George Orwell and fin de siecle America

I returned to New York from the four corners area in early 1998 and saw an economy that had completely decoupled from reality.  I was born in Westshecter County in 1965 and lived there until 1994.  When I returned in 1998, there was money pouring into NYC from all over the world and the Russian debt crisis and “Asian Contagion” did very little to slow it down.

By the time the tech crash and 9/11 attacks had tamped down somewhat on the economy, I had moved to Maine to teach high school there.  While in Maine, I picked up a copy of George Orwell’s essays and read it through.  I love his up front style.  In particluar, there were two sections of Such, Such Were the Joys dealing with Edwardian England that struck me as particularly relevant to America in those years.

There never was, I suppose, in the history of the world a time when the sheer fatness of wealth, without any kind of aristocratic elegance to redeem it, was so obtrusive as in those years before 1914…

The extraordinary thing was the way in which everyone took it for granted that this oozing, bulging wealth of the English upper and upper-middle classes would last forever…

The goodness of money was as unmistakable as the goodness of health or beauty, and a glittering car, a title, or a horde of servants was mixed up in people’s minds with the idea of actual moral virtue…

By the social standards that prevailed about me, I was no good, and could not be any good.  But all the different kinds of virtue seemed to be mysteriously interconnected and to belong to much the same people.  It was not only money that mattered: there were also strength, beauty, charm, athleticism and something called “guts” or “character,” which in reality meant the power to impose your will on others…

That was the pattern of school life – a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak.  Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous that other people – in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way.  Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right.  There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.

This British idyll was, of course, ruptured by The Great War of 1914.  Personally, what I was seeing in those six months I spent in NY between January and August of 1998 was a mad scramble for a declining piece of what was once middle class America, but which had become harder and harder to come by since the 1970’s.  Remember that this was the beginning of the school shootings and the height of Rudolph Guiliani’s  reign as mayor.  The Abner Louima incident had occured the previous summer and 1998 would see Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond killed by NYPD as well an eruption of no-knock warrants and repeated stop and searches in minority neighborhoods.  I remember one statistic as being that 45,000 people in Brooklyn were stopped on the street and questioned by NYPD and 10,000 were cited for some offense, which means that 35,000 people were harassed by NYPD for no apparent reason.

Well, the page will turn in 8 days, and hopefully we can say good-bye to the Bush era and move on to a real effort to realize the potential of this country and its people.  This nation can no longer survive with its citizens focused on “me and mine.”  Rather, we must look out for all of US.  Peace.


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  1. ..but at a community college.

    I’m too strict for high school nowadays!

    • Edger on January 13, 2009 at 00:10

    can no longer survive with its citizens focused on “me and mine.”  Rather, we must look out for all of US.  Peace.

    Well said, freeman bevan. And welcome to DD. I for one hope you’ll write more here. 🙂

  2. further research of global things, issues, “free” trade and how Obomber is far from the solution of what really ails the soon to be third world country called America.  I am 53 so I have lived what used to be middle class America and seen the deliberate and engineered decline for the sole purpose of keeping the few elite parasites in caviar, massages and corporate jets.  Does not speak well of the human species does it.  Globalism is the enemy as the human species has figured out how to profit off the backs of highly oppressed people, ie, the financial houses of the western world in spite or moral concerns funding China and India in an industrial gold rush of unprecendented proportions simply because these two countries were named as “carbon exempt” in 1993 well before Big Al made “carbon trading” another Wall Street type ponzi scam.

  3. Good thoughts!  Unfortunately, I think it all goes much deeper, as Lasthorseman points out above.  

    Other countries, such as India, Tibet, etc. have been ruled under “serf systems.”

    I think we, the so-called middle-class in this country, have also been under a “serf system.”  I think it’s there (camouflaged) — it’s simply not recognized as such or spoken of as such.  With exceptions, of course, it’s very hard for those at a “poor” plateau to move beyond that, likewise, it is very hard for so-called “middle class” to move beyond that plateau and their whole ship, so to speak, can sink with a major illness, loss of job(s), etc.  

  4. by Riane Eisler.

    A great discussion of European pre-history and contrast between patriarchal dominator cultures and non-hierarchical partnership cultures.

    I think that we need to turn more towards a regional self-sufficiency based economy (with inter-regional trading).

    I once began to research the regionalism movement of the 1930s for a course on culture I was taking, but got sidetracked into something else.

    If we view this economic dislocation as just another bump in the road to universal prosperity, we are in for a series of unpleasant surprises.  Rather, this is an opportunity to continue the work begun in the 1930s, 1960s and other eras of social transformation.

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