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Dysfunctional America

Mitt Romney is right about one thing. We are a deeply divided country. But he is wrong about everything else: what it means, why it has happened, and what we need to do about it.

And the reason he is wrong is because he, and far too many others, persist in the notion–debunked by every possible kind of evidence–that America is the greatest land on earth and everyone here should just stop whining and get on with the business of being successful, i.e., making pots of money.

Until we stop pounding our chests and proclaiming ourselves the kings of the jungle nothing here or in our relationship to the rest of the world is going to change or get better.

Everyone has been in the kind of relationship with someone else–be it lover or a friend–whose constant and consistent refrain is “Love me as I am, baby, and quit trying to change me because what you see is what you get.” Those relationships are inherently dysfunctional and so is both America’s relationship to itself and its larger alliance with the rest of the known universe. We are so busy bragging about our own particular form of excellence that it would take years on the figurative couch to even sort out it all out. And even when we are called out on our dysfunction we don’t stop and think, we just double down on our mistakes and add to them. By God, we aren’t going to do any sort of transformation because we are perfect just the way we are!

Even though we are a relatively young country whose own road to freedom and democracy was very messy. It isn’t as if the Declaration of Independence was signed and all was forever well: we had uprisings like the Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-87 and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 and the War of 1812m not to mention the Civil War. Not to mention the protests for women’s suffrage and the civil marches and the huge anti-war demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In fact people are still taking to the streets for all kinds of causes. So why can’t we get our heads around other’s struggle?

Democracy IS messy and sometimes it is also violent. Winning freedom IS hard and those fighting for it know that. They also know that we can sometimes take two steps forward and one step back. That doesn’t mean we stop trying for it.

So the uprisings in many of the countries who were involved in the Arab spring are expected. There are tragic consequences: people die; but no road to a new beginning was ever free of collateral damage. A stupid film by stupid people may have had some influence but it did not cause the revolt of crazy, angry people against the very government who is trying to take them to a new place. And for us to assume so is arrogant in the extreme.

But we are an arrogant country. Romney rails against the sniveling poor while the uber rich who spend more on a piece of jewelry than those poor make in a year huddle together in gated communities and apartment houses where the buy-in is 50 million dollars. Teachers strike and we are furious, all the while our education system has been shown to fail far too many of its students. In the land of milk and honey people still starve to death. Our “best” health care in the world costs heads and tails above other countries, yet fixing it is admitting we are wrong.

And many of the people railing against the “entitled” society (those who pay no federal income tax or are retired or military personnel or the working poor or just plain impoverished) are many of the very same people who don’t want to pay the taxes they are paying: they hide in offshore accounts, convert dollars to gold and use every possible loophole to reduce their tax burdens, while condemning those who have fewer opportunities or such advantages, while castigating those who make so little that federal income taxes are not an issue . Instead of seeing their tax dollars as an investment in an America which will be better for all of us, the monied elite and those who follow them wish to pull out of the system as much as possible; rather than admit that what they have is not all gotten by pulling up their own bootstraps, they are hungry for more. They don’t even admit when they do get government help (Romney to help bail out Bain and Ryan who got his father’s social security benefit to send himself to college), as all of us will at some point if we live long enough.

Taxes are bad. Investing in America is bad. But everyone should have an equal chance to prosper. Does that add up? No, it doesn’t. And that sort of thinking is bad for business, the business of the United States.

As in any dysfunctional relationship admitting you have a problem or you might be wrong is a non-starter. The people on the top have a vested interest in never admitting they don’t always know what they are doing, that past policies haven’t worked, that they might need to take a moment to rethink, reflect. They have no good reason to admit to cruelty or selfishness unless we catch them at it on tape.

Because to admit any flaw is a sign of weakness.

But someone has to call them on their dysfunction and that someone has to be rest of us. The 47 percent, the 99 percent, the clear majority, no matter what numbers you use. The messy participants in our messy democratic republic, a perfectly imperfect system that is still being worked on.

Years ago, in a discussion about Marilyn French’s feminist polemical novel The Women’s Room, someone said to me: “But she is so angry!” Yes, she was. Indeed. I argued then and I argue now that her anger, while off-putting, was necessary to jumpstart the dialogue. Women had held back their anger quite long enough and no change was going to occur in our dysfunctional relationship with men without our getting mad, plain and simple. One can’t begin to negotiate change from the center. Because at that point compromise means the ones negotiating from the point of the subjugated get far far less than half of what they need.

President Obama made that mistake when he tried to negotiate with the Republicans in Congress. Instead of standing hard and fast, he capitulated before the argument started. And the American people are suffering from it.

Those in power who are afraid of losing their power will do anything in their power to make sure that they stay on top. Which is why you see white men trying to pass laws to push women back down where they once were. Which is why you see Romney’s blatant class warfare. Which is why you see America pretending that a film caused a world-wide uprising.

Democracy is ugly and messy. Ask women, ask African-Americans, ask anyone who is trying for a change in societal “norms.” It is impossible to go from zero to sixty without stalling out here and there. But if you truly want your dysfunctional relationship to change you have to keep coming back to the table and arguing for your point of view, keep pushing hard against the oppressors, keep pushing back against those who would have you fail.

The demonstrations in the Middle East are tragic, horrific, the death of some of our own equally so, but that doesn’t mean we give up or assume that a better way isn’t wanted by those who pushed for change not so long ago. We would do well to remember our own messy, ugly history, and the continued nastiness of the fight against complacency and xenophobia that many Americans continue to wage.

Fifty percent of Americans are the battered spouse who is continually told we are careless, worthless, lazy and incapable. Then there are those who yell the tops of their lungs at us. Boasting about their own inherent worthiness, their strength, their ability, their superiority. We are being browbeaten, once again, into submission. Like the vestiges of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that kept black Americans down for long after they were emancipated, like the mores which kept women behind the scenes years after they fought for the right to vote, the rich and powerful are hell-bent on keeping their place at the table and crowding the rest of us out.

But life is not a contest. There are no winners if a huge number of us lose. The United States of America is a great place. But it is imperfect. Very imperfect. Shouting about its superiority to the world while our own house is in shambles is more than a little hypocritical.

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