Friday, September 9, 2011

Confronting Myths and Falsehoods

In her well-documented book, The Way We Never Were (American Families and the Nostalgia Trap), Stephanie Coontz dispels our cherished childhood notions for the fiction they were. The ideal family of Leave it to Beaver never existed in the real world. We did have rugged individualists, but as a self-indulgent rarity. Basic Books originally published her nonfiction treatise in 1992 that characterized familial myths from America’s inception through the 1980s. Her 2000 edition reflects life through the end of the century in her Introduction.

Obviously this book is not a new release. Inexpensive and wonderful gems can be found in secondhand stores. Ms. Coontz’ book is one of those gems that unravels the stark unvarnished and often frightening truth of our societal past that we may be reluctant to recall.

Having grown up in the fifties, I knew Donna and Alex Reed, June and Ward Cleaver, Margaret and Jim Anderson were not typical imitations of life. Nevertheless, as in the song Somewhere Out There sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram from the movie An American Tail my siblings and I hoped. We knew otherwise, of course. Nevertheless, we fantasized that parents appeased all childish mishaps and arguments with a stern, yet fair admonishment to go to our rooms. Then after a reasonable time would be presented with cocoa and a warm smile. I felt that because Wally and the Beaver existed, even if in fiction, so did optimism of favorable endings. Somewhere. I carry this optimism with me that all things, untoward, will work out for the better.

I feel sorry for today’s youth. They too are growing up with the bomb, but with no desk to hide beneath to assuage any nightmarish images. As youngsters, we never had the World Trade Center, two of them, and the freedom-crippling Patriot Act aftermath of the second, removing all optimism of rainbows at the end. Moreover, adolescents now have end-time-clabber cluttering the airwaves.

One of the biggest myths perpetuated from our decade long militarization, depleting America’s treasure, is that social safety nets never existed before FDR dug America out of the Great Depression. According to Coontz, they have always existed in one fashion or another.

Without safety nets like Social Security, the elderly would be living with their children when too decrepit to work, eliminating all hope of personal autonomy for young adults. Without Social Security the healthy elderly whose pensions, Wall Street thieves stole, would work until their fingers fell off, never experiencing a free breath of liberty with their own thoughts. That is, if they can find jobs when companies aren’t even hiring young people. With no Social Security, the disabled would die in the streets, or perhaps along with the general poor and elderly live in tent cities. We still have them today in rural area just outside small towns. Tent towns would proliferate numerously.

Social Security and other safety net programs protect older women from having to live with abusive men just for a roof over their heads. In the not so distant past, women were forced to stay with angry and hate filled men whose violence often ended in their mutilation and death. Women and men still talk themselves into "love" relationships for the security of better finances because the rules of Social Security don’t allow multiple recipient in marriage unions. At least now, individuals are more savvy and don’t get married, but live in common law marriages where one or the other can leave if the situation doesn’t work out. Neither the man nor woman has to worry about where to find their next meal. They have their earned insurance policy of Social Security.

Social Security recipients don’t have to depend upon church handouts as did predecessors, whom churches demanded believe their brand of faith. We know of the dark side where often priests abused young people instead of giving them solace the church offered. The late Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes graphically portrays his Irish youth in this country and his old one through his mischievous twelve-year-old eyes. Otherwise, it is doubtful readers could suffer along with him, his recounting.

Politicians who postulate about fixing Social Security without factoring the human cost are empty suits who know nothing about the human condition or care little for human beings. Their eyes on the prize of offices they seek blind them to their own greed when they cavalierly vilify the program. Even conservative Republican libertarians who want the federal government out of our lives completely, are promoting a myth. States don’t always do it better. Often local governments and communities were and are far more cruel, dispensing in their brand justice when keeping citizens in line with their edicts than an impersonal federal government. Shackling of citizens in stocks like oxen was not a myth perpetrated by literature such as The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. We have come too far in social justice to return to old west brutality.

According to Coontz, under her sub-chapter The Dark Side of Interdependence: Dependency and Subjugation in Chapter Three:

"As social, political, and economic inequalities emerged in various ancient societies, at different times and in different ways, reciprocity with others was often transformed into permanent obligations from others. Such was the situation in Europe during the period immediately preceding settlement of the New World. The ideology of gift giving and interdependence remained, but most of the population was subordinate to noble families who ruled through military and religious intimidation, imposing a permanent dependence on lower classes and extracting from them deference and obligations that were one-sided and open-ended: These obligations included the duty to produce surplus for the rulers, provide them with intimate personal services (sometimes including sex), furnish extra food when they decided to throw a feast, and wait at their tables."If we return to this world view, cheap immigrant labor will no longer raise children of the rich. Cheap labor of their own kind can raise them. Ms. Coontz continues to enlighten readers about the attitude of elites toward the poor.

"The world view of the European nobility and absolutist monarchies was corporate, interdependent, anti-individualistic—and extremely repressive. The notion of the ‘Great Chain of Being,’ which held that all classes were connected in a hierarchical but organic whole, left no room for the comparatively modern concept that the poor are responsible for their own condition and therefore undeserving of charity or sympathy; but it also left no room for the possibility that they might improve their lot. In Gothic cathedrals, the Great Chain of Being was epitomized in huge carved pillars that depicted saints and fine lords standing on the backs of kneeling peasants."
What kind of world is it that those who are disdainful of the poor, elderly, and disabled see for themselves as they work toward "changing" or eliminating Social Security? In the end, isn’t that what it is all about? Do we really believe those espousing that Social Security is a ponzi scheme, are being altruistic? The world they want is for them. That they should be more powerful and prosperous, and to hell with grandpas and grandmas and lesser beings.

Believing that the average Tea Party member envisions a return to the lifestyle Stephanie Coontz describes is difficult. That calculatingly greedy people with weak egos manipulating them to gain power, is easier to resolve. For the world has become less about compromising to make it better, and more about who has control and who wants control.

Games played by the Republican Congress to thwart all Democratic efforts is proof of this. In evidence is Thursday’s Joint Session of Congress where President Obama genuflected backwards to mollify the Right. He gave even more ground on social safety nets. Even so, Republicans deigned to agree, but that if, it's my way or the highway, according to Eric Cantor, it doesn't work with them. It was precisely that attitude coming from the Right Wing Republicans that held up raising the debt ceiling.

Hypocrisy runs so rampant in Washington that one must question the mind-set of those who seek to control the lives of others through religious or legislative edicts.

1 comment:

  1. This is so thought-provoking and important! I wish everyone could read it. You've presented so many facts so clearly and succinctly. These are, indeed, challenging and scary times!