The End of One Maddening Era; The Beginning of Another

By Martha Quillen

Americans are mad. (or at least they talk about politics as if they’re mad). But what are they mad about? The recession? Foreclosures? Taxes? Bail-outs? The deficit? All of the above? Or none?

Are we mad because pols and pundits deliberately fuel our fear and rage to further their own narrow interests? Or is it because we believe in anger – as an inspiration, a tool, a catalyst, and an incentive?

In the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others at a political event in Arizona, the national media turned its attention to whether political rhetoric had grown too volatile.

Last year I definitely would have thought so, but now I’m not so sure. Being a Democrat, I’d always thought that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck went too far with their spurious speculation and unverified suppositions. But I seldom noticed that almost everyone seems intent on infuriating us – until after the President’s State of the Union address.

While the President was delivering his speech, Ed and I were at the Salida SteamPlant Theater listening to T.R. Reid, author of The Healing of America and the Frontline program Sick Around The World.

Reid spoke for the benefit of the Chaffee County People’s Clinic, which serves underinsured and uninsured residents in our region, including Ed, who (given our budget, his type II diabetes, and the exorbitant cost of private insurance for people our age) is pretty much uninsurable – at least by us.

Reid is an advocate for establishing a national health care system that serves all Americans. And so am I, because I don’t understand how aging, self-employed Americans can routinely shell out ten to twenty thousand dollars a year on health insurance premiums alone (and that’s with five to ten thousand dollar deductibles).

In fact, I find it hard to imagine how Americans of ordinary means without employee-subsidized insurance can keep up with health insurance payments and still afford any actual care. Yet I doubt that the U.S. will ever have universal coverage – despite promises by Clinton, Obama, McCain, Mitt Romney, and even Governor Ritter.

After the President’s address, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan insisted that the recent health care bill must be repealed, as did Michele Bachmann, and in subsequent weeks more and more Republicans joined the repeal chorus.

Maybe that’s why Americans are mad – because they can’t imagine how congress or the President can ever accomplish anything.

Or maybe not.

The night after the President’s address, Paul Clemens, the author of Punching Out, a book about the disassembly of an automotive plant in Detroit, talked on the Tavis Smiley Show. Clemens described how sad dismantling that plant had been for the workers, and Smiley suggested that what Clemens really meant was “mad,” not sad.

Clemens explained that the factory had been closed for a long time, so the workers overall feeling was one of sadness rather than anger.

Whereupon Smiley insisted, “But I’d be mad. Why weren’t they mad?”

Earlier that night, Ed Schultz of MSNBC’s Ed Show complained that Obama totally missed the boat with his address because he didn’t talk about the outsourcing of jobs to overseas factories. Schultz claimed that Obama didn’t grasp the significance of outsourcing.

Locally I know a lot of people who think that Obama is too conciliatory, including my husband Ed, who frequently insists that the President should get madder and talk tougher. And I agree, but only because it might make us feel better if the President expressed more of the anger and frustration that we feel.

But can anger actually bring back the more than 2.5 million American manufacturing jobs that the AFL-CIO website says we’ve lost since 2001? Or is it too late? After all, downsizing and outsourcing have been big news for two decades now. Workers have left the big manufacturing cities; the stores have shut; homes have crumbled. Factories have been dismantled, and workers have been retrained.

Besides, anger probably can’t fix what I suspect is at the core of our current situation: America is no longer the world’s industrial powerhouse. Once upon a time, the U.S. supplanted England, France and Germany as the world’s greatest industrial power, but now our manufacturing prowess is in decline.

Why? Because manufacturing is dirty, befouling air, soil and water. And it requires cheap labor. And we no longer really want it – even though we usually claim we do. But the people of Crested Butte don’t want a molybdenum mine. The families on the Baca don’t want drilling rigs in their backyards. The home owners on Poncha Pass don’t want a mine clouding their scenic views. The Valley isn’t sold on solar collectors. Creede doesn’t want a tourist train, and most places despise gravel pits.

Every year, it gets harder to manufacture anything new in the U.S. and we blame congress, Democrats, and environmentalists. But the real reason is us – all of us.

Americans have changed. We are no longer the humble, lower middle class nation we once were. Americans work hard (putting in more hours on average than citizens in any other first-world nation), but we are no longer willing to sacrifice our health and safety for the benefit of our employers or the state.

We don’t want to put up with oil spills in our gulf, pesticides in our food, toxins in our drinking water, or plastics and fertilizers destroying our estuaries. And we expect to be richly reimbursed if DDT, asbestos, uranium, coal dust, or industrial chemicals contaminate our air, water or basements.

Whether we like it or not, workers in India and China are still willing to tolerate adverse conditions. That’s good for those countries, I guess, but sad, too. Clearly we have an obligation to make sure that the goods we consume are not manufactured irresponsibly and at great human cost. But the costs American workers are willing to accept no longer include accidental deaths, dismemberments, industrial diseases, or toxic spills.

We will, of course, continue to meet most of our own food, power and energy needs, but it’s doubtful that Americans will ever manufacture a lot of cheap items for export again.

So why are we angry?

Probably because we’ve become a global leader, a banking nation, a peddler of ideas and information rather than goods, a major military supplier, and a lot of other things Americans never particularly wanted to be.

Now, we’re not sure where we’re going or what we’ll be doing in the future. So we’re fighting, furiously, to be what we once were, and to recapture the manufacturing jobs we’ve lost, the family farms we loved, and the traditions we remember.

But that’s a platform no politician is going to deliver on.

Although we may not have been ready to move on, we have moved on. Whether we find new directions or fight them, we will never be the same.

When the old colonial plantation system became unsustainable, American Southerners found themselves incapable of competing in a world transformed by an industrial revolution. Rather than exploring new directions, Southerners tried to preserve their way of life by insisting that half of all new states embrace slavery, that abolitionist sentiments be quelled, and that Northerners fulfill their legal obligations to find and return escaped slaves.

To this day, Southerners blame Yankees for their fate, but their real problem was that the South’s economy no longer worked. Mining, milling, manufacturing, meat packing, and shipping, coupled with economic diversity and expanding opportunities provided more profits than farming, which made slavery a liability, because you can’t trust desperate, uneducated workers with complicated equipment, or money, or explosives.

The South destroyed itself by looking backwards, and maybe that’s what we’ll do, too. But it sure makes me feel better to realize that our fighting may be due to a huge, profound, nerve-wracking transition, rather than to crass manipulation by a bunch of scurvy politicians, pundits, bankers, and corporate flacks who are intent on furthering their own agendas.


Martha Quillen is filling in for Ed, who’s busy building a computer. Barring technical difficulties, he’ll be back in Colorado Central next month and the next.