The American People: A Tirade

I’m a huge fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  The satire is sharp, intelligent and a much-needed perspective in the midst of a news media that (I think) tends to be sensational, polarized, and generally unwilling to take the time to report on any story that won’t fit into a 60-second sound byte.  To be fair, I don’t think Stewart always gets it right either.  He has his own biases and he is certainly given to moments of just complete and utter nonsense (like his spiel about Roland Martin’s ascot on Wednesday evening).

However, his recent piece “American Apparently” was absolutely spot on.  (Start at about 2:50 for the ‘meat’ of the sketch.)  Stewart lampoons the tendency of American politicians (both Republicans and Democrats) to expound on what “the American people want” and who “the American people” are in an effort to promote the special interests of a small group of citizens or those who hold a particular political ideology.  Or to win re-election.  His criticisms aren’t exactly original, but they are still poignant.  And just plain funny.

Having just completed Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I found the sketch to be particularly relevant.  For those of you unfamiliar with the book, A People’s History is a bold attempt to recount the history of the United States in a way that is far more sympathetic to those generally left out of the history books (blacks, Indians, women, trade unions, immigrants, developing countries, the poor, prisoners) than to those whom historians have traditionally glorified (the Founding Fathers, the presidents, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, military leaders).

Zinn is unapologetically biased in favor of the marginalized and has no qualms about vilifying those with political, economic and military power—“the elite.”  I’ll admit that the category of “the elite” is suspiciously vague at times, but the evidence certainly adds up against certain politically and economically powerful persons whose machinations and even seemingly humanitarian actions are all driven by a desire to protect their own wealth and power.  Indeed, one is left with the sense that not a single political leader in our short history has possessed a moral compass that points north.  At the same time, Zinn avoids idolizing those whom he favors; it’s clear that those without power are as capable of violence and shortcomings as those with power.  He’s just more interested in exploring why those who are poor and without political or military power would choose to engage in protests, riots, and violent actions.

If one takes Zinn’s account seriously, all politicians’ claims to represent, to listen to, to be concerned with what “the American people want” are part of an age-old ploy to protect the corporate interests of the richest and most powerful 1% of “the American people.”  And by age-old, I mean this has been going on since Columbus set eyes on the West Indies in 1492.  That is to say that such an unbelievable and unjustified imbalance of power has existed for the entires history of these United States.

Let’s be honest.  In 2010, “the American people” continues to be a euphemism for the lobbyists, the oil companies, the insurance giants, the bailed-out banks, and the tank-gun-explosive-and-bomber-producing corporations who fund the politicians’ campaigns.

And I’m not quite sure what to do about that, except publish this hopelessly opinionated tirade.

Zinn holds out some hope for a “coming revolt of the guards”—a true people’s movement in which the 99% of people who do not hold sway in this nation will unite against the continued injustices and oppression of the 1% who do.  A time in which those of us who are presently content with our relative prosperity will join with those who have good reason to be malcontent in demanding a better way of life.

I’m afraid I don’t share his faith in human beings.

“Human nature being what it is,” (Thucydides, 300 BC) I think we are more given to division and prejudice and the hatred of anyone that we consider an “other” than to unification.  And even if we are not such vicious beings as all that, we (dare I say, “I”?) value comfort and security more than justice and are unwilling to disrupt the system that seems to provide just enough safety for just enough people.

Alas, it appears that without some fundamental shift in the nature of our current political system (perhaps in the very nature of human beings), what those supposed “American people” want will continue to be the driving force of western power for a very, very long time.  I can only hope that such a shift will take place long before I dare to believe it will.


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