Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rip Van Winkle In the 21st Century (or waking up at the Republican convention)

When I met Rip Van Winkle he was coming out of an Apple store with the newest iPhone. He held up the phone and explained, “Just trying to catch up. When you’ve been asleep for twelve years you tend to miss out on things.”

He looked at me and smiled, “I don’t know what was in that beer I had at the bowling alley last night, but I woke up this morning feeling like I was wearing a swimming cap two sizes too small.

“And that was just the start of the strangeness. Walking back to my home on Brattle Street I noticed things seemed familiar yet very different. The few people I passed were wearing strange clothes, which for Cambridge isn’t all that unusual. But the cars on the street looked futuristic and alien, more like armored vehicles than the friendly boxlike structures I fondly recalled.

       “But the strangest changes were the ones that had overtaken this country during my 12 year siesta. In my unrelenting grogginess, I made the mistake of turning on the TV to watch the Republican National Convention. Once I got my bearings and saw the forces now at play in America, I was in shock. It seemed like I had woken up in a foreign land. How could I fall asleep one night in a country that prided itself as the land of the brave and the free? And wake up a dozen years later in a country ruled by barbarous impulses and totally selfish compulsions? America’s bravery, I soon discovered, was now defined by unprovoked wars on weaker nations and acts of torture against helpless prisoners. Its cherished freedoms now seemingly reserved for those who could financially afford them.

       “To my shock I discovered America had become a nation that no longer gave any thought or care to the environment—or the planet—she’d be leaving for future generations; not if it would inconvenience business interests or negatively affect their profits. Even when scientists shouted dire warnings about the consequences of Americans’ selfish and self-enriching lifestyle, an entire segment of our population chose to doubt the science rather than adjust the behavior. The way Republicans scoffed at protecting the environment for future generations you might have thought FDR created the EPA rather than Richard M. Nixon.

       “But the worst thing I witnessed was all the hate and resentment. With little concern for its weakest citizens, America’s angriest and most selfish political party was rising up in fanatical revolt against the passage of universal healthcare. And conservative political demagogues, under the guise of strengthening the country’s safety net, were attacking and threatening the social contract that for 70 years had stood like a shield, protecting the nation’s poor, elderly and infirm.

       “What was going on?” I wondered, half in shock, half in anxiety that I had somehow lost hold on my sanity.

       “Strangest of all, my country—the richest nation on Earth—was now broke! When I sipped that last beer in the bowling alley, America was heading into a new millennium with a budgetary surplus. Bill Clinton might have been a sorry philanderer but he’d also been a good steward of the country’s pocketbook. We not only had money in the bank, we had lots of it! Now I awoke to discover the little money we possess is dedicated to programs we can no longer afford or, truth be told, owed outright to the People’s Republic of China!

       “Hey, where’d all the money go!

       “You can imagine how appalling this all seemed, waking up in an America where people were losing their homes to the predatory banks that had suckered them into unaffordable mortgages. An America where the government had thrown money at those same predatory banks to keep them afloat, who had then refused to loan anything—not a penny!—to anybody! For fear it might interfere with the outsized bonuses they felt obligated to pay their highest and most incompetent executives and managers.

       I kept waiting for someone to talk about whoever was responsible for America’s sudden slide into mediocrity, pennilessness, and criminal behavior. But no one ever mentioned the man who was president for the first eight of my 12 lost years. Nor his accomplices, none of whom will ever be charged for all the lives they ruined, the deaths they caused, or the tragedy they fecklessly made of the American Dream.

       “Also, before I fell asleep for 12 years, America had been a democracy that believed in democracy, believed in spreading democracy. That was before I slept through two presidential elections that had been stolen by that same unmentionable Republican president. And before I woke to find this latest batch of Republicans doing their damnedest to deprive blacks, students, Hispanics, prisoners—anyone from the bottom of the economic ladder—their voting rights.

       “Jim Crow wasn’t dead, I discovered, he had merely joined the Republican party!

       “And, strangest of all, rather than protect the rights of these marginalized American citizens, the courts were complicit in this outrage, deaf to any arguments about the real motivation behind voter fraud regulations in Republican-controlled states. Even though everyone knew, and vote-suppressing politicians freely admitted, there was never any voter fraud to prevent.

       “To think of the party of Lincoln actively working to deny voting rights to blacks, as well as the poor and the marginalized! It was enough to send me back to the bowling alley for one more beer.

       “And, hopefully, a dozen years more sleep.”

       "Well just wait," I told Rip Van Winkle, "With any luck, you'll wake up to find this was all a dream."

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