The nation and world are in dire straits as US president Barack Obama prepares to address “the homeland” (a revealingly imperial term) tonight (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, September 10, 2014). As Obama acknowledged on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the nation’s top 1% between 2009 and 2012. The nation’s median household income has dropped by more than $4000 since 2000. Between 1983 and 2010, the Economic Policy Institute has calculated, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline.
All of this and more feeds the United States’ status as by far and away the industrialized world’s most unequal and poverty-ridden nation – a curious designation for the self-described Land of Opportunity (LOO), home to what Obama called in 2006 “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history” (a “prosperity” the future president attributed to the United States’ embrace of “private property” and “the logic of the marketplace”). More than 16 million children – 22% of all US children – languish below the federal government’s inadequate poverty level, the US top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% (and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials). Six Walmart heirs have more wealth between them than the bottom 40%. One in seven US citizens rely on food banks (half of those people are employed, incidentally) while a small US minority enjoys radical opulence in heavily guarded mansions and luxurious apartments and suites at home and abroad. Former New York State Tax Commissioner James Wezler worries, with reason, that the US is becoming “a plutocratic dystopia characterized by wealth inequality approaching that of ancien régime France.”
These terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of abject oligarchy and (more on this below) the brink of environmental catastrophe.
Economic inequality, the first of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the triple evils that are interrelated,” is alive and well. It has, in fact, thrived over the four-plus decades since King’s assassination (or execution).
It doesn’t help that the US accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. It uses vast taxpayer largesse to pay for giant cost-plus “defense” contracts with high-tech US corporations and maintain more than 1000 military installations spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations. The US deploys Special Forces in 134 countries, one of many Pentagon expenditures that help keep the United States’ much bemoaned (by the right) “welfare state” among the weakest in the industrialized world.
One does not have to wonder long what Dr. King – a bust of whom sits in Orwellian irony behind Kill List Obama in the Oval Office – would think. Exactly one year before his assassination (or execution) in Memphis, Tennessee King warned that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
As the Ferguson. Missouri police shooting and popular rebellion ought to remind us, the nation’s savage inequalities are still heavily racialized. Racist structures and practices remain insidiously prevalent across the far-from “color blind” and “post-racial” United States. Democratic Party shill and civil rights charlatan Al Sharpton told mourners in Ferguson that legitimate Black protest should be about “how we gonna police in the United States.” The more fundamental question is what government authorities (“we”?) police in the United States. And what they police and enforce is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related harsh racial inequality. The median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households. This stark disparity both reflects and feeds a four-decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.
Racism was the second of Dr. King’s “triple evils that are interrelated.” It lives on, with special cover from the existence of some “Black faces in high places” (including the oval office) in the Age of Oprah and Obama.
Meanwhile there’s the question of whether there’ll be anything left for police or anyone else to “serve and protect” in the not-so-distant future. As Noam Chomsky notes in a recent brilliant if depressing and possibly paralyzing reflection:
“The likely end of the era of civilization is foreshadowed in a new draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the generally conservative monitor of what is happening to the physical world….The report concludes that increasing greenhouse gas emissions risk ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems’ over the coming decades. The world is nearing the temperature when loss of the vast ice sheet over Greenland will be unstoppable. Along with melting Antarctic ice, that could raise sea levels to inundate major cities as well as coastal plains… The IPCC report reaffirms that the ‘vast majority’ of known fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avert intolerable risks to future generations. Meanwhile the major energy corporations make no secret of their goal of exploiting these reserves and discovering new ones…A day before its summary of the IPCC conclusions, The New York Times reported that huge Midwestern grain stocks are rotting so that the products of the North Dakota oil boom can be shipped by rail to Asia and Europe.”
Chomsky could have deepened his dark case by referencing leading left oil and empire analyst Michael Klare’s observation that “ U.S. oil consumption is on an upward trajectory, climbing by 400,000 barrels per day in 2013 alone — and, if current trends persist, it should rise again both this year and next.” As Klare elaborates:
“….oil is back. Big time….Despite what you may think, Americans, on average, are driving more miles every day, not fewer, filling ever more fuel tanks with ever more gasoline, and evidently feeling ever less bad about it. The stigma of buying new gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, seems to have vanished; according to CNN Money, nearly one out of three vehicles sold today is an SUV. As a result of all this, America’s demand for oil grew more than China’s in 2013, the first time that’s happened since 1999.”
“Accompanying all this is a little noticed but crucial shift in White House rhetoric. While President Obama once spoke of the necessity of eliminating our reliance on petroleum as a major source of energy, he now brags about rising U.S. oil output and touts his efforts to further boost production.”
The once widespread expectation that the US would be moving quickly on the path to a post-petroleum economy (one of the early promises of the Obama candidacy of 2007-2008) has been swept for now into history’s proverbial dustbin – with consequences that are terrible to contemplate.
If Dr. King were alive today (he’d be 85), he would certainly add Ecocide – itself intimately related to economic inequality (capitalism, essentially) – to his list of the “evils that are interrelated.” Smart people like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner were warning about the danger in his lifetime. Half a century later the risk is shockingly imminent; it has overtaken nuclear war as the leading threat to human survival.
Surely, then, “our” left (according to the FOX News and talk radio empire and cohort) and “progressive” (some liberals still insist on believing against all evidence both before and since Obama’s first White House election) president is going to try to rescue his frankly failed presidency by getting real about how We the People can meaningfully confront and overcome poverty, mass joblessness, savage economic inequality, ferocious racial disparity, and climate change/ecocide with bold and progressive policy and politics. Surely he is going to honor the memory of Dr. King by calling for: a significant downward distribution of wealth and income; measures to roll back abject plutocracy; the re-building and expansion of the social safety net; the empowerment of worker organizing; a serious confrontation with persistent US racism (deeply and institutionally understood); de-incarceration; the de-militarization of local police, the massive transference of resources from the spiritually fatal war and empire machine to a giant Green Jobs program – a Green New Deal that will put millions to millions to remunerative and socially useful and ecologically (and existentially) essential work: the building of a post-fossil fuel social energy infrastructure relying on wind, water, and solar…an epic, Life-saving reconversion of the US political economy.
Obama is addressing the nation tonight to make the case for the US to intensify its commitment to the third of Dr. King’s “triple evils” – militarism – in the Middle East. He will inveigh against the reprehensible barbarism – including videotaped beheadings of US journalists – of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He will proclaim “America’s” well-intentioned devotion to civilized values: human rights, freedom, and democracy – all those good “American” things that dastardly pre-modern Islamists irrationally hate. He will say nothing about the United States’ brazenly petro-imperial and, well, barbarian, mass-murderous role in the Middle East and the Muslim world. (Beginnings on this topic can start by Googling up “Fallujah 2004,” “Abu Ghraib and torture,” “Bagram Air Force and enhanced interrogation,” “Highway of Death,” “Madeline Albright and 500,000 Iraqi children,” “Nisour Square and Wikileaks,” “Bola Boluk 2009,” “Jeremy Scahill and Dirty Wars” and “Nir Rosen and Death of Iraq.”) He’ll make no reference to the United States’ long oil-driven history of backing brutally repressive and despotic regimes in the region. He won’t mention the beheadings that are regularly carried out by authorities in Saudi Arabia, a key US ally that is home to the most reactionary government on Earth. He won’t mention longstanding US support for Israel’s recurrent murder of Palestinians in Gaza and for Israel’s regime of savage racist apartheid and oppression (which kills and maims on a regular basis between period episodes of IDF “lawn mowing”). He won’t talk about how US interventions, occupations, alliances, murders and neoliberal policies in the region have long pushed Arabs and Muslims into fundamentalism and violence. He won’t acknowledge how US military escalation always fuels jihadist recruitment and rage. He won’t admit the United States’ direct role in building up ISIS in Syria, part of Washington’s campaigns against the Assad regime and Shia Iran. He won’t mention the older role of the US and its allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the building up of al Qaeda, of which ISIS is an offshoot. He won’t mention the price that millions of disproportionately Black poor US children pay for the giant systemic diversion of US taxpayer dollars from social uplift at home to US Empire abroad. He won’t mention the social, public, democratic, and environmental needs that go vastly unmet as the US transfers billions to corporate war masters. He won’t note that the US Empire is dedicated to maintaining US control over a global oil spigot whose output places humanity at ever more imminent risk of self-liquidation. He won’t admit that he is banging the drums of war so that the Washington can try to protect its control over the filling of the deadly drums of oil.
There’s a word for all this: Evil. And there’s only one “solution” – popular organization for revolutionary change, for what Dr. King called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like the skin color or gender of a Wall Street-backed political candidate): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” Awareness that this radical project – quite do-able, for what it’s worth – is now urgently required to preserve chances for a decent future, for survival, might light a fire in the hearts and minds of those who are serious about saving the US, the world, and (dare I say) themselves from spiritual as well as material death.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy