Saturday, November 28, 2009

Indistinguishable From Aristocracy

posted by Armadillo Joe

Mrs. Joe and I are fans of the show House Hunters on HGTV, including its offspring House Hunters International. Last night, we watched an episode called Londoners Seek a More Leisurely Life in France. A synopsis:
Stephanie and Charlie May have lived in the fast lane in London for four years. Now, they yearn to slow down and spend more time with their two-year-old son Finn. They've begun a search for a home in the Jarnac region of France, which has everything they are looking for: good schools, beautiful landscapes, great food and a relaxed pace of life.
And as much as we were both ready to hate them, we actually had quite the opposite reaction. She works as a defense barrister and he works as a carpenter/joiner/cabinet-maker. The rather modest home they showed the two owning in South London was nothing spectacular and overall, my impression was of a more or less straight-up middle class couple who married for love, she from the bourgois-merchant class on down and he from the working class on up. We liked both of them and they seemed like the sort of people who we would count among our friends if we knew them.

They were moving to a rural part of western France to open a bed-and-breakfast, their plan being to find and spruce-up an old French farmhouse, retro-fitting the unused portions of the house and the out-buildings into gîtes for Brits on extended holiday in the late spring through early fall. The price range of the homes they were looking at in France were actually rather comparable to what me and Mrs. Joe would be seeking were we ever in a similar position and, if you've ever seen the show or plan to watch this specific episode (spoiler alert!) they choose House #2. That made us happy because it needed the most work but also had the most potential.

It's funny, though. Note that I said "were we ever in a similar position." It occurred to me as I watched the show last night that we could never, ever be in a similar position. Ever. Not just because in the epilogue we found out that the two of them after the fact wound up splitting time between London and rural France in order to continue to draw income while they made the transition -- much easier across the Channel than from across The Pond, though my actual point isn't about distance -- but because even if Mrs. Joe and I decided to flee this crazy New York City lifestyle and raise goats to make artisanal cheeses in Vermont, we couldn't because we'd have no health-care.


And that's the whole point, isn't it? Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. This entire health-care debate is about how free a country we're actually going to be. One of the benefits of my line of work is that I get to meet creative people from other countries -- usually Britain, but Ireland and France and Russia, among others -- and I get my horizons correspondingly broadened. Most recently, I had the added advantage of working with a gent who is an expatriated American and longtime resident of London. I was able to get his take on our healthcare debate from the perspective of someone who understood the American mindset but had also enjoyed the advantages of the English system for long enough to also understand the good and the bad of the alternative.

The way he put it really resonated with me. He said that, despite the general perception of English society being stiflingly class-bound, lifestyle changes are fairly common in the UK, that people quite often work in the field of their choice straight out of university but then realize they hate it and go back to school for something different. Or vice-versa: skip schooling early on to pursue a career, realize their heart isn't in it but don't have to fear illness and death should they decide to return to school or move to the country to raise goats to make artisanal cheeses.

That resonated with me because I didn't have health care from the age of 22, when I graduated from college, until I had a full-time job at a non-profit theater here in New York at the age of 30, insurance which lapsed when I quit. I didn't regain coverage until four years ago. In the intervening eight years between college and my first full-time job in New York, I uprooted my life in Texas then lived in series of questionable flats across Brooklyn and Manhattan, sustained myself on a diet of cheap soda and cans of pork and beans, dumping the monthly financial shortfall onto my ballooning credit card balance, until I finally established myself here in the city. I don't have any rich relatives. I never got a single dime of help from anyone in my family. I took a huge risk. I gambled and persevered and sacrificed and struggled to get ahead and it all might very well not have paid off. Though being a reasonably handsome white guy frequently gave me a slight edge because, even in lib'ruhl New York City, we live in a racist, sexist country, all the while I was one scary diagnosis or mishap resulting in serious injury away from my New York experiment screeching to a halt. I lived with a constant nagging fear of it all being snatched away as I flew through my new life without a safety net. That fear stays with me today and colors my stance on the health-care debate.

I derived no lessons of personal superiority from my success, no inflated ego soothed by Ayn Rand's morally vacant "virtue of selfishness", no self-important notions of bootstraps and rugged-individualism. Many, many people far more talented worked a lot harder than I did and never made it. The fact is that I was just plain stoopit lucky.

Some of my friends weren't. Like the one who moved here to work as an actor, shredded his hand on a broken beer bottle when he tripped on a staircase at a party and had to move back to Texas for treatment and rehabilitation. The bill was initially footed by his mom's policy, until they were dropped, and the remaining financial debt he is still re-paying almost a decade later. Or my friend from Texas who still lives here in NYC, but must frequently turn down work as an opera singer, her field of training, to earn enough days at her "real" job in a law office to maintain her health benefits. Or my diabetic friend who never left Texas at all and went straight from college into a job with health benefits because she knew she could never afford insulin on her own without insurance. No fearless pursuit of personal dreams were ever in the cards for her.

Because the whole point is to keep us too afraid to take risks. Fearful people can be more easily controlled. As long as our physical health, the essence of our being, is not assured, we will do almost anything to sustain it. If you don't have your health, you don't have anything, right? It's a form of blackmail, holding our bodies hostage to the engine of prosperity. Which raises the question "prosperity for whom?"

For the people in this video, that's who. And they want you to sit down, shut up and just do as you're fucking told. We are serfs, bound in servitude to our lords in the the executive suite. It was the essence of the Cheney Administration, the shriveled, black little core of the Republican agenda, a charred husk shot through with dry-rot and maggots where a living philosophy ought to dwell.

The far end of that graph reminds me of science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's 3rd Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Re-written (by yours truly) for the topic at hand to instead read:

Any sufficiently large fortune is indistinguishable from aristocracy.

The whole of our poisonous political climate is explained in that idea. Any sufficiently large fortune is indistinguishable from aristocracy. We live in a world where the CEO of a multi-national corporation is more powerful than most heads of state. Within these United States, one side of the political divide has so much money from plundered and inherited wealth, and so much a feeling of entitlement derived from that money especially within the confines of our messy democracy, that they well and truly do believe that the one with the gold makes the rules, that their fortunes not only do give their votes more weight de facto, but that it is right that they should have that weight de jure. They've been able to convince a sufficient number of their fellow citizens to sign-on to their anti-democratic program under the guise of well-financed cultural wedge-issue campaigns waged through organs like their pet political party, the GOP, with an extended assist from the Wall Street Journal, FOX News, and countless "think" tanks and other non-profit wingnut welfare foundations which has all resulted in government policies which extend and deepen their power and influence.

All the while campaigning to erode the things that promote the general welfare, a prosperity enjoyed by all of us. Nationalized health-care, robust public transit (SUPERTRAINS!), a fully-funded public school system, these things make life better for everyone and all people see the benefit, not just a lucky, wealthy few. And the systematic destruction of these things, the chronic under-funding resulting in lackluster performance which results in loss of public confidence and a preference for the private (and profitable) alternative is all by design.

Because somewhere along the way -- and I'm pretty sure "somewhere" was round-about 1980 or so with the ascension of Saint Ronnie of the Ray-Gun, a B-list movie actor with the word "monkey" on his resume, to leader of the free world -- we let the forces of the historical norm -- that long and sordid human history of ever-more-rapacious wealth over-turned in violent convulsions (only to begin anew) that had directed human societies ad infinitum, forever nibbling at the corners of our fair nation's civil society -- we finally let that historical norm overtake the better angels of our nature. These angels had guided us though Emancipation and Women's Suffrage and The New Deal and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, but beginning in 1980 they failed us and it remains to be seen if the Obama presidency harkens their return.

Back then, some three decades ago, it got billed to Americans as "de-regulation" and "standing up to greedy unions" and the fulfillment of America's "suburban dream," but it was in fact a deliberate campaign waged by a privileged ruling class inherited from Europe which pre-dated the American Revolution and had never really been on board with that whole "democracy" experiment and who were still deeply bitter about how that class-traitor FDR's New Deal and the prosperity it generated in the decades following WW2 hadn't flowed entirely to them. The heart of their campaign was a willful conflation of class and race that masked their true purpose while it kept Americans too insecure in their own financial well-being and physically isolated in suburban pods and distrustful of each other's common humanity to notice that the corporate Masters of the Universe were looting this country of everything that wasn't bolted down, and auctioning off the drilling and mineral rights to anything that was.

The resulting boom was called "prosperity" but it was only a boom for a select few. It made them rich, this corporatization of our civic culture. Or, at least richer than they had ever been before. But none of that prosperity ever trickled down to the rest of us as real wages stagnated and we evolved from "citizens" to "consumers" and patriotic shopping replaced participatory democracy.
We forgot that an economy exists to serve the needs of society, not the other way around. Pursuit of Happiness.

So while we in America were busy finding ever more ecologically destructive ways of (dis)organizing our urban environments and paving over farmland and ensuring petroleum-dependent urban sprawl and becoming otherwise more rugged and individualistic and just plain ol' butch, those sissies over there in 'Yurp were building elaborate train networks and national health-care infrastructures and comprehensive public schooling systems that their entire citizenry could use to have the physical and social mobility needed to fully participate in their national economies.

Thus, we live in a world now where England may now be deprived of a carpenter and a defense lawyer, but France gains two inn-keepers who will themselves contribute to the French economy as well as being two loving parents who will raise their child to also be a productive citizen of France. True that England's loss is France's gain, but the infrastructure of both country's social safety-nets allowed these two people more easily make a life transition to find their true calling to happiness, thereby more efficiently distributing the means of production. Happy workers are naturally more efficient.

Besides, England is saddled with one fewer lawyer, so in the end, I'd argue that both countries are better off.

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