Saturday, January 14, 2017

20/20: “My Reality: The Hidden America” (ABC-TV, aired January 13, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show I really wanted to watch last night, and which came on at 10 p.m. after episode three of Emerald City lurched to its close, was an episode of the long-running ABC-TV series 20/20, hosted by Diane Sawyer, rather awkwardly titled “My Reality: A Hidden America.” It’s actually the sort of thing Bill Moyers used to do back when PBS still allowed him a forum, before his private funding dried up and he was forced off the air (a development Fox News star Bill O’Reilly welcomed with unrestrained and unconcealed glee: instead of hailing Moyers as a talented journalist whom O’Reilly could respect even though he disagreed with him, O’Reilly basically saw Moyers as yet another scalp on the wall of an increasingly Right-wing media, yet one more liberal voice silenced and one more bit of competition ended — these people are sore losers and even sorer winners!): a series of interviews across America with people who either once had middle-class lifestyles and have lost them, or were raised to believe a middle-class existence was something they could attain if they worked hard and played by the rules, only to discover the rules have changed and the game has been permanently rigged to benefit the top 20 percent of Americans. The people we meet include Chris Smith, a firefighter in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania who has to work three jobs, one as a firefighter and two as a paramedic, to make ends meet and support his family; Maryland school aide Tracey Coleman, whose husband used to have a good-paying unionized job and now scrapes together however much money he can fixing air conditioners; Kathy Bessey, who moved into the neighborhood where the fictional working-class icon Archie Bunker once lived and has watched the price of those little row houses we remember from the All in the Family credits rise to $800,000; California resident Martha Smallens (I think I got her name right), who has to piece together a living from four, count ’em, four part-time jobs and who is scrambling to cover a 30 percent rent increase; Ronnie Turner, also a Californian, who’s 55 years old and has to commute for four hours each way to a job at Stanford University, where he’s a contract employee who handles the shipments of food for the students; Terence Wise of Kansas City, who works 16 hours a day at two fast-food jobs (one at Burger King and one at McDonald’s) and after working at Burger King for 16 years still makes just $8 per hour; Karen Thomas, who works 120 hours a week in health care; the workers who clean the buildings where the big Silicon Valley companies like Google, Apple and Facebook have their headquarters, some of whom make so little they literally sleep in their cars parked near the buildings where they work because they can’t afford housing in those communities; Michael Johnson, another contract worker who said he used to get vacations, holidays and sick time until his employer took those benefits away from him, one by one; 62-year-old Irma Alvarado, who has spent 28 years as a janitor at Visa; and a segment on Americans who make all or part of their livings by literally selling their blood for plasma (mostly to foreign-owned companies who come to the U.S. because the governments of their home countries have banned paid blood donations).

What’s most amazing is that there is very little sense among most of these people that there is anything they could do collectively to help their own situations; the guy with fast-food jobs at Burger King and McDonald’s joined the Fight for 15 movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and the guy who was sleeping on an air mattress in his car outside the Silicon Valley campuses he maintained was part of a union organizing drive, but aside from those two exceptions all of the people interviewed fatalistically accepted their lot, read self-help books (at least the ones with the time to read at all), and still buy into the American dream that if you work hard and strive as an individual, you will succeed. One of the biggest political questions in this country’s history has been why the American creed of self-reliance and individual effort is so resilient that so many Americans believe in it even though they’re being screwed over by an economy increasingly run by and for the richest Americans. A related issue is why so many Americans revere wealth and buy into the bullshit that the rich are rich because they’re simply better than the rest of us — many of Donald Trump’s voters cast their ballots for him because they figured that he’s a multi-billionaire and a business success and therefore he’s possessed of greater intelligence and sagacity than the rest of us peons and will be able to use his superior mentality and brilliance to solve this nation’s problems. Diane Sawyer and her interviewees did a good job chronicling how America has ceased to work economically for a majority of its citizens, and a lousy job offering any solutions: in her final segment she said that the people who will save the American dreams are the capitalists (who, in real life, have moved so aggressively and persistently to destroy it), pointing to people like Paul Jones, billionaire investor and founder of Just Capital, and Mark Brabham, CEO of Aetna, who supposedly was shocked when he actually talked to one of his janitors and realized just how hard the guy was working for so little money. The idea that somehow capitalists will grow consciences and be the solution to the problems they’ve created is at least as old as Max Weber, who in books like The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued similarly that the bad aspects of capitalism would be tamed by the capitalists’ collectively growing a social conscience (indeed one could trace it back even further, to Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol largely as an appeal to the moral consciences of the capitalists of his time to be less greedy and more philanthropic). But the logic of capitalism militates against altruism (though one could argue that a lot of the real world’s capitalists have followed Ebenezer Scrooge’s career trajectory, spending the first half of their lives viciously and greedily building fortunes and the second half giving them away), and even if Jones, Brabham and the other examples Diane Sawyer depicts are as good as she says they are, they’re going to remain outliers.

If anything, this program shows just how totally the game has become rigged, in which the ultra-rich have created an environment in which not only the government is run the way they want it to (in order to get elected at all, politicians have either to have or raise so much money that they never are confronted with the concerns of the non-rich) but businesses themselves increasingly cater to the most affluent consumers and really don’t need to address the needs of anyone else. One statistic in the program is that American home ownership is at a 50-year low because builders are constructing exclusively for the most affluent buyers, and local governments are writing zoning laws in such a way that only the affluent can afford homes — and whenever anyone tries to build affordable housing, they’re often met with opposition from well-to-do “NIMBY’s” (“Not In My Back Yard”) residents who lobby city councilmembers and community planners to deny permits on the ground that lower-income people will bring dirt, disease and crime to their neighborhoods and lower their property values. The simple fact is that America has become a country that worships greed; instead of being shocked by the boorishness of Donald Trump and the garish bad taste of his residents and developments, all too many Americans look at him with awe and say to themselves, “That’s what I would do if I had his money.” Today’s American ruling class has what all ruling classes throughout history have wanted: not only a system rigged to make them richer and more unassailable, but a population largely enculturated to regard the system as it stands as the way it has to be and even (as Trump’s election demonstrated) with a blind faith that the super-rich who are screwing them are the ones who will make it all better.