The ‘American Way of Life’ Is Shaping Up to Be a Battleground

There are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line.

Chris Christie, a Trump supporter and a former New Jersey governor, pleaded with Americans on May 5 to risk disease and death by returning to work. “Everybody wants to save every life they can,” he said, but “we’ve got to let some of these folks get back to work.” Otherwise “we’re going to destroy the American way of life in these families.”

The “American way of life” is shaping up to be a battleground.

On one side is the working class. From Amazon warehouse workers to striking sanitation workers in New Orleans, there are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line. Resistance to oppression and exploitation is a familiar experience for millions of workers in this country. And when workers have not found justice or relief in mainstream politics, they have turned to more combative ways of mobilizing to secure it.

On the other side is the Republican Party, led by the Trump administration, which has accelerated its call for states to “reopen” the economy by sending people back to work. While President Trump admits that some people will “be affected badly,” nonetheless “we have to get our country open.”

Public health experts disagree. Instead, they argue that testing rates must “double or triple” and that we need a more intense regime of “contact tracing” and isolation. This has been the established pattern in countries that managed the coronavirus with success. But without these measures, forecast models predict a sharp rise in fatalities. A conservative model that in mid-April predicted a ghastly death toll of 60,000 by August now estimates 147,000 fatalities by August. Just as the rate of infection drops in cities like New York and Detroit, new outbreaks threaten to emerge elsewhere where restrictions are being relaxed.

But if we expect tens of millions of people to stay at home for even longer, that is possible only if people have access to income, food, stable housing and reliable health care. If people cannot work, then these things will have to be provided by the federal government. It is that simple.

For Republicans, the “American way of life” as one with big government social welfare programs would be worse than the pandemic. At the core of their vision of the United States is a celebration of supposed rugged individualism and self-sufficiency where hard work is valorized and creates success. Of course, the contrapositive is also believed to be true, that when people have not been successful it is because they did not work hard enough.

Buried within this is the false notion that the U.S. is free from the hierarchies of class. Instead, Republicans and most mainstream Democrats would argue, America has fluid social mobility where a person’s fortitude determines the heights of his or her success. This powerful narrative has motivated millions to migrate to this country. But for tens of millions, this view of ‘the American way of life’ has no bearing on their lives.

Typically, the contradictions of our society are buried beneath the American flag, suffocating hubris and triumphalist claims of exceptionalism. But the pandemic has pushed all of the country’s problems to the center of American life. It has also highlighted how our political class, disproportionately wealthy and white, dithers for weeks, only to produce underwhelming “rescue” bills that, at best, do no more than barely maintain the status quo.

The median wealth of a U.S. senator was $3.2 million as of 2018, and $900,000 for a member of the House of Representatives. These elected officials voted for one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 as if that was enough to sustain workers, whose median income is $61,973 and who are now nearly two months into various mandates to shelter-in-place and not work outside their homes. As a result, a tale of two pandemics has emerged.

The crisis spotlights the vicious class divide cleaving through our society and the ways it is also permeated with racism and xenophobia. African-Americans endure disproportionate exposure to the disease, and an alarming number of videos show black people being brutalized by the police for not wearing masks or social distancing, while middle-class white people doing the same things are left in peace. In New York City, 92 percent of those arrested for violating rules regarding social distancing and 82 percent of those receiving summons for the same offense have been black or Latino.

Our society imagines itself to be impervious to the rigidities of class, but it is overwhelmed with suffering, deprivation and hunger. Food banks across the country report extraordinary demand, producing an almost shocking rebuke of the image of a country of universal abundance. According to one report, a food bank along the affluent New Jersey shore has set up a text service allowing people to discreetly pick up their food.

Elsewhere, the signs of a crisis that looks like the Great Depression are impossible to hide. In Anaheim, Calif., home to Disneyland, cars formed half-mile-long lines in two different directions, waiting to pick up free food. In San Antonio, 10,000 cars waited for hours to receive food from a food bank. Even still, Republicans balk at expanding access to food stamps while hunger is on the rise. Nearly one in five children 12 and younger don’t have enough to eat.

That “way of life” may also begin to look like mass homelessness. Through the first five days of April, 31 percent of tenants nationwide had failed to pay their rent. And while more people paid in May, continued payments seem unsustainable as millions fall into unemployment. Forty-three million households rent in the U.S., but there is no public rental assistance for residents who lose the ability to afford their rent. With only a few weeks left on many eviction moratoriums, there is a thin line between a place to shelter in and homelessness for tens of millions of Americans.

Many elected officials in the Republican Party have access to Covid-19 testing, quality health care and the ultimate cushion of wealth to protect them. Yet they suggest others take the “risk” of returning to work as an act of patriotism necessary to regenerate the economy. This is duplicitous and obscures the manipulation of U.S. workers.

While the recent stimulus bills doled out trillions of dollars to corporate America and the “financial sector,” the smallest allocations have provided cash, food, rent or health care for citizens. The gaps in the thin membrane of a safety net for ordinary Americans have made it impossible to do anything other than return to work.

This isn’t just malfeasance or incompetence. Part of the “American way of life” for at least some of these elected officials is keeping workers just poor enough to ensure that the “essential” work force stays shows up each day. In place of decent wages, hazard pay, robust distribution of personal protective equipment and the simplest guarantees of health and safety, these lawmakers use the threat of starvation and homelessness to keep the work force intact.

In the case of the meatpacking industry, there is not even a veil of choice, as those jobs are inexplicably labeled essential, as if life cannot go on without meat consumption. The largely immigrant and black meatpacking work force has been treated barely better than the carcasses they process. They are completely expendable. Thousands have tested positive, but the plants chug along, while employers offer the bare minimum by way of safety protectionsaccording to workers. If there were any question about the conditions endured in meatpacking plants, consider that 145 meat inspectors have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and three have died.

The statements of the two senators from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, vociferously opposing the extension of $600 supplemental payments to unemployment insurance, offer another stark example of how workers are being compelled to return to unsafe work environments. Mr. Scott referred to the supplement as a “perverse incentive” to not work. He and Mr. Graham argued that the payments were more than some workers’ salaries, which is an indictment of the jobs and the companies, not the employees.

This is not the first time Southern politicians have complained that government aid to poor or working-class people would undermine their perverse reliance on low-wage labor. During the Great Depression, Southern leaders opposed new systems of social welfare over fear it would undermine “the civilization to which we are accustomed,” as a newspaper in Charleston, S.C., described it. The crude version came from an official in Alabama who insisted that welfare payments to African-Americans should be lower because, “Negroes just don’t want to work.” The logic was that if you could pay black men a nickel then white men would celebrate being paid a dime. Meanwhile, the prevailing wages elsewhere were significantly higher than both. This is why wages are still lower across the South than elsewhere in the country.

American progress means that Mr. Scott, an African-American senator from South Carolina, now voices these ideas. But then as now, complaints about social welfare are central to disciplining the labor force. Discipline in the U.S. has always included low and inconsistent unemployment and welfare combined with stark deprivation. Each has resulted in a hyper-productive work force with few benefits in comparison to America’s peer countries.

This is at the heart of the conflict over reopening the country or allowing people to continue to shelter-in-place to suppress the virus. But if the social distancing and closures were ever going to be successful, it would have meant providing all workers with the means to live in comfort at home while they waited out the disease. Instead, they have been offered the choice of hunger and homelessness or death and disease at work.

The governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, made this painfully clear when she announced that not only was Iowa reopening, but that furloughed workers in private or public employment who refused to work out of fear of being infected would lose current unemployment benefits. She described these workers’ choices as a “voluntary quit.”

The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services is also instructing employers to report workers who refuse to go to work because of the pandemic. Part of what’s going on is the crush of people filing for benefits means state funds are shrinking. This is exacerbated by the reluctance of the Trump administration to bail out state governments. That the U.S. government would funnel trillions to corporate America but balk at sending money to state governments also appears to be part of “the American way of life” that resembles the financial sector bailout in 2008.

This cannot all be laid at the feet of the Trump administration, though it has undeniably made life worse for millions. These are also the bitter fruits of decades of public policies that have denigrated the need for a social safety net while gambling on growth to keep the heads of U.S. workers above water just enough to ward off any real complaints or protests.

The attacks on welfare, food stamps, public housing and all of the attendant programs that could mitigate the worst aspects of this disaster continue to be bipartisan. The loud praise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in contrast to the poor performance of President Trump, has overshadowed protests against his $400 million cuts to hospitals in New York as the virus was raging through the city.

There will be many more examples of Democrats wielding the ax in response to unprecedented budget shortages in the coming months. With the increasing scale of the crisis — as unemployment grows to an otherworldly 36.5 million people while states run out of money and contemplate cutting Medicaid and other already meager kinds of social welfare — the vast need for government assistance will test the political class’s aversion to such intervention.

During the long and uneven recovery from the Great Recession, the warped distribution of wealth led to protests and labor organizing. The crisis unfolding today is already deeper and much more catastrophic to a wider swath of workers than anything since the 1930s. The status quo is untenable.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Hope and Humility

Some of our worst inhumanities as nations, including Britain and America, have been perpetrated on foreign soil and kept at a distance, as if to hide from our own soul the sacrilege of what we are doing. . . . Something in our collective psyche has pretended that the families of another land are not as sacred as the sons and daughters of our own. . . .

.. Think of the hubris of our lives. Think of our individual arrogance, the way we pursue our own well-being at the neglect and even expense of [others]. . . . Think of the hubris of our nationhood, pretending that we could look after the safety of our homeland by ignoring and even violating the sovereignty of other lands.

.. [This] is opposite to the way of Jesus, who taught the strength of humility, of being close to the humus, close to the Ground from which we and all things come. The humblest, says Jesus, are “the greatest” (Matthew 18:4). Not that following Jesus’ path of humility is straightforward. Constantly there is tension—the tension of discerning how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, how to honor the heart of another nation as we honor our own homeland, how to revere the truths of another wisdom tradition as we cherish our own inheritance, how to protect the life of other species as we guard the sanctity of our own life-form. Jesus knew such tension. He was tempted to use his wisdom and his power of presence to serve himself, to lift himself up over others. But to the tempter, he says, “Away with you, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). Away with the falseness of believing that I can love myself and demean others.

The Tragedy of James Comey

James Comey is about to be ubiquitous. His book will be published next week, and parts may leak this week. Starting Sunday, he will begin an epic publicity tour, including interviews with Stephen Colbert, David Remnick, Rachel Maddow, Mike Allen, George Stephanopoulos and “The View.”

.. Yet anybody who’s read Greek tragedy knows that strengths can turn into weaknesses when a person becomes too confident in those strengths. And that’s the key to understanding the very complex story of James Comey.

.. Long before he was a household name, Comey was a revered figure within legal circles.
.. But he was more charismatic than most bureaucrats — six feet eight inches tall, with an easy wit and refreshing informality. People loved working for him.
.. If you read his 2005 goodbye speech to the Justice Department, when he was stepping down as George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general, you can understand why. It’s funny, displaying the gifts of a storyteller. It includes an extended tribute to the department’s rank and file, like “secretaries, document clerks, custodians and support people who never get thanked enough.” He insists on “the exact same amount of human dignity and respect” for “every human being in this organization,”
.. Above all, though, the speech is a celebration of the department’s mission.
.. Many Justice Department officials, from both parties, have long believed that they should be more independent and less political than other cabinet departments. Comey was known as an evangelist of this view.
.. Comey sometimes chided young prosecutors who had never lost a case, accusing them of caring more about their win-loss record than justice. He told them they were members of the Chicken Excrement Club
.. Most famously, in 2004, he stood up to Bush and Dick Cheney over a dubious surveillance program.

But as real as Comey’s independence and integrity were, they also became part of a persona that he cultivated and relished.

.. Comey has greater strengths than most people. But for all of us, there is a fine line between strength and hubris.

Brian McLaren: What I Saw in Charlottesville

On the White Supremacists, Neo-nazis, and their allies: First, I was impressed by their organization. They showed up in organized caravans of rented white vans, pick-up trucks, and other vehicles, and then quickly lined up with flags and started marching. I don’t know what app they were using, but it worked. (After the state of emergency was declared, the organization seemed less effective, with more confusion and milling around.) Second, they were young. The majority, it seemed to me, were in their twenties and thirties, mostly men, but a few women. I was told by one protestor that many of the older leaders were retired military.

.. They looked like they came expecting to fight, threaten, and intimidate. Some came in paramilitary garb, heavily armed. They carried an assortment of flags – mostly confederate, many representing their respective organizations, with a surprising number of Nazi flags. I’m 61, and before this weekend, I’ve never seen a single Nazi flag carried proudly in the United States. This weekend I saw many.

.. Their use of torches Friday night and slogans like “blood and soil” were clearly intended to evoke the KKK and Naziism. There was a good bit of “hail Trump” chanting with Nazi gestures.

.. he unabashed racism, the seething hatred, the chest-thumping hubris, the anti-Semitism, the misogyny, the shameless desire to harm their opponents, the gushing love for Trump, Putin, and Stalin, of all people … they speak for themselves. I was struck by how often the term “balls” comes up in their posts: these seem like insecure young men who are especially eager to prove their manhood, recalling election season bragging about “hand size.”

.. I would guess around a thousand white supremacists, and I would guess that the total number of anti-racism/anti-facism protesters was equal or greater.

.. I have participated in many protests and demonstrations over the years, but I have not seen the faith community come together in such a powerful and beautiful way as they did in Charlottesville. Brittany Caine-Conley and Seth Wispelwey deserve a lot of credit, as do the Congregate C-ville team they coordinated.

.. I met UCC, Episcopal, Methodist, Unitarian, Lutheran, Baptist (Alliance), Anglican, Presbyterian, and Jewish faith leaders, and the Quakers were out in large numbers, wearing bright yellow t-shirts. I met Catholic lay people, but I didn’t meet or see any Catholic priests. Two Episcopal bishops were present, and they had encouraged priests of their diocese to be involved. Along with those of us who participated in an organized way, it was clear that many ad-hoc groups of Christians and others came to protest, some with signs, some giving out water and snacks to anti-racist protestors.

Black, white, Latino, and Asian clergy worked and stood side by side; Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others marched, prayed, and sang as allies.

.. The courage of the clergy present inspired me. In public gatherings and in private conversations before Saturday, participating clergy were warned that there was a high possibility of suffering bodily harm

.. A group of clergy (pictured below) walked arm-in-arm into the very center of the storm, so to speak, delaying entry to the park as they stood, sang, and kneeled. (Lisa Sharon Harper shares her reflections here.) This symbolic act took a great deal of courage, and many who did so were spat on, subjected to slurs and insults, and exposed to tear gas

.. I was deeply impressed with the Black Lives Matter participants. They went into the middle of the fray and stood strong and resilient against vicious attacks, insults, spitting, pepper spray, tear gas, and hurled objects. It’s deeply disgusting to see BLM be vilified on Fox News and other conservative outlets after watching them comport themselves with courage in the face of vile hatred this weekend.

.. Not all of the groups shared a commitment to nonviolent resistance in the tradition of Dr. King. I saw a few groups of protestors who, like the Nazis and white supremacists, came with hand-made shields and helmets, and I heard reports that some of these groups used pepper spray on the white supremacists, who were also using pepper spray, sticks, and fists on them.

.. In my fields of observation, they did not seem present to intervene quickly when skirmishes broke out. They seemed to stay back in the background. Perhaps this was intentional and strategic for reasons I don’t understand. Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between the hands-off way heavily armed white supremacists were treated by police in Charlotte and how unarmed African Americans in other demonstrations have been beaten and arrested around the country over the years … or how unarmed Native Americans were treated at Black Rock a few months ago. That contrast is haunting, itself an expression of white privilege.

.. The young age of many of the white supremacists and Nazis suggests two things to me: first, that young white people are being radicalized in America today, radicalized to the point of using the ISIS tactic of killing people with a car; and second, that this problem isn’t going away fast

.. Just as male mammals seek to “mark territory,” these human groups seem determined to maintain their markers of white supremacy – namely, statues and flags associated with the era and culture of slavery.

.. White supremacist and Nazi dreams of apartheid must be replaced with a better dream

.. Our Christian leaders need to face the deep roots of white Christian supremacy that go back to 1452 and the Doctrine of Discovery, and before that, to the tragic deals made by 4th Century Bishops with Emperor Constantine, and before that, to the rise of Christian antisemitism mere decades after Jesus

Chris Christie’s Tutorial in Hubris

We can scoff and sneer at those images of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on his beachfront imperium, or we can learn from them. As he took in the sun, he doled out a lesson, the same one that Donald Trump is delivering on a daily basis and in a grander fashion:

Beware the politician who doesn’t give a damn for decorum. What he markets as irreverence can be something coarser and more perverse.

.. Christie was “Trump before Trump,” Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa in an articlepublished late Monday. “He does what he wants to do, and his success can be traced to that. But there are consequences, of course, when you work that way.”

.. The twins of tantrum, Christie and Trump had almost identical political appeals. They mocked propriety. They broke rules. They assertively peddled the impression that as happy as they were to make friends, they were even happier to make enemies, because that meant that they were fully in the fight.

.. In an era of resentment and anger, many voters thrilled to the spectacle. The problem with other politicians, these voters legitimately reasoned, was too much indulgence of vested interests and too cowardly an obeisance to convention.

American Way of Life: a nation without limits: a threat?

In the 20th century, “our” side won because American industry and ingenuity produced not only superior military might but also a superior way of life based on consumption and choice—so at least Americans have been thoroughly conditioned to believe. A third assumption asserts that U.S. military power offers the most expeditious means of ensuring that universal freedom prevails—that the armed might of the United States, made manifest in the presence of airplanes, warships and fighting troops, serves as an irreplaceable facilitator or catalyst in moving history toward its foreordained destination. That the commitment of American armed might could actually backfire and make matters worse is a proposition that few authorities in Washington are willing to entertain.

..

Not coincidentally, a Pakistani tribal elder talks about the effect that US drone attacks has on his community:

“Children stopped going to school, the women have become mental health patients, in my own house my four children, my daughter has mental problems, because of drones,” he said.

And the strikes are not fulfilling their aim, he argued.

“These drone attacks do not finish terrorists. When in one house two or three children and their mother or father are targeted by drone attacks, the whole household become terrorists against America,” he argued.

.. He said that American policy towards the Middle East is emblematic of a nation that does not believe it has limits.

In this view, America keeps making these catastrophic mistakes because we believe that wanting a certain outcome is enough to make it happen. We are rich enough, powerful enough, and, in our own minds, righteous enough that it should happen.

.. But come on, can we really say with a straight face that the hedonistic culture of the post-Christian West is no threat to their way of life? That they have nothing to fear from us, other than our drones and bombs?