An Associated Press story crossed the wires this past Monday that should strike terror into the heart of every elected official in the country.
The AP’s survey data demonstrates that as of today, the vast majority of Americans – 80 percent – will face unemployment, poverty and dependence on government welfare payments at some point during their lifetime.
This new reality of crippling economic insecurity used to be confined only to certain segments of our population. Such deprivation was always talked about and yet never really dealt with in a serious way precisely because those populations – the White rural poor and people of color – were never deemed important enough by our political establishment to care much about. These people, trapped in crime-ridden urban tenements, remote Indian reservations, dusty Southwestern border counties and the hills of Appalachia, were the forgotten Americans who lived a forgotten America.
Their cares and worries — how to make ends meet until payday; how to suffer through debilitating pain without health insurance — were not the stuff with which mainstream politicians or media types much bothered themselves. Indeed, their very failure of minorities and the poor to make it out of their circumstances was seen as proof that the system worked as it was supposed to.
In upwardly mobile, fantastically wealthy society, America’s losers discovered that their story – deprivation, desperation, despair, and structural inequality and lack of opportunity – was not one that meshed with the story mainstream America told about itself. Winners, goes the latter story, moved to the suburbs and went to college. And mainstream America took it as ordained by a just and loving God that steady employment, material plenty, safety, security and boundless opportunity were theirs by natural right of being American – especially a White one.
Quite often those who failed to achieve this dream were blamed for their own lack of success. These losers, we were (and continue to be) told, came from dysfunctional cultures that emphasized the wrong values. They exhibited destructive habits that led, in the opinion of the more enlightened and successful, to their own self destruction. They made the wrong choices, took too many big risks, were ignorant of reality and fell to fates that were entirely of their own making. America’s response to America’s losers was simple — their choices, their problems: tough luck.
The few times that America’s losers managed to shuck off that narrative as the unfair, self-serving tripe that it was, the establishment used different tactics to forestall action on what was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from this new understanding – that the system was rigged, like a casino against the casual gambler, against the many to benefit the few.
They did this by tried and true methods such as the pitting of black against white, religious against secular, geographic region against geographic region and one type of worker against another.
Divide and conquer, as it turned out, worked all too easily in a country premised on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Blaming the victim
In Detroit and elsewhere in the Rust Belt, for instance, when they came for the pensions, benefits and wages of unionized workers, it was the workers who were called lazy – not the incompetent executives who actually led the companies in question. When children fell behind in school in some of our poorest districts, it was the unionized teachers (if not the parents) who were blamed – not the poverty, crime and insecurity that enveloped that child and his or her family.
Finally, when all this led to business failure, government indebtedness and rising taxes, it was public servants who were blamed — not an economic system that had consigned vast regions of the country and populations of entire cities to obsolescence and irrelevance in the space of a single generation.
All these failures, taken individually, could be fobbed off as one-time affairs due to the particularities of the case. What happened to the odd diseased limb did not actually reflect the health of the whole.
The odd loser who managed to win a gamble and so take a place amongst America’s winners was proof, said the winners, that in America’s casino economy, anybody could make it to the top. Social mobility, they argued, despite mountains of statistics to the contrary, was still possible in Casino America – just step right up, place your bets by working hard, and forget for awhile the fact that the house, no matter what, still always wins because its owners rigged the games to begin with.
Fear and loathing
This narrative about America, rooted deep in the country’s origin myths, has remained the truth with a capital ‘T’ so long as the politically relevant few – by no means the actual majority of the population – could only see the casino’s winners. The losers, out of sight and out of mind, were an abstraction that only strange, unpatriotic eggheads with weird notions, garnered from books penned by foreign-sounding authors worried about. Studies, data, and findings were nothing compared to their lying eyes, which saw only the glitzy entryway to the casino that anyone who was anyone wanted to play in.
But in an America where 80 percent of the people are coming to know losing, and losing hard to the extent that they face extended bouts of unemployment, poverty, and reliance on the public dole, the ability of this fraying narrative to keep the casino’s wizards from being glimpsed behind their curtains is doubtful. Americans have for so long called themselves winners that to face the truth – that they are, in fact, losers on a vast and incomprehensible scale – is nightmarish in the extreme.
Curtains are not meant to be peeked behind, let alone ripped asunder, but we are quickly coming to the point where scales will fall from eyes too glazed over by the glitz and glamour to notice the chipped paint, cheap facades and worn carpets that deck the halls of Casino America. The time is coming soon when the players, for so long chained to one-armed bandit jobs in the hope of making it big, will wake up to realize how completely foolish they have been.
The game, they will realize, has been rigged all along – and the lousy buffet and celebrity entertainers trotted out to distract and console them is no compensation for the vast sums they have squandered within.
What will come from that waking up will be anger of a type rarely seen before in America. It will be the white-hot rage of the sucker seeing the con for the first time, but still in denial of the fact that it was their own greed and folly that made the con possible in the first place.
How this rage will be channeled, at whom and to what extent it will actually be used to un-rig the game and demolish the casino we’ve all been trapped inside for so long remains to be seen. One fact is certain, though – the backlash is coming, and when it does, neither hell nor high water nor watered-down cocktails will stop it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.