Uncivil Rhetoric, Uncivil Realities

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 09, 2009, issue of December 18, 2009.
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There’s anger in the air, considerable anger. No great surprise: At the end of October, there were nearly 16 million unemployed persons in the United States; a third had been unemployed for more than six months; there are six times as many job-seekers as there are job openings. Another 11.7 million people are either working part-time while hoping for full-time employment — the involuntarily underemployed, we may call them — or have simply given up looking for work. Factor in the number of immediate family members, and we’re looking at tens of millions more directly affected by unemployment.

This time around, it doesn’t feel like a manageable bump in the road; it looks more like a brick wall. So: There goes the retirement you’d so carefully planned; there goes college for your kids; there goes an earned life of relative ease; there, maybe, goes your house; there, maybe, goes your pension. More than enough to generate anger.

And more still: There go the American dreams — the personal dream that your kids would do better than you, that opportunity would be your life-long companion and theirs, along with your share of the national dream that America’s specialness was part of the natural order of things. Instead, two wars; a deficit high enough to enter orbit and getting higher every week, every day; America’s slippage and China’s ascendancy.

Anger, and resentment. Who are those striped-suiters over at Goldman Sachs who have set aside $16.7 billion for this year’s bonus pool, an average of more than $700,000 per employee? How cozy are they and their colleagues with the White House, with members of Congress? They eat cake and caviar whenever they choose; the lines at the soup kitchens and food pantries grow longer all the while.

Anger, resentment and fear, too, inchoate fear: Is our world collapsing? What sort of world will our children and theirs inhabit?

All this is in the air, not yet significantly on the street, much less the still non-existent barricades. We have no way of estimating how many of the tens of millions of our neighbors who are at immediate risk, nor how many of the rest of us who are merely queasy, have found public ways to express our private distress. There are the tea parties and the manipulated town meetings, but for the time being not much more save, perhaps, for a general decline into crude populism. But the point here is not the uncertain future that awaits, a politics of hope replaced by an anti-politics of resentment. The point is that the anger is fully reasonable. We dare not dismiss the anger because it sometimes — not all that often — devolves into genuinely stupid arguments about “death panels” and such.

What to do about the anger, the resentment, the fear? From the do-good left, we hear pleas for a rebirth of civility. In this view, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the villains, and we need to wean ourselves off of them and their kind. We need courses on civility in our schools and a total rejection of demagoguery and defamation in our public discourse.

As they used to say about enemas, it wouldn’t hurt. But these sunshine steps are hardly an adequate response to a condition that is rooted in objective circumstance. It is not that we have lately picked up some unpleasant rhetorical habits; it is that we have been double-crossed. Limbaugh and Beck are villains, to be sure — but the joblessness, the foreclosures, the withering of the dream does not derive from them. It is not civility we lack; it is confidence, security, hope. It is institutions we can trust to turn the tide, leaders we can trust to manage those institutions fairly and wisely. For the sun is not shining, and talking it up won’t make it so. There is a steady drizzle and the sense that not far off a Category 5 storm is brewing. Where are the levees? Have they, too, been privatized?

The generally accepted measure of inequality of income (not wealth, just income) is called the Gini coefficient. America’s current score is 45, where 0 represents perfect equality (all households have the same income) and 100 represents perfect inequality (one household has all the income, all the rest have nothing). Is 45 “good”? Consider: Sweden, with a score of 23, has the flattest — i.e., the most equal — income distribution in the world. Germany, France, Belgium, Hungary and Denmark are among others that score in the 20 to 30 range. Spain, Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea and Italy, among others, score between 30 and 33. The United States, at 45, is in 95th place, in close proximity to Kenya, the Philippines, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Uruguay, Jamaica and Uganda. (Israel, at 38.6, is in 67th place.)

Yes, lessons in anger management might be helpful. But they offer at best symptomatic relief. The underlying sources of the anger — bluntly, the excesses and corruptions and conceits of capitalism — remain. Trust Goldman Sachs to see to it that they not be disturbed.

Neither bread and circuses nor soothing talk of civic virtue will be sufficient to contain the anger or to relieve the distress. Repair must begin with the acknowledgment of and respect for our neighbors’ pain. Some of them will doubtless remain beyond reasonable reach; with the others, organize, ensure that that the elections of 2010 are not a demagogic shouting match but a sober and coherent campaign, together take back the day.


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