By Naima Washington
Once again, Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson wields her intellectual and critical scalpel and, in her essay: Mass Mitt Does South of the Border, she removes the false faces of both candidates who are running for the number one job on the planet. A few months ago, I saw an old film which stars Burt Lancaster in the title role of Elmer Gantry—an ambitious, slick-talking, evangelist who knew how to get believers to open their wallets and the ladies to open their ‘hearts!’ Perhaps, Mr. Romney has a new stylist, but lately, every time an image of him flashes across my television screen, I think of Elmer Gantry. To be fair, even a real-life version of Elmer Gantry, a fictionalized character created by author and social critic Sinclair Lewis, could have never been powerful enough to demoralize and impoverish the tens of millions of Americans who have suffered under both Democrats and Republicans. A real-life Elmer Gantry at his best (or worst) couldn’t have caused the death and devastation of untold numbers of people in Iraq, Afghanistan or of any of nation which has had the misfortune of bearing the brunt of US foreign policy.
When Messrs. Obama and Romney speak about supporting ‘business‘ regardless of what hometown example they use, they are not talking about an owner of a grocery store or dry cleaner. Both parties represent the interests of millionaires who want to become multi-millionaires as well as multi-millionaires who want to become billionaires. To be sure, neither the president nor his contender can serve two masters. They do not represent the interests of the people who are simply trying to make ends meet. What, if anything, has been the reaction to recent announcements made by corporate leaders regarding their plans to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs in the coming months? Bank of America plans to eliminate 16,000 jobs by the end of the year, and close numerous branches. Exactly how does Romney or the president expect the rate of unemployment to decrease as corporate interests continue to clash with the interests of working people? Both candidates claim to support the middle class. Yet, neither one of them seems to have noticed that the economic floor has caved-in sending middle class wage-earners crash-landing onto unemployment lines; into community food pantries; that they continue to face evictions and foreclosures; record-breaking personal bankruptcy as well as dealing with short-term low-wage positions and painful, long-term joblessness.
Mr. Romney claims that only President Obama supports the ‘redistribution‘ of wealth in this country, but that’s not true. Despite the fact that most wealth is accumulated as a result of unfair distribution, Mr. Romney continues to attempt to paint a picture of wealth redistribution through multiple invasions of the homes, vaults, and bank accounts of the wealthy by government officials who immediately redistribute those assets amongst the poor. The government even if it were to capture the wealth of the rich and super-rich would not play Robin Hood to poor folks! The wealth created by the 99% is captured by the 1% which is where much of that wealth remains. Mr. Obama tells us in the most civilized tones that he would like to ask the richest Americans to pay a little more. I think we already know their answer. When is the last you’ve been ‘asked’ permission to pay a little more taxes; asked for permission to bomb and kill your fellow human beings? The globalization of jobs is ultimately about the globalization of capital. Money and jobs are moved around the globe as investors search for low-wage earners, off-the-chart productivity, and out-of-this-world financial returns. By contrast, every time a business in my community closes, that’s it! They don’t shut down their operations and move to another part of the world. One man who ran a corner grocery store for over 20 years had to close his store. He can now be seen working as a stock clerk at another business just six blocks from the one he once owned.
The horrendous, exploitative, and dangerous working conditions in the US, particularly in the earliest part of the 20thcentury, produced radicalized visionaries who locally organized several sections of the working class while emphasizing the need for both national and international labor unions. One of their slogans, ‘workers of the world unite,’ may have sounded strange and even unnecessary to the ears of some people. But, not to the ears of corporate leaders and investors—also visionaries—who saw that there were fortunes to be made when skilled and unskilled laborers; women and men; native-born and immigrant; child wage-earner and adult wage-earner; English-speaking and non-English-speaking; people of color and whites, were all pitted against one another and would be much more easily manipulated and exploited than they would be if they were unified.
Every person who contributes to the benefit of their society should be able to earn a living wage. While it is true that there is dignity in all honest work, justice demands that honest work must translate into a wage that will allow a person to live a dignified life at a decent standard of living. The value of a human being is eroded when a living wage is seen as a handout. Besides, since the taxes on ‘earnings’ from capital gains can be much less than the taxes would be for the same amount of money ‘earned’ in wages, I don’t see what the Mitt Romneys (or the Obamas) of the world could possibly have against handouts! The cry for ‘less government’ sounds phony when coming from those who benefit from tax reductions, deductions and exemptions; special tax incentives for hiring certain workers; access to lucrative wealth-building government contracts; enjoy deregulation and zero oversight, etc. If it wasn’t for a generous government along with a loyal legislative body both of which look out for the rich, the rich could not continue to ‘get richer.’
Some people with more money than they could ever spend in a hundred lifetimes automatically assume that those of us who work for a living must be ‘jealous’ of their wealth. Perhaps any person, rich or poor, who lacks a work ethic along with the desire to earn an honest living may, in fact, be jealous. However, there are many who, in spite of the constant barrage of corporate ads which tell them that they must acquire more, newer, bigger, and better stuff, are actually satisfied with what they already have and aren’t any more jealous of those who have made their fortunes exploiting the have-nots any than the abolitionists were jealous of slave-owners. Those amongst us who lack principles can’t imagine why anyone else would have them! Furthermore, many wealthy people need to feel as though others are jealous of them; after all, what’s the point of having more money than everyone else if everyone else thinks that you’re just like them?
I believe it was Mr. Romney who quoted Abraham Lincoln as saying that it is not necessary to destroy the rich in order to save the poor. I like President Lincoln, but prefer a quote not attributed to him: Behind every great fortune is a great theft. If one gets to read, ‘Open Veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent,’ its author, Eduardo Galeano will explain the globalization of capital. He writes, “Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European—or later United States—capital and as such has accumulated in distant centers of power. ..For those who see history as a competition, Latin America’s backwardness and poverty are merely the result of its failure. We lost; others won. But the winners happen to have won thanks to our losing: the history of Latin America’s underdevelopment is, as someone has said an integral history of world capitalism’s development.” I think it is a tragedy when a society which so proudly counts its millionaires and billionaires can’t seem to connect their creation to the simultaneous creation of so many poor people—lots of poor people!
Still, when remarks about the have-nots being jealous of the haves end-up as part of the Romney campaign rhetoric, it is troublesome. For one thing, it’s an indication that the candidate thinks of himself not in terms of whether he is a trustworthy competent leader, but instead interprets even viable criticism as veiled envy. More important is the fact that all too often, Mr. Romney has nothing better to say. Our electoral process can only offer candidates who represent the failed leadership of a failed political and economic system.
In his autobiography entitled Mirror to America, Dr. John Hope Franklin begins his narrative by writing, “Living in a world restricted by laws defining race, as well as creating obstacles, disadvantages, and even superstitions regarding race, challenged my capacities for survival. For ninety years I have witnessed countless men and women likewise meet his challenge. Some bested it; some did not; many had to settle for any accommodation they could.” His life and his work demonstrate that he was one of those who ‘bested it;’ and as such is an extraordinary example of character, integrity, scholarship, and activism. He has great hopes for America and he ends his book with the following words, “The test of any advanced society is not in how many millionaires it can produce, but in how many law-abiding, hardworking, highly respected, and self-respecting loyal citizens it can produce. The success of such a venture is a measure of the success of our national enterprise.”
Our national enterprise, as he puts it, is earning a failing grade. Just how long does the leadership of this country think that people will continue to sleep in doorways, eat out of trashcans, and beg for change? How long will it be before people are no longer willing to go without money, food, or shelter? Right now, the number of people who have (for any reason) lost their homes could fill the streets and shut down this country! We do have the capacity to make things right. It won’t be easy or cheap, but it will have to be done. What we have to pay now won’t hurt as much as what it will cost the country later. However, we needn’t be fooled into thinking that those politicians wearing $5000 suits feel our pain…they don’t…but they need to!
Naima Washington is on the board of the Washington Area Secular Humanists and publishes the D.C. Atheist Advocate.