The Bitter American
Confronting the pain of unmet needs
BY KARA STEFFENSEN
A few years back I became frustrated with the word “fine” — as in “How are you?” “Fine.” (I would cringe.) Few of us were really “fine” back in 2003 or 2005, unless inspired by war. Those were the years that gave us Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL), WMDs and the lesser-known but equally offensive “bomblets.”
During those darkest of years I invented my own nifty reply: “Wedged.” As in, “I feel wedged between late industrial capitalism and early postmodern feudalism.” Let me clarify that. But first I want to assert that feeling caught between shifting, historical forces is relevant to the controversy about bitterness in the American working class, regardless of race.
As part of the working class myself, I was not offended by Sen. Obama’s comments. On the contrary, they open the door to discuss publicly what is happening to this country at the level of our social bonds. By social bonds I mean when we feel we belong to a place, as a full member of the community, and our essential needs are met. The kind of belonging that once led others to assert, “We the people … ” (Kind of like being a citizen versus a consumer.)
Why are some Americans bitter? Obama said, “They have been beaten down so long, and they feel betrayed by their government.” For some, the good jobs went overseas years ago, and nothing has replaced them. For others, the health care crisis is creating innumerable tragedies and homelessness. For many, the random senseless violence at home and abroad leaves us feeling intensely vulnerable. For me, the Bush years of endless war and creeping fascism crushed dreams and trust. Some of us, but not all of us, are clinging to guns or God.
No, what I cling to in dark times is my need for a deeper understanding of what is happening to us and my desire to have a country again — not an empire. I return again and again to the library to check out books on history, politics, etc. (you should see my late fines). I am part of an invisible voting block: working class intellectuals.
We cling to our faith that if we can understand more clearly the forces that are squeezing the life out of our lives, we can solve our problems. We lean on the strength of ideas because we haven’t got much else. We are not elitists — most of us don’t have health insurance. But we believe that ideas can provide the power of a new perspective to help us see the world anew.
So, let’s look at the bitter American from a different angle. Another term available to describe our condition is alienation. Alienation is said to be the flipside of belonging. If I am alienated, it means I feel that I don’t belong anymore in ways that are meaningful to me. I could be sitting there, right next to you, but I’ve got a list of unmet needs that you can’t see. The list is so long that I lost track of the beginning, so I say “fine” and be done with it, but the bitterness grows.
Inside we are angry about what’s happened. But we’re also yearning for something else we need: to reconnect, to belong again. Underneath the bitterness we have wounds, and underneath the wounds is a longing: the universal human longing to belong. Our bitterness reveals the painful gaps between living in an evolving capitalist society and the stubbornness of deep, unmet, human needs.
Which returns me to my claim that we are wedged between late industrial capitalism and early postmodern feudalism. What I mean is that 300 years of industrial revolution have taken a big bite out of the planet. To make matters worse, Bush and the corporations have accounting systems that bill us for the damages while they move operations to the remaining green pastures overseas. Meanwhile, some academics have decided that modernity is over and we are moving on to the next phase: postmodernism. I don’t know about you, but the current levels of global violence and fundamentalism combined with the lack of health care and affordable housing feel more like a new kind of feudalism than anything else. Can’t we do better?
Obama seems to think so. When he says some people are bitter and clinging, he is not demeaning them. He is asking us to look at their lives and try to understand. I think he is also asking us to dust off our capacity for empathy, solidarity and belonging despite the times.
Kara Steffensen of Springfield currently creates peace signs and cooks meals while participating in lefty talk radio — when she can find it.