Are We Toast? Let the Waffling Commence
by Jim Washburn
Is America done? Despite the platitudes one hears from both the left and right—America’s best days lie ahead of us; there’s no limit to what our ingenuity can accomplish when we put our nose to the grindstone; we’re the cutest workers in the world—out here on the ground, you’ve got to ask, “What grindstone?”
Where does one even begin to address all the dysfunction, avarice, broken institutions and squandered resources at hand? How do you get any two Americans to even agree on what the problems are? What does a person do in a country that seemingly has no use for people anymore? When reason and resolve are so sorely needed, why is it that only the loudest, most hysterical voices—amplified by the megaphone of corporate money—are heard?
Every glowing future that’s been proposed has been immediately drowned.
We’ve lost our manufacturing base? No problem: We’ll be the information nation! We’ll invent our way out of our doldrums!
Sure we will. Here’s some of that information: Thanks to cuts in “discretionary spending” that Republicans are brunting through Congress, school districts across the nation are facing even deeper cuts, with cities like Chicago now planning to survive by cramming 60 kids into a classroom.
If they can even afford textbooks, what will kids be learning from them? Last year the ultra-conservatives who control the Texas Board of Education replaced the “liberal agenda”—you know, that agenda of historical fact and the oft-proved theory of evolution—with so much of their own social agenda that they might as well show Jesus roping dinosaurs on textbook covers. These clods aren’t just dragging Texas into the dark ages. Since companies try to sell the same textbooks everywhere, the dumbest common denominator often gets to pick what other states read.
Similar no-nothings in Washington have chosen to ignore scientific consensus and treat man-made climate change as a hoax. Even as recent years have brought us a barrage of climate change-caused disasters that rival the special affects of The Day After Tomorrow, Republicans have instead looked in their crystal ball and identified unions as the biggest threat to our future. They’re looking to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, and to prevent it from regulating greenhouse gases. These farsighted geniuses have also been looking to strip funding from tsunami preparedness, because what’s the chance of one of those ever happening?
You can get this grim glut of info just sitting at your computer. Surely things are better if you shake a leg and get outside for some fresh air. I went out to a post office just the other day, not the understaffed, underfunded one in my town of Costa Mesa, but one in Newport Beach. In my local one, I’ve sometimes been one of 35 people in line, and there’s two windows open. I’ve never seen more than three people in line at the Newport one, and they’ll have three windows open. They also have more free supplies on hand, because rich people love those.
Anyway, I’m walking toward the entrance, and I hear, “Hey, Jim Washburn!” I get recognized a lot, not because I’m any sort of celebrity, but because I have an Adam’s apple that precedes me. It was an older, bearded fellow, who I didn’t quite place until we started talking. I used to write a column for the LA Times, “Fixations,” about people with obsessive pursuits, and back in 1994 this guy had turned me on to friends of his who were some of my favorite article subjects ever: Mary Foster and her son Alan.
Alan had been born 22 years earlier with Down Syndrome and juvenile diabetes. Doctors advised her to have him institutionalized and not to form a bond, because he’d be dead within a year, they said.
“But when a mother looks at a new baby and she loves that baby more than anything in the world, and that baby says, 'Oh, gosh, there's that pair of arms I've been waiting for,' you know . They said, 'Don't become too attached.' Well, too late,” she told me.
With help from government programs, from good-hearted doctors and from friends—all that social fabric stuff that is so eroded now--she raised Alan on her own, and he was one of the sweetest, most creative people I’d met. He loved everybody, even the Borg on Star Trek.
The two of them would spend much of their time transforming their rented Santa Ana home into a wonderland, with each passing holiday and season reflected throughout the house in detailed, fanciful, homemade decorations. It felt magical, and it was something the two of them made, though, as Brian Wilson once sang, you need a mess of help to stand alone.
In short order, I learned outside the post office that Mary has since passed away; Alan, who was supposed to die before his first birthday, is in his 40s and in state care; and that the guy I was talking with is now homeless. I had to run, but I gave him my number and I hope he calls, because I’d like to hear how this homeless thing is working out for him.
In the early days of FourStory, I interviewed whole tent cities of homeless folks. It didn’t take long to learn that they were on the cutting edge of the budget cuts. Some had problems with drugs or drink, but others just couldn’t find work or had medical setbacks in which they’d lost everything. The safety net Americans once counted on just isn’t there anymore. It was a thin net to begin with compared to many other industrialized nations, but it made the difference between a bounce and a thud.
I haven’t talked with many of our residentially challenged brethren for a while, though my neighborhood has several. I don’t know how things are in the rest of the country, but I’m about to find out. A musician friend is about to tour from sea to shining sea (shining with millions of dead, washed-up mackerel in our case, and with flood waters in the streets in the East), and I’m going along in his Honda van as a sort of glorified roadie, except without the glorified part.
I’ll be seeing plenty of cities, from Arcata to Schenectady, and will be asking folks, “Is America done?” I’ll be posting on what I hear and see on FourStory from the road.