Friday, August 21, 2009

Heel America (part three)

The final part of this tedious argument. I apologize for taking so long, but I had me some things.

(That there is a GFDL photo from that website whose name I will not type.)

As John Gay's character said, "Money well timed, and properly applied, will do anything" (The Beggar's Opera II xii). This is because money is fluid, liquid, symbolic, transferable, "fungible." It moves and causes to move, as it contains within itself desires yet to be fulfilled and labor exchanged. It gets taken from one person to the next to the next. A worker exchanges laying cables for six hours for money that goes to a bank as a piece of an interest payment on a cell phone the worker got seven months before, and then that goes to the next person's pocket after the withdrawal at an ATM, in exchange for thirty minutes of her day in the office waiting for the phone to ring, but she will then be able to use it, holding it out, to get someone else to run back to a kitchen and bring out six meals for her family.

The paper of the money means nothing, of course. We all know that, don't we? If you didn't already know that you no longer follow the yellow brick road, that you're in Emerald City, where things are just a question of belief, then at least I hope you know that the thing has Caesar's name and face on it, so it belongs to him, so give it back. I'm sure that every child has stared at a piece of money at some point and wondered what it really means and concluded that, other than a nice piece of art, it does not actually mean anything. (The same could be said of gold or silver, of course.)

The reason we do not want a politician who has risen from a micro-town is that such a person has risen, almost certainly, from neo-feudalism, and neo-feudalism is, by its nature, corrupt according to democratic standards.

What separates what I call neo-feudalism, and I'm coining terms left and right and freely admit it, here, from feudalism is that feudalism was being bound to the land. Feudalism meant that workers and lords of land alike were bound to the land, rooted, and obligated to it. For every peasant unable to escape the manor, there was a pouting lordling or lady wishing to go to Paris or London to live but "having to" attend to the dull and boring country estates. The absentee landlords of the 18th and 19th centuries created a crisis and were ultimately complicit in the effective ending of the power of feudalism on the political side. As they stopped ever visiting their estates, they stopped "meddling" with minor civil service positions like local curates, judges, justices, and the like, and so, even as they abused their tenants more, they freed their regions from their control.

In the frontier American town and the post-Reconstruction Southern town, land was binding, too. The children of the town fathers/founders "had to" take over their parents' businesses, whether those were farms or industries. They also "had to" uphold the traditions of mediation and moderation and behave the way that they were "expected" to behave. The "lady" did not curse. The "gentleman" did not get drunk. All of those codes were explicitly embedded in a land/power exchange that required sacrifice. I am hardly the only person to compare it to aristocracy.

The neo-feudal, though, is flexible. The land conveys the position, but land is bought for money, sold for money, and bought again for money. The people "in charge" in the micro-town now will tell you, quite openly, that they are in charge because they have the money to be in charge. Like the dollar bill in Emerald City, it is not eminent, but simply a question of belief.
Frequently, it's a question of people believing that somehow they have a "right" to things because of the money. Since money comes as an exchange, they believe that it conveys at the same time equivalence and therefore worth. If I work for four hours and get paid, I accept that my four hours "equals" that pay, that therefore my hours are "worth" that pay, that I "earned" that money. So long as I think only of myself and I am ignorant entirely of the rest of society, I can think this way indefinitely. If, however, I think for a moment that an investment banker did less work in four hours than I did and got paid seventy times as much, I begin to think that he "didn't deserve it." For his part, he thinks he did.

Once you think you "earned" your money, you think that anything you get with your money is fair, deserved, earned. It's proper. If this is your only scale, if money is the only way you learn to think of land, politics, education, labor, and love, then you will think in terms of "deserving" whatever your money can get.

My problem with the micro-town is that, in the absence of its deserted founding cores, it has kept its structures of control and gained controllers who are taught at the knee of money. The class has risen because of money, because of overcoming educational shortfalls, delicate manners, political savvy, etc., with money, and they owe their allegiance and belief to money and hold a grave antipathy toward those things that stood in their way. Like L.B. Johnson with the Kennedy people, they're sure that smart alecks with education are making fun of them, and so they hold a grudge against schooling. The old generation never swore or got drunk, and so they believe it's time to use the "n word" in City Hall. The old generation was careful to separate church and state, and so they want to put their pastor on the payroll. They have chips on their shoulders.

Most of us in the United States focus obsessively on our national election for the President, and some of us focus on the U.S. Senate races in our states. Fewer of us focus on our House of Representatives races. How many people know who represents them in their state legislatures? How many people know much about that person? What is the voting like in that kind of a race? While the President might declare a war (even though Congress is supposed to do that), your state legislature is going to have a radical effect on your day to day life, and you will find some really surprising people serving there. Many states hold to the Cincinnatan ideal and want their parliamentarians to work other jobs, but the result is that most have assembly people who represent local wealth centers. One rarely sees "community organizers" in the assembly, especially when it comes to rural areas. Instead, one sees the local saw mill owner upset at some tax bill he got, or a John Birch Society member who sees a chance to get his state to be the first to independently declare itself God-fearing.

In the small, small towns, land money has meant politicians who have ingrained in them a belief that they have a right to whatever it is that they do. I began my diatribe with Sarah Palin because she is an excellent example of what we do not want, and what we would in fact get, from today's small town politician.
Near me, we had an episode (no link) where a county commissioner had a girlfriend and wife matching set. He also had a rich family in land, of course. Anyway, the girlfriend was not liked by the wife, and we can thank her, the wife, and her antipathy, for finding out about the fact that the girlfriend had embezzled several tens of thousands of dollars (nearly hundreds) from the county for her personal use (new cars, actually). Boring, I know. It hardly comes up to John Ensign level. However, what makes this worthy is what the Commissioner said about it. He said that it was alright. He forgave her, so he didn't think he would press charges.

Fortunately, the Sheriff and D.A. were able to explain the differences between civil and criminal law, but I'm not sure they ever could get him to understand the difference between meum et tuum.

See what's missing from his mind? He thinks in terms of money, the way I described above. He earned it. It's his. He gets to do with it what he wants. The world does not exist, and society does not exist. Despite micro-towns having less of a border between classes than large cities, they foster, with their easy status changes and easy power, narcissism.

Another town near me that does not appear on your satellite views had a mayor for life. Let's call him Perry Ellis and pretend that he was as well dressed as the men's wear designer. He managed to be in a bubble, at first, where he could make silly decisions, but slowly it accreted into a shell, and then the shell petrified, with Perry inside. Eventually, Perry was like a Mexican jumping bean. The problem with it was that the town was the bean getting hurled about. Senior citizen parks without trees and away from all amenities (but near his land), with contracts going to friends of his, five lane highways coming into town from nowhere to nowhere, new schools on interstates... all sorts of things where it looked like private gain was going along with public nuisance.

Sarah Palin's "house gate" scandal reminded me exactly of a small town mayor. The allegations are at Jot America and come from The Village Voice, with a great deal of follow up. Palin was mayor of Wasilla, AK. She awarded a huge contract to build an unneeded sports complex to Kumin Associates. The architect for the firm was the son of one of Palin's advisors on one side and of the state Republican Party head on the other. For the complex, there are many allegations of cronyism and favors and party contributions. One of the subs was Spenard Builders, and they later hired Sarah for a TV commercial, sponsored Todd Palin's snowmobile (yeah, I said it: snowmobile!) team, and may have given all the materials for Sarah and Todd's house that Todd "built all by himself" on Lake Lucille (this from Mudflats).

Does any of this sound like Perry? How about Sarah's reaction? She blocked laws that would have required builders to list their suppliers and contractors in Wasilla. She has come out afterward saying that all of this is hers, her right, and completely proper. Sound like the local County fellow with his girlfriend?

Sarah Palin's perspective is like the post-flight neo-feudal town's politician's in every respect. She thinks her money and her self-elevation has earned her the right to do whatever is best for her. The idea of other people's needs is irrelevant. It's all me. Climb, go, get, and take it all personally, because "personal" is the only medium, the only message, the only canvas upon which politics is painted.

I know that it possible that there are good small town politicians. I have met them in Carrboro, NC. I have seen them. I know they exist, and I have seen them jump up to the next level quickly, but the idea that we need/want "Real American" politicians? Don't make me wretch.


K. Scott said...

I do believe that I have diagnosed your malady, my friend. It's a simple case of chrematophobia. As a fellow who was raised poor, I'm not without sympathy for such a fear, but I don't think it's fair to project one's fears onto the whole of a segment of society. Additionally, though you allow for exceptions, I would say that your characterizations of small-town politicians are more than a bit unfair. I have been an adult (by this, I mean post-college) for 11 years. Of those years, I've spent 5 in the microtowns you reference. The entirety of my first 18 years of life were also spent in such a town. In those 23 years, I've known perhaps 20-25 small-town politicians, and known them relatively well. Of those, only two conform to the caricature you draw. What you posit as the rule, is actually the exception, at least in my years of experiencing such things.

The Geogre said...

Well, my personal diseases aside, and it's always nice to have names for them, the "real America" is intentionally pitched at the same thing that Palin intended: the climber of the microtown.

Now, the social changes are sadly factual, and I suspect we'll get to a fourth generation sooner or later, one that will reflect the young who go in because it's good (again) rather than because "I'm sick and tired of (personal complaint)."

Sarah Palin herself shows the current generation well: the generation that rises with money flowing and moving with land. She, herself, was not landed, but all of the people who enabled her were. All of the favor for favors, the "it's mine," and the rest is a reflection of that principle of money as power.

(By the way, as I wrote, I'm much more a McCaslin than a Snopes, when it comes down to it, and might be more of a member of the Village Green Preservation Society than the Red Brigades. However, the critique of ancient right and modern left are exactly the same. The first criticisms of capitalism were from the churches, after all.)