I'll give one thing to the demagogues – they sure know something about basic human psychology. For those of us waterboarded by the economy, we're close to Depression desperation. It's a commonplace that depression is “anger focused inward”; and the cheap-and-easy way out, if you're too cash-strapped for the shrink or the meds, is to displace that anger outward to the nearest, easiest target.
O America, if there's anything we suck at, it's adequate self-reflection. Oh sure, we love looking at ourselves, we paragons of self-flattery on the flat screen; but thinking about ourselves (by which we mean, interrogating history) – well, that's injurious to our self-esteem. After all, we tried it a couple times: Jimmy Carter, and what the right-wing called the “politics of resentment” in the “radical left-wing” academy of the '80s and '90s. Reagan's “Morning in America,” and the Neoconservative revels after Communism's collapse, sure showed those liberal pantywaists. The power of positive thinking. Huh.
I've thought a lot about the acolytes of that cipher, George W. Bush, as the last decade broke and darkened. And I thought of my father, who, as I was growing up, could do almost anything but admit he was wrong. I thought about hard-line Communists in the Politburo, as the Soviet Union dissolved: what happens when everything you've believed in is a lie?
When the economy collapses and your phallus is your finances, you're getting kicked in the nuts. Pretty humiliating.
So you can actually feel really embarrassed, humiliated and ashamed – and pledge to reform, and actually reform – but that involves a lot of thinking, and gee, there's so much to think about already. On the other hand, you can get angry. Throw that anger away from yourself, as far as you possibly can: to the Other: socialists, terrorists, illegal immigrants, and the mythical chimaera of all three, the President of the United States of America.
In Britain, August is “the silly season”; in America, we scapegoat. It's a necessary action, according to the Old Testament – all the sins of the Israelites, placed upon a goat's head, which is then thrown off a cliff or banished to the wilderness. It's the prerequisite to Atonement, which Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck pantomimed before the giant of Lincoln, in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Only then, after the scapegoat is cast out, and the ceremony of Atonement is complete, can you re-establish the Covenant, and be written into the Book of Life again, as the new Republican Pledge attempts.
Tragedy is the goat's song.
I'm theorizing here, with no more or less credence than the Beck himself. (Heck,he made bank off his conspiracy theories; why can't I?) I'm only trying to dig into the deep substrata of our national mythologies, attempting to discover any rationale for America's persistent avoidance of self-knowledge: that we were taken for fools. Every day, we are confronted by our own financially fatal gullibility and the deceit of our neighbors. The litany is so omnipresent, so perpetual, that we are apt to plug our fingers in our ears and shout “LA LA LA!” In the last month alone, I'm appalled to read about Nevin Shapiro, who pled guilty to defrauding investors across America of $880 million; George L. Theodule, “man of God,” who stole at least $4 million (and as much as $23 million) from his Haitian-American church congregation; Marcia Sladish, a Giants Stadium ticket collector, who collected $15 million from a Reverend Sun-Myung Moon-afilliated church congregation and is now serving 70 months in prison; the trio of miscreants who, until recently, ran North Providence, R.I., blackmailing and cajoling bribes out of anyone who wanted to do a bit of honest business; and the entire city council of Bell, California, which ran their poverty-stricken town like malevolent lords over a provincial fiefdom.
It's pretty much the same story across the board, from John Farahi in southern California to Scott Rothstein in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale: be charismatic and charming, promise the world to your fellow believers, take their money, buy some hot cars and chic restaurants and maybe a mansion or three. Beat the Johnsons. Repeat as necessary until you're in the dock, blubbering for leniency, very LiLo-like.
And it's easy to get angry.
It's easy to be misanthropic.
It's tempting to look for easy answers.
But the fact is, many of the fraudsters who've downed our economy are being exposed due to the diligence of the Obama administration, and quite perversely, we don't like it.
As far back as 2004, the FBI was complaining that mortgage fraud was a major threat to the American economy. The Bush administration had shifted the vast majority of the FBI's manpower toward counterterrorism efforts (a fact often emphasized in The Wire), leaving the agency unable to respond to financial crimes. Each year, the FBI petitioned the Bush administration for more agents; each year, the requests were denied.
Under the Obama administration, the FBI radically stepped up investigations and prosecutions of financial fraud, according to last Wednesday's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. For a mere three-and-a-half months, the FBI's been engaged in a sweep called Operation Stolen Dreams, arresting 525 people allegedly responsible for more than $3 billion in losses. And, if you read the report, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
We, the people, are furious (according to the mainstream media); we decry “porkbarreling” and “sweetheart deals” in Congress; we are terrified that the economy will not “recover” to its “previous level.” The fact is, the economy was never at its “previous level.” Scuppered by our own self-aggrandizement (which we euphemize as “self-esteem”) we have defrauded ourselves to believe that we are worth much more than we are. Often, we've deluded ourselves and others. Some of us have done so to a degree that is criminal. And those that have done so are guilty, and ashamed, and in denial, and are angry at themselves, and may well take shelter under the right wing of the tea partiers, who repent for us all, and champion the unbounded freedom to hoodwink us to our national ruin.
After all, one must protect one's own interests. That's the American way.