Palliatives

Every morning I climb out of bed, pull on some clothes, and fire up my computer. I check my email first — I work online, and keep in touch with my Quaker business via email, so this is a must. After that, I usually skip over to the Seattle Times website, to see what a mainstream newspaper has to say about the headlines; then I visit my favorite liberal/radical sites: AlterNet, for that note of hysteria; Feministing, to keep my white middle-class male self in line; and finally Sociological Images, to teach myself how to see the world with clearer eyes. As I mentioned earlier, I check the National Hurricane Center’s website during storm season.

Then I read the comics.

This means that today I read an article by Noam Chomsky pointing out the deep contradictions and hypocrisy of our “war on terror” and the assassination of Osama bin Laden… an article about a police officer who sexually assaulted a teen girl while on duty, the author pointing out the connections to the NYC cops accused of rape and the still-ongoing Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals… an indignant rebuttal of a conservative columnist who doesn’t want poor people to vote… a column about a woman raised in a church which felt menstruation was unclean because it was “wasting life”… and finally a post about the commericalization of the care package, i.e. selling prefabricated packages to send to kids at camp to show how much you love them.

You can understand how this might work me up to a certain degree of anger and disgust. You can understand how this might inspire me to write, to speak out, to take action, to try and set things right.

Instead I click over to the funnies, read up on the latest antics of Frazz and Caulfield, check out the new xkcd, follow the novels-in-webcomic-form that I love. Then it’s off to the fanboy sites: what’s Joss Whedon up to this week? What movies are coming out? What’s the latest in geekery? Then there’s Facebook, of course.

Why do I do this? Well, sometimes it’s because the world is so grim and depressing — at least through the lens of media sources that know bad news sells better than good. Sometimes I feel like I need a good laugh after a morning’s rants and disasters. But usually I do it because that’s what I always do: it’s the routine. I still occasionally have to stop myself from going to websites I stopped reading long ago, just because I went there automatically for years. The fingers still remember.

All in all, it puts me in mind of the New Deal.

During the Great Depression there was every possibility that the country was about to go socialist. Capitalism looked like a horrible option, after all: rampant unemployment and kids starving, while farmers destroyed food to drive up prices and manufacturers claimed anyone could work who wanted to while firing thousands. There was the Soviet Union (which, due to some early prosperity and a lot of secrecy, looked pretty good at the time), setting a counterexample of how it could be done. And here came the Bonus Marchers, veterans of the World War who wanted the government to pay them the money they were owed immediately instead of in 1945. Vets, organized and protesting, camped on the National Mall: that raised the specter of revolution. Another two or three years and the US might have seen a socialist revolt.

Instead Franklin Roosevelt was voted in, and we got the New Deal, which put a few socialist fillips on the basic capitalist system: Social Security is a socialist process of shared support and protection, grafted onto capitalist paychecks. The economy came under some government oversight and protection with the FDIC, the Glass-Steagall Act, and the SEC, but all these were designed to make banks, those most capitalist of institutions, function well and honestly rather than to supplant them. There was the picture of some people being put back to work through the “alphabet agencies” like the WPA and the CCC, and major projects like the Columbia River and Tennessee Valley dams, but those did not actually employ many people, though oftentimes providing invaluable and otherwise unachievable services. It’s important to recall that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression, though in some ways it helped head off another future collapses. Instead the New Deal gave people hope. It made people bear the present while looking to the future. What FDR would have done if World War II hadn’t rescued our economy I don’t know, but it’s pretty easy to argue that the New Deal restored American faith in the capitalist system.

It was, in fact, a palliative.

The New Deal treated symptoms, not the disease. It made people happier — Roosevelt’s campaign song in 1932 was “Happy Days Are Here Again,” for crying out loud. He won at least in part on the strength of his smile. He famously claimed we had nothing to fear except fear, which is quite an endorsement of a system whose structures tend to breed exploitation. The New Deal stopped the worst excesses so that the system itself wasn’t stopped.

In the same way, although obviously on a different level of magnitude, the comics I read keep me from boiling over. And I rather suspect I’m not alone in this. We laugh at the Daily Show, but it’s not until Stewart stops joking and starts making us think, starts making us angry (notably about the Zadroga Bill) that anything actually gets accomplished. Molly Ivins, of sainted memory, gave us any number of zingers and talking points about the procession of GOP politicians to ride out of Texas, but she didn’t actually halt the procession. Mocking President Bush was not the same as stopping him.

Of course, are palliatives such a bad thing? Man does not live by rage alone. There’s such a thing as burnout. It’s also easy to lose sight of the real progress being made: seventeen years ago, gay sex was still a crime in Texas. Currently there are lots of people in the running for president and Congress who want to make us go back to that, yes, but the fact that they want to go back means progress has been made. Planned Parenthood doesn’t have to duck the Comstock Laws. Unions are under attack but not under literal fire, unlike the 1910s. There’s a black man in the White House. Moreover, trying to reform by means of rage and riot often winds up with a lot of people dead or hurting.

So what’s a little laughter? Is a smile so bad? Is Randall Munroe a problem because he takes my mind off our troubles?

Well, here’s the beginning of an answer: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (If you’re unhappy that I’m quoting the Bible, pretend I’m quoting the Byrds instead.) Sure, I can laugh. The problem comes when I dissipate the anger I should feel, and quell the inspiration to write that I should act on, for a quick silliness fix. The problem comes when the palliative interferes with the real cure.

So I’m simply going to flip my morning routine. I’ll still read all my funnies; I’ll still read all the news. I’ll just read the funnies first. Then, when I close out my browser for the morning, I’ll put pen to paper on the topics I need to.

Interestingly enough, it seems our political leadership is taking a similar approach, although obviously for wildly different reasons. The president’s latest plan is no New Deal, less a palliative than a stick to bite down on. And we shall see if his political enemies allow him even that much, since they seem intent on dismantling what’s left of the actual New Deal. The Great Depression ushered it in, and now the Great Recession may well usher its remnants out. A bargain was struck in 1933: the government would protect the people safe from the worst of capitalism, with Social Security, regulation of banks, and other elements — and thereby keep capitalism safe from the wrath of the people. The GOP is embarking on the interesting experiment of tearing down the safeguards at a moment when the people have more reason than ever to be wrathful. They are altering the deal. Perhaps they feel they can steer the people’s rage, as they often have before. Perhaps they see an opportunity to get rich off the chaos (see “Neoliberal Sustainability”). Or perhaps they are counting on certain palliatives.

Either way, we’ll see who gets the last laugh.

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