“American society is a sort of flat, freshwater pond, which absorbs silently, without reaction, anything which is thrown into it.” Henry Adams
The great grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams would still be right today about America except for the “silently, without reaction” part. America reacted to the Ferguson shooting of African-American Michael Brown by a white Ferguson cop on August 9th in reams of newspaper comments and posts on internet blogs. The media responded as well, reporting and then analyzing accurately and thoroughly on a few occasions, hastily and mindlessly on many more. (Media coverage has been and continues to be assessed in the pages of GJR.)
Ferguson is almost history (the grand jury’s decision may change all that, as the protests against the burning of a Michael Brown memorial on September 23 suggest). But recently columnists have been asking what the Ferguson aftermath might look like. A better question to be asking is this one: is there an aftermath at all?
There was, as New York Times reporter Dan Barry noted in his August 21 article (“Police, Protesters and Reporters Form Uneasy Cast for Nightly Show in Ferguson”) a “Groundhog Day feel that…infuses the exhausted but edgy production, known as the Ferguson protests.” There is a Groundhog Day feel as well about the exhausted and platitudinous analyses about what Ferguson “means” to America and what its aftermath might bring.
What school shootings or police killings in America produce is a tired and tiresome production: outrage boils over, hearts go out and prayers ascend for victims and their families and promises are made to avert such “tragedies” in the future. The magic word “change” is dangled before the eyes of community and country and devoutly wished for on town hall meetings on cable TV, where all participants are goody-two-shoes without a bigoted bone in their bodies. The comments in papers and on the internet tell us another story. And the hope for “real change” vanishes as soon as the next “tragedy” captures the attention of the media and the public.
The causes that led to the deaths of the children in Newtown or Michael Brown in Ferguson get the short stick of our attention. They are too unpleasant to confront and no band-aid and often short-lived reforms diminish their hold over the lives of Americans. “Real change takes time,” one columnist recently assured her readers. She didn’t ask how much time has gone by since “real change” improved the lives of middle-class and working-class Americans. And then followed up that question by asking why no change like that has entered their lives since the Reagan revolution sanctified greed as the American credo.
We know by now, from reports and surveys, that “the rich became permanently richer and the poor permanently poorer from 1987 to 2009,” and that “almost all of the rise of inequality is life-long.” (From a 2013 report by five economists from IRS data.) It cannot be a surprise, then, that a September 24 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch cites a new report underscoring that “Blacks (in the St. Louis area) are far more likely to live in poverty, to be unemployed and to drop out of school” than whites.
Racial inequities are class inequities as well. And that is, in part, why change for the better no longer enters the life of those Americans not in the top tiers of the income pyramid. FDR told a Canadian journalist in 1936 that “any honest government” tries to “increase the security and happiness of a larger number of people.” That’s why real change came to Americans during his administration with passage of such laws as the Social Security Act (1935) or Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) and later through the GI bill of rights (1944) and then during the administration of his disciple LBJ with the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Medicare (1965).
Those were the days, but they did end. Today, America dances to the music of the market. And the market has no morality. Real change would rock the boat of those whom the market has enriched beyond the imagination of “average” citizens. And yet most citizens continue to believe in the system and that capitalism is synonymous with participatory democracy. They are not aware of the warning the great British economist John Maynard Keynes gave them: “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greater good of everyone.” If they protest often enough and vote smartly, real change and happy days will wait once again just around the corner.
The Ferguson aftermath has not yet turned the corner. If past behavior is a good indicator of future behavior, and more often than not it is, around the corner is business as usual while the banner of change will be hoisted briefly around election time and stored in a lobbyist’s desk drawer for two or four more years.
A few black policemen may be recruited for the Ferguson police department and its military hardware may be put into storage. But if you hold your breath for “real change,” it’s your own fault and folly.