fresh voices from the front lines of change







What happens to a dream deferred?

…Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

~ Langston Hughes, "Harlem"

Dreams figure prominently in the poetry of Langston Hughes; not just in "Harlem," but poems like "Dreams" and "Dream Variations." So doesAmerica and, in fact, the American Dream. In poems like "I, Too, Sing America," Hughes lays claim to American identity denied to him as a black man. Hughes acknowledges that denial, writing "I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen, When company comes," but follows it up with a promise: "Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table."  

Having laid claim to American identity, Hughes goes on to claim the American Dream itself in "Let America Be America Again." Though it starts out identifying that dream with  "the pioneer on the plain, seeking a home where he himself is free," Hughes is really writing a poem with two voices; one that trumpets the conventional American Dream, and another that mutters in parenthesis "America was never America to me."

The muttering, signifying voice, gains strength and takes over the narrative as it bursts forth with a roll call of "those to whom it doesn’t belong, and for whom it was never intended," clearly connecting the plight of African African Americans to those of poor whites, workers, immigrants, Native Americans, etc.

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek– And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

Who’s It For?

In a way, working and middle class Americans are in a similar position to that of African Americans in 1951, when Hughes wrote "Harlem"  — on the cusp between previous movements that brought better pay and working conditions that put the American Dream within reach and established institutions that made upward mobility and middle class life possible, and what may become a movement to defend and expand those hard won gains.. And though now we are encouraged believe to ourselves and our fates utterly unrelated to one another, we may yet be united by shared economic pain, to see our shared story clearly as clearly as Hughes saw it.

To sharpen the distinction, working- and middle-class Americans are challenged by an entrenched vision of who the American Dream — even America itself — is for. No, it is not the same as the discrimination black suffered for generations, denied education, economic opportunity and even citizenship itself, because of race. But, just like the viewpoints that justified the second citizenship of blacks, women, and other groups, this vision of American seeks to justify what Martin Luther King, Jr.,. called  "the gulf between the haves and have-nots" rather than bridge it.

It is what President Obama called a "deeply pessimistic" vision of our future, in his speech on Wednesday.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing "serious" or "courageous" about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.

Johnathan Chait, in Newsweek, looked into the dark heart of this "pessimistic vision," and called it "War on the Weak."

In fact, the two streams—the furious Tea Party rebels and Ryan the earnest budget geek—both spring from the same source. And it is to that source that you must look if you want to understand what Ryan is really after, and what makes these activists so angry.

The Tea Party began early in 2009 after an improvised rant by Rick Santelli, a CNBC commentator who called for an uprising to protest the Obama administration’s subsidizing the “losers’ mortgages.” Video of his diatribe rocketed around the country, and protesters quickly adopted both his call for a tea party and his general abhorrence of government that took from the virtuous and the successful and gave to the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt—in short, the losers. It sounded harsh, Santelli quickly conceded, but “at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rander.”

Ayn Rand, of course, was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard—a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.

John Galt, the protagonist of her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, expressed Rand’s inverted Marxism: “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

…The class tinge of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity is striking. The poorest Americans would suffer immediate, explicit budget cuts. Middle-class Americans would face distant, uncertain reductions in benefits. And the richest Americans would enjoy an immediate windfall. Santelli, in his original rant, demanded that we “reward people [who can] carry the water instead of drink the water.” Ryan won’t say so, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Expand on the president’s remarks, but what Chait identifies as the latest outbreak of the "culture wars" seems doesn’t seem based on pessimism. It certainly leads to conservative agenda that sounds pessimistic, because as Hunter at DailyKos noted, it’s rhetoric is all about what American can’t do or can’t afford to do anymore. It’s the opposite of Obama’s "Yes, we can," campaign slogan: No, we can’t.

One of the more striking characteristics of the "new" Republican agenda (or the agenda of the conservative movement, or Tea Party movement, or whatever they prefer to call themselves) is how unrelentingly negative it is. Depressingly, ploddingly negative; America is simultaneously the best and greatest country in the world, as blanket assertion, and a nation on a slow death march towards insolvency and irrelevance. America must make sacrifices, goes the refrain, but every one of the sacrifices seems to involve retracting a past long-term success; America must not (something), is the defining chant, where (something) is any number of things that other countries can successfully do and have done, but America cannot, or an even larger list of somethings that America used to do, and quite competently, but America can do no longer.

Other industrialized nations can provide their citizens with better access to healthcare; we simply cannot, and you are a fool for even bringing it up. Other nations can, say, establish warning systems for tsunamis, or volcanos, or hurricanes; America must tighten its belt, and that meager, economically trivial ounce of prevention is considered fat that should obviously be trimmed, so that America-the-entity can get back to its fighting weight. Past-America could provide at least some modest layer of security to prevent its citizens from descending into destitution in old age; we in this day cannot. Past-America could pursue scientific discoveries as a matter of national pride, even land mankind on an entirely other world; we cannot. Past-America was a haven of invention and technology that shook the world and changed the course of history countless times: whatever attributes made it such a place we cannot quite determine now, much less replicate. Public art is decadent. Public education is an infringement. Public works are for other times, never now.

…It is a staggeringly bleak vision. The notion that other free countries can do hosts of things that America, as blanket presumption, can no longer do should be the stuff of nightmares for any believer in American exceptionalism. Today believers in American exceptionalism seem to believe America is exceptional in the inverse way: America is the only country that cannot succeed at what other nations might be able to do. Healthcare, again, seems the most pressing example, though it seems Social Security is the next front on the war on past-America.

So what, then, is the national purpose? Is there such a thing? Should there be such a thing? If government cannot devote itself to bettering the life of its citizens, or rebuilding its own infrastructure, or accomplishing great and historic things, what is left? We can still wage war with aplomb, but even that is a product of our past technological prowess, and likely to be short-lived as the technological infrastructures of other nations continue to surpass our own. We are spectacular at the process of moving money around balance sheets, so long as nobody ever actually asks for it back; while such prowess has certainly built glittering edifices of private success, it is unclear what advantages it as given to our larger population.

But "No, we can’t" rhetoric is a thin disguise for something more powerful than pessimism as we understand it, and more effective at powering political parties and inspiring movements; a prism through which pessimism turns into idealism.

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