The following advice attributed to a celebrated author recently arrived in my Inbox along with a photo of a beautiful, unspoiled landscape, courtesy of the Sierra Club newsletter, Daily Ray of Hope:
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.¹ ~ Henry David Thoreau
What a fine, inspirational thought . . . as long as you don’t actually leave your comfort zone to think about it. As soon as you do, it becomes a hopelessly naive thought.²
Now I’m aware that some may think it presumptuous to question a literary legend, not to mention the august Sierra Club. But when viewed through the lens of contemporary real life, Thoreau’s advice seems irrelevant, at best. For starters, consider the multitude of oppressive barriers and burdens afflicting a large segment of the U.S. population. Barriers and burdens, I might add, that the right wing in America is fiercely and implacably determined to make ever more oppressive.
It’s not news that right-wing Americans — Republicans, tea-baggers, libertarians and an assortment of simmering radical fringe groups — really want to hurt the disadvantaged. Why? For a variety of selfish, privileged, judgmental, paranoid, bigoted/racist motives that are part and parcel of their despicable ideology. Their various malignant agendas are as bad as it gets this side of neo-Nazism. No question, this is a critical period in U.S. history: We’re trying to hold off a disciplined army of power-hungry mercenaries, true believers and reality deniers led by corporatists, fundagelical preachers, and the libertarian disciples of the atheist hater of Christianity, Ayn Rand. Oh, the irony, the hypocrisy, the strange bedfellows in that big, malevolent circus tent!
But despite all their glaring inconsistencies, these enemies of peace, progress and the general welfare have over time fashioned themselves into a mortal threat not only to American society but civilization worldwide, a political and cultural cancer masquerading as champions of some creepy version of “freedom” that glorifies the virtue of selfishness (which, incidentally, is the title of one of Rand’s later and most influential books). And the sooner their phony, corporate-PR “libertarianism” (must-read, btw!) succeeds, the sooner it’s doomed to implode, or explode, and take us all down, or blow us all up. Unregulated and under-regulated markets have such a great record, you know?
Anyway, my first thought upon reading Thoreau’s advice was, try telling that to a child born into poverty in a chaotic and dysfunctional single-parent household in a crime-infested ghetto neighborhood. Or to the 15-year-old mother. Or to about half the U.S. population that lives in a state of economic insecurity and finds it hard to imagine even a modicum of security.
All of which got me thinking about the time-honored metaphor of the level playing field. You know, equal opportunity and all that. But in the bastion of inequality known as The United States of America, equal opportunity has got to be a joke, right? The plain truth is that vast multitudes of people in This Great Nation have to struggle against formidable odds to get anywhere near the playing field (and it has always been thus). And after experiencing a “childhood” that would make your blood run cold, they’re expected to bootstrap themselves to respectability and become responsible, hardworking, self-sufficient, law-abiding citizens and happily set off in pursuit of their idyllic dreams, a la Thoreau. And if they’re poor, uneducated/untrained, or have been convicted of a crime, the Republican explanation is that they made the wrong choices. Choices, another sacred cow of the right, which, translated, means that unless you’re disabled through no fault of your own, you don’t deserve assistance. It was that creepy, cartoonish, racist asshole Ron Paul who said poor, sick people can always find doctors who will treat them for free. Which brings me around to a decent person, Congressman Alan Grayson, and his characterization of the Republican health-care plan:
1. DON’T GET SICK
2. And if you do get sick . . .
3. DIE QUICKLY
I share the Congressman’s contempt for smug, self-serving, delusional, uncaring right-wing myth-information. Also for what I infer to be his loathing for conservatives.
Not that anyone is advocating comprehensive equality; that’s another right-wing red herring, not even close to what I’m talking about. How about we start trying to provide the opportunity to live a decent life with a reasonable measure of security? Something like what has been achieved in Scandinavian countries. After all, we’re the self-proclaimed Greatest, Wealthiest, Most Powerful Nation on Earth, so we could do that, right? Oh, wait, I momentarily forgot . . . a WHOLE LOT of Americans don’t want that – they hate the idea of helping other people or contributing to the general welfare (see Ayn Rand, above). Unless, of course, they can profit thereby. Hence their approach to dealing with crime: harsher laws (targeting some Americans) and privatized prisons. Now the $ucce$$ of privatized anything depends on demand – in this case, privatizing prisons creates a demand for more prisoners. Thus the fait accompli of CEOs and investors lobbying for more aggressive enforcement and longer sentences to grow their business. As with our vaunted military-industrial complex, it’s not enough to merely be number one in the world – they gotta keep growing, build more cells and keep them filled; and even if they’re not filled, in the twisted world of corporate welfare and Romney-style vulture capitalism, the owners of the prison-industrial complex become job creators! It’s orgasmic, I tell you – a Republican/capitalist wet dream.
Before getting back to Thoreau, it behooves me to mention the abandonment in the U.S. of another essential form of equality – equal treatment under the law. Liberal-activist author Glenn Greenwald and others call this principle the bedrock of the U.S. Constitution. Without it, the document becomes virtually meaningless, which is precisely what has occurred in the U.S. over the past 40 years. Not that it ever was truly honored in practice, but there were periods of fitful progress in that direction. Now it has been all but totally dismantled, and the best thing I can do is urge everyone to read Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. That pretty well sums it up; and speaking for myself, it seems like a fair assessment of current conditions to say that The United States of America has ceased to exist in all but name. Let the epitaph for the U.S. Constitution read, “Sold out” (with a recent, decisive assist from the Supreme Court).³
Another gaping hole in Thoreau’s advice can be classified under the psychological category of individual differences: Those “dreams” he wants us to follow are hardly guaranteed to be all sweetness and light. Many people’s dreams are not at all idyllic, as he implies, but aggressive, controlling, predatory and avaracious. Back in the era of evolutionary adaptation, aka the Stone Age, the psychopathic personality may have had survival value for homo sapiens, aka God’s children. These days, that ancient personality trait is a curse threatening the survival of civilization and all highly organized life forms. And where do psychopaths really prosper in the 21st Century? At the highest levels of the political, financial, corporate and religious realms, which is where their proclivities and talent lead them, with the adoring approval of vast numbers of wannabes, often themselves unknowing victims of the system, who have been conditioned, with continuous assistance from the corporate media, to worship $ucce$$.
So welcome to America’s Big, Right-Wing Tent Revival Meeting, where all varieties of bigoted haters can find camaraderie in virtuous selfishness and the confidence to go boldly in the direction of their vindictive, predatory dreams. With able assistance from the right-wing ministry of propaganda, aka Fox News, and fundagelical pulpits across the land. And the Supreme Court, of course.
I’ll close with a quotation about the Bush Administration from one of my all-time favorite authors, the late Kurt Vonnegut. It is probably even more descriptive of the current crop of right-wing psychopaths in the Congress, who probably scare even the Bush crowd.
“I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka ‘Christians,’ and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or ‘PPs.’ “
¹ According to this source, here’s the correct quotation from Thoreau, which doesn’t affect my argument:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
² Footnote to a naive thought: I have nothing against Henry David Thoreau or the Sierra Club. Everyone’s entitled to a few minor mistakes in pursuit of honorable goals. Thoreau’s little “experiment” seems to have worked out pretty well, for him. But let’s get serious for a moment: isn’t it presumptuous to generalize to everyone based on a sample size of one? Especially in these grim days in early 21st Century America? And let’s get real: The idea of “success” rings hollow these days. The word itself is little more than an illusion for about half the population that’s struggling for just that reasonable measure of security I mentioned above. Things like adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, transportation. . . .
³ Another informative resource is Robert Reich’s new, well-reviewed documentary film, “Inequality for All.”