December 1, 2003
The silly season encompasses the time of the year when America celebrates its endless bounties and unremitting self-declared universal goodness by flooding the Malls in an orgy of bargain-hunting consumerism and cherry-telling stories of charitable generosity and other fairy tales about freedom-loving people. It's the quintessential representation of the American Dream. The silly season traditionally begins with the Thanksgiving festivities (though in the past 20 years it has increasingly started as early as the first Monday of September, known in the U.S. as Labor Day and the end of summer). It matters little that Thanksgiving finds its origin in the self-condescending salute to the civilizing mission of a bunch of drunkards, known as Pilgrims, and is rooted in the genocide of Native Americans and the historical beginning of the African slave trade. It matters naught that the very first official Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1637 by John Winthrop -- "This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots." -- after massacring some 700 Indian Pequots in what is today idyllic Mystic, Connecticut, and selling the few surviving women and children into slavery in the West Indies (see, "The End of American Thanksgivings: A Cause for Universal Rejoicing," by Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, The Black Commentator, November 27, 2003, issue 66). History books have long erased all references to uncomfortable realities and America, an ever forward-looking nation, has no patience or inclination to be encumbered by trivial details of its own past. The past is not simply forgotten though; it has been molded and remolded according to a narrative that suits the makers and shakers of this great experiment.
It's a narrative that combines the teary tales of the downtrodden who keep hope alive and know they can turn their bad luck around, thanks to a helping charitable hand and by working hard, the reminder of how ever so generous the American people are, in particular the wealthy, and the subliminal message that one should count one's blessings for there are many wretched lives out there -- and it can happen to anyone; thus all the best reasons to be thankful and to celebrate by visiting our favorite stores the next morning. Year in and year out the waltzing dance is played out and wholeheartedly suckered.
Take the New York Times Neediest Case Fund that, as a politically correct institution, supports seven charities of both religious (catholic, Jewish and Protestant; but not Muslim as yet) and secular charities. The paper of record lists dollar amounts it has received to date, compares them to last year's amounts and records the daily receipts. It then proceeds to provide one uplifting story after another during, and only during the entire silly season. Here is Alberta Lee and her great-nephew Markee Truesdale who do not have a place to eat. Mrs. Lee's only income is Social Security and $68 every two weeks in public assistance for her nephew. Thanks to the intervention of a caseworker for one of the Times (NYT) supported charities, the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, Mrs. Lee received $435 to buy a table that was delivered just in time for the turkey ritual, which she hopes "will be as sturdy and durable as that table" (see, NYT, Nov. 27, 2003, "Looking Forward to a Healing Tradition," A29). Thomas Crater, Jr., a publisher of a small community paper for 16 years, ran out of luck when his main advertiser, ATT Wireless, pulled the plug in December 2002. He folded the paper and out of work began collecting cans and bottles to remain independent. Soon he was receiving eviction notices and had anxiety attacks. Here again, thanks to the Community Service Society of America, another NYT supported charity, Mr. Crater received $2,199.85 to pay his back rent, $379.13 for his utilities and phone bills and $324 for food and transportation to look for work. But, in spite of a temporary job, Mr. Crater fell behind in his rent again. As the article reports, "Now his dreams, once realized, are again only dreams. But they are dreams he is not ready to give up. . . . He is looking for work." For his part Mr. Crater said, "You want to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" (see, NYT, Nov. 24, 2003, "Some Help Picking Up Pieces Of a Life That Just crumbled," A21).
Of course, you'll never hear of Mrs. Lee, Mr. Crater and all the other stories again. It's a finely tuned refrain sung by the print and TV media every year for a couple of months. We, as a society, through the invisible hand of private donations take care of our poor. That the same private hands pulled the plugs on Mr. Crater's livelihood just about a year ago, during the same "generous" season, can only be seen as a coincidental irony, one would suppose. But this fact won't register due to the sheer repetitiveness of the feel-good message...
People, indeed, do their part during the silly season. The non-profit sector of the economy, a big business in the U.S., particularly churches (which receive the bulk of small individual donations), raises 90 percent of its funds during the silly season. Many, fully aware that this system does not work, still give either out of guilt or empathy, the same way one will hold a dollar out the car window to a street beggar, making sure to avoid eye contact... The other evening, we gave $10 to a middle-aged woman soliciting for a local shelter and drug rehabilitation center. She'd gone through the program and it worked, she assured us. What will be the result of our $10, or 1,000 times $10 for that matter, compared to the tens of billions spent on the war on drugs and the prison system, becomes irrelevant. How can one say no on the eve of Thanksgiving?
It's also a time when the generosity of wealthy benefactors is heralded. Bill Gates, George Soros and other modern day Robber Barons give hundreds of tax-deductible millions to their favorite charities. They are hailed as enlightened human beings, good Samaritans and visionary philanthropists (see my 1996 piece, "Generosity: Carol or Bountiful Fable"), notwithstanding the fact that they overwhelmingly contribute to their own alma maters -- thus perpetuating a self-serving system -- and museums or other pet projects of their own choice. Do you recall Ted Turner's 1996 prodigious donation to the UN, an act deemed "extraordinarily generous" by then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright? Remember, he gave away a billion dollars worth of his Time Warner stock (about one third of his net worth) over a ten-year period (see my 1997 piece, "The Limits of Generosity"). Never heard of it again? It figures. In fact, Mr. Turner never gave one billion dollars. He gave stock valued at $1 billion; and his tax attorneys made darn sure that the donation would fluctuate according to the value of the stock, only one way -- down. If the value of the stock went up, the donation didn't go up. If the value went down, then so did the donation. What do you think the stock value did?
This is not just a shameful and broken system. It's a sham; a rotten system that takes advantage of people's inherent decency to perpetuate ever-increasing inequalities and mounting poverty in the U.S. and all over the world.
The last figures about income disparities in the U.S. that we reviewed (see my 1999 three-part series, "Let'em Eat Cake") clearly show that sixty percent of the American people are worse off than they were in the mid seventies while working longer hours and receiving much less benefits.
As federal and state social services are being literally gutted -- a trend that began in earnest under the Reagan administration and has yet to abate -- private donations, which are also down due to the economy, cannot pick up the tab. They never could, never will, never should...
Worldwide, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, "nearly 850 million people go to bed hungry every night. . . . [and] the number of undernourished people is climbing by 5 million a year." As the agency warns, "the UN goal of halving world hunger by 2015 is looking increasingly remote" (see, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3236364.stm).
Whichever indicator you look at (with the lonely exception of the concentration of wealth within tinier and tinier segments of the human comity), from environmental degradation to violent conflicts, or from civil liberties to humanity's welfare (food, water, health, education, dwelling) and the centuries-long widening gap between poor and rich countries, the trends are clear and worsening over time.
But, unwilling or unable to come to grasp with, and find a workable alternative to the neo-liberal ideology based on private property rights and profits, we are left with repeating the same patterns -- one of which being the silly season. We'll give a little, pray a little, enjoy a bird in the company of our close ones, then stuff ourselves with earthly goodies and max-out our credit cards in the temples of consumerism.
We'll even dispatch our folksy Turkey in Chief to Baghdad, his fluffed feathers shrouded in secrecy, to share a 6:00 am bird with our best and finest, deliver a cooked message of eternal optimism and harvest a bundle of photo-ops for his coming 2004 campaign.
This narrative, mixed with sporting events and yesteryear's movies, undoubtedly generates feel-good moments that have done the trick for many moons, but they are nothing more than placebos, leaving the disease utterly unattended and therefore deepening. While some will point out that we are no longer slaughtering Native Americans -- only turkeys (45 million for this past Thanksgiving alone, birds raised in the most abject conditions) and gooks or other mucky dark-skinned "enemies" in far-away lands -- a society that ignores, even obliterates its past cannot understand its present and the magnitude of its predicaments. It's a society that is condemned to rapid and chaotic decay.
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"Generosity: Carol or Bountiful Fable" - Gilles d'Aymery (Dec. 1996)
"The Limits of Generosity" - Gilles d'Aymery (Sept. 1997)
"Let'em Eat Cake" - Gilles d'Aymery (Oct. 1999)
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.
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