On New Year pondering in America
So it's January 1st here and I've just woken up from my nap. I tend to be of the opinion that a year begins on the second and the first is a kind of free pass, a recovery day from the previous evening or even, the previous year.
2017 was a pivotal year. It consisted of five apartments, involved visits to eight countries and three US States. It was a year of achievements, few greater than locking in US visa status and in October, finally making it to Santa Monica, LA, almost fourteen years to the day from my first paid writing gig. Typically, I promised I would put down more in the blog last year. I was prohibited from doing so in part by regulations around my visa. I don't have those excuses now, but I'm not ready to commit to more for reasons that will become clear.
Obviously, this has been a weird time to come to America. The country is in the midst of an identity crisis even more profound than the Brexit I left behind in the UK. Learning how the country is and does, in everything from health to homelessness and how it expresses its politics has been very eye opening. This blog was supposed to be about adventures in the film business. The scene. The cool parties with beautiful people. I have had those experiences and will continue to have them to the point that I may write about them at some stage, but right now, they're not what I'm compelled to write about. I want to write about this country... How it works and the kind of blood that flows in its veins. This has been the true eye opener for me.
I watched the Trump circus like everyone else. But the things that really got to me though were those already present in the way the country works. Foremost among them is the idea that everything can be bought or that there is nothing and no one who can't be. This is the reason that the country is governed by people who hate the idea of government. They were bought by government-hating people in order to weaken government from the inside to leave the way clear for the relentless pursuit of wealth.
In a place that is so clearly run in the interests of business, it seems odd that the government should be preserved, on just enough life support to take the blame for the society that this way of looking at things creates. It's strange to me, having lived and worked in European countries where the government rewards people's tax dollars with (statistically) pretty great quality of life, here they are rewarded with a huge military and massive subsidies to the corporations who pay for the campaigns of the politicians.
The actual working or middle class professional American seems to get little from this. On roughly the same level of taxation, they'd get healthcare, social and welfare programmes, proper holidays, proper wages, better employment rights and a country not languishing far down the various league tables for quality of life, life expectancy, education, health, medical costs... It seems very strange that the route to making it "great again" lies in further reducing the power and ability of the government (The people whom we pay tax to to ensure things get done in our interests) to do these things and giving it back to companies who are not shy about their bottom line being what drives them.
Robert Reich calls this the quandary of American exceptionalism. The idea that nothing that happens anywhere else in the world matters because America is so uniquely free that none of the rules, or statistics apply. The terrifying part of this is that, regardless of what happens in the wider world, there is nothing to be learned and no one will care about these problems until it starts impacting the bottom line. Maybe the opioid crisis, or the incarceration crisis or the gun laws will one day start being bad for business. (Impossible to imagine how they aren't already but for the fact that their stakeholders are making a killing) In Santa Monica, and greater LA and San Francisco, there are already bodies in the street. Homeless bodies, mentally ill ones, the old and the sick - those without the support structures of family, or personal wealth or success or god or all the things that the imagined narrative goes can take the place of a society that has its structural basis in how the country is governed.
When I came to Santa Monica, I joined a neighbourhood webspace called Nextdoor.com. There's a campaign in full flow to close down the new railway extension. Why? Because it means the homeless people from other parts of the city have an inexpensive way to come to the beach and lie in the local park. It was crazy to see so much energy devoted to a symptom and almost none to the actual problem. As if any amount of social depravation is ok, so long as nobody takes a dump on my front lawn.
I was happy that we were living a block away from the local library. I imagined I'd write there. But the Library is where the homeless sleep during the day. It's a daunting place. You can see people banging their heads against the walls, talking to their demons. The worst part of it is that you actually get used to it. The shock wears off and you walk by, you step over and it becomes the new normal.
There is something seductive about the libertarian viewpoint. Nobody likes paying taxes and the idea that you can build your own home, be part of your own community, take care of your own and become a nation of individual hard working capitalists is a nice dream to have. But the costs are evident. The society stagnates as individual houses get nicer, even as the roads that connect them fill with pot holes. The connecting lines become weaker, the infrastructure outside of the gated communities creaks. Why invest in public transport when the successful man can simply jump on his horse/car and ride into town like Roy Moore on his way to vote?
The individualist dream is just that. The idea that 'as long as I'm ok...' then my neighbour can lose his house to pay medical bills because clearly, he just isn't as hard working as me. The companies that hoover up the subsidies will not create jobs out of any altruistic or patriotic sense of making America great. They'll follow their bottom line. And some will succeed and ascend to wealth and power, fulfilling the American dream. But the country won't grow, or move forward. It will continue its journey to becoming both a first and third world country at the same time. That term is outdated but to call it a developing nation would not be accurate. The poverty that has gripped America is a story of decline, and of certain people, communities and states being left to rot - the slain victims of a winner-take-all society.
And even in this there are confusing paradoxes. A nation so bent on the prioritisation of individual freedom that it is willing to lose thousands of citizens each year to guns is incredibly keen to tell women how to manage their reproduction. A nation with the constitutional separation of church and state is afraid of the word atheist, like the word socialist. A nation with a pathological need for 'small government' cannot be happy with a military budget any less than that of the rest of the world's nations combined.
If America was to look abroad and indeed, to look to history, they'd see the reflections of what countries with huge militaries but limited social provision and gerrymandered, unaccountable representatives become. They'd see the conditions for dictatorship ripening in the inequalities that grow wider every year. They'd see a self sabotaging government of bought and paid for politicians handing more and more of the democratic power of the people to corporations and with it any prospect of progressive political leadership or a future designed to serve any but the wealthiest and most profitable citizens who can pay for the laws and regulations they want.
I know I'm a long way from home and that things are done differently here, but surely a country like America needs a government that is willing to fight for all its citizens and to campaign unashamedly with their interests as the priority. A corporate environment needs its government to bring balance to the force - to protect those who cannot turn the system to their advantage - a group of citizens that seems to grow larger every cycle. The government must ensure that access to the dream is equal - that education, health and even political office are not locked away behind financial barriers that cannot be surmounted without selling all that you have and all that you might have been to those with the power.
The people of this country deserve to see more of its wealth. They deserve not to be living under bridges because debt, ill health or addiction destroyed the life they had. They deserve better schools with higher paid teachers. They deserve roads without pot holes. They deserve the life their country's success and booming stock market should afford them. The American citizens of Puerto Rico deserve not to be without electricity for six months in the richest country in the world.
So I'm going to keep reading and learning and asking questions as my own journey here progresses. And I'll be keeping an eye on the bigger story in the evolution of the USA and maybe try to play a part in it through whatever tools I have at my disposal. Most of all, even from a position of relative comfort, I'll try not to let it become my normal.