Convenience Over Life

Jimmy Carter warned that the country needed to get off of fossil fuels over 4 decades ago.  Needless to say we did not listen. Or perhaps we listened and did not like what we heard because Carter was given the boot for Ronald the Baptist, who would unknowingly, but certainly, pave the way for Donald Christ.  Unfortunately, this is emblematic of modern American politics: a lethal combination of short term selfishness and long term stupidity.  And I should be clear, this is not a “both sides” argument.  I simply say “modern politics” because the reality is that the American Republican party controls our politics, not as a majority representing the will of the people, but more like the way stage 4 Lung Cancer controls the life of a longtime smoker.  And given that enough Americans seem to want to continue metaphorically smoking rather than seeking moral and political chemotherapy, we may really be in the end phase of America’s “greatness,” however you might define that.  I think that even goodness may be too high a calling for America.

Of course, while acknowledging the obvious asymmetry in what causes our political paralysis and cynicism,  this does not mean the Left is absolved.  “Do Something!” they shout and tweet after a mass shooting, but do they yell at their neighbors to “do something!” on Election Day?  Do they themselves vote and participate in the boring parts that make democracy work, or do they rely on cynicism on those days, staying home to tweet dissatisfaction?  “We must solve homelessness!” but do they support higher taxes or shelters and/or affordable housing near their properties?  “We need criminal justice reform!” but do they balk at long term policing and prosecutorial changes the first instance some crime ticks up from record lows (I added this one after the San Francisco DA was recalled)?

The problem is that even though the Right is far more responsible for the denigration of Democracy & the dysfunction of D.C., the whole country appears afflicted to some degree.

A couple of weeks ago I was driving (OK – being driven) from Philadelphia, PA to Sellersville, PA for a show. As we increased our distance from the city to the suburbs and towns I noticed, like hundreds of trips I have taken around the country, that the houses got bigger and nicer.  Without any data or even knowing the economic or political information about the specific towns I went through in Pennsylvania I can say with certainty that I have been to dozens of affordable towns over the years with houses and properties that would be 5x as expensive or more if located closer to cities (or even strip malls).  But this appears to be America’s promise – if you are willing to drive a long way, American Dream – classic edition is still within reach for more people than it should be.

Living in cities costs more and comes with benefits, but those benefits are often paid for and are ecologically more sustainable.  These places are often vilified by the Right, but Blue cities and states clearly contribute more to the national economy and less to national gun deaths (per capita).  To quote Col. Jessup, “I would rather you say thank you and be on your way.”  As I listen to the stories about gas prices hurting Americans I have to wonder: did people never think the bill would come due?  Instead of treating this as the 20th foreshadowing of the ecological and economic catastrophe of climate change, it is treated as an inconvenience or a deprivation of the fundamental right to cheap gas and a larger carbon foot print as long as you are willing to drive an hour or two a day to get to your American dream (which, of course, compounds the problems).

I think the aforementioned guns are another good example of this at work.  Some states pass laws to protect their citizens from gun violence, but they are only as strong as the porous gun laws in neighboring states.  But once again, the freedoms of the (majority) conservative spaces in this country are sacrosanct and the rights to clean air, life and a future for the actual majority seem to be allowed only as far as they are compatible with the immediate whims and desires of “Real Americans,” who love their country more than anyone, but often seem to live in spaces with… fewer Americans.

The American Dream has become an environmental, economic and emotional Ponzi scheme.  Except if you point out the problem early (Jimmy Carter) you will get voted out and if you preside over the consequences (Joe Biden) your approval ratings will plummet.  How can anything actually get done when enough of the voting public will punish you for trying to solve a problem or blame you before you can fix it?  The Right often acts like food stamps and other forms of assistance create a dependency that will ruin the country and the communities that are (perceived to be) the beneficiaries of those benefits.   Yet somehow, many Americans need never make the choice between more expensive housing or higher gas prices, because living cheaply is the right of “real Americans.”  This is not a sustainable model for a country or a future.  No one would accept a politician saying “If you wanted cheaper gas bills at the pump, maybe you should have worked harder so you could live closer to your job or the city!”  And yet, it has always been a viable political argument to so many in this country to decry poverty as more of a life choice than middle class comforts as the choices that they actually are.

We will not limit guns, even if to save the lives of some children. Gun control cannot stop all shootings. But is it not worth stopping some shootings?  Is unlimited cheap gas some inalienable right or something we should have moved beyond decades ago?  Is shoplifting and homelessness the fault of progressive DA’s in the first 2 years of their tenure, or symptoms of problems going back decades?

Covid, as I feared, proved the depth of our concern with the individual over the greater good.  If we are bombing brown people we must be united as a nation, but to save life, the personal burden of wearing a mask or getting a vaccine was too intrusive for many.  How can we expect people to become more selfless when we couldn’t stop being selfish as a million Americans died?  How can we expect to save the planet for our grandkids when we couldn’t wear a mask to save our grandparents?

To end on a truly depressing note (before I read the article in today’s New York Times about the “environmental nuclear bomb” in red Utah), I was waiting for a train in New York’s Penn Station a couple of afternoons ago and a homeless man, who clearly had intellectual disabilities, was asking for money.  He had cigarette burns in his sweatshirt. He seemed genuinely harmless as he walked from person to person saying “excuse me, do you have change?”  Sadly I did not have money on me.  I thought to myself, how are we a society where a man to exist like this?  How much would it be worth to make sure he has a roof over his head, clothing that does not look ravaged from both nature and humans, and safety from a world that I can only imagine has been unimaginably cruel to him?  How much would the pro-life Right and the progressive Left be willing to add on to their gas bill or gun permit fee?  Sadly, I think the answer is $0 and that seems appropriate for a country headed quickly toward moral bankruptcy.