Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We Need a Hero

Good vs. Evil. The Good Guy against the Bad. It's the stuff that almost all fiction (whether good or bad) is made of. Whether it's a romantic competitor or an evil mastermind bent on worldwide destruction, we know there is one, single person our hero must defeat in order for all to be right in the world.

It makes for entertaining storytelling. However, as I said before about Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, sometimes it just doesn't make much sense. In that novel, Roth blamed the imagined Nazification of America on the election of Charles Lindbergh. When Lindy wasn't re-elected, everything simply went back to normal. But, in the case of this alternative history, the problems faced by Nazi America would've been a societal, systemic evil. The elimination of "the bad guy" simply would not have solved the problem. A single hero could not have stood up to the task.

Currently, our country faces more problems than I have time to enumerate. We've tried to offer up bogeymen for each one, to purge ourselves of evil and live happily ever after. But each Evil One seems to fall short. The execution of Saddam didn't end our problems in Iraq. Afghanistan's problems won't stop if we ever catch bin Laden. The prosecution of Lynndie England and The Abu Ghraib Gang did not kill torture as either a debate or a policy. And the banking crises didn't end with Bernie Madoff's pleading guilty.

These problems continue to persist--nobody's ridden off to the sunset, no credits have rolled--because they simply don't fit into the format of simple storytelling that we're accustomed to and our press uses way too often. This ain't no romantic comedy here. What we're facing are deep, ingrained system failures.

But even in the face of such grave challenges, in the past, heroes have arisen, people who stood in the face of powerful opposition to do, what they felt, was the right thing to do. FDR did everything he possibly could to end the Great Depression. Truman (after staring at 100,000 casualties after three weeks of fighting on Okinawa) dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. He also found the cojones to desegregate the military when segregation was pretty much the law of the land. LBJ pushed through Civil Rights legislation knowing that the "Solid South" would flee the Democratic party. Nixon (yeah, Nixon), no Friend of the Negro by any stretch of the imagination, found the courage to extend and expand that same Civil Rights legislation.

Now, none of these men are your prototypical hero and, in many respects, they are villains themselves. However, these men flew in the faces of their own parties and powerful interests when the time came for them to do something. They could've easily dissembled, demurred, or disregard the impolitic and do absolutely nothing. But they weathered the storm and took somewhat heroic action in order to do what was right.

But, when I look at all the ills facing America today, I can't help but wonder where are those people willing to take similarly heroic action? Where are our heroes?

It's not as though I want the government to take over the banks, reorganize and re-regulate them, sell off as much bad debt as possible, and then sell the banks off out of some imagined vision of revenge or "class warfare." I definitely don't want to screw the shareholders. I want the government to do all that with these failed banks because that's how we emerged from the S&L crisis of the '90s with minimal damage. Because that's how Sweden emerged from their banking crisis that same decade. Because every US Treasury Secretary before Paulson said that's how you rescue the banks. Because what we're doing now is what Japan did during their "Lost Decade." I want Uncle Sam to take over the banks because it is the right thing to do.

I don't want universal health care because I want to be French or Canadian or even French-Canadian, comprenez-vous? I want it because tens of millions of Americans don't have health insurance. Because tens of thousands of Americans go bankrupt because of illness and mounting medical bills. Because these problems persist despite the fact that America spends more on health care than any other country. I don't even want to "stick it to" the insurance companies--though they stick it to us every day. They spend millions to deny us the care we pay for in order to save themselves billions. They are the arbiters of life and death in order to make a profit. So, people suffer and die, they live with illness or delay treatment because they fear being diagnosed with a "pre-existing condition" and being dropped from their insurance, never to be picked up again. Patients can't afford the system. Our employers can't. OB/GYNs are constantly driven from the business. I want universal health care because it is the right thing to do.

I definitely want more than a Truth and Reconciliation panel for this torture debacle. I want prosecutions. Not because I hate America. Not because I hate Bush and Cheney. I want people punished for torturing detainees because torturing is morally reprehensible. Because it is against international law and US law. Because torture was much bigger than Lynndie England and The Abu Ghraib Gang. I want it because our former President and Vice President openly bragged about torturing prisoners. Because our own Justice Department wrote legal briefings sanctioning torture. Because it looks like it was not only the Bush Administration and Republicans in on the whole thing but also their Democratic "opposition." Because the CIA, FBI, our own soldiers, and even private contractors appear to have tortured people. I want prosecutions because all these people tortured in my name, they did it as Americans. And it was wrong and a systemic failing and I never want to see America sanctioning torture ever again. I want people prosecuted because it is the right thing to do.

But where are our leaders who believe in doing the right thing? Who has the courage to stand against the powerful interest groups and lobbyists, the pundits and donors?

Instead of the government's taking over the banks like they did with the S&Ls, we have Geithner and Bernanke pouring our grandchildren's down the drain. They don't want to hurt or offend or even hold their Wall Street cronies accountable for the disaster they've created. People aren't fired. They're given retention bonuses even if they've left the company. They don't want the share holders to lose their money. They want their buds to reap all the rewards of capitalism and the American taxpayer to assume all the risks--to the tune of $700 billion and counting.

The Obama team, who promised us some sort of universal health care while campaigning, has a heart-to-heart with the insurers and now says all options except a single-payer system are on the table.

Obama himself, our Constitutional scholar president, has reversed decades of human rights legislation by openly condoning the Nuremberg Defense. No, we won't be prosecuting individual CIA agents for torture. They were "just doing their jobs." He even, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, reached into a tried and true fiction trope by saying that it was only "a few bad apples" who committed torture.

We live in an era where no one believes in accountability and personal responsibility, where no one should suffer the consequences of their own misdeeds if they're rich and powerful enough.

The bankers get away with it. The torturers. Hell, even A-Rod has gotten away with taking steroids.

There is no such thing as personal responsibility. And our own elected officials can't be entrusted to enforce it because they can't even regulate themselves. Responsible for our money, they're running up an historic national debt. While it's only to be temporary, they refuse to take any action that will make it just that.

They squawk about fiscal responsibility, but none of them are going to give up their own pet projects. They refuse to curb spending but also refuse to raise taxes on the people who can most afford it. No, capital gains must remain taxed at 15 percent while everyone else gets taxed at higher rates. Ultimately, we all know taxes will be raised, but those who reap the most benefit from living in this country won't bear the brunt of the burden, the rest of us will.

And war crimes? What war crimes? Yes, Robert Mugabe must pay for his war crimes. Those despots in Sudan, North Korea, Burma, etc., must pay for theirs. But, when the rubber hits the road, Congress will scream, "We don't commit war crimes. We're Americans!"

Now, I am not naive enough to believe that there was some mystical "Golden Age" when the rich and powerful did not escape justice. However, there have been instances when the Michael Milkens of the world had to do at least a little time for their crimes. When the CIA was taken to task for their misdeeds. And I can't help wondering where those times have gone?

I don't expect a storming of the Bastille and the streets to run with blood. But, with all that has been going on, I do desire a return of the notion of The Common Good. That people have to take responsibility for their actions and their positions. These bankers were trusted with our money and squandered it. They must pay. These agents and soldiers and private contractors violated US law. They must be prosecuted. A-Rod sucks ass. He must die! Health insurers are bad actors and run an exploitative business. They must be taken to task or driven out of business. Our President and Congress were elected to create and uphold the laws of this land. They must enforce them.

These are not the rantings of a lunatic (I think) who lives in some sort of paranoid delusion. These are all parts of the social contract we sign onto by being members of society. These are the responsibilities of the positions these people hold. I am only asking them to do the right thing to do. Obviously, this is too much to ask from mere mortals. So, I guess, what I'm asking for is heroic action. I guess I'm asking for a hero.

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