February 7, 2014
Poor Atlas. He never knew what hit him. There he was holding up the world, wondering how he got involved in this train wreck of simplistic political social philosophy. Even that word, “philosophy,” was beggared, blind-sided, misappropriated, knocked for a loop. Where did it come from? How did it happen to him of all deities?
“Give me a break!” he muttered, struggling with his burden. “I’m supposed to be holding up the world, for Pete’s sake.” And so it was that poor Atlas got slugged into lending his good name to the title of a simple-minded fairy tale wherein there are easy answers to every complex problem, where working-class people are depicted as low-life slugs looking for easy money. A veritable door stop of a book, a mighty tome glorifying greed, to be ingested, digested, and regurgitated by right-wing makers and shakers; a fairy tale for wannabe Titans of the universe.
The book, Atlas Shrugged, lies somewhere between a right-wing bodice-ripper and a biblical journey into a science-fictionalized promised land; a 1668-page celebration of greed and selfishness ingested by socially, morally, and intellectually challenged true believers living and hiding in their own magical secret valleys, seeking justification and reinforcement for anti-social instincts. The lesson of the book seems to be: inequality is justice manifest for the self-appointed select few. The book, by the way, is required reading for Paul Ryan’s staffers. Makes you wonder.
Funded by such socially enlightened billionaires as Charles Koch, the Cato Institute generates essays similar to the novel’s manifesto. For example, “Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality,” in which it is claimed, “There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich.” That kind of intellectual rubbish falls under the rubric of preaching to the choir and could have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged. In this case the choir being the billionaire sponsors and a chorus of minions based on a score by Ayn Rand. It’s more fairy tale, telling believers what they want to hear while collecting a fat paycheck for doing so. Opportunity equality is and has always been a foundation stone of the democratic social contract, of a free and equitable society.
When 1% of the population controls the economy, opportunity as a belief in the social contract disappears. Further, when the 1% works tirelessly at social control to limit voting rights, to undermine and destroy public education, limit access to social welfare such as food stamps and health care the slippery slope inevitably becomes increasingly steep and ever more slippery. There comes a moment, sooner or later, when people believe they have no stake in the society, no future, no faith, no loyalty, and no reason to maintain it.
The president has called inequality the “defining issue of our time,” and indeed it is, even if I’m not certain it was more than a good sound bite. The problem is, however, that speechifying without delivery engenders cynicism and cynicism is the most corrosive of all social dynamics. To those who are blind to this verity there will, sooner or later, come a reckoning. Increased police power and presence may forestall the inevitable, but it will not, in the end, prevent it. Members of the police and military are, after all is said and done, part of the 99%, as are the increasingly large numbers of people with guns.
As has been the case throughout the history of human civilization, this same drama has played out time and again. Just like the US, Rome made war all over its known world, extending its empire beyond its capacity to sustain its own civil society. Ultimately the Romans failed, as did many civilizations before and after them. Why is this such a difficult lesson to learn? Is it hubris or stupidity? Or both? There are no magical valleys in which to hide in real life. As a wise person once cautioned, be careful what you wish for —you may get it. If seekers want to read something lengthy let me suggest Toynbee’s, A Study of History; when they get to the end they’ll actually know something, something of value with which to calibrate their moral compass.