Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Remember the empires?

A woman met her man friend for a Sunday summer brunch at a chic Bostone sidewalk cafe. When she lifted her Louis Vitton basket, colour-keyed to her expensive green top and skimpy shorts, he went all gooey over the tiny rat of a chihuahua dog inside. Later, as they wait for their seats, he took out the dog and kissed it.

Two blocks away a line of men and women shuffled towards a handout of soup and sandwiches from some group with a slogan based on a 'feed the hungry' line from the Bible. Most carried plastic bags with their belongings and salvaged bottles and cans with a redemption value.

Boston's shops and offices, its newspapers and TV shows, and its various churches all called for Memorial Day honour for the soldiers 'who have died that we may be free'. In a small local paper where she has been donated a piece of free editorial space, a woman tabulated the names and ages of the American soldiers killed in Iraq in the past week. She also totalled the soldier dead since the invasion. Now closing on 2,500.

A man maybe in his 30s held up a sign to the passing traffic: 'Homeless war vet. Clean and sober. I need some help'.

In the city's Prudential Center shopping mall the beginning of America's summer brought out the long-legged and tanned young women, the fat and bejewelled matrons and their men, and the young people carefully monitored by the centre's security. All was good in their insulated world.

Meanwhile across America the number of people without health insurance continued to rise as the average cost headed towards $600 a month for single contributors. Only those earning below the notional poverty line of $18,000 a year qualify for some minimal free medical care. Anybody else has to have insurance or be in a position to accept a massive debt to a hospital that might take them in for treatment.

In an address at a military academy George Bush likened his War on Terror to the defence of the West in the Cold War. The same day the 'Boston Globe' revealed that Dick Cheyney has used his vice-presidential position in an unprecedented fashion to ensure that any legislation coming for George W's signature has been checked and, if necessary, amended to consolidate even further the power which his administration wields over the nation, its constituent states, and its individual citizenery.

Americans beginning the summer 'driving season' found themselves once again paying even higher prices for gasoline, now at an average of $3 a gallon. Soon they may be paying the same as we Europeans do. Except that the extra cost to them is not, as in Europe, taxation with the dual purpose of discouraging waste and paying a social charge. It is instead massively adding to the coffers of the oil companies, with whom coincidentally the current power holders have long-standing links.

On this latest trip to America, my first for three years, I several times experienced again the wonderful and generous people whom ordinary Americans are. In their daily lives, in their spiritual and social beliefs, in the uncomplicated way many of them can live under a comfort blanket of being the most powerful nation in the world. Which is why the 911 catastrophe hit them so hard.

George W gave them external scapegoats for that, killers and fanatics outside their borders who threatened their 'American way'. And that provided some kind of place to focus while they rebuilt their psyche.

From privileged backgrounds Bush or Cheyney et al never had to stand in a soup handout line. Heve never had to worry about what would happen if they got sick. Never had to come back from fighting a war and look for 'a little help'. Never had to be concerned about digging deeper into their pockets to drive on their vacations.

Nor have they ever acknowledged individually the young men and women who have died for their government's adventuring in Iraq. They are unlikely to do so for others who may die in similar situations in Iran if equivalent invasions are instigated before the unfettered power to do so disappears into a newly elected administration.

They won't have to worry about the legacy of the massive financial deficit they have left for their citizens and future generations to repay, having turned around a healthy economy into a seven trillion dollar accounting red line.

They are unlikely to worry about the fact that, far from Osama bin Laden and his like being the biggest enemy of the 'American way', they have helped create a much more formidable enemy within.

The people in the soup line. The woman quietly keeping faith with every soldier who is killed in Iraq. The veteran on the corner with his 'help me' sign. The father whose son died of an operable condition because he wasn't poor enough to get him 'free' medical care. The families who eventually realise that it is not the Arab nations sitting on the oil reserves who are doubling and tripling their gasoline costs, but the oil companies with their creaming off of windfall profits.

But when each of these individuals finally says 'enough' it will be too late. Because George and Dick and all their pals in the Haliburton and oil businesses will have long gone to their rewards. Not the eternal ones, though. The remaining days of the people who have used their position to pillage their own people will be comfortable and easy, if spent mostly behind security gates.

Meantime the woman with her Louis Vitton dog-basket will have gone back to Florida, her man friend now smooching somebody else's rat-dog. He looked like that kind.

The long-legged and tanned will still be doing their rounds in the Prudential Center mall, because voting for a government has never been their priority. The bejewelled obese will simply continue to make their political donations and buy the government that suits them.

I'm an optimist. But remember the Greeks. And the Romans. And the golden periods of the Middle Ages.

It has always been arrogance of leaders that ended golden eras. Leaving those they were supposed to serve to pick up the pieces. If there were any left to pick up.

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