The Tarnish and Tumult of America.
Drivers out on the road seem to be just a little more impatient and aggressive than usual. Strangers rarely greet each other on the street in their own neighborhoods, let alone in unfamiliar areas. AM radio is filled with hate-spewed, polemical rants. Immigration is a huge point of national contention again. I have seen surprising incidences of anger in places I never would have expected them. Two weeks ago at one of my regular drawing groups, I had to defuse an impending fight between two men over the age of sixty. One of the men suffers from heart ailments, is on blood pressure medication, and has a pacemaker. The conflict started when one of the parties set up his easel six inches in front of the other, completely blocking the view of the model. The usurper had a complete lack of concern regarding the person whose view he had blocked. For some reason a lot of people just don't believe they are under any obligation to consider the plight of others.
This past weekend an unnamed family member threw a full-blown meltdown at a 4-year old's birthday party. The argument started over the relative merits of FOX News and NPR. The person in question increasingly raised his voice to a boom, decrying the "liberal propaganda of National Public Radio". As the stunned onlookers tried to quell his rage, he left (without his wife). Regardless of my opinion regarding the legitimacy of those news sources, I would never have expected the outcome of the interchange (believe it or not, I had held my tongue the entire time- I could see it getting sour quickly and knew that I could only exacerbate the tension).
I guess I could point to a lot of reasons why there is so much animosity leaking out these days. Of course we are mired in a war without any clear objectives and with an indeterminate end. There has been increasing political polarization in the nation for (at least) the past six years. And there is an increasing gap in wealth and outlook between the economic and social classes.
That last point is particularly salient. Since the beginning of the Bush administration, a process of social stratification has been continuing without any substantial counterbalance. This certainly didn't begin in 2001, but it has become more and more evident to a growing audience. Part of that has to do with the type of people that are fighting in Iraq. Another component has to do with the shifting of the tax burden away from the wealthiest of Americans. And some of it is no doubt caused by the continuingly disastrous results of GOP policies.
This is all very timely for me because I have been presenting information on the Gilded Age (late 19th century America). Economist Paul Krugman also sees a connection between the current state of the nation and that bygone era. This period was characterized by the absence of any meaningful government regulation of business and industry, the reliance on private charity rather than government-funded social programs, minimal taxation (in 1894, the Supreme Court actually declared the Federal Income Tax unconstitional), anti-immigrant sentiment, and class resentment. Does any of that sound familiar? Welcome to the Twenty-first Century! Predictably many of the rabidly rightwing men who run our government today are nostalgic for the Gilded Age, consider it the apex of the US civilization, and earnestly await the return of its conditions.
The biggest difference between the late 19th century and today is trajectory. Back then our young nation was developing into a major economic power. Today we are merely trying to hold on to some last vestige of superpower. Several foreign currencies have overtaken the US dollar, and we are no longer assured of world hegemony. That seems to be having an effect on the psyche of the nation's citizenry. The American people have lost their unshakable confidence, and many of them are looking around at each other and outside the country, trying to figure out whom to blame.