Make-Believe America

A flight of fancy

W.J. Astore

We lose a lot of imagination as we become adults. We become limited. I remember playing make-believe as a kid, when the only limits were those of my imagination. As adults, we’re supposed to be hardheaded and realistic, perhaps even cold-hearted. The world’s tough; don’t be a dreamy fool. But what if we used a bit more imagination in America? What if we returned to the days of make-believe?

Here’s a few aspects of my make-believe America:

* All workers make a living wage with raises pegged to the rate of inflation and cost of living.

* Everyone has “free” health care as a human right.

* Everyone has a home of some sort, i.e. there are no homeless or “unhoused” people living in the streets.

* Prison populations are small, with only the most violent offenders locked away for long terms.

* Climate change, recognized as a problem in the 1980s, is being controlled with massive investments in renewable energy sources.

* Nuclear disarmament, begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will be complete in 2021 after thirty years of dedicated effort.

* No one leaves school with massive amounts of student debt.

* Corporations are not citizens, money is not speech, and all political campaigns are publicly funded.

* Wars are universally reviled and are only fought for defensive purposes via a Congressional declaration. Thus America hasn’t fought a shooting war since 1945.

* The U.S. political scene has a range of “major” parties and a wealth of choices, including a socialist or people’s party and a Green party, along with Libertarians and Populists and Progressives.

* The top priority for most Americans is sustainability and the environment: preserving the planet for future generations.

* There is no such thing as a billionaire, since a progressive tax code ensures an equitable distribution of resources.

* People are respected for who they are and what they do, meaning that racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are largely unknown.

* “Hero” is a term used to describe peacemakers and helpers, the most compassionate and giving among us, the ones fighting hardest for equal rights, fairness, and justice.

* Government is completely transparent to the people. Meanwhile, people have privacy and autonomy.

* Most drugs are legal, and essential medicines like insulin are affordable for all.

Well, I did say this was the land of make-believe. What do you say, readers? What’s in your land of make-believe?

The Marsh in Snow

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I got out on the marsh during the snow. The landscape was much changed from the previous photos!

New snow planet
This part of the marsh made me think of a nasty trench in the lowlands during World War I
There’s an austerity or bleakness to this photo
At home, a coating of white makes everything look fresh and new
Another month until spring!

The Marsh in Winter

W.J. Astore

I live near a salt marsh, and yesterday saw sunny skies and relatively dry air for these parts. Thus it was high time for a walk and a few photos:

Out on the marsh during low tide. I love a place where I can see the horizon

People hunt out on the marsh. In this case, these Canadian geese had only to worry about a bad profile in my photo:

Soon after taking this, they took to the air

Even in February, there are hints of greener days ahead:

There’s something magical about a spot like this, especially in the dead of winter

Some trees are portals to new places, if you dare:

Speak friend and enter

Open wild spaces: we need them now more than ever

Breathe deep!

Hope you enjoyed these “bracing views”!

America, Land of Discontent

W.J. Astore

Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.

I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.

This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:

Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.

Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.

These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?

The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”

I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything.  Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied.  If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous.  You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive.  A traitor.

To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there.  Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs.  Now it’s contentment.”

There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?

But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well. It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.

Thoughts on Race and Racism

W.J. Astore

I’d like to say I don’t see race or color or ethnicity and so on, but of course I do. We all do, once we’re alerted to it. Racism exists in our society, and in fact I’ve been an instrument of racism myself.

At my first job, when I was about seventeen, a Black man came into the shop where I worked. He was looking for an apartment to rent (there were rental apartments above the shop). He asked me to check on a listing he’d seen. I left the counter and asked the boss in back. The boss peeked out and saw who it was — that is, the color he was — and told me to tell him the apartment had been rented. I did so, and the Black guy looked at me and said, “I just called a few minutes ago and was told you had an apartment.”

I felt ashamed and used; the boss later told me he’d rented apartments to “them” before and had had trouble. The Black guy I’d talked to was the epitome of class; he just shook his head at me and walked out. I think he understood, from my apology (“Sorry — my boss told me it’s been rented”), that I was merely a messenger boy, an instrument of another person’s racism.

Three other small episodes from my high school years. I recall a race riot in my high school (there were about 6000 students at my school), and I remember one of my white friends told me he’d talked to one of his Black friends who’d said, “I’m not your friend today,” during the riot. Second, I recall a friend (white) who got into a fight with a Black kid in school, after which he told me one of the white teachers had complimented him. (Imagine a teacher complimenting a student for fighting simply because the student had punched a Black kid.) Finally, I remember taking a school bus that I didn’t normally take. I tried to sit next to a Black kid and he told me I couldn’t sit there. This was repeated again until a Black girl told me to come sit next to her.

The shock of being told I couldn’t sit next to another student because of the color of my skin stayed with me. I have no resentment against the kids who said it; indeed, it made me realize, in a small way, the prejudice these kids faced every day from white America. I gained a little empathy that day.

All this is on my mind due to this remarkable interview between Daryl Davis and Jimmy Dore, which is frank and moving in its discussion of racism and some of the ways we can fight against it and overcome it in America. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.

Textures

W.J. Astore

A sunny day has me out in the field taking photographs. The general theme is nature’s textures. Here are a few images that nature gifted to me:

I’ve always loved tree rings.
Tree moss
Tree bark. So much character trees have
From trees to wood pilings and water
Earth and water and lots of organics — a sort of peat
Ice and sky and trees and water and sun

If you have the chance, get out and enjoy nature. She’s always giving us little gifts if we have time to pause, look around, and open our senses to her.

“Under God”?

Author’s photo, July 2006

W.J. Astore

My dad liked to save things, so today I came across an old pamphlet from 1940 or so that contained the Pledge of Allegiance as it was then. Here it is:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

It’s a good pledge, I think, though it’s wordy and focused on a piece of cloth. How about something like this instead?

I pledge allegiance to our republic, our unity, and our love of liberty and justice for all.

I think that captures the meaning of the Pledge, assuming we feel the need to have one.

You’ll note, of course, what’s missing: the idea our nation is “under God.” That sentiment was added only in the 1950s in response to McCarthyism and fears of communism. If you’re committed to God’s commands, especially His call to love thy neighbor, you really don’t need to brag about it in the Pledge. Of course, many Americans believe in gods, or no god at all, so an inclusive pledge of unity shouldn’t mention god at all.

My father’s generation endured the Great Depression and helped to win World War II, arguably the last war America truly won, without constantly pledging they were “under God.” We should follow their example.

Addendum: When I last wrote a column on the Pledge, a savvy reader made this comment: I remember from grade school when Under God was added. It was shortly after Under Your Desks.

Medicare for All: Force the Vote

It’s time! Commonwealth for the common health. Medicare for All!

W.J. Astore

The comedian and activist Jimmy Dore has inspired a movement for a vote in the House on Medicare for All early in January 2021. (Here’s Jimmy Dore talking to Cornel West on this issue.) Go to forcethevote.org and sign the petition to put pressure on Progressive Democrats to withhold their vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker unless she brings Medicare for All (M4A) to the floor of the House for a vote. If not now, during a global pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans and caused nearly 15 million Americans to lose their employer-based health insurance, when are we going to consider M4A?

I rarely sign petitions. But my wife and I instantly signed this one. Americans supposedly live in the richest country in the world, yet we allegedly can’t afford to fund health care for everyone. It’s absurd. Not only that, it’s a crime against our common humanity. Which of you, if a friend or even a stranger came to you sick and asking for help, would seek to profit off this? Which of you, if a friend or even a stranger came to you seeking a diagnostic test to see if that lump was possibly cancerous, would seek to deny such a test as “not needed” or “not covered”?

It’s obscene that America’s health care system is based on the profit motive and the exploitation of the sick and dying. That it drives families into bankruptcy. That people sometimes die because they’re afraid to go to a doctor or the emergency room because it will cost too much.

Progressives say they want Medicare for All. A majority of registered Republicans and nearly 90% of registered Democrats say they want M4A. Why can’t Nancy Pelosi hold a vote on it? She claims to represent the people. That she even “feeds” them. Why isn’t she working to give the American people health care during a deadly pandemic that may cost as many as 600,000 Americans their lives? Is it because she doesn’t really represent us?

It’s not just about holding a “performative” vote on M4A. It’s about forcing the hand of Congress and seeing who the phonies are. Who wants to deny Americans M4A at this awful time? I’d like to know. I’m sure all Americans would like to know. And if Joe Biden is willing to veto M4A, as he’s said he will, I’d like to see that veto and his rationale for denying Americans the health care they so desperately need.

Again, if not now, when? If Progressives aren’t willing to force a vote on M4A during a deadly pandemic, when there’s deep suffering in America, when will they be willing to act?

We need to force them to act. Sign the petition, call your Member of Congress, and spread the word.

Update (12/26/20): In the comments section below, JPA made a strong argument for institutionalized corruption within America’s privatized medical system. With his permission, I’ve added his comment here so that more people will see it:

When people lump “doctors” into a homogeneous group that is a mistake because “doctors” are no more homogeneous than “cops” or “blacks” or “gays”. Most doctors want to deliver good patient care. Most of these hate the [American medical for-profit] system. However, a significant minority of doctors is quite happy with the current system and oppresses doctors who speak out against it. I work with a lot of healthcare professionals who are driven to depression or suicidal despair because they are trapped in a system which abuses them and their patients.

It is very likely that the tests ordered by the doctors who treated Maine’s brother were mandated to do so by the hospital’s electronic health record (EHR). EHR’s are mandated by law in large healthcare organizations ostensibly to improve patient care. In reality these make patient care more difficult and their real purpose is to run algorithms to determine the way to maximize the billed charges.

Doctors who work in hospitals are employees who are pressured to admit patients, do procedures, and run tests. If they don’t they can be fired, and their contracts usually contain non-compete clauses that prohibit them from working in the area. When someone has a family, and large student loan payments, then one is at the mercy of the employer. Very few people have the courage to stand up to that kind of pressure. Those who do often risk bankruptcy or divorce when the spouse realizes that they are not going to have the lifestyle they planned upon.

Or the hospital labels the physician as “disruptive” and other physicians who act as stooges for the hospital fabricate complaints that get the “disruptive” physician in trouble with their state medical board.

Here are the main things I hear from healthcare providers:

  • It is not possible to practice good medicine in the current environment
  • The pressure to meet corporate demands for revenue generation is contrary to good medical practice
  • Clinical guidelines are set by people/organizations with conflicts of interest
  • Upcoding, excessive testing, unnecessary procedures/screening/testing are expected and demanded
  • For-profit medicine does not work

Individual corruption occurs when a person behaves unethically. That is not the problem in American medicine. The problem in American medicine is institutional corruption.

1) Institutional corruption occurs when the laws, policies, and guidelines of a system are structured to enforce a set of values that is antithetical to the values the system is ethically obligated to express and uphold.

2) Health care professionals are obligated to place a higher value on patient care than on making profit.

3) The laws, policies, and guidelines of the American healthcare system are set up to prioritize making profit over providing patient care.

4) From 1, 2, and 3 above, the American medical system is institutionally corrupt.

This system is supported and maintained by a corrupt system of government. For further reading on this I recommend On Corruption in America by Sarah Cheyes.

McGovern versus Nixon: Another Perspective

W.J. Astore

A loser in 1972 but a winner in life

In the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon destroyed George McGovern. McGovern won only one state, and it wasn’t even his home state. Of course, Nixon soon experienced his own destruction with Watergate, but the fact remains that McGovern and the Liberal/Left wing of the Democratic party never fully recovered from their drubbing in 1972.

And what a shame that was for America. I’ve been reading “The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party,” by Bruce Miroff, and the more I read, the more impressed I am by McGovern’s principled stance against the Vietnam War, and war in general.

Miroff cites a Senate speech McGovern made in September of 1970 that deeply impressed me. McGovern didn’t mince words as he called his fellow senators to account for their complicity in approving and continuing war in Southeast Asia:

Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval [hospitals] and all across our land–young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces, or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor, or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war, those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

Blunt and powerful words! How refreshing they are compared to the weasel words that come from Congress today. Unsurprisingly, McGovern’s principled stance against the war, and his gutsy call for the Congress to do something to stop it, were unpopular among his fellow senators. He didn’t care about them. He cared about saving lives and ending war.

Now, what was Nixon up to? He’d hoped he’d be running against McGovern, expecting he’d be vulnerable to dirty tricks. Reading Miroff, I discovered that Nixon, among other dirty tricks, actually discussed planting McGovern campaign material in the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the man who’d tried to assassinate George Wallace in May of 1972. Nixon’s scheme was only abandoned when it was learned the FBI had already sealed Bremer’s apartment.

Think of Nixon’s scheme here. He was already well ahead of McGovern in the polls, his reelection a near-certainty, yet Nixon would stop at nothing to tear McGovern down. It was such dirty tricks, of course, that would lead to Nixon’s downfall with Watergate.

History shows that Nixon won the election of 1972, but McGovern was the real winner in life. Nixon continued to prosecute a war with devastating consequences; McGovern fought to stop it. Nixon ran a dishonorable campaign; McGovern a hopeful one, an idealistic one, one that called on Americans to live up to their rhetoric of freedom and self-determination and charity.

Who was the “winner” again?

Finding Solace in Nature

W.J. Astore

I write a lot about politics and war, and both are depressing and frustrating subjects here in the USA. But I’m not an intense political junkie, nor am I closely following all of America’s wars. If I were, I might be clinically depressed.

I’m sure my readers find purpose and comfort in something other than America’s tragic political scene and its endless wars. One thing I like to do is pick up my camera and go for walks. And since I live near a salt marsh, there’s always opportunities to take photos of nature.

Here are a few that I took this AM:

Come, sit, let us reason together
A flash of blue below my feet
The marsh at low tide. A warm and windy morning.
Sentinels
Your kindly photographer

I’ve been taking photographs since high school, where I took a photography class and developed my own film (black and white). I had a basic 35mm camera for the longest time. I think I bought my first digital camera about 15 years ago. It’s a hobby and I’m strictly an amateur with the most basic equipment, but I truly enjoy getting outside and taking pictures. The camera forces me to slow down and look more closely; to abide in nature, if you will.

I hope you enjoy these “bracing views” and that you also have a way of escaping, a place of solace.