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March 01, 2003
Us versus Them (and they're winning)

Reading Hightower's essays (I'm working my was through Yellow Stripes and Armadillos) and thinking about things.

(This is not a review of the book, which I haven't finished. Just some idle thoughts, not a link-filled news brief. You might want to go elsewhere to scan today's headlines.)

Anyhow. The collection is labeled, "A work of political subversion" but I think that label might be too narrow. In some ways, this is a work of social, even cultural subversion.

The first realization I came to is that there is a wide gulf between "America" and "Americans."

I can't speak for the citizens of other countries, never having been one, but I've come to realize that "America's" aims and goals are not necessarily mine or, indeed, those of most citizens of this country.

I'm not certain when or how it happened. I'm not even certain that the sense of connection I had as a child, a sense that "America" and I were intertwined in some essential fashion was a reflection of reality. (So little of what I implicitly believed in those days was, after all. I'm not really convinced that the peace of mind gained from learning that a troll did not, in fact, live in the dark tunnels cut to allow a neighborhood creek to flow under the street was worth the trade-off in wonder of the possibilities in a world where magic might be true. But I digress.)

Where was I?

Oh, yes. I was starting Hightower's essay, How Ya Doin'?

"..."America is prospering," even though we Americans are not" is what started this line of thought. It seems to be generally accepted any more that the country is somehow fundamentally a separate thing from its citizens and I want to know why.

When did there become an "us" versus a "them"?

I can assure you that no high-flown rhetoric about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will have an instant's existence past the moment when the last person in this country takes their final breath.

No nation can be more than the best of the aims and ideals of its people and no nation can measure up to even the least of them without those people.

This is not, although it could become, the jackbooted, totalitarian world of 1984 where citizens mouth the party line and become incapable of even mental rebellion. Why, then, have so many of us abdicated citizenship in favor of merely existing within the boundaries of this country?

We should run the country, instead of letting it run us.

(1) What are the goals of the individuals in our society today? Leaving aside extremists of all persuasions, what goals are shared by the greatest number?

-- (1a) Write yours down and stare at them. Are they even real goals? "A lot of money," is not a goal - it's a means to an end. What is the end? (Note: Reduced to their most basic elements, your true goals should have a familiar look. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" comes to mind, but stop about one step before you get there since we're looking for something a little more concrete.)

-- (1b) Are these worthy goals? Do they, not to get too spiritual about it all, enhance the quality of your life without oppressing the people around you?

(2) Is our society today organized so as to facilitate achieving these goals?

Let's be blunt. Would those of you not living on the edge of starvation trade ten or twenty percent of your income for ten or twenty percent more liberty? Would you, in short, take a pay cut in return for regaining more of your life to spend living your life?

To have one more weekly lunch with friends? One or two extra mornings a week where you could roll your children out of bed gently and spend an hour discussing their dreams over a leisurely breakfast? A half-day a week to spend in the park, skiing, hiking, shopping, reading, seeing a movie, or whatever?

When did the concept of 'working to make a living' transmute into 'working because you're living'?

(3) Constantly increasing productivity is good for 'America', but is it good for 'Americans'?

When you're 120 and nearing the end of your life, do you want to look back at your 50th birthday and remember that it was the day you went into the front yard and created your lifetime's best snowman, or do you want that day lost in all of the other days you fought your way to the office in rush-hour traffic and on icy streets?

(I promise, I do have a point and I'm getting to it.)

We have become a people that, at the ends of our lives, are left regretting the hours we spent making a living instead of living. Maybe along with reclaiming "the left" as a political position that reflects our beliefs, we need to redefine our beliefs.

Brace yourselves. Here comes a radical question.

If you aren't the CEO of a major "multinational" corporation who measures happiness by market share and his profit-indexed bonus plan, what use is it to you if your employer is the biggest one in their field? (And don't say, "job security and increased benefits" because reciprocal corporate loyalty evaporated in the 80's.)

Here's another radical question.

Would this country really be worse off if we were, economically and militarily, number 3 or 4 in the world, instead of number 1? Wouldn't we be better off if this resulted in one or two more weeks of vacation for each citizen each year?

Is the news that the corporation's stock went up two points sufficient reward for you having bolted a quick lunch at your desk 29 of the last 30 days? Does it make up for the evening and weekend hours you worked when you could have been with family or friends?

Companies downsized, claiming they couldn't afford to pay the number of employees they needed to run the business. And they got away with it. Why?

Because they knew that those of us who were left would be so afraid of being unemployed that we'd take on an extra job, or in some cases two, and the work would continue to get done. (Are there any of us who haven't found ourselves taking on the major portion of duties from one or more gone-and-not-replaced coworkers in the last twenty years? With no extra money or recognition, I might add.)

(If every one of us got up Monday morning and went into the office to put in a 40-hour week, refusing to work any more than that unless paid extra, I can assure you that most corporations would magically find a way to hire enough new people to get the essential work done. They don't because they don't have to. So many corporations gleefully played the "downsizing" card that the unemployment rate guarantees 3,000 people will be standing in line for our jobs the day after we're fired. The corporations know they wouldn't survive if they had to replace all of their employees at once, but they also know that the chances of facing a united front of 100 percent of employees is zero.)

Right now, corporations have replaced individuals as the "citizens" of this country to be nurtured and protected. They fund, elect, and lobby our local, state, and federal governments to get legislation friendly to them passed. Government is becoming a creature focused upon filling the needs of corporations.

Individuals are cannon fodder, whether in the assembly lines of a factory or in the featureless maze of a cubicle farm, we're powerless cogs.

When did we let this happen?

Our country is not the corporations that employ its citizens, okay? We need to remember that we're more than that. The "needs" of our country not the same as the "needs" of its citizens. They should be, but we're going to have to do some work to convince our corporate-sponsored government of that.

Cisco's or General Mills' or Mobil's success produces little or no "happiness" or improved quality of life outside of the boardroom. Let's redefine society and restructure government and our country's laws so that they benefit you and me. Let's put the corporations back where they belong - in the "service" sector of our economy instead of in the White House.

I'm not saying I don't love progress and indoor plumbing and the internet. But instead of having more and better bombs, why can't we have long and happy lives?

I'm just saying. Every 20 years or so we should stop and ask ourselves if the human cost of progress has become too high. If we've lost some essential balance between living and simply existing to produce abstract profit for others.

Posted by AnneZook at 06:20 PM