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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 05:42 am

Bring it on

People are working harder and earning less, and the rich are raking it in. Time to even the score.

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Illustration by Tyler Bergholz

The myth of Robin Hood — the outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor (after deducting a modest commission) — is an ancient myth of universal appeal, one that must predate by many centuries the quasi-historical English bandit of the 12th century whose exploits were as familiar to my childhood as the miracles of Jesus Christ. American thieves of major consequence, from Jesse James to Clyde Barrow and Pretty Boy Floyd, have been enhanced by our legend-makers with the same populist sympathies and grassroots approaches to redistributing wealth. India had a 20th-century bandit queen revered by the peasantry for her fearlessness and generosity. Robin Hood figures transcend time, culture and sex. The BBC, acknowledging that many children who grew up on Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are still young enough to remember them, is filming yet another version of the adventures of Robin and his Merry Men.

The benevolent outlaw is an archetype, a folk hero born of the frustrations of an underclass that sees the law as the will and whim of the privileged classes above them. In nearly every culture, individuals who pursue popularity — politicians, comedians, poets and playwrights, pamphleteers and cartoonists and journalists — at least pay lip service to this resentment and to its populist ideal. This was the essence of the persona crafted by Will Rogers, perhaps the most beloved of all American entertainers. I was caught off guard when someone reminded me of a fact I’d acquired and mislaid: the fact that cowboy Will loved to play polo, the sport of kings.

There was a time when no one could be elected president of the United States without representing himself as the nemesis of Wall Street and Park Avenue, the champion of the dispossessed and downtrodden. A century ago, this was no perfunctory nod to the bleacher seats. On Labor Day 1906, House Speaker Joe Cannon rallied his Republican troops with a speech praising President Theodore Roosevelt: “He is honest and fearless, and able, and stands for the people every time.” At his highest populist pitch, one that rings positively Marxist to our 21st-century ears, Roosevelt sounds like a Robin Hood himself.

“There is not in the world a more ignoble character,” Teddy Roosevelt sermonized, “than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune, and putting his fortune only to the basest uses — whether these uses be to speculate in stocks and wreck railroads himself, or to allow his son to lead a life of foolish and expensive idleness and gross debauchery, or to purchase some scoundrel of high social position, foreign or native, for his daughter.”

Roosevelt, the patrician Republican, called the enemies of the people “malefactors of great wealth”; his cousin Franklin Delano, of the same old money and gentle birth, was the class traitor who reviled them as “money changers” and “economic royalists.” The Roosevelts were the center, in their day. On their left, the plutocracy was harangued by Marxists, socialists, and agrarian populists with relatively huge constituencies, who have since vanished mysteriously from America’s political ecosphere. One hundred years ago this month, during Teddy Roosevelt’s second term, a prominent Massachusetts socialist named James F. Carey came to Bangor, Maine, in support of the Socialist candidate for governor. In spite of police harassment, a crowd described by the local newspaper as “multitudes” gathered in Center Park to hear the capitalists flayed.

“The wealth of the country was produced by labor,” Carey declaimed. “Capital itself produces nothing. Why should those who produce everything have nothing, while those who produce nothing have everything?” In our own age of timorous, emasculated media, it’s worth noting the local reporter’s response that late-summer evening in 1906. He described an audience “held by the spell of the speaker’s magnetic personality” and wrote that Carey made his points “with the directness and force of so many bullets.”

In pre-World War I America, drastic economic inequality was a legacy of the Gilded Age. Corporate excess and colossal fortunes had taken much of the small-town shine off the founders’ notions of democracy. Yet the bloated, top-hatted, mustache-waxed villains who represented Big Capital in the cartoons of Thomas Nast were figures of fun and of general contempt. They were the dragons that Teddy Roosevelt and every high-minded, self-styled American hero hungered to slay. Their victims, the working class and the defenseless poor, were sentimentalized in the same cartoons as virtuous citizens whose plight was a national disgrace. Whatever his secret agenda, no public figure would openly embrace money-grubbing, union-busting, or carrying water for the warlocks of Wall Street.

America’s future was uncertain at the turn of that century — capitalism, since the Civil War, had become a kind of nuclear reaction nothing could stop — but at least you knew where its heart was. When Joe Cannon spoke of “the people,” it meant something; it was more than a demagogue’s rhetorical flourish. Looking back across that century, we see that one thing has never changed: the gross economic imbalance James Carey and his socialists vowed to rectify. Corporate profits are now at their highest level in four decades, thanks in part to a sharp rise in worker productivity. But current reports from the Census Bureau and the Labor Department show that median real wages have fallen behind inflation, and the highest 1 percent of salaries account for 11 percent of all wages, nearly twice their share 30 years ago. The buying power of the minimum wage is at its lowest point in 50 years; the average CEO salary, 24 times the average worker’s compensation in 1965, is now 262 times greater (511 in the obscenely flush oil industry) — an abhorrent trend that began in the 1990s and continues to accelerate.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times’ economic watchdog, crunched the numbers and concluded that manufacturing wages, in real money, had fallen 1 percent since 1980 while the real income of America’s economic elite (the 1 percent with annual incomes over $277,000) had risen by 135 percent. Coincidentally, there are 15 million United States citizens living in “deep poverty” — income below $7,800 annually for a family of three — more than at any time since the government began keeping track of them. The number of Americans without health insurance, 46.6 million in 2005, was another record figure.

It doesn’t take a degree in economics, or rocket science, to follow Krugman’s logic to its conclusion. More people are in the workforce, working more hours and producing more effectively — and carrying home a smaller and smaller share of the wealth they create. Even President George W. Bush’s treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, felt obliged to note — though not deplore the idea — that unchecked economic polarization might become a source of anxiety. Paulson added, of course, that “it is neither fair nor useful to blame any political party.”

America’s economic food chain in 2006 bears a close resemblance to the 1906 model, with outrageous new wealth at the top and overworked, underpaid helots at the bottom. A major difference is the health of the middle class, still vast and vigorous in Teddy Roosevelt’s day, depleted and endangered in our own. But what has changed most dramatically is our public mythology, the way our economic sympathies and narratives seem to align themselves. Populism is no longer the natural religion of the American heartland; protest against the one-way economy is labeled “class warfare” by right-wing propagandists, who lump it with “socialized medicine” as a foreign, leftist thing true patriots avoid. (If there was class warfare, Molly Ivins suggested, the war ended long ago, it was a massacre, and the surviving losers have been sold into slavery.) Nast’s swollen scoundrels, the oleaginous tycoons who create and exploit egregious inequalities in our economy, are no longer widely caricatured and despised. In much of the mainstream media they’re admired and celebrated, even fawned over and paraded as savants. It’s as if the hero/villain equation has been reversed somehow and Robin Hood replaced by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

The sinister sheriff of legend has been played as a fiend or an oaf by the choicest villains from Hollywood and the English stage, perhaps most memorably by the exquisitely effete and vulpine Alan Rickman. But even the sheriff, scourge of all honest yeomen, might have hesitated to yoke a minimum-wage increase — a $2 raise from a wretched subsurvival $5.15 — to a deep cut in estate taxes for millionaires. Arguably the most cynical piece of legislative chicanery ever attempted in the U.S. Senate, this Republican stratagem was so outrageous that I reread the headline a couple of times to make sure that it wasn’t a joke or a copy editor’s error. Give all the credit to Majority Leader Bill Frist, Satan’s surgeon, who used to operate on human hearts but may not own one. Frist and his colleagues serve their masters the moneychangers, the high priests of Mammon, with a shameless and relentless dedication. The vigilant Krugman discovered that the minimum-wage scam was only the second most cynical tax-cutting scheme that Congressional Republicans have attempted. He reports that just two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, under cover of national grief and hysteria, they tried to sneak through another round of cuts for corporations and high-end taxpayers.

“If you landed here from Mars and looked at Congress’ agenda,” said Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, “you’d think that the problem in America is that rich people don’t have enough money.”

Greed by its nature defies limits; no one who wants a great deal has ever been known to stop short of wanting more. The same day Senate Democrats derailed Frist’s tax scheme, a Senate subcommittee reported that wealthy Americans hide at least a trillion dollars in offshore tax havens, mainly in the Caribbean, depriving the IRS of at least $40 billion a year. (At the other end: A single mother with two children, working 52 weeks a year, 40 hours a week at the minimum wage, earns $10,700.) It was an open secret 100 years ago that certain congressmen represented major industries, even individual corporations. But Frist and company may be the first congressional majority owned and operated entirely by America’s boardrooms, serving their interests and no others. Certainly they’re the first American politicians who make no pretense of being the poor man’s friend; they’re the poor man’s nightmare and proud of it — and they’re confident that they’ll never pay for this arrogance with their political scalps.

Only Alan Rickman, the actor, could offer a sneer quite worthy of such poisonous cynicism. No apologies, no concealment, no creative double-talk or false compromise from the party without pity. Its reply to the petitions of working Americans is astonishing, in democratic terms: We spit on your aspirations and we’ll give you nothing, not a crumb; when elections come, we’ll get out our big wallets, our big megaphones, and our big flags and we’ll fool you again, and, in case we can’t, we have other tricks — we have Karl Rove.

After a seesaw century when the fortunes of the underclass rose and fell through several economic and political cycles, we seem to have realized, at last, the dark wisdom of the 19th-century Tory warlord Mark Hanna, the original fat cat, who described America as “a business state” and declared that “all questions of government in a democracy were questions of money,” echoing, from further back, the paleo-Tory John Jay, who said, “Those who own the country should govern the country” (quotes courtesy of the fighting populist Thomas Frank).

The Bush GOP, deaf to empathy or irony, is corporate America’s Final Solution to the problem of people who insist on their fair share — of the wealth they produce, of leverage in the marketplace, of political clout that in democratic theory accrues to superior numbers instead of concentrated wealth. How did it come to this, in a nation that boasts so hypocritically of exporting and fighting for “democracy” and “freedom”? And we have no one in sight who promises to fight, legally or illegally, for economic justice — no Robin Hood, no Roosevelts, no James F. Carey or Eugene V. Debs or William Jennings Bryan, no Fighting Bob La Follette, no Norman Thomas or Henry Wallace, no Kennedy brothers, even. Our proletariat is homeless in Sherwood Forest, with the Sheriff of Nottingham firmly in control, the nefarious Prince John lurking just over his shoulder. It’s not such a stretch to evoke Sheriff Cheney — cynical and sinister but a bit obtuse, wily enough to cling to power and manipulate a simple prince, yet never clever enough to outwit a gang of ragtag outlaws hiding in the greenwood. And it’s hard to ignore a certain resemblance between Prince, later King, John and Prince George W. Bush. What but DNA or divine right could have placed either of their sorry butts on the throne? John, a vain and ineffectual prince with a mean streak, also chose his Rumsfelds so poorly that he lost most of his hereditary estates in Europe and was known to his people by the mocking nickname John Lackland (George Lackluster?).

I wish I had the detachment to laugh. In myth, if not in fact, England was saved from Prince John and his sheriff when King Richard the Lion-Hearted came home from the Crusades and knighted Robin Hood for his unorthodox patriotism. In literature that’s called a deus ex machina, and it’s about the only thing that can save America now. Keep a light in the window for the Lion-Heart; you never know. In the meantime we suffer — and the poor suffer most — not only from a vacuum of leadership but also from a pitiful depletion of our native capacity for outrage. This republic, founded by rebels furious about oppressive government and taxation without representation, is now so flabby and vapid, so indifferent to its civil liberties and constitutional protections, that corporate predators and reactionary sophists — the only classes with real energy — rule us unopposed. Aghast at the passive response to President Bush’s Constitution-mocking detention of “enemy combatants,” former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell said, “I am amazed that any president would make such a claim, but I am more amazed that the American people have acquiesced with little or no protest.”

Little or no protest has been the norm, from Main Street and from the Democratic Party. As Thomas Ricks, who wrote Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, said on NPR, “In other wars, we had hawks and doves. In this war, we have the silence of the lambs.”

Deploring this silence, I apologize to the frenzied culture of America’s bloggers, where indignation is the ruling idiom. I respect many of those citizens, especially for their fundraising exploits — but I doubt that any regime will be overthrown electronically. Compare the United States to Mexico. When the populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was narrowly defeated in a disputed election, he demanded a recount. When a limited recount seemed unlikely to elect him, tens of thousands of his supporters took to the streets, snarling traffic in Mexico City and blockading financial institutions all over the country. Now he claims he’ll fight on for years if necessary and form a parallel government to direct civil resistance.

Right or wrong, legitimate or out of order, López Obrador is a candidate with formidable cojones — don’t we all wish Al Gore had been one just like him in 2000? After years of research, many credible people, including Robert Kennedy Jr., suspect that the Republicans stole both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. I can’t recall any mass demonstrations, any torches or shouting in the street, to protest that our democratic process might have been mocked and defiled. Asked about the Supreme Court’s dubious decision in the momentous case of Bush v. Gore, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the partisan jurists we can blame for all our miseries, snapped, “Come on, get over it.”

The current immigration controversy, another battle in the war on the poor, is primarily about keeping hungry Mexicans out of the United States. It seems to me that what we need is more Mexicans — we need millions more, if these Mexicans are people with the backbone to stand up for their rights and protest the rule of the rich. In return, maybe we could send Mexico a few million clueless, spineless “values” voters, the ones who always reelect the same nasty jackals who rob them blind.

When those brave Mexicans arrive here, they’ll find more to eat — even poor Americans are fat — and perhaps more opportunity in the long run. They’ll also find that many of the rights they fought for in Mexico don’t come with a U.S. residence or even with citizenship; they come with a gaudy price tag. Rights once guaranteed are now handled cash-and-carry. They’ll find that the indifference to misfortune epitomized by Sheriff Cheney and Dr. Frist has been interpreted by unscrupulous bureaucrats and business types as encouragement to squeeze and press and take advantage — to enjoy an open season on the poor.

An appalling story in the Boston Globe headed “Debtor’s Hell: — Preying on Red-Ink America” described Gestapo-style debt collectors who terrorize indigent families, beating on doors in the night, impounding automobiles and slapping liens on mortgaged houses, leaving women weeping and children wailing. With low-income America drowning in consumer debt, debtors’ prisons and Dickensian poorhouses can’t be far behind. Along with the news that the IRS plans to outsource its collections to similar private agencies, the Boston scandal offers another sour taste of the Middle Ages, long before social services or social consciences, when the king’s rapacious mercenaries and tax farmers prowled the countryside like wolf packs, leaving scarcely a shilling in a poor man’s pocket.

My friend Walter, who lives on Supplemental Security Income checks in Pennsylvania, reports eloquently on the privations and humiliations of being a government dependent in an age of shrinking social programs and official hostility to the disadvantaged and disabled. He writes in longhand because he’s afraid that his disability would be challenged if he had enough money to buy a typewriter. I don’t think anyone who reads Walter’s letters weekly, as I do, could possibly vote for people who don’t care what happens to him — but I don’t know how people think anymore. Another friend, who polls focus groups for political candidates, turned up a college student who will vote Republican because “Republicans are for winners, Democrats are for losers, and I don’t want to be a loser.”

When you vote, vote of course to give the Democrats the congressional majorities they’ve done virtually nothing to deserve — not because they’ll end the war in Iraq or any of these economic abominations but just because they didn’t create them and they’re not pledged and determined to make them worse. And because it’s the only door open to impeachment. Vote first on the war in Iraq, because it’s not merely a fiasco, as Thomas Ricks labels it, not merely a catastrophe, but a freaking dress rehearsal for Armageddon — without question the most tragic blunder an American president has ever committed. Everything Bush says about it is a lie, except when he says it will be a bloody hell if we leave — and the same if we don’t leave, or long after we leave, or this afternoon. We’re left with no solution that’s safe or moral, either. The practical, realpolitik compromise would be to hand the whole snakepit back to Saddam Hussein, with our best wishes and enough American weapons to restore a loathsome but stable dictatorship. Iraq is sheer madness — it was Pandora’s box just waiting for the perfect fool to pry it open.

But when you approach the polling place, don’t forget about Walter or the minimum-wage mothers or the weeping debtor women of Boston. Failed experiments in state-sponsored altruism have taken the luster off socialism’s theories, but its simplest truths persist. Because democracy only thrives on the sort of level playing field that Big Capital is bound to destroy, it may be that democracy and capitalism are intrinsically incompatible. Where do these “conservatives” draw the line between passively accepting socioeconomic Darwinism — survival of the fittest — and implementing it by deliberately culling the most vulnerable individuals? This is no class warfare; it’s class genocide, embraced by an especially moronic and inflexible plutocracy that will soon learn there’s no profit in being chief when the last healthy, willing Indian has disappeared. The dead end of the “American dream” is a society that deifies the dollar and excommunicates the citizen who has too few. That’s where the nation’s soul departs from its body. I’m no longer a young man; this is not what America was in my time, or my father’s time, or his father’s. If that’s what it will be in the future, I am so, so ashamed. If that’s class warfare, bring it on.

Hal Crowther writes for the Independent Weekly of Durham, N.C.

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