Resisting the New Normal

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Asking anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman to pick the thing they hate the most about the current administration is like asking a parent to pick their favourite child: They probably have one, but they’re too polite to mention it. There’s a strong temptation among many of us to simply avoid discussing our own personal sore spots with things in Washington right now, for fear of sounding like we’re not concerned about the problems that the people around us have, friends and strangers alike.  Particularly when every day seems to bring a new seven-layer excrement dip of news from Washington, with each layer being thicker and stinkier than the one above it, singling out one particular topic is not only difficult, but it runs the risk of letting everything else get worse when other things don’t get the proper attention they need.

One of the less talked-about problems with the current administration that deserves more attention, at least as far as I’m concerned, is their historical slowness at nominating people for important executive-branch positions and ambassadorships. Particularly this previous weekend, when seven US Navy soldiers died in a crash off the coast of Japan, the fact that the United States currently has neither an Ambassador to Japan, nor a Secretary of the Navy, rendered the normal course of action for our government to take in such a crisis nearly impossible. This doesn’t even factor in the sheer lunacy of Republicans accusing Democrats of holding up nominations for positions that they haven’t even announced nominees for yet, like the two I just mentioned. (It’s especally absurd to not nominate ambassadorships, when it’s so well-known that those positions almost always go to unqualified big-money campaign donors as thank-you gifts, regardless of who is President.)

It’s hard to look at what’s happening in the executive branch right now and not think of the Reagan-era kneecapping of government agencies in the 1980s. Back then, newly-appointed department heads trampled over one another, like so many parents shopping for Cabbage Patch Dolls over the holidays, to trumpet how much money they wanted to cut from their budgets. Instead of trying to make their departments more efficient, though, these directors often hamstrung their offices, making it impossible for them to perform the very tasks that they were set up to accomplish. Even when Democrats won back the presidency, Congressional Republicans set up every roadblock they could to stop those agencies from performing their intended tasks, claiming that there was no money for them (ignoring that their massive tax cuts for the rich and foreign entanglements were the main reasons for increasing deficits).

Then as now, there is an implicit argument being made by conservatives that since the whole world hasn’t come to an end, we didn’t really need those departments, or ambassadorships, or what have you. While it may be true that the fate of America isn’t likely to depend on whether or not we have an ambassador to Djibouti any time soon, the consequences of going without so much of the government operating like it should are bound to eventually catch up with us, and if the deaths off the coast of Japan a few days ago aren’t enough to convince you of that, remember back to the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed thirteen people, and that a recent study found over 50,000 bridges in America are structurally deficient. (Although the current president likes to talk about infrastructure — like his predecessors — he seems far more concerned with fighting PR battles on Twitter than with actually making America … well, you know.)

What we are seeing now on a national level, and in far too many other countries in the grip of screw-the-poor “austerity measures,” is all too familiar to many of us on a smaller scale. Just looking at public schooling over the past twenty-five years, forcing parents to “pay to play” if their children wanted to take part in sports was bad enough, but nowadays it’s all too common to see pleas online, from teachers and parents alike, for people to send money just so schoolrooms can have the most basic of supplies, like paper and chalk. Just like “pay to play” sports, forcing parents to pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, when these things have always been paid for by the schools before, could soon become the new normal, all while charter schools receive far better funding deals than public schools because of the venal politicians who make those deals. It’s not that the money isn’t there; it’s that it’s going to people who already have more money than they know what to do with.

One of the books I’ve recommended more than any other these past few years is Russell Brand’s Revolution, in which Brand argues that we all need to turn away from the government (in the UK, US and elsewhere) and solve our own problems. I have a very conflicted view of this, though, because while it’s true that too many of our problems need immediate solutions that we can’t wait on the government for, there is a danger of this kind of behaviour further legitimizing the idea that the government shouldn’t do anything to help its citizens. More to the point, it’s not like we American citizens can start a Kickstarter to replace a failing bridge, since only the government can do anything about bridges and other critical areas of infrastructure. Brand’s approach is vital in the here-and-now, but I deeply worry about what will happen if action isn’t taken to change government for the better at the same time.

Nowhere did the confluence of human tragedy and shortsightedness become more tangible than a couple of weeks ago in London, at the site of the Grenfell Tower fire. As of this writing, there are 79 confirmed fatalities as a result of the fire, and the material that would have prevented the building from becoming such an inferno would have cost less than $6,500 to install. That’s less than $100 for each life lost in that fire, and while that fire-retardant material might not have saved every life, or even most lives, how can anyone say that $6,500 was too much of a price to pay to save even just one life?

A lot of people are saying just that, though. Not only did a particularly egregious Bloomberg piece ham-handedly dehumanize the tragedy in an attempt to extol the alleged benefits of libertarian economics, but similar sentiments continue to echo online, from pseudo-intellectual “justifications” of cruelty to neanderthalic “all regulations are bad” pablum. A large number of conservatives have spoken out against these sentiments, and credit to them for doing so, but the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower should be nothing but bone-chillingly galling to anyone with even an ounce of human compassion in their bodies.

This is where the whole right-wing “the world isn’t going to end” rhetoric falls flat on its face, because for those 79 people who perished in the Grenfell Tower fire, their world has ended. For all the occasional stories about how sites like GoFundMe.com have helped some people raise the money they needed for life-saving medical procedures, far too many people haven’t been able to raise the money they needed to save their lives, and their worlds have ended as well. For the friends and family of those who have perished, their worlds have been devastated, and many of them probably feel like their worlds have also ended. Until we can turn this around, and get the mechanisms of government working again to protect all people — because any efforts to do this strictly in the private sphere will yield marginal results at best — it’s only going to get worse, and too many of us are already on the margins of being the next to perish due to lack of funds, or basic government support, as it is.

This is why we must fight, as strongly as we can, each and every proposal to cut public services even further, and each and every argument that people “don’t really need” these vital regulations and services. As draining as these past few months have been — and don’t think for a second that they’re about to get any easier — we have to kick, and claw, and scream, with everything we have to stop  the normalization of the “crowdfunding economy.” For far too many of us, our lives, quite literally, depend on winning each and every struggle ahead.

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