America’s New Greatness

It’s been a crushing year. One after another, hard-won social advancements have been blocked or dismantled in the rush to “Make American Great Again.” But what does that even mean?

Exactly when was America greater? When everyone used outdoor toilets? When women couldn’t work outside the home? When skin color decided who could marry whom, or vote, or eat at a lunch counter?

Is ‘great again’ a worthy goal, the best we should expect? Is the conservative mantra right, that free enterprise and individual liberty “under limited government” was and forever will be the pinnacle of human achievement? If only we could rid ourselves of this ‘big government’ and free ourselves of onerous taxation, would the U.S. of A. become the shining star of the days of yore?

No, no, and no.

Let me explain. At the time of the Founding Fathers, ‘free enterprise’ applied to white male landowners. The constitution ignored the rights of women and non-landowners. Voting rights for Natives or slaves never entered the discussion. The founders conceived of a nation of educated, well-to-do white men who used women, natives, and slaves to meet self-serving goals in creating heirs, seizing ever greater slabs of the continent, and forcing labor from non-whites in order to sustain and increase their wealth.

They weren’t evil men. That’s just how things had always been. No wonder certain white males today would see those as the glory days.

But there’s no lack of free enterprise. Men and women of any class or color routinely open their own businesses. Three out of ten workers in the U. S. are self-employed or are hired by self-employed persons.[1] The ‘small business’ community provides the majority of American jobs.

…large businesses only employ about 38 percent of the private sector workforce while small businesses employ 53 percent of the workforce. In fact, over 99 percent of employing organizations are small businesses and more than 95 percent of these businesses have fewer than 10 employees. The reality is that most Americans are employed by a very small business that has little in common with the tiny sliver of the business demographic represented by corporate America.[2]

The complaint of conservatives is that free enterprise is hindered by big government. They rail against requirements that employers pay into insurance policies that provide medical care for workers injured on the job or that provide health care that meets the employees’ needs. Employers also must pay into Social Security and Medicare funds on a 50-50 basis with the employee’s withheld funds. Employers are required to deduct the appropriate amount of state and federal income tax from employee wages and to deposit this tax into government accounts. Employers also must provide a wage statement at the end of each year (W-2, 1099, etc.).

These requirements annoy the hell out of employers. When I operated my own café, I spent hours working on payroll. I resented spending money on workman’s compensation insurance – I never had an injured employee and all that I paid was money down a hole. But I understood the reason for it. If an employee had become injured, should I expect the government to pay for medical care? Should I personally pay for it? Should the employee be abandoned to pay himself?

These are old problems solved incrementally over a long period of American history back when a majority of legislators worked for the people instead of themselves. We stopped sending disabled or aged persons to poor farms where a pitiful stipend from the state supported them along with the random generosity of wealthy donors who might drop a few crumbs from their tables. We stopped allowing employees to be injured or killed in unsafe workplaces. We required people and their employers to set aside funds for retirement.

Like the Affordable Care Act, social support systems developed by our elected representatives to better provide for the ‘general welfare’ are an evolved safety net for all of us. The simplistic idea that these systems should be dismantled in pursuit of some long-vanished ideal of “free enterprise” fails to recognize all the reasons these systems came into being in the first place. We need them. They serve an important purpose.

‘Individual liberty’ is another often-touted phrase by deconstructionist conservatives. What that concept meant to the founders no longer applies in our current reality. The founders lived on the edge of an unexplored country with such a vast reserve of lands that no one could imagine a time when there weren’t new horizons where young men could ‘go West’ to make their fortunes. Individual liberty was possible only because men gained forty acres or more by simply staking a claim or, in many cases, serving in the military after which they received land grants.[3]

What land is free now? None.

What we took from the Natives was a virgin continent full of natural resources. The lands of Europe had been exploited for over two thousand years and here was a whole new start. Individually and collectively, we harvested those resources while patting ourselves on the back about how smart and industrious we were in building a fabulous new nation. We never considered that sooner or later, the last farmland would be plowed, the last gold nugget would be found, and we would run smack up against the end of the bonanza. We did the same thing here that our forefathers had done in Europe.

Conservatives, enraptured with these myths of a glorious past, believe we can return to times when anyone who wanted to work hard could simply plow his way to success with a mule and a compliant wife. Women, keen for their own ‘individual liberty,’ aren’t so compliant anymore. Farming is no longer a viable path to sufficient livelihood.

Obviously our living standards have changed. No more outdoor toilets or working the fields from dawn to dusk. We’re dependent on electricity and modern medical care and automobiles, all things that as recently as a hundred years ago simply did not factor into the picture for a majority of Americans.

Ever in pursuit of their bankrupt myth, the conservatives’ last gasp is the current grab of political power, attained by selling the myth to those who don’t understand. The conservatives are busy ending food and medical care for the aged, the homeless, and other needy segments of the population. The entire social net crafted over decades is being dismantled in a futile grab for a long-lost past.

The descendants of European colonialism want the glory back. They don’t agree that taking from the rich and giving to the poor is the right approach for modern societies. European nations have already grasped this concept. America today and in the future can never be the America of 1800 or 1900 or even 1950.

Making profit off of sick people or school children is immoral. Just as government regulates utilities, so it must regulate other services required by everyone, including health care and the internet. This is not an appropriate arena for capitalism. Government, not profit-driven capitalists, serves as the most efficient provider for the common welfare –healthcare, affordable housing, education, public transportation, infrastructure like bridges and railways, and a vast network of social services.

Reducing the tax burden for the wealthiest among us accomplishes nothing but the impoverishment of our entire nation. The current imbalance of wealth is clear evidence that the rich should be taxed even more. Expanded social programs should ensure that those at the lowest income levels are brought into counseling, health care, education, and training programs in order to improve their economic status.

We’re a largely urban, multicultural society now, completely different from what the Founding Fathers knew. Just as the founders were right to declare the rights of personal liberty, so were progressives right to end discrimination against minorities, women, and the handicapped and to provide mechanisms by which the damages of such long-term discrimination could be healed. It’s the progressives who have understood that the safety net must be available equally from state to state, a service that only the federal government can ensure.

The personal bankruptcy of a small number of men like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon cannot be allowed to dictate the future of our country. Such men long for a culture where white maleness guarantees ascendancy. Without a white male-dominated social structure, they cannot gain the power they so desperately crave. These are weak men dependent on the subjugation of others for emotional and economic support. They will die off just as the Neanderthal died off.

It’s called failure to evolve.

Here’s a toast to 2018 and the continuing evolution of our great nation.

 

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[1] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/10/22/three-in-ten-u-s-jobs-are-held-by-the-self-employed-and-the-workers-they-hire/

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristie-arslan/five-big-myths-about-amer_b_866118.html

[3] Bounties of up to 1,100 acres were granted for Revolutionary War service between 1775 and 1783 and up to 320 acres for the War of 1812 through 1815. Additional free lands went to men fighting in the Mexican War 1846-1848 and in Indian Wars from the 1780s through the 1890s. While outright land grants ended in 1855, Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War received homestead rights along with others meeting certain criteria. Much more on land grants and homestead rights at Wikipedia.

 

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His Fight, Our Fight

According to the brief description that accompanied this photo that crossed my Facebook timeline the other day, the funeral of Pretty Boy Floyd drew the largest attendance of any such event in Oklahoma history. The image gives me goosebumps, almost puts a lump in my throat. It’s not the coffin—I can’t even discern where it is. It’s the people, backs straight, their attention focused entirely on the dead man.

On what he represented.

My dad sometimes talked about Pretty Boy Floyd although at the time of Floyd’s death, my dad was only seventeen. For him, like so many, Floyd stood as a heroic symbol to survival in their times. Dust bowl, economic depression, most of all the shift of worlds. From the independent farmer working alongside his wife and children to wrest of living from the land to the new reality of the need for money and consequently, jobs in town.

Giving up the farm and its creeks and horses and the smell of fresh cut hay. Learning to work for someone else. Breathing exhaust. Street lights burning the dark. Rigid hours to serve someone else’s profit. Dependent on the dollar instead of the land.

There were men who couldn’t make the change. Men who rebelled, who clung to the old ways. Men who’d rather die than portion out his life in the 9 to 5. They didn’t willingly give up the tradition of their fathers, but rather borrowed money on the hope of better times, more rain, abundant crops. The loans came due before better times arrived.

According to his biography in Wikipedia, “[Charles Arthur] Floyd was viewed positively by the general public. When he robbed banks he allegedly destroyed mortgage documents, but this has never been confirmed and may be myth. He was often protected by locals of Oklahoma, who referred to him as ‘Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills.’” He was thirty when he died.

Floyd’s robberies of banks made him a target for the fledgling FBI and the true manner of his death became one of the agency’s earliest cover-ups. After he was downed by rifle shot, another agent shot him with an automatic weapon at point blank range. Not widely known at the time, the unfairness of his killing nevertheless was understood at a visceral level by the common man.

Woody Guthrie, a native of Oklahoma, penned a song about it in 1939, five years after Floyd’s death. Called “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” the song has the form of a  Broadside “come-all-ye” ballad opening with the lines:

If you’ll gather ’round me, children, a story I will tell ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an Outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well.

The lyrics recount Floyd’s supposed generosity to the poor and contain the famous lines comparing foreclosing bankers to outlaws:

As through this world you travel, you’ll meet some funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen. And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam, You won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.

Many other artists have recorded this song, among them Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and James Taylor as another generation’s anthem to the tragedy of corporate takeover.

It’s easy to see Floyd as a martyr. In his short life, he did what so many others wanted to do. Like the young Chinese man who dared to stand in the path of an oncoming tank, Floyd like similar ‘criminals’ of the early 20th century defied the banks and credit systems that threatened everything that mattered in rural American lives. They instinctively understood they were being swept into a capitalist system that had no sense of morality, no obligation to human circumstance. They fought back the only way they knew how.

The battle that cost Charles Floyd his life has not ended.

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Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Boy_Floyd