What's Left

America's Virtue: Mollycoddling the Stinking Rich

By Stephen Gowans

It's good to know that as our neighbors to the south shred parts of their constitution, drop bombs on Afghan wedding parties, demand blanket immunity from war crimes prosecution, and erect tariff barriers while demanding poor countries embrace "free markets," there's still a lot to love about America, or so Marilyn Baker says.  She's a freelance writer from Richmond, B.C., who authored a 4th of July paean to our American cousins, published in Asper-owned newspapers.

According to Baker, there are five American virtues that not only make the world's only superpower likable, but also an object of envy.  They are:

American-style government (fixed terms and an elected Senate.)

American-style capitalism ("free markets" have made the United States the richest union in the world, Baker enthuses.)

American-style health care (the best in the world, Baker contends.)

American-style culture (Baker points to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Updike, Fitzgerald.)

American-style technology (where would we be without American-invented airplanes, cameras, and computers?)

Let's look at each of the virtues in turn. Are they as admirable as Baker says?

American-style government

While fixed terms may have their appeal, and while an elected body is clearly preferable to Canada's appointed Senate, it's not clear that Americans electing their senators means much of anything, these days.

First of all, more Americans don't vote than do. Indolence, ignorance, and the absence of civic virtue are often fingered as the culprits behind America's shockingly low voter turnout, but an incisive understanding of American political life on the part of abstainers may be the real reason so many Americans stay away from the polls. Could it be they, unlike those who vote, suspect voting doesn't really matter?

If so, their suspicions are not without foundation. There are really only two choices in the American political system, and the two choices, the Democrats and the Republicans, are virtually identical. It's as if an ice-cream parlor offered two flavors: chocolate ripple and chocolate fudge. If you didn't like chocolate, how often would you go out for ice cream? Saying you've got to love American-style democracy, as Baker does, is kind of like saying you've got to love Tina's Two-Choices of Chocolate Ice-cream Parlor, because you can buy chocolate fudge on Mondays and chocolate ripple on Tuesdays.

And while senators and congressional representatives are elected, a cabinet makes almost all decisions of great moment. And who elected them? Did anyone elect Attorney General John Ashcroft, a man who's doing his best to run the American constitution through a paper shredder?  This guy lost an election to a cadaver, yet he's been appointed to make over a two centuries' long tradition of civil liberties into the same state his last electoral opponent was -- dead.

Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, and Paul Wolfowitz, his Strangelovian deputy, weren't elected either, but either wields more power than all the elected senators combined. They too have been set loose to turn living things  - in this case, whatever poor and miserable of the world happen to get in the way of operations to "rout out terrorists" and "change regimes" and generally advance American claims to global primacy -- into the same state the guy Ashcroft couldn't beat in an election was. Or, I daresay, into the same state American democracy is.

And what of the vaunted elected Senate? If ever the term "rubber stamp parliament" were fitting, this is it. It seems there's little the gaggle of rich, far right, sociopaths appointed to the administration by a president who was appointed by an appointed Supreme Court can do that won't be rubber-stamped by the Senate and Congress, who, if truth be told, were appointed by the wealthy patrons who financed their election bids.

Senators are appointed by whoever is willing to give them enough money to allow their campaign teams to manipulate the minority of largely affluent Americans who still go to the polls to cast enough votes for their candidate, so that they can then vote in ways in the Senate that profit the wealthy who sent them to Washington in the first place. Which means American-style government is exactly what the people who finance it want it to be:  a plutocracy.

And it's a plutocracy you've got to love, if you're rich. The problem is, most of us aren't rich, which makes plutocracy like a bad case of head lice - something to be reviled and avoided, and given a good dose of a harsh cleanser.

American-style capitalism

America, it is true, has the world's highest GDP per capita, but ordinary Americans don't have more wealth than Canadians.  On the contrary, ordinary Canadians come off better in average income comparisons than Americans do, a fact that would no doubt be more widely known had Canada its own Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and a penchant for blowing its own horn. But what America has that Canada hasn't is more billionaires. A lot more. And that pulls the average up. Which means, American-style capitalism is no kinder, and indeed is less kinder, to average Americans than Canadian-style capitalism is to average Canadians. But it is a whole lot kinder to the wealthy, and that's something rich Canadians salivate over.

Maybe that's why the Canadian media -- owned by wealthy Canadians who wouldn't mind a little bit of American-style mollycoddling -- are always going on about American virtues. What better way to get ordinary Canadians to go along with making over Canadian-style capitalism (barely restrained by the vestiges of a tattered social democracy) into American-style capitalism (subsidize the rich, stick it to the poor) than to present a one sided view that says, "Hey, it would be crazy not to model ourselves after the Americans"?

In the Canadian view, American-style capitalism becomes Bill Gate's palatial mansion and Harrison Ford's multimillionaire dollar movie deals and big screen TVs, and the world's greatest concentration of billionaires. You'd think it was a casino where everyone wins. And that's because the propaganda does what any good casino does -- draws attentions to a few winners, while hiding the myriad losers, who foot the bill. Meanwhile, slums and barrios, street people, decaying public services, and the sweatshops of the Third World, every bit as much a part of American-style capitalism as SUV's and mutual funds, are swept under the rug.

It's like watching a Woody Allen film. The dirt, filth and slums of New York City are filtered out, so all we see is a romantic dream of Manhattan as a marvelously exciting, clean and invigorating place - which it is, if you're rich. But live in New York City if you're not, and it won't be long before you discover all the things Woody Allen left out, like the landlord banging on your door demanding back rent on your filthy, overpriced apartment as cockroaches scurry across the floor and a rat arrogantly hustles up the drain pipe.

That's seems like hyperbole, but is it? We're so accustomed to seeing America portrayed as a comfortable, white suburb, where neighbors compete to see who can produce the most verdant lawn, that the sea of grinding poverty, decay and racism is never recognized.

American-style health care

The best in the world, Baker says. Yeah, if you can pay for it. Otherwise, it's about as good as anything you'd get in a Third World country, Cuba excepted. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than Washington, D.C., capital of the country Baker says has the world's best health care.

Ask the 40 million Americans who have no health insurance, and the other 40 million who have inadequate coverage, whether they get the world's best health care. At the same time, ask them why American-style government, which we're all supposed to love, can't deliver a universal health care insurance plan.

American-style culture

Baker says the merits of American culture are evident in the wealth of brilliant American writers. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Updike, Fitzgerald. These are indeed brilliant writers. But nobody reads them. At least, the number that do is an infinitesimal fraction of the number that reads Robert Ludlum, devours Harlequin Romances, religiously follows WWF make-believe, and watches the pinnacle of real American culture -- Gilligan's Island in syndication.

American-style technology

Airplanes, computers and cameras. And the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the neutron bomb, and the cluster bomb. The F-15, the F-16, the F-18 and the B-52 bomber.

Much American-style technology owes its existence to government programs, financed by ordinary Americans, who pick up the tab for upfront development. Once the technology is marketable, it's transferred to American corporations, who then proceed to make a killing (figuratively and sometimes literally.) This is all in keeping with American-style capitalism's standard operating procedure  -- get the suckers called ordinary Americans to pick up the tab, while making off with the profits.

Which means American-style technology is like American-style government, American-style capitalism and American-style health care  -- built for the wealthy.

And that, ya gotta love, if you're stinking rich.

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