Ever more often, as I face the latest news from this increasingly woebegone American world of ours, I imagine bringing my long-dead parents back to view it. After all, they knew bad times and good. They lived through the Great Depression as young adults, World War II (my father was in the U.S. Army Air Corps), and the 1950s and 1960s. Those were the decades of my youth when, thanks to both Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the boom the war had triggered, economic inequality in this country narrowed drastically from the "roaring twenties."
I now regularly picture the two of them in this pandemic moment, comfortably social-distanced from me, as I start to describe our present world by telling them something that's astounded me since I first stumbled across it in 2017: three men -- Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett -- now have more wealth than the bottom half of American society. Three years later, at a moment when so many Americans have ended up unemployed, I'd have to add that billionaires generally continue to thrive. Or perhaps I would point out that this country now has "the largest CEO-to-worker pay gap on the planet." In their day, a CEO got about 20 times the pay of a typical worker. Now, it's 278 times.
Or I would mention something that would seem inconceivable to them: that this country's infrastructure -- bridges, dams, ports, roads, you name it -- was given a grade of D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers, since the U.S. government no longer seriously invests in it (and that it's become something of a standing joke in Donald Trump's Washington). Or perhaps I'd just mention to them that, when it came to a kind of infrastructure they would never have heard of, high-speed rail, China now has 19,000 miles of it and the U.S... well, essentially none.
And how would I even begin to tell them about our current president? Maybe I'd have to show them his recent 14-minute Tulsa rant about hobbling down "icy" stairs at West Point on a perfectly warm day, a commentary approximately six times as long as the Gettysburg Address. After that, I would need to assure them that this half-demented billionaire former TV personality is indeed the president of the United States.
Amid all of this, which would undoubtedly seem beyond unbelievable to them, here's the one thing they might not be surprised by: the Covid-19 pandemic. After all, they lived through the catastrophic 1918 Spanish Flu as children (though they never mentioned it to me). Still, to them, the American world of 2020 would otherwise be remarkably unrecognizable and, in a way, at my advancing age, it's becoming increasingly unrecognizable to me, too, which is why I found TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon's look at how this nation has entered a kind of free fall especially illuminating. Tom
Fear of Falling
Can Making Black Lives Matter Rescue a Failing State?>
By Rebecca Gordon
You know that feeling when you trip on the street and instantly sense that you're about to crash hard and there's no way to prevent it? As gravity has its way with you, all you can do is watch yourself going down. Yeah, that feeling.
I had it the other day on my way to a Black Lives Matter demonstration when I caught my toe on a curb and pitched forward. As time slowed down, I saw not my past, but my future, pass before my eyes -- a future that would at worst include months of rehabbing a broken hip and at best a few weeks hobbling around on crutches. I was lucky. Nothing was broken and I'll probably be off the crutches by the time you read this.
But that feeling of falling and knowing it's too late to stop it has stayed with me. I suspect it reflects a sensation many people in the United States might be having right now, a sense that time is moving slowly while we watch a flailing country in a slow-motion free fall. It has taken decades of government dereliction to get us to this point and a few years of Trumpian sabotage to show us just where we really are. To have any hope of pulling back from the brink, however, will take the determination of organizations like the Movement for Black Lives.
That national descent, when it came, proved remarkably swift. In less than six months, we've seen more than 2.5 million confirmed Covid-19 infections and more than 125,000 deaths. And it's not slowing down. June 24th, in fact, saw the biggest single-day total in new U.S. infections (more than 38,000) since April and that number may well have been superseded by the time this piece comes out. During this pandemic, we've gone from an economy of almost full employment -- even if at starvation levels for those earning a minimum wage -- to one with the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (even as billionaires have once again made a rather literal killing). The government's response to these twin catastrophes has been feckless at best and criminal at worst. While this country may not yet be a failed state, it's certainly in a free fall all its own.
What Is a Failed State?
People use this expression to indicate a political entity whose government has ceased to perform most or all of its basic functions. Such a condition can result from civil war, untrammeled corruption, natural disaster, or some combination of those and more. The Fund for Peace, which has been working on such issues for more than 70 years, lists four criteria to identify such a country:
- "Loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein
- Erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions
- Inability to provide public services
- Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community"
I've always thought of such fallen lands (sometimes given a fatal shove by my own government) as far-away places. Countries like Libya. The Fund for Peace identifies that beleaguered and now fractured nation, where rival armed forces compete for primacy, as the one in which government fragility has increased most over the last decade. The present chaos began when the United States and its NATO allies stepped in militarily, precipitating the overthrow of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, with no particular plan for the day after.
Then there's Yemen, where Washington's support for the intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates only exacerbated an ongoing civil war, whose civilian victims have been left to confront famine, cholera, and most recently, with a shattered healthcare system, the coronavirus. And before Libya and Yemen, don't forget the Bush administration's disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which damaged that country's physical and political infrastructure in ways it is now, 17 years later, starting to dig out of.
So, yes, I'd known about failed states, but it wasn't until I read "We Are Living in a Failed State" by George Packer in the June 2020 Atlantic magazine that I began to seriously entertain the idea that my country was bouncing down the same flight of stairs. As that article's subtitle put it: "The coronavirus didn't break America. It revealed what was already broken."
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