reconstruction of Afghanistan? It has been estimated it would take $3 billion a year for five years to put that unhappy, war-torn land back on its feet. We have committed $300 million for one year. This is like throwing blades of grass in the Mississippi River and hoping they will form a dam. Surrealism?

I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the final round of this year's US Open at Olympia Fields, which is very near where I grew up. We had to park miles from the place and were transported in by bus, and even then, from the drop-off point, had a good little walk to the grounds. Walking past these old and somewhat hazy yet familiar scenes, we approached a train viaduct, and perched on top were three fully armed and armored members of some SWAT team who could have been plucked straight off our TV screens from Iraq. The low murmur of a dozen conversations stopped momentarily as we passed under, then resumed. It was - need I say it? - surreal.

I was happy to be protected from terrorists, and a US Open crowd would certainly seem an attractive target, but there was nothing about that exact place that made it seem a particularly likely point of attack. The buses were far more vulnerable. And I saw no other police or soldiers anywhere else all day long, except those walking along with the golfers. Obviously, any terrorist who wanted to attack would simply have attacked anyplace but that viaduct. But those soldiers weren't there to frighten terrorists. They were there to frighten us. And they did.

I don't know the latest figures, and I guess it can depend on how you count, but I know that by any measure, the United States ranks among the elite, with China and a few of the more medieval Arab kingdoms, in terms of the numbers of its citizens it imprisons or executes. Yet throughout this Fourth of July season (and all other times as well), we are relentlessly told how America stands for freedom, even as pieces of the insatiable, Drug War-fueled Gulag are auctioned off to small towns as job creation programs. How do we square this blatant hypocrisy in our minds? And why are we surprised and even offended when the rest of the world does not?

And speaking of Kafka, what about the poor souls labeled "material witnesses," "persons of interest," and "enemy combatants" who are being followed and harassed and held incommunicado, indefinitely, without charges, in prisons God knows where? Is this America? Does anyone even know who all of these people are, or how many? I guess we must take Mr. Ashcroft's word for it (a surrealistic thought in and of itself).

But this is not a Kafka world, and even Orwell would be flummoxed. They were satirists and used exaggeration for effect. But this world is hard to exaggerate.

No, to draw a parallel with a novelist, I would go to H.G. Wells - The Time Machine - and his strange and, yes, surreal world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, a world so bizarre he had to set it hundreds of thousands of years in the future for anyone to believe it at all.

But this is not that. This is here. This is now. It is happening, and we are living it.

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