I’ve been living in Britain for the last year and have returned to the United States to cover the election from a small town in Indiana—with the experience of Brexit on my mind.
On June 24, a significant proportion of the British electorate woke up and thought they were living in a different country. Britain narrowly voted to leave the European Union. It felt like the politics of fear, isolation, and xenophobia had delivered an utterly devastating and enduring blow to the body politic. There are many lessons from that night, and indeed we in Britain are only just beginning to learn them. But as it relates to the American elections, I want to dwell on just three.
First, don’t let the polls guide your strategic decisions about voting. If you want Hillary Clinton to win, vote for her. If you favor Jill Stein, vote for her. Don’t cast your vote thinking you’re compensating for a result that has not been declared but that you think you’ve factored in. You don’t know.
The Brexit result caught the currency traders, pollsters, betting agencies, and commentators off guard. One of the leading voices of the Leave campaign, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, conceded defeat at 10 pm the night of the election; less than six hours later he claimed victory.
As I write, polls suggest a runaway victory for Clinton. They could be right. But politics is in a very volatile state—they could also be wrong. And the only way you’ll know for sure will be when it’s too late to do anything about it.
Second, the fact that the messenger is deranged doesn’t mean the message itself contains no significant truths. Before the Brexit referendum, liberals broadly dismissed Leave voters as ignorant, angry, and bigoted. Some of them were undoubtedly all three. But that’s not primarily what was driving many of them. It took the Brexit result for the nation to pay attention to communities devastated by neoliberal globalization. Had Remain won, those who were forgotten would have remained forgotten.
True, politicians have drawn mostly the wrong conclusions: condemning the free movement of people rather than the free movement of capital. Nonetheless, regions long ignored, accents rarely heard, and issues seldom raised are traveling from the margins to the mainstream of British politics.
Similarly, if Hillary Clinton wins, that should not blind us to some of the themes that have made Trump’s candidacy viable. In Muncie, Indiana, where I have spent most of this election season, huge manufacturing plants have closed since the passage of NAFTA, leaving one-third of the town in poverty. And while Trump’s base is not particularly poor, a significant portion of the nation is desperate. It’s not difficult to see why. The price of everything apart from labor has shot up in the past 40 years, while inequality has grown and social mobility has slumped. Trump’s original Brexit strategy of targeting Rust Belt towns in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin may not have worked electorally, but what he identified remains a politically salient fault line that doesn’t just go away if Clinton wins. If these problems are not tended to, a less erratic and more focused right-wing populist than Trump could easily exploit them.
Which brings us to the third lesson. Trump is deluded about many things, but he’s right to insist that the media and political classes are out of touch with the population. They exist in a fetid ideological comfort zone where radical change is considered apostasy at precisely the moment when radical change is both necessary and popular.
Leading up to the Brexit vote, leaders of the Remain campaign preferred to caricature those in the opposing camp rather than engage them. They derided not only the leaders of the Leave campaign but its followers. You cannot convince people they are doing well when they are not. Yet throughout the Brexit campaign, Remain advocates lectured voters on all the advantages they derived from the European Union and how much worse things would be if they left. From Tony Blair to David Cameron, people who had stiffed working people in a range of ways now insisted they alone could save them from themselves. People just weren’t buying it.
Similarly, people in Muncie and elsewhere are aware that some of the worst things to come out of Washington—including NAFTA, financial deregulation, and the Iraq War—were bipartisan efforts in which the mainstream media acted as cheerleaders. That is why, I assume, Delaware County, where Muncie resides, voted for both Trump and Bernie Sanders in the primaries. When Democrats wheel out high-ranking Republicans who now disown Trump, they don’t realize they are making Trump’s point for him: The establishment that has done nothing for you hates me—I must be doing something right.
Brexit and the US elections are not synonymous. But there is plenty of overlap in the nationalist nostalgia, xenophobia, political dislocation, and class grievance that they draw upon.
Time and again in Muncie, Trump supporters, some of whom voted for Obama, say they really just want to “shake things up.” They are not alone. “The Democratic establishment is very, very happy with incremental change,” says Dave Ring, who backed Bernie and runs an organic farm and food store in Muncie called the Downtown Farm Stand. “And the rest of the public is out here like, ‘We don’t have time for incremental change. We don’t have time for that. Why would we want to wait?’”
This sense of urgency will not go away if Hillary wins, any more than a Remain vote would have signaled that all was well with British society. We didn’t wake up in a different country on June 24; it was simply a country we had ceased to recognize. A defeat for Trump, regardless of its magnitude, should not be misunderstood as an endorsement of the status quo. Just because you haven’t descended into the abyss, as Britain did, doesn’t mean you’re not standing dangerously close to its edge.
Posted on Oct 30, 2016
By Chris Hedges
There is no shortage of signs of impending environmental catastrophe, including the melting of the polar ice caps and the rise of atmospheric carbon to above 400 parts per million. The earth’s sixth mass extinction is underway. It is not taking place because of planetary forces. Homo sapiens is orchestrating it. Americans are at the same time bankrupting themselves by waging endless and unwinnable wars. We have allowed our elites to push more than half the U.S. population into poverty through deindustrialization. We do nothing to halt the waves of nihilistic violence by enraged citizens who carry out periodic mass shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters and other public places. The political and financial elites flaunt their greed and corruption. Donald Trump appears to pay no federal income taxes. Hillary and Bill Clinton use their foundation as a tool for legalized bribery. Our largest corporations have orchestrated a legal tax boycott. The judicial system is a subsidiary of the corporate state. Militarized police conduct public executions of unarmed people of color. Our infrastructure, including our schools, roads and bridges, along with our deindustrialized cities, are in ruins. Decay and rot—physical and moral—are pervasive.
We are blinded to our depressing reality by the avalanche of images disseminated by mass media. Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth. Highly paid pundits who parrot back the official narrative, corporate advertisers, inane talk shows, violent or sexually explicit entertainment and gossip-fueled news have contaminated cultural life. “Reality” television, as contrived as every other form of mass entertainment, has produced a “reality” presidential candidate.
Mass culture, because it speaks to us in easily digestible clichés and stereotypes, reinforces ignorance, bigotry and racism. It promotes our individual and collective self-glorification. It sanctifies nonexistent national virtues. It takes from us the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to separate illusion from truth. It is all show business all the time.
There are hundreds of millions of Americans who know that something is terribly wrong. A light has gone out. They see this in their own suffering and hopelessness and the suffering and hopelessness of their neighbors. But they lack, because of the contamination of our political, cultural and intellectual discourse, the words and ideas to make sense of what is happening around them. They are bereft of a vision. Austerity, globalization, unfettered capitalism, an expansion of the extraction of fossil fuels, and war are not the prices to be paid for progress and the advance of civilization. They are part of the savage and deadly exploitation by corporate capitalism and imperialism. They serve a neoliberal ideology. The elites dare not speak this truth. It is toxic. They peddle the seductive illusions that saturate the airwaves. We are left to strike out at shadows. We are led to succumb to the racism, allure of white supremacy and bigotry that always accompany a culture in dissolution.
We cannot, for this reason, discount the possibility that Trump will be elected president. The election outcome will be decided by whatever emotion Americans feel when they cast their ballots.
Celebrity narratives, manufactured pseudo-drama, sex scandals, natural disasters, insults and invective, mass shootings and war flash before us in a constant jumble of images on ubiquitous screens. The sensory assault obliterates reality. A former congressman who sends a picture of himself in underwear to a woman is a national news story. Sober examinations of our economic, foreign, judicial and environmental policies are dismissed as too complicated and boring. They do not produce engaging images. The electronic media’s sole goal is to attract viewers and advertising dollars. It has conditioned us to demand a nonstop vaudeville act.
Because of this mass indoctrination, we have become infected by what Daniel Boorstin in “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” calls “social narcissism.” The bottomless narcissism of Trump and the Clintons caters to this social narcissism. They reflect back to us our desperate longing for, as well as celebration of, entertainment, celebrity, wealth, power and self-aggrandizement. It is not only advertising and public relations, as Boorstin pointed out, that carry out the incessant manufacturing of illusions that feed social narcissism. Journalists, book publishers, politicians, athletes, entertainers, positive psychologists, self-help gurus, the Christian right and talk show hosts all feed the mania for illusion. They all chant the insane mantra that reality is never an impediment to what we desire. We can have anything we want if we work hard, get an education, believe in ourselves, grasp that we are exceptional and see the impossible as always possible. It is magical thinking. And magical thinking is the only real commodity the elites have left offer to us. Make American Great Again. Or American already is great. Take your pick of idiotic clichés.
“We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than we can make of the world,” Boorstin wrote. “We demand that everyone who talks to us, or writes for us, or takes pictures for us, or makes merchandise for us, should live in our world of extravagant expectations. We expect this even of the peoples of foreign countries. We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid.”
The incessant search for instant gratification and the most appealing image, including the image of ourselves we manufacture for others on social media, has robbed us of the ability to examine ourselves and our society. It has extinguished the truth. The terminal decline of the American empire, the utter inability our elites to manage anything important, the climate crisis, widespread poverty and despair do not fit with the illusion. So these realities are blotted from public consciousness. The poor are rendered invisible. The foreign policy debacles will be fixed with more bombs. Only the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, along with the medieval Catholic Church, controlled thought as effectively.
Candidates Trump and Clinton have no plans to halt our slide to oblivion. They are part of the circus. They, like all of the other elites, profit from the system that is destroying us. They lack the incentive and probably the capacity to challenge the structures and assumptions that define corporate capitalism. They function as high priests. They peddle the illusions. They laud our ingenuity and strength. They preach the inevitability of human progress and American exceptionalism. They tell us what we want to hear. They appeal to our emotions, as does all of mass culture. They do not acknowledge reality. That would spoil the show.
We vote for slogans, manufactured personalities, perceived sincerity, personal attractiveness and the crafted personal narratives peddled by candidates. Office seekers create the illusion of intimacy established between celebrities and their audiences. We see ourselves in them; admirers of the “winner” Trump see themselves as becoming him. No politician succeeds without such artifice. Today’s politics is just one more product of a diseased culture. Our political leaders are much like the celebrities who, in Boorstin’s words, “are receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness. They are nothing but ourselves seen in a magnifying mirror.”
The incoherent absurdities mouthed for our amusement induce a state of permanent amnesia. Life is lived in an eternal present. How we got here, where we came from, what shaped us as a society, in short the continuum of history that gives us an identity, are eradicated.
The quest for identity through mass culture is self-defeating. We can never achieve what these illusions tell us we can achieve. We can never be who we want to be. It is a ceaseless chase from one chimera to the next. And this is why at the end we fall into despair and rage. It is why huge parts of the country no longer hold genuine political ideas. It is why people vote according to how they feel. It is why hatred and fear are a potent political platform. It is why we are sleepwalking into oblivion.
“La Luce e la Montagna”
Street art in Avellino, Italy,
by artist Davide Brioschi.
Photo by Davide Brioschi.
Photo Credit: Trevor Collens / Shutterstock.com
As this endless election limps toward its last days, while spiraling into a bizarre duel over vote-rigging accusations, a deep sigh is undoubtedly in order. The entire process has been an emotionally draining, frustration-inducing, rage-inflaming spectacle of repellent form over shallow substance. For many, the third debate evoked fatigue. More worrying, there was again no discussion of how to prevent another financial crisis, an ominous possibility in the next presidency, whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton enters the Oval Office — given that nothing fundamental has been altered when it comes to Wall Street’s practices and predation.
At the heart of American political consciousness right now lies a soul-crushing reality for millions of distraught Americans: the choices for president couldn’t be feebler or more disappointing. On the one hand, we have a petulant, vocabulary-challenged man-boar of a billionaire, who hasn’t paid his taxes, has regularly left those supporting him holding the bag, and seems like a ludicrous composite of every bad trait in every bad date any woman has ever had. On the other hand, we’re offered a walking photo-op for and well-paid speechmaker to Wall-Street CEOs, a one-woman money-raising machine from the 1% of the 1%, who, despite a folksiness that couldn’t look more rehearsed, has methodically outplayed her opponent.
With less than two weeks to go before E-day — despite the Trumptilian upheaval of the last year — the high probability of a Clinton win means the establishment remains intact. When we awaken on November 9th, it will undoubtedly be dawn in Hillary Clinton’s America and that potentially means four years of an economic dystopia that will (as would Donald Trump’s version of the same) leave many Americans rightfully anxious about their economic futures.
None of the three presidential debates suggested that either candidate would have the ability (or desire) to confront Wall Street from the Oval Office. In the second and third debates, in case you missed them, Hillary didn’t even mention the Glass-Steagall Act, too big to fail, or Wall Street. While in the first debate, the subject of Wall Street only came up after she disparaged the tax policies of “Trumped-up, trickle down economics” (or, as I like to call it, the Trumpledown economics of giving tax and financial benefits to the rich and to corporations).
In this election, Hillary has crafted her talking points regarding the causes of the last financial crisis as weapons against Trump, but they hardly begin to tell the real story of what happened to the American economy. The meltdown of 2007-2008 was not mainly due to “tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy” or a “failure to invest in the middle class,” two subjects she has repeatedly highlighted to slam the Republicans and their candidate. It was a byproduct of the destruction of the regulations that opened the way for a too-big-to-fail framework to thrive. Under the presidency of Bill Clinton, Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era act that once separated people’s bank deposits and loans from any kind of risky bets or other similar actions in which banks might engage, was repealed under the Financial Modernization Act of 1999. In addition, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act was passed, which allowed Wall Street to concoct devastating unregulated side bets on what became the subprime crisis.
Given that the people involved with those choices are still around and some are still advising (or in the case of one former president living with) Hillary Clinton, it’s reasonable to imagine that, in January 2017, she’ll launch the third term of Bill Clinton when it comes to financial policy, banks, and the economy. Only now, the stakes are even higher, the banks larger, and their impunity still remarkably unchallenged.
Consider President Obama’s current treasury secretary, Jack Lew. It was Hillary who hit the Clinton Rolodex to bring him back to Washington. Lew first entered Bill Clinton’s White House in 1993 as special assistant to the president. Between his stints working for Clinton and Obama, he made his way into the private sector and eventually to Wall Street — as so many of his predecessors had done and successors would do. He scored a leadership role with Citigroup during the time that Bill Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary(and former Goldman Sachs co-Chairman) Robert Rubin was on its board of directors. In 2009, Hillary selected him to be her deputy secretary of state.
Lew is hardly the only example of the busy revolving door to power that led from the Clinton administration to the Obama administration via Wall Street (or activities connected to it). Bill Clinton’s Treasury Under Secretary for International Affairs, Timothy Geithner worked with Robert Rubin, later championed Wall Street as president and CEO of the New York Federal Reserve while Hillary was senator from New York (representing Wall Street), and then became Obama’s first treasury secretary while Hillary was secretary of state.
One possible contender for treasury secretary in a new Clinton administration would be Bill Clinton’s Under Secretary of Domestic Finance and Obama’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman, Gary Gensler (who was — I’m sure you won’t be shocked — a Goldman Sachs partner before entering public service). These, then, are typical inhabitants of the Clinton inner circle and of the political-financial corridors of power. Their thinking, like Hillary’s, meshes well with support for the status quo in the banking system, even if, like her, they are willing on occasion to admonish it for its “mistakes.”
This thru-line of personnel in and out of Clinton World is dangerous for most of the rest of us, because behind all the “talking heads” and genuinely amusing Saturday Night Live skits about this bizarre election lie certain crucial issues that will have to be dealt with: decisions about climate change, foreign wars, student-loan unaffordability, rising income inequality, declining social mobility, and, yes, the threat of another financial crisis. And keep in mind that such a future economic meltdown isn’t an absurdly long-shot possibility. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve, the nation’s main bank regulator, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the government entity that insures our bank deposits, collectively noted that seven of our biggest eight banks — Citigroup was the exception — still have inadequate emergency plans in the event of another financial crisis.
Exploring a Two-Faced World
Politicians regularly act one way publicly and another privately, as Hillary was “outed” for doing by WikiLeaks via its document dump from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s hacked email account. Such realities should be treated as neither shockers nor smoking guns. Everybody postures. Everybody lies. Everybody’s two-faced in certain aspects of their lives. Politicians just make a career out of it.
What’s problematic about Hillary’s public and private positions in the economic sphere, at least, isn’t their two-facedness but how of a piece they are. Yes, she warned the bankers to “cut it out! Quit foreclosing on homes! Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors!” — but that was no demonstration of strength in relation to the big banks. Her comments revealed no real understanding of their precise role in exacerbating a fixable subprime loan calamity and global financial crisis, nor did her finger-wagging mean anything to Wall Street.
Keep in mind that, during the build-up to that crisis, as banks took advantage of looser regulations, she collected more than $7 million from the securities and investment industry for her New York Senate runs ($18 million during her career). In her first Senate campaign,Citigroup was her top contributor. The four Wall-Street-based banks (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) all feature among her top 10 career contributors. As a senator, she didn’t introduce any bills aimed at reforming or regulating Wall Street. During the lead-up to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, she did introduce five (out of 140) bills relating to the housing crisis, but they all died before making it through a Senate committee. So did a bill she sponsored to curtail corporate executive compensation. Though she has publicly called for a reduction in hedge-fund tax breaks (known as “closing the carried interest loophole”), including at the second debate, she never signed on to the bill that would have done so (one that Obama co-sponsored in 2007). Perhaps her most important gesture of support for Wall Street was her vote in favor of the $700 billion 2008 bank bailout bill. (Bernie Sanders opposed it.)
After her secretary of state stint, she returned to the scene of banking crimes. Many times. As we know, she was also paid exceedingly well for it. Friendship with the Clintons doesn’t come cheap. As she said in October 2013, while speaking at a Goldman Sachs AIMS Alternative Investments’ Symposium, “running for office in our country takes a lot of money, and candidates have to go out and raise it. New York is probably the leading site for contributions for fundraising for candidates on both sides of the aisle.”
Between 2013 and 2015, she gave 12 speeches to Wall Street banks, private equity firms, and other financial corporations, reaping a whopping $2,935,000 for them. In her 2016 presidential run, the securities and investment sector (aka Wall Street) has contributed the most of any industry to PACs supporting Hillary: $56.4 million.
Yes, everybody needs to make a buck or a few million of them. This is America after all, but Hillary was a political figure paid by the same banks routinely getting slapped with criminal settlements by the Department of Justice. In addition, the Clinton Foundation counted as generous donors all four of the major Wall Street-based mega-banks. She was voracious when it came to such money and tone-deaf when it came to the irony of it all.
Glass-Steagall and Bernie Sanders
One of the more illuminating aspects of the Podesta emails was a series of communications that took place in the fall of 2015. That’s when Bernie Sanders was gaining traction for, among other things, his calls to break up the big banks and resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The Clinton administration’s dismantling of that act in 1999 had freed the big banks to use their depositors’ money as collateral for risky bets in the real estate market and elsewhere, and so allowed them to become ever more engorged with questionable securities.
On December 7, 2015, with her campaign well underway and worried about the Sanders challenge, the Clinton camp debuted a key Hillary op-ed, “How I’d Rein in Wall Street,” in the New York Times. This followed two months of emails and internal debate within her campaign over whether supporting the return of Glass-Steagall was politically palatable for her and whether not supporting it would antagonize Senator Elizabeth Warren. In the end, though Glass-Steagall was mentioned in passing in her op-ed, she chose not to endorse its return.
She explained her decision not to do so this way (and her advisers and media apostles have stuck with this explanation ever since):
“Some have urged the return of a Depression-era rule called Glass-Steagall, which separated traditional banking from investment banking. But many of the firms that contributed to the crash in 2008, like A.I.G. and Lehman Brothers, weren’t traditional banks, so Glass-Steagall wouldn’t have limited their reckless behavior. Nor would restoring Glass-Steagall help contain other parts of the ‘shadow banking’ sector, including certain activities of hedge funds, investment banks, and other non-bank institutions.”
Her entire characterization of how the 2007-2008 banking crisis unfolded was — well — wrong. Here’s how traditional banks (like JPMorgan Chase) operated: they lent money to investment banks like Lehman Brothers so that they could buy more financial waste products stuffed with subprime mortgages that these traditional banks were, in turn, trying to sell. They then backed up those toxic financial products through insurance companies like AIG, which came close to collapse when what it was insuring became too toxically overwhelming to afford. AIG then got a $182 billion government bailout that also had the effect of bailing out those traditional banks (including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which became “traditional” during the crisis). In this way, the whole vicious cycle started with the traditional banks that hold your deposits and at the same time could produce and sell those waste products thanks to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. So yes, the loss of that act caused the crisis and, in its wake, every big traditional bank was fined for crisis-related crimes.
Hillary won’t push to bring back Glass-Steagall. Doing so would dismantle her husband’s legacy and that of the men he and she appointed to public office. Whatever cosmetic alterations may be in store, count on that act remaining an artifact of the past, since its resurrection would dismay the bankers who, over the past three decades, made the Clintons what they are.
No wonder many diehard Sanders supporters remain disillusioned and skeptical — not to speak of the fact that their candidate featured dead last (39th) on a list of recommended vice presidential candidates in the Podesta emails. That’s unfortunately how much his agenda is likely to matter to her in the Oval Office.
Go Regulate Yourselves!
Before he resigned with his nine-figure golden parachute, Wells Fargo CEO and Chairman John Stumpf addressed Congress over disclosures that 5,300 of his employees had created two million fake accounts, scamming $2.4 million from existing customers. The bank was fined $185 million for that (out of a total $10 billion in fines for a range of other crimes committed before and during the financial crisis).
In response, Hillary wrote a letter to Wells Fargo’s customers. In it, she didn’t actually mention Stumpf by name, as she has not mentioned any Wall Street CEO by name in the context of criminal activity. Instead, she simply spoke of “he.” As she put it, “He owes all of you a clear explanation as to how this happened under his watch.” She added, “Executives should be held individually accountable when rampant illegal activity happens on their watch.”
She does have a plan to fine banks for being too big, but they’ve already been fined repeatedly for being crooked and it hasn’t made them any smaller or less threatening. As their top officials evidently view the matter, paying up for breaking the law is just another cost of doing business.
Hillary also wrote, “If any bank can’t be managed effectively, it should be broken up.” But the question is: Why doesn’t ongoing criminal activity that threatens the rest of us correlate with ineffective management — or put another way, when was the last time you saw a major bank broken up? And don’t hold your breath for that to happen in a new Clinton administration either.
In her public letter, she added, “I’ll appoint regulators who will stand with taxpayers and consumers, not with big banks and their friends in Congress.” On the other hand, at that same Goldman Sachs symposium, while in fundraising mode, she gave bankers a pass relative to regulators and commented: “Well, I represented all of you for eight years. I had great relations and worked so close together after 9/11 to rebuild downtown, and [I have] a lot of respect for the work you do and the people who do it.”
She has steadfastly worked to craft explanations for the financial crisis and the Great Recession that don’t endanger the banks as we presently know them. In addition, she has supported the idea of appointing insider regulators,insisting that “the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.” (Let’s not forget that former Goldman Sachs CEO and Chairman Hank Paulson ran the Treasury Department while the crisis brewed.)
Among the emails sent to John Podesta that were posted by WikiLeaks is an article I wrote for TomDispatch on the Clintons’ relationships with bankers. “She will not point fingers at her friends,” I said in that piece in May 2015. She will not chastise the people who pay her hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop to speak or the ones who have long shared the social circles in which she and her husband move.” I also suggested that she wouldn’t call out any CEO by name. To this day she hasn’t. I said that she would never be an advocate for Glass-Steagall. And she hasn’t been. What was true then will be no less true once she’s in the White House and no longer has to make gestures toward the platform on which Bernie ran and so can once again more openly embrace the bankers’ way of conducting business.
There’s a reason Wall Street has a crush on her and its monarchs like Goldman Sachs CEO and Chairman Lloyd Blankfein pay her such stunning sums to offer anodyne remarks to their employees and others. Blankfein has been coy about an official Clinton endorsement simply because he doesn’t want to rock her campaign boat, but make no mistake, this Wall Street kingpin’s silence is tantamount to an endorsement.
To date, $10 trillion worth of assets sits on the books of the Big Six banks. Since 2008, these same banks have copped to more than $150 billion in fines for pre-crisis behavior that ranged on the spectrum of criminality from manipulating multiple public markets to outright fraud. Hillary Clinton has arguably taken money that would not have been so available if it weren’t for the ill-gotten gains those banks secured. In her usual measured way, albeit with some light admonishments, she has told them what they want to hear: that if they behave — something that in her dictionary of definitions involves little in the way of personalized pain or punishment — so will she.
So let’s recap Hillary’s America, past, present, and future. It’s a land lacking in meaningful structural reform of the financial system, a place where the big banks have been, and will continue to be, coddled by the government. No CEO will be jailed, no matter how large the fines his bank is saddled with or how widespread the crimes it committed. Instead, he’s likely to be invited to the inaugural ball in January. Because its practices have not been adequately controlled or curtailed, the inherent risk that Wall Street poses for Main Street will only grow as bankers continue to use our money to make their bets. (The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was supposed to help on this score, but has yet to make the big banks any smaller.)
And here’s an obvious corollary to all this: the next bank-instigated economic catastrophe will not be dealt with until it has once again crushed the financial stability of millions of Americans.
The banks have voted with their dollars on all of this in multiple ways. Hillary won’t do anything to upset that applecart. We should have no illusions about what her presidency would mean from a Wall Street vs. Main Street perspective. Certainly, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon doesn’t. He effectively endorsed Hillary before a crowd of financial industry players, saying, “I hope the next president, she reaches across the aisle.”
For Wall Street, of course, that aisle is essentially illusory, since its players operate so easily and effectively on both sides of it. In Hillary’s America, Wall Street will still own Main Street.
By David Walsh
29 October 2016
Directed by Ewan McGregor; screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Philip Roth
“Is it not a rare merit to know how to take the measure of one’s epoch?”––Balzac
American Pastoral is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1997 novel of the same title. Australian director Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) was long associated with efforts to get a film version of Roth’s novel made. When Noyce finally dropped out (for unknown reasons), Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, who also plays the lead role, took over the directing responsibility. This is his first opportunity to direct a feature film.
American Pastoral, film and novel, follows the life and eventual terrible misfortune of Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), the son of a glove manufacturer in Newark, in the 1960s and 1970s. The Swede obtained his nickname, in Roth’s words, from his “anomalous face,” The “insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blonde born into our [Jewish] tribe.”
Both book and film employ a framing device. When he learns of the Swede’s death from cancer in 1995 at 68, Nathan Zuckerman (David Straithairn in McGregor’s film), a character who appears in numerous Roth novels and often serves as a sort of alter ego for the author, sets out to uncover Levov’s tragic story. Zuckerman serves as our guide and narrator.
The Swede, we learn, fully embraced (and symbolized) the promise of postwar America. A star athlete and “golden boy” in high school, idolized by fellow students and apparently by everyone in his neighborhood, Levov seems destined to lead a charmed existence. He takes over the successful glove-making business from his father, Lou (Peter Riegert), and marries a former Miss New Jersey, an Irish Catholic beauty, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). They have a blonde-haired daughter, Meredith or “Merry” (played by three actresses, the final one being Dakota Fanning), and move into their dream home, a large stone house, in “tranquil, untrafficked” (Roth) Old Rimrock, New Jersey. Dawn even decides, as a hobby, to raise cattle.
Merry, however, proves a difficult child. For one thing, she stutters badly. A therapist suggests the girl is intimidated by her good-looking and successful parents, by her beautiful mother in particular. To win attention, to drive Dawn crazy, to manipulate her “perfectionist family,” she stutters. When the Swede points out to the therapist that Merry is made miserable by her stammering, the doctor replies, “The benefits may outweigh the disadvantages.”
All sorts of emotions are swirling around in the Levov family. In one disturbing scene, the 10- or 11-year-old Merry turns to her father and says, “Kiss me, daddy. Kiss me the way you k-k-k-kiss mother.”
As she grows older, under conditions of the growing, homicidal US involvement in Vietnam, Merry’s disharmony with her surroundings and family takes on a more pronounced political coloring. As a young girl, in 1963, she is traumatized by television images of a Buddhist monk in Saigon setting himself on fire in protest against the US-backed, South Vietnamese government. “Doesn’t anybody care?” she wonders out loud. A few years later, she screams at President Lyndon B. Johnson when he appears on the television screen, “Fucking liar!”
Meanwhile, Newark is disintegrating, economically and socially. Large-scale rioting erupts in 1967, and the Swede and one of his black employees do what they can to prevent the company’s building from being torched. Merry, still only a teenager, is more and more restive (and abusive) at home. She begins making forays into New York City, where she evidently meets with “extremist” radicals of one stripe or another. Back in Old Rimrock, she rails against her parents for their wealth and self-satisfaction. Her mother says simply, “She hates me.” Shockingly, in February 1968, Merry plants a bomb in the local post office that kills a man.
The girl goes into hiding from the police and FBI. The Swede looks everywhere for her, to no avail. The ensuing pressures damage both he and his wife. Dawn has a nervous breakdown, and, ultimately, an affair.
Five years later, the Swede finds Merry, now a follower of the ancient Indian religion, Jainism, which preaches non-violence, non-attachment to material possessions and suppression of all desire and will. She lives in filthy, dangerous conditions in an abandoned building in Newark’s inner city. Her father tells Merry that “you have taken punishment into your own hands,” and that the government would not have treated her so badly. He beseeches her to change her conditions, but she is prepared to accept with utter submissiveness whatever fate has in store for her. The perfect postwar existence envisioned by the Swede and his wife has become an unbearable nightmare.
John Romano’s screenplay and McGregor’s film use only a portion of Roth’s expansive novel. They concentrate on the Swede’s refusal, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how insane his daughter seems, to give up on Merry. McGregor and Fanning are moving in their final scenes.
This film version of American Pastoral does not delve deeply into American life and discontent in the 1960s. It tends to take events such as the Vietnam War, the Newark riots, the general crisis of the inner cities, the decline of American manufacturing, Weathermen-type terrorism and other momentous developments largely for granted. They are little more than the scaffolding on which the film attempts to hang its father-daughter love-tragedy.
Since the dramatic social events are hollowed out for the most part, drained of their greatest significance, it is not surprising that the results on screen are limited, generally humdrum and often unpersuasive. It does not help matters that McGregor is a talented but somewhat passive actor, and that he has brought that passivity to his directing. American Pastoral is oddly flat and uninvolving for the most part, despite the convulsions it represents.
The performers do their best. Connelly is fine as the well-meaning, beleaguered wife and mother. She has become a much better actress. Peter Riegert is amusing as businessman Lou Levov, “one impossible bastard,” as his other son, Jerry (Rupert Evans), describes him in the novel. Fanning is very good in those sequences that make sense. McGregor is weaker than usual, but one can imagine that directing his first film must have made serious demands on him. He never strikes one as a Jewish manufacturer from Newark, Nordic-looking or otherwise, nor does the film as a whole smack much of the city or the era.
But American Pastoral is not generally successful because of another, more elemental problem, the novel itself and the fact that it does not genuinely hold together.
For the most part, American Pastoral is a wonderfully written, rich, funny and deeply sad work. Roth is at the top of his game here. A host of characters make their appearance, and most of them receive humane and understanding treatment, even tenderness, when that is possible. He writes persuasively about relations between the sexes, between the generations, between Jews and Catholics, between blacks and whites. He writes about love and friendship.
Roth writes about many things, including amusingly/painfully about the difficulty of ever getting other people right: “You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. … And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.”
One might argue that Roth’s novel is a profound book about nearly everything except its central subject, postwar American life.
The book simply doesn’t add up. Merry as a character doesn’t add up. It’s not good enough to make her “the monster daughter,” “the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter.” The Swede complacently imagines that he can pick up and leave Newark and live in the semi-countryside, with his beauty queen wife, and raise a perfect child, and that everything will go on like that forever. Instead, according to Roth, “the daughter and the decade [the 1960s]” end up “blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking.” The daughter “transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counter pastoral––into the indigenous American berserk.”
The Swede is “our Kennedy,” a man “whose discontents were barely known to himself,” a man awakened “in middle age to the horror of self-reflection. All that normalcy interrupted by murder.” However, it is never entirely clear whether the Swede, in some sense, “deserves” his fate, because he is so deluded and misguided about life, or whether he has simply been unfortunate enough to spawn a psychopath.
In any event, what is this “indigenous American berserk”? Roth won’t agree of course, but what seem to him entirely mad acts of individual violence are nothing more, in the end, than particular expressions of the savagery of social relations as a whole in America. The “most democratic republic” has always generated the most ruthless class struggle, and features a ruling elite that is essentially criminal from head to toe. It is official, everyday, state-sponsored and state-organized violence that powerfully communicates itself and sways the most vulnerable members of American society.
The novel passes lightly over the bloody Newark riot of July 1967, which lasted for six days and brought the National Guard onto the city’s streets. The upheaval is largely seen from the standpoint of the small businessman who fears his windows will be smashed. Roth has the right to adopt whatever point of view he likes, but can he see no connection between the ferocity of the riot, whether he “approves” of it or not, and the general state of American society? (Or was this simply more of the “American berserk”?) Was the turmoil an aberration, a “race riot”––or an expression, occurring in one of the most economically devastated industrial cities, of the real state of things in the country? And social inequality is far deeper and economic decline far more advanced today than in 1967.
Roth waxes indignant at Merry “the murderer.” His attitude toward her is extreme, almost violent. Her actions in the novel are certainly indefensible. But the Weather Underground and similar organizations, disoriented and politically bankrupt, managed to kill a handful of people (including several of their own members) over half a dozen years. The US government and military, on the other hand, murdered 3 million to 4 million Vietnamese and wounded or maimed millions more; destroyed countless villages and communities in massacres such as the one in My Lai; dropped 8 million tons of bombs (more than twice the amount dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II); used 20 million gallons of herbicide, including Agent Orange; shot napalm, which generates temperatures of 1,500°F to 2,200°F, from flame-throwers …
Roth, born in 1933, was shaped by the Cold War, anti-communism, illusions in American democracy and economic might more than he may realize. He did not permit himself in writing American Pastoral to come nearly close enough to the anger and shame that masses of young people in particular felt about the unspeakable crimes committed in their names––and, yes, some did nearly go mad over it.
Sadly, Roth took the easy way out in his often remarkable novel and turned Merry into a one-dimensional madwoman. This was Roth’s “bit of the [liberal-]philistine’s tail.”