A Return To Tragedy
April 20, 2010 - 4:12pm ET
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As I learned in a public junior high school, the old Greek tragedies were always about the wealthy and powerful, the mighty, the strong, the great. Sophocles didn't write anything like 'Death of a Salesman,' so far as we know. It was natural that life should suck, and suck mightily, for the toiling masses, and only noteworthy when things got terrible for the lucky few.
This sense that it was right and proper for those of limited means to suffer was still common in America a century ago, as Devilstower explained so well this past weekend. Then something out of the ordinary happened, when the post-WWII economy in the US created a prosperous middle class. More, the sense that people of no unusual significance could expect a decent life and that if they were thwarted in that goal, something had gone wrong.
As my colleague Terrance Heath recently explored in more depth, conservatives have kept the older meaning of Tragedy alive and well through all the advances in recent decades of expanded rights and economic security for women, LGBTQ people and those whose ancestors didn't emigrate to the US from Western Europe. I think he's correct in ascribing the unhinged anger of older, wealthier, whiter Tea Partiers to the fact that they have less relative privilege compared to those they still consider their inferiors.
Considering how many of them are on Social Security, I have a hard time believing that they'd be protesting the evils of Big Government if Social Security were still restricted to people who are classed as white. I have a harder time believing they'd mind expansions of Medicaid if the benefits only went to the 'virtuous' and white poor. They think their good fortune is an outgrowth of some personal virtue, which they have to believe in order to also believe that *they* won't ever end up poor and disenfranchised if they just recite magical formulas of belief in patriotic and spiritual values. It's sad, really. Tragic, you could say, and not just for them.
The sense that only the well-being of society's wealthier, more privileged members matters seemed to be a driving factor in Goldman Sachs' willingness to defraud their own investors as much as it was in Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's calculation that the deaths of his employees were statistically insignificant. The sense that wealth derived from cheating others justifies itself is the only possible explanation for the continued political relevance of an incompetent fraudster like Robert Rubin, because the flip-side of his prosperity has been the impoverishment of millions, with the two faces of his career so entwined that to approve one is of necessity to approve the other. It's doubtless part of what helps so many employers self-justify stealing wages from their employees.
Is this the kind of society we want to have? Are these the public morals we want to continue governing the economy?
It seems that the right enjoys distracting the public with stupid conversations about whether birth control is acceptable because they don't want to have the more serious conversation about whether defrauding or injuring your employees and customers is acceptable. If you want to prioritize those conversations on prevailing community standards, I'm comfortable guessing that a lot more Americans use birth control than steal from or physically injure their neighbors. As Devilstower, and others over the years, pointed out, conservatives only need to move to Somalia (or Burma, or DR Congo, etc.,) to visit their ideal society where everyone is armed, women and the local minority groups have no inalienable rights to their own persons, and only the mighty have any recourse to protect themselves from tragedy.
I'm further going to guess that more people want out of Somalia than in, while more people want into the more equal, more regulated, more just society that liberal policies have created in the US than want out.
Indeed, even though a powerful Goldman Sachs investor like John Paulson is willing to park his money in a human rights wasteland like AngloGold Ashanti's mines in the Congo, he parks himself, and has a summer home, in the peaceful, well-regulated United States.
I have a lot of friends who are interested in science fiction and history, so I've had a number of conversations that went something like, 'If you could go back to any time or place in the past, which would you choose?' After much consideration, discussion and reconsideration, my answer is none. I can't think of any time in the past when it was actually better than now to be a 35 year old woman from a working class family. Heck, one of the names in my mom's family tree suggests that part of my family used to be serfs. Fun. I don't want to go back to the past, and I have zero nostalgia for it's old prejudices, privileges, atrocities and insufficient plumbing.
The past, in short, sucked, and sucked mightily for most people throughout nearly all of human history that anyone's uncovered. In most of the times past, every brief flowering of egalitarian peace was inevitably crushed under the boot heel of some hairy horseman with a new-and-improved weapon. Being realistic, that's still true in too many parts of the present world for my liking--a very literal interpretation of the common truism that the past is neither dead, nor past.
Which is why the resurgence of the politics of Classical Tragedy, whose effect has always and everywhere been to multiply tragedies throughout society until they're so common that only the complaints of the powerful can be heard above the hue and cry of the multitudes, is horrifying.
But again, it isn't new, or unique. The Tea Party phenomenon is as old as the worship of golden idols, as Mike Lux pointed out recently:
The story of the golden calf in Exodus is the perfect allegory for the conservative movement's rapturous worship of the free market uber alles. In their religious fervor, the free market is always good, and therefore corporations- no matter their size, power, or history of malfeasance- are always good too, and all government is always bad, all of the time, no matter what. They worship their idol of gold no matter what actually happens in the world around them, and nothing can change their religion. The economy can collapse in a terrible financial panic on their watch, and it still doesn't shake their faith in their golden idol. The big banks can commit fraud and create massive bubbles they know will pop and it still doesn't shake their faith- they still don't want financial regulations. Mine accidents can kill people, and they still don't want more safety inspectors. Toys with lead in them can kill toddlers, and they still don't want stronger consumer protections. The number of people killed from E Coli can rise to record levels, and they still don't want stronger food safety rules. Bridges can collapse, and the still don't want to raise taxes to pay to rebuild our infrastructure. 40,000 people a year can die from a lack of health insurance, millions can be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, Medicare can prove to be a popular and effective way of delivering health care to people, and they still don't want government involved in health care. Social Security can lift generations of senior citizens out of abject poverty, and they still want to get rid of it. ...
That's tragedy writ large, and some people can't see it no matter what, which is why those of us who don't want to wake up and discover that we're living in a temperate Congo are obliged to oppose them. Even, ironically, for their own sake. In the true free-for-all that a Tea Partying 60 year old engineer might claim to want, there really isn't enough personal virtue in the world to ensure his safety and that of his loved ones.
The past wasn't usually a great time to be old in, either.
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