Memorial Day musings: Americans, politicians, and the great species divide
Virek must have seen it too; he screamed, and Baron Samedi, Lord of Graveyards, the loa whose kingdom was death, leaned in across Barcelona like a cold dark rain.
– William Gibson, Count Zero
I miss Hunter Thompson. Always, but especially on days like today, where I’m contemplating what the Democratic leadership has done to the sense of relief I felt just a few short months ago when they retook control of Congress by promising to end the occupation of Iraq.
I think that today, as we enter Memorial Day Weekend bent on creating more memorials in Arlington National Cemetery, an argument I’ve been making for some time is more apt than ever. To wit, there’s a divide in America, but it’s not the Left/Right, Blue/Red, Metro/Retro, Conservative/Librul lie that way too many of us have been suckered into believing. Nope, the real divide is Have/Have Not, Top/Bottom, Rich/Poor. Or, as Pachacutec from Firedoglake has put it, Money vs. People. There are a number of ways of looking at the construction of the American political landscape, and the model he spelled out last November is one that’s useful to consider: DC/K Street Elites, Grassroots Theocrats, and Grassroots Progressives.
Thompson didn’t seek to cultivate anything like a scholarly demography, but he clearly got the elites vs. people divide. Here’s part of what I wrote for Editor & Publisher when Hunter died:
Although I never heard him say it in these words, Hunter S. Thompson I think understood the artificial Red/Blue, Conservative/Liberal divide that most Americans seem to have bought into for the cynical construction that it is â€“ a rhetorical fluff job that turns Americans with common cause against each other and that serves the power elites in both parties to the detriment of the public they take turns fleecing.There was a divide, in Thompsonâ€™s world â€“ no doubt about that â€“ but it wasnâ€™t Left/Right, it was Top/Bottom. He was a working man born in the borderlands of the rapidly (and sometimes violently) evolving mid-century South, and his reporting reflects an unfailing empathy for those who spent most of their lives scrambling for a foothold on the lower rungs of the political and economic ladder. The rich and powerful were usually cast as evil, soulless swine, and his sense of social and moral justice provided countless column inches to individuals and groups whoâ€™d been ignored or silenced by a society that cared way more about money than justice.
In short, Hunter Thompson was a champion of the common people. Yes, his reporting was so crazed at times that you couldnâ€™t be sure if you were reading an eyewitness account or a drug-addled hallucination. But he remained to the end one of the most unswervingly ethical reporters of our generation, a man whose commitment to social justice and the public good trumped everything. (E&P text here, full-length blog rant here.)
The gap is worsening, and dramatically. In June of 2005 I wrote a little piece that looked at “Haves, have-nots, and the looming hyper-gap.” In it I noted some dire statistics that show how the people and the money are growing apart. Further, I explored the question that Fitzgerald and Hemingway used to kick around about whether the rich are or are not like us, and pointed to Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, whose Virek and Tessier-Ashpool characters seem say “never mind whether they’re like us – are they even human anymore?”
There’s much to be learned from good science fiction, especially when that sf is primarily concerned with the socio-economic instead of the purely technical, and cyberpunks like Gibson and Bruce Sterling are writing so close to the cultural bone that it grows difficult at times to see how what they’re writing is even fiction, let alone science fiction. And it’s always valuable to remember that sf is never really about the future.So what about the very rich? Well, people born billionaires tend to be fundamentally different from people like us. I mean, look at Paris Hilton. If you pay close enough attention, you begin to see that it’s not just the bottomless checking account, the jet-setting, etc. And while she’s dumb as a stick, it’s not regular dumb. It’s a refined, rarefied sort of stupidity that derives from the very character of her culture. She doesn’t know certain things because an animal of her species has no need of them. She has as much practical need of how to function in the world I live in as a gopher does of how to backstroke in the canals on Mars.
For a generation or so, these differences probably fall mostly in the nurture category, but once you in-breed the hyper-rich for a few generations, you wind up with something that’s genertically different. At some point we begin talking about a new species, don’t we?
What qualities distinguish homo sapiens from homo hiltonius, aside from the obvious? Well, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick marked empathy as the quality that made us innately human. You could program androids to fake certain kinds of empathic response, but in the end they lacked the essential capability to identify with other humans, to share emotional bonds of pain and joy, etc. Dick wasn’t talking about the rich, but it may be worth noting that the only very rich character in the story is Elson Rosen, the President of the corporation that manufactures the androids – hmmmm….
So is American society evolving a new breed of ubersapiens, a hyper-rich class of overlords whose wealth is more than simply beyond reach for a Regular Joe – it constitutes a difference of type so dramatic that even if you found yourself with that many zeroes to the left of the decimal in your bank statement, you’d still be inherently incapable of relating to others in your tax bracket? Maybe there’s value in examining the empathy we see in our business and political leaders and other assorted power elites. Ask yourself not just to what degree you think these people empathize with you, but to what degree they are spiritually, emotionally, and morally capable of doing so.
Somehow or another these things all fit together, and my apologies if the dots aren’t connected as well as they should be.
But as we enter Memorial Day Weekend, where we celebrate the sacrifice of those who have died in service to the country, I can’t help posing a question to our new Democratic misleadership: what species are you?