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Tucson Weekly The Coming War

Why Rich People Had Better Watch Their Backs.

By Jeff Smith

THE TREE OF freedom must be watered with the blood of patriots.

Sounds like an aphorism from some ancient sage, and so it is. I just said it, and I'm 51-and-a-half and smart. At any rate I'm clever enough to paraphrase something I read once somewhere. I believe it was one of those American Founding Fathers, like Jefferson or Madison, who was quoted, but I bet he cribbed it from someone even older, and also smart.

The point is that it's true: peaceful progress is a wonderful thing, but human nature being what it is, we tend to backslide, revert to old bad habits, and let gulfs grows between us--the rich and the poor, the white and the brown and the black and yellow and pink and fuscia, the free and the shackled--until the only option for the guy on the short end of the stick is to yank that stick from his oppressor's grasp and whip him upside the head with it.

I expect President Clinton would feign shock and dismay at such a statement, but I've lost faith in the man's candor and common sense.

Bill wants us all to have a big ol' group hug and then engage in what he calls "honest dialogue" about the troubles that beset us, and threaten to start the second American revolution. When he told AIDS victims "I feel your pain," lots of Americans thought that was real nice of him, but a few prescient souls, some with compromised immune systems and some robustly immune to bullshit, snickered.

Since then the President has taken advantage of every opportunity to empathize with every group it seemed politically advantageous with which to empathize, avoiding where possible the appearance of over-reaching empathy, and in cases where he just couldn't evoke any personal connection--the old, black, syphilitic lab victims from Tuskegee--to apologize very publicly and emotionally. You've got to admit that Bill Clinton can fake sincerity better than any president in living memory. Even Lyndon Johnson.

Especially Lyndon Johnson.

The Johnson comparison is an apt one. LBJ was universally recognized as the ultimate political power broker before he became vice president and then president. And his win-at-all-costs upbringing in Texas politics left no room for sentimentality. A redneck to his roots, Johnson nonetheless embraced equality between colors and classes as his ticket to historical heaven. Otherwise Vietnam would surely have sent him to hell. He talked a line of talk few could entirely believe, but he walked a path where action spoke louder even than his lofty-sounding words.

For a time, LBJ's Great Society, with its various wars on poverty, racism and whatnot, actually made progress. To say in the hindsight of 1997 that they were flawed and ultimately failures is less than half right. Probably the biggest inherent weakness in the whole package was tying AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the centerpiece of the period's social welfare package) to the stipulation that no employable male could be in the home. It seemed a sensible notion at the time--if Dad's at home he ought to work, and then Mom won't need a subsidy for the kids--but it had the immediate effect of driving Dad out of the house. It took a long time for even people of above-average intelligence to recognize that single-parent families are ticking time-bombs, and to realize that boys growing to men, without fathers to teach them how, wind up out of control and into drugs, crime, domestic violence.

We could have fixed the welfare system, but we didn't. Through the Nixon/Ford years there was no political impetus to make a success out of something the other party had created. Jimmy Carter had the will but not the way, and then came Reagan and Bush and consummate consumption. The sooner the government could let the welfare system fall of its own sheer weight, the sooner all that tax money could be returned to the rich, who actually hadn't contributed much of it in the first place. Never in the history of the Republic had the gulf between have and have-nots grown so rapidly as during the 12 years of trickle-down that were the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Drip irrigation would have been a better term: The cash-flow went directly to the roots of the rich, with nothing reaching the depths of poverty and precious little lost to evaporation.

And a national debt that took 200 years to reach a trillion bucks, tripled in two presidential terms.

Bill Clinton hasn't done much to alter this apocalyptic course. True, he has done more to reverse the growing deficit, but it's been done at the expense of the poor. Tax policy and budgetary decisions still favor the wealthy, and the stock market sets new records every week. Have you noticed how the only things that impede the upward spiral of the Dow Jones index are good news on the unemployment front, pay raises for the blue-collar class, "unseemly" surges in consumer spending? Good news for the working class is bad news for the overall national economy. Imagine then what good news for the truly poor means to the white men who own this nation's economic engines.

We're at odds against one another, and eventually--I'm betting in the not-too-distant future--we're going to be in a shooting war against one another.

And some wealth is going to get redistributed. Because there are more poor people in America than rich. And they have the rich directly to thank for their pitiful conditions. So they're pissed-off. And they've grown up meaner and more willing to go to Fist City than those soft folks in the gated communities who hire colored people to do the heavy lifting.

Hey, you watch ESPN just like I do. Strip off the thousand-dollar suits and put on the eight-ounce gloves and whose chances do you like: Donald Trump's or Mike Tyson's?

Against a not-improbable scenario like this Fight-of-the-Century (20th or 21st?), Bill Clinton's call for a sincere chat about racial divisions is pathetic platitudes--way too little, way too late, and quite probably just another reason for people to feel pissed-off.

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