Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The "Sputnik Moment": One nation with paranoia for all

David Seaton's News Links
I remember once reading an Indian guru, who said that if the water buffalo had a god, it would probably look like a very large water buffalo. He believed that there is only one god, formless and all pervading, but that he/she/it responds to intense worship by taking on the form that most pleases his/her/its devotees depending on their temperament and station in life.

I am beginning to think that the goddess of paranoia pursues a similar strategy: she appears to the crunchy granola/ruccola crowd as global warming and to the deep fried Mars Bar set as black helicopters.

To each of her myriad of devotees she appears in the form most guaranteed to seduce and charm them, but at bottom, there is no paranoia but paranoia and the media is her witness.

I was reminded of an incident from the darkest days of the Second World War, a time with millions of human beings freshly dead, or about to die, with European civilization ground to dust or burned to ashes, when there, deep in his bomb poof bunker, Winston Churchill sent a pudding back to the kitchen, complaining that it had "no theme".

That, I think is problem with America's free floating paranoia: like Winnie's dessert, the paranoia pudding that Americans are collectively pulling, has no "theme".

Sensing this themelessness and needing a theme himself, President Barack Obama turned this up in his State of the Union speech:
Grasping to sum up the country’s perilous position, the US president said the country was facing its “Sputnik moment”, a reference to the alarm felt in 1957 when the former Soviet Union launched the first orbiting satellite. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” he said. - Financial Times
The president is too young to have lived the first "Sputnik moment", but it was one of the turning points of my life and on hearing the word "Sputnik", the goddess of paranoia walked over my grave.

For any American child alive then who was principally interested in the humanities: art, literature, history, as I was, it was a terrible moment. The Soviet Union, may she rest in peace, put up the first hunk of the endless rubbish that now tirelessly circles our planet, something about the size of a grapefruit that sailed the heavens in earth orbit going "beep, beep, beep", soon to be followed by an unfortunate dog named Laika, the first warmblooded creature to die out there. From one day to the next, there was a political-ideological science hysteria that prioritized everything that I am not interested in: math, chemistry etc, to the detriment of everything I love. I think it was then that I vowed to myself that I would someday live in Europe, as far away as I could get from such barren, Sputnik induced, philistinism. Without the first "Sputnik moment" I might never have left.

But my private paranoia is just another face of the hydra-headed goddess of American paranoia. And the president would be kidding himself if he thought that America's decline is the mother of all our paranoia. He did touch briefly on what I do believe is the goddess's true form.
We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled. That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation. - President Barack Obama
I disagree, I think the opposite is precisely the truth and that is what "sets us apart as a nation".... And I can prove it with a few simple graphs:

Actually this is exactly what  doesn't set us apart, here is the entire world's estimated distribution of wealth:

So as you can see, if anything sets us apart it is that the distribution of wealth in the USA is much more unequal than the world average.

The previous illustrations are examples of what is called the "Champagne Glass Graph", let's look at this simple pie-chart to get a clearer idea of what is going on.

So if there is one thing the American people are not is a  "family" with "common goals". One percent of the population controls thirty five percent of the net worth. Twenty percent of the population controls eighty five percent of that wealth. That leaves no less than eighty percent of the population to divide up the remaining fifteen percent of the wealth left over.

This is a reality that Americans don't face easily. Here is the reality contrasted with what people think that realty is and with what they think that reality should be:

How does that sort of wealth distribution play out in real life? Here is a reading of America's mood from Pew Research:

Hat to über-wonk Donal
The survey finds that a majority of the public (57%) says it is very difficult or difficult to afford things they really want. About the same percentage said this two years ago (55%). And for many Americans, affording basic necessities remains a struggle – 51% say it is difficult to afford health care, 48% say the same about their home heating and electric bills, and 29% say it is difficult to afford food. - Pew Research Center
In the richest country in world nearly thirty percent of the population have trouble earning enough money to eat. Fifty one percent say it is difficult to afford health care and another forty eight percent can't afford to heat their homes. 

You kind of wonder here in the flash-frozen northeast if, a few days from now, scores of dead bodies will be found in unheated trailers across the county. The Weather Channel said 20-below-zero this morning in upstate New York. I know there are people so desperately poor out there because a couple of weeks ago I overheard a supermarket worker say she couldn't afford to buy propane. And she had a job!
Now having read that you wonder how Obama could say the following with a straight face:
We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people
So here is how the paranoia thing works:

The one percent  of the population that controls forty three percent of the financial wealth and the next four percent that controls twenty nine percent, plus those who control the next twenty one percent are justifiably paranoiac thinking what would happen if the eighty percent of the population left with only seven percent of the financial wealth ever woke up and decided to change the percentages around, if only by democratically using income taxes to redistribute that wealth. 

So the major cultural, legal and ideological industry of the USA is to keep that eighty percent, the peasantry,  from actually discovering who is making them so miserable and how they do it and then getting together and changing the situation... as has so often happened throughout history. With ninety three percent of America's money at their disposal there is no lack of funds for the one percenters to do the job.
And that boys and girls explains why so many Americans are worried about Islam and abortion and black helicopters and climate change and transgenic food and whether Barack Obama was born in the USA and polar bears. Anything but the 800 pound gorilla in the room... identifying the fucker and the fuckee.

Paranoia is what "binds us together as one people"... the paranoia of the haves, fearing that the have nots will someday dispossess them and the have nots with whatever paranoia du jour  that the media, owned by that one percent, chooses to feed them and that "suits their temperament and station in life". DS


Anonymous said...

All very good, but not convinced by how climate change gets lumped in with the other bogeymen you cite.

Previously, I seem to remember, you made dismissive remarks about peak oil.

Those of a certain age may miss the worst of the effects of both phenonenom but sneering at them is surely tempting fate.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

The underlying cause of all America woes is the inequality of income distribution and such a large percentage of the population hungry and without adequate medical care etc. This is the sort of numbers and percentages (I almost forgot the percentage of incarcerated) that occur in third world countries, where people are not being told from morning to night that they live "in the greatest country in the world" day in and day out. The cognitive dissonance between reality as it is lived and the national narrative, induces a paranoia which is expressed differently by different sectors of the society. At this level the "black helicopter" and the polar bears are simply ways of "personalizing" a common malaise. I myself happen to belong to the climate warming tribe of paranoiacs, while others belong to the Tea Party tribe... different strokes for different folks.... but we are all of us (including POTUS) just whistling past the graveyard.

Anonymous said...

You could not be more right on! So what do the elections really mean when they are bought? Is this really a democracy? The public is asleep!

Anonymous said...

kunstler's is a reliable source. he doesn't try to be sensational at all, he doesn't need to be because he's got his opinions which he backs up in real time journalism
tribes of people is how the world is and instead of living with differences they try to make all the same which bus' newtons law of heavenly makeup