Saturday, February 20, 2010

On Joe the Bomber

The Austin airplane suicide bomb attack is certainly terrorism. The temptation is to blame this on the teabaggers, but that's a mistake: the bomber's suicide note is an angry screed against the IRS, corporate greed, the airline industry, the government in general.

The unifying thread is hatred of elites who are screwing the everyman: "[T]he justice department is all on the take and doesn’t give a fuck about serving anyone or anything but themselves and their rich buddies." "The sleazy government." "Nothing changes unless there is a body count (unless it is in the interest of the wealthy sows at the government trough). In a government full of hypocrites from top to bottom, life is as cheap as their lies and their self-serving laws."

Its classic populism, which neither the left nor right holds a monopoly on. The current conservative moment, of course, is built on a ressentiment of "cultural elites" who, they think, hold the common man in contempt. The leftist version seeks to punish rich bankers and businessmen who wrecked the economy and have made off like bandits. There is a much common ground between them, enough that liberal activist Jane Hamsher argued for an alliance with the Tea Partiers when the Senate passed their Health Care bill.

A formal merger of the two groups is impossible, of course: there are far too many fundamental philosophical differences. More likely are events like this, where individuals decide to take matters into their own hands to violently strike out at the bigwigs they blame for their current problems. Those problems are ultimately what it comes down to: Joe Stack, it seems, had ongoing financial difficulties and claims he never got the help he needed. Put in a desperate situation, he resorted to desperate measures. At a time when unemployment is still hovering at 10%, banks are continuing to throw obscene bonuses at their CEOs. This will piss anybody off, no matter their political persuasion, and the longer this goes on, the greater the chance of more Joe Stacks turning to violent means to vent their frustration.

Frank Rich has been sounding the alarm on this realignment for several months now:

“Wall Street owns our government,” Beck declared in one rant this July. “Our government and these gigantic corporations have merged.” He drew a chart to dramatize the revolving door between Washington and Goldman Sachs in both the Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner Treasury departments. A couple of weeks later, Beck mockingly replaced the stars on the American flag with the logos of corporate giants like G.E., General Motors, Wal-Mart and Citigroup (as well as the right’s usual nemesis, the Service Employees International Union). Little of it would be out of place in a Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone. Or, we can assume, in Michael Moore’s coming film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which reportedly takes on Goldman and the Obama economic team along with conservative targets.

This development gets to the heart of the problem of growing economic inequality and wealth concentration in the United States. Conservatives refuse any notion of "redistribution" as a matter of principle, that the rich are rich and the poor poor because they deserve to be so. There are plenty of problems with this argument--again, after the near-destruction of our economy, who thinks these bankers deserve their million-dollar bonuses?--but until now the debate has mostly been one on fairness. Wealth may be more concentrated than ever, the argument went, but as long as it's only the lower classes' problem, who cares? Now, of course, the threat of violence makes it the rich peoples' problem too.

None of this is a defense of Joe Stack's behavior, but simply an objective observation. Increasing economic polarization, to say nothing of fairness, guarantees social instability. It is in everybody's best interest to return us to some semblance of equilibrium. The question is whether Wall Street and the political establishment (I'll go ahead and finger the Republicans, since they are the ones trying to strip the Senate finance reform bill of the Consumer Protection Agency) will put the long-term health of the Republic ahead of short-term gain; the answer, given recent history, is too bleak to contemplate.

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