I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Are you angry? Are you angry about everything? Are you angry about how you haven’t had a real raise (or any raise at all) in 10 years yet the price of everything keeps going up? Are you angry because it feels like you will never pay off your student loans? Are you angry because there’s no way in hell you will ever enjoy the same standard of living as your parents did? Are you angry because you’d rather not set your kids (if you can afford to have kids) on the hamster wheels of consumerism yet you don’t want them to be ostracized by their peers for not having the latest gadgets and the “right” clothes? Are you angry because all of our public endeavors and infrastructures seem to be falling apart, with no way to fix them in sight? Are you angry that it seems like you don’t have a voice in how the world is run and yet you’re made to pay, in all sorts of ways, for its failures?
Here is something else to add to the angry list: None of these things are accidents. Our society has been carefully and consciously molded into this shape over the last 40-plus years. Noam Chomsky — MIT professor, philosopher, scientist, social critic, and un-shut-up-able activist — explains it all to you in Requiem for the American Dream. This is not a flashy, snarky, Michael Moore-style romp of an editorial (not that there’s anything wrong with that, and in fact Moore’s latest, Where to Invade Next, is a terrific companion piece to this). This is like a seminar, or a lecture, illustrated with photos and charts and graphs and archival photos and video by rabble-rousing documentarians Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign. But there is absolutely nothing in the least bit dry here: this is eye-opening, consciousness-expanding, and — ho boy yes indeedy — angry-making stuff.
You will not be able to read (or watch) the news — or look at your paycheck, your bank balance, or your tax return — in the same way after listening to Chomsky very calmly and lucidly discuss how, in fact, the basis of the US Constitution is very undemocratic because it was designed to protect the wealthy minority from the peasants majority, and that, despite fits and starts of social progress, not much has really changed in the intervening centuries. But things really got bad after the 1960s, when the Powers That Be saw the anger of women and black people and anti-war hippies, and became afraid, and engaged in a concerted backlash that endures to this day, which was and continues to be possible because concentrations of money create concentrations of power, and wealth always protects itself (ie, bank lobbyists drafting toothless banking “regulations,” and bought-off legislative bodies happily passing them into law). The authority of government and the hegemony of big business were being threatened, so they fought back by killing unions, raising taxes on working people to pay for tax cuts to corporations, sending good middle-class jobs overseas, starving public welfare programs from Social Security to free schools, and a whole lot more invidious nastiness. Which generally removed all financial security and a hope for a better future from anyone not extremely rich. And then, as a bonus kick in the teeth, they set us peasants against one another (“immigrants stole your job! feminists ruined families!”) in order to distract us from the real villains who have destroyed us.
None of this is “conspiracy theory.” It comes straight from the words of politicians on the (supposed) left as well as on the right; Google “the Powell memo” or “the Trilateral Commission report,” or just listen to Chomsky quote from them here. Still, not all of Chomsky’s perspective will be easy for some viewers to swallow. But even if you don’t believe that the dumbing down of American education, the abdication by the media of its watchdog duty, and the distractions of consumer culture have been the result of a deliberate attempt to render us all fearful yet docile, uninformed even as we are bombarded with information, and pushed into irrationality, the result is the same even if this was an accidental happenstance. If nothing else, Requiem for the American Dream should be a prompt for those concerned about the state of the world — because this isn’t just about America — to do some investigations of their own. With the recent revelations of the Panama Papers to the ongoing anti-establishment rhetoric that is driving the US presidential election, everything you will discover here couldn’t be more timely or relevant.
the “economic experiment” that went wrong
In Requiem for the American Dream, Chomsky briefly mentions that the plot against ordinary people by the superwealthy isn’t limited to the United States: it’s a problem in the UK too. (The current battle between the UK government and junior doctors over NHS funding and staffing is one of those “starve a public welfare institution” issues; an instance of trying to quash a strong union, of which a few do still remain in the UK; and yet another attempt to set working people — striking junior doctors and patients inconvenienced by their strikes — against one another.) And a new British documentary, The Divide, offers a powerful and startlingly intimate look at what financial insecurity means to seven people in the US and the UK.
Filmmaker Katharine Round, also supported by crowdfunding, posits — perhaps with a certain sly coyness — that what Chomsky calls malicious collusion between business and the governments they own to reduce the quality of life of ordinary people was, rather, an “economic experiment” that “was supposed to provide a better life for all”: that would be, specifically, the idea that making sure the rich got richer meant that the benefits would “trickle down” to everyone else. Round’s history of the problem starts in the late 1970s and early 80s, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher busting unions, and in between her interviews with the seven victims of current economic woes offers little lessons, via archival footage, on how the “experiment” continued. My favorite is how she offers, without commentary, early 2000s footage of US president George W. Bush encouraging all Americans to buy homes, because that’s part of the American dream, with a late-2000s, mid-economic-crash Bush castigating the poor people who took on more mortgage than they could manage, which they should have known better than to do.
But it’s those interviews that are the heart of The Divide. (The title refers to the gap between the wealthiest of the wealthy and everybody else, which is bigger than it ever has been before.) We meet a home-care nurse in the UK who barely sees her husband or kids, she works so much (for such paltry pay), and an American woman whose small business couldn’t compete when Walmart came to town (so now she works there): they struggle with uncertain working hours and grab whatever shifts they can, because they never know when they’ll be suddenly not needed. We meet a therapist in New York who is making good money but is terrified of not being able to keep up with his mortgage, and a stay-at-home mom in California who is ostracized by her gated community because she and her kids aren’t the “right sort” for their neighborhood. We meet a man in prison in the US whose life has been virtually ended by insane drug-sentencing laws that turn nonviolent minor offenders into hardened criminals with no hope for the future. (Requiem doesn’t mention America’s prison-industrial complex, but that’s been another stake driven into the heart of once-solid working-class communities.)
Some of these people are, of course, better off than others, but the stresses they are coping with — and sometimes only just barely — all spring from the same root: insecurity on a basic level, the one at which you can’t sleep at night for worrying about bills that have to be paid, or where you’ll find the physical and emotional strength to get through another day. The Divide is a hugely sympathetic film, but it’s not difficult to sympathize with these people: they are all of us. This is an unforgettable — and very very necessary — corrective to the wedge that has been driven between us all, and for the very specific reason of preventing us from sympathizing with one another and realizing that we have a common enemy. We have made them afraid in the past by banding together. We can do it again.