January 13, 2020
From the OB Rag
By Jim Miller
I took a week off from my soapbox for some holiday traveling and came home to a world on the brink of spiraling into a dangerous new global conflict. It wasn’t surprising.
In fact, crisis-all-the-time is our new normal, the zeitgeist of our era. While it would be easy to point to Trump as the central player in our increasingly overwrought national drama, the fact is that many of the trends that helped to shape the present preceded his presidency.
Thus, as we head into a new decade with the future on the line like it never has been before, it might be useful to consider some of the key moments of the last ten years along with the social, political, and economic forces that fostered them.
What are the ten most important happenings of the last American decade? Here is my best shot at the inevitably imperfect quick instant history:
* Occupy Wall Street: In the wake of the economic crisis and the steady, decades-long growth of economic inequality and bipartisan embrace of neoliberalism, Occupy exploded onto the American scene and forced issues of inequality, plutocracy, and the threat to American democracy into mainstream media circles and our national political discourse. However short-lived the occupations themselves were, the impact on our politics was profound. The rising consciousness of economic injustice helped make Bernie Sanders’ critique of the “billionaire class” a central part of American politics and enabled Trump’s cynical rightwing populism. The 2020 election continues to be contested on this terrain.
* The New Civil Rights Movements and the Subsequent Backlash: Black Lives Matter, Immigrants’ Rights, #MeToo, the legalization of gay marriage, and the push to recognize Transgender rights transformed the American social and political landscape for the good AND produced a homophobic, patriarchal, xenophobic, white-supremacist backlash. There is much to celebrate in the gains and new awareness produced by these movements on multiple fronts, but the ferocity of the hateful backlash of a shrinking, largely older and whiter America has done serious harm. On this front, it’s clear that the future will be won by a more diverse, tolerant, and equitable America—the only question is how long this will take and how much damage will be done to the body politic before the national demographics ultimately creates a new destiny.
* Mass Killing as a “New Normal”: Along with the routine news of international terrorism, domestic killing in the form of public massacres, school shootings, and other acts of both targeted and indiscriminate mass slaughter have become our new normal. From Newtown to Paris to Las Vegas to El Paso to Dayton, etc., ad nauseam, images of shooters, frequently lone men, have become the stuff of our all-too-routine nightmares. We now live in an era of murderous rage and an accompanying political impotence when it comes to meaningful responses.
* The Assault on Public Education and the Militant Response of Labor: Over the last decade, countless millions of dollars have been spent by corporate education reformers, much of it by, as Diane Ravitch has named them, “the billionaire boys club,” to “disrupt,” defund, and privatize public education. This historically unprecedented assault on our educational system and, by proxy, the public sphere and democracy is the tip of the spear of the total corporatization of American life. As disheartening as this never-ending offensive against the democratically controlled institution of public education has been, the wave of teachers’ strikes from West Virginia to Los Angeles and elsewhere along with the strong public support for their struggles is a sign that Americans are not too keen on surrendering their schools to the machinations of the rich just yet. One of the positive ripples in the wake of the teachers’ strike wave has been the accompanying revival of striking as a weapon for American workers elsewhere in the private sector as we saw with the successful autoworkers’ strike and other militant struggles across the country. The battle continues in earnest.
* Technological and Social Media Addiction: While much attention has been rightfully given to the horrible toll of opioid addiction in America, perhaps even more important socially is the absolute capture of the national mind by the myriad of technological devices and various forms of social media. The world my 16-year-old son now occupies is fundamentally and permanently transformed from the one I knew as a young man. I will leave it for the technophiles and Silicon Valley types to sing the praises of the brave new world we occupy. From our current vantage point, the wages of this sea change, particularly over the last decade, are almost entirely negative with regard to perpetual distraction, the loss of the ability to focus on longer narratives, and the triumph of fast capitalism. In sum, we have rapidly transformed ourselves into a nation of atomized consumers inseparable from our screens, beyond alienation.
* The Implosion of the Master Narrative of the Mainstream Media and the Death of Facts: Along with the atomization that is a result of our addiction to social media is a newly intensified siloing when it comes to the consumption of information. The decline of print media and the growth of alternative sources for news had been happening for years before the past decade, but it was during the 2010s that we saw not just a retreat of news consumers to hermetically sealed ideological silos but an assault on the very idea that there are verifiable facts that maintain their veracity even in the face of one’s chosen political creed. Trump’s rejection of the facts he hates as “fake news” and his assault on science are easy targets here as is the penchant for conspiracy theories on both the left and right. A dangerous trend to be sure.
* The Rise and Legitimization of the Far Right: Anyone who was at any of the Tea Party inspired protests at the congressional town halls during the debate over the Affordable Care Act saw it coming. The blatantly racist attacks on Obama combined with antisemitism and black helicopter wingnut rightwing conspiracy stuff was on full display. That was followed by the Koch-funded assault on labor in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the dominance of dark money in our politics, the attacks on voting rights, climate denialism, extreme anti-immigrant hysteria, and the mainstreaming of extreme libertarian economic policy all began before Trump’s election as the dual forces of rightwing billionaire money and what Thomas Frank has labeled “backlash populism” that replaces economic grievances with rage against the “cultural elite” have transformed the Republican Party, USA into what, historically speaking, is an extreme right party with a crush on fascism.
* The Naturalization of Permanent War: There are now millions of Americans who have not been alive when the United States was not at war. Indeed, the fear that we are going to “start a war” with Iran ignores that fact the we have never stopped being at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. Those who feared that the wholesale, largely bipartisan embrace of the “War on Terror” in the post 9/11 moment was a dangerous step toward permanent war have been proven right. During the last decade, hopes that Obama would significantly roll back the excesses of Bush’s war on terrorism were dashed, and, as recent reports suggest, we were deceived that the war in Afghanistan was coming to a close. All one need do is watch the sycophantic embrace of all things military industrial complex on liberal outlets like MSNBC to see how deeply entrenched the new hegemony is. We have sacrificed truth, trillions of dollars, civil liberties, and countless lives in the service of killing to stop killing. War is how we live now.
* The Greening of America: One of the more interesting changes over the last decade is the widespread decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, and, quite recently, the decriminalization of psilocybin in Denver, Colorado and Oakland, California. In some ways this push is in line with the movement for criminal justice reform by ending laws that were disproportionately enforced against people of color. It’s also evidence that the culture warriors on the right are living on borrowed time as social attitudes of Americans, younger Americans in particular, are trending hard against them. As the new wave of interest in psychedelics shows, folks are open to “changing their minds,” as Michael Pollan puts it, and looking for some kind of antidote for what ails us.
* Living the Climate Catastrophe in Real Time (the Naturalization of Ecocide): Even as the nihilist right clings to climate denialism, a clear majority of Americans see that climate change is happening and know it needs to be addressed to avoid dire consequences. On a regular basis we watch catastrophic fires and storms, and read about melting polar ice, dying coral reefs, extreme heat, species extinction, and other horrifying phenomenon and future perils. This has spurred some of the most inspiring global protests by young people and others seen in years and forced many usually reclusive scientists to raise the alarm. And yet, as with our endless wars, the political response has been dismayingly inadequate and too many of us have naturalized the bad news as some kind of inevitable outcome. Indeed, over the last ten years there has not been anything close to a political proposal commensurate with the existential threat we face until quite recently. As we pivot toward the next decade, we will either embrace something like a Green New Deal for the planet or waste the last window we have to create a livable world for the future.