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Fear and loathing in American politics

February 2012, no. 338

Fear and loathing in American politics

February 2012, no. 338

The Princeton Post Office, as befits this famed university town, has a certain grandeur. It is small – Princeton is a village after all – and modest in its proportions, but grand in aspiration. As you step through its panelled doors your gaze is drawn by the long parade of milk-glass and bronze lights towards the mural that adorns the far wall. Like the White House murals, it is lofty, but almost domestic in its depictions of American history, American hope, American mythology. Men in knee breeches and white hose smile benignly upon a representative assembly – the Native American, the Black Man, the reclining Woman, posed amid a harvest of plenty and the symbolic paraphernalia of learning, with Princeton’s historic Nassau Hall receding behind, distant like a Tuscan hill town, and the Muse at the mural’s centre exhorting Old and New World comers alike:

America! With Peace and Freedom blest
Pant for True Fame and scorn inglorious rest
Science invites, urg’d by the Voice divine
Exert thyself ’till every Art be thine

My fellows in the long, slow queue stare when I scribble down the scrolled words. ‘Pant for True Fame’ is obscured by one of the tottering blue cardboard racks of DIY postal apparatus that desecrate the oak interior. I risk my place in the line to find out whether the word is ‘pant’ or ‘fight’. There is not much inglorious rest about this queue. I think I am the only person who ever so much as looks at the mural.

But when you reach the one open postal window, there to greet you is the smiling, infinitely genial Mr Ron Clark. Over the years Mr Clark has grown used to Australians telling him that he bears a famous Australian name. And he is old enough for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to be part of his world, of his race memory. We trade memories and accents. His ‘Gidday ma-y-te’ is enthusiastic, though not wholly convincing. I always leave the post office in a very good mood. Curiously, so do most of Mr Clark’s customers. Impatience melts in the face of his implacable courtesy.

But individual American charm and exemplary kindliness cannot disguise the fact that the US Postal Service is in serious trouble. It is caught in the universal trend towards email and e-commerce and by the particular American burden of health care provision for its circa 600,000 employees, plus a Congress-mandated requirement that it prepay approximately $US75 billion in employee retirement benefits. Attempts to diversify profitably – as Australian post offices have done – are resisted both by the competition and by the competition’s political friends in Congress. No wonder these once proud edifices have such a ramshackle air. But who is to blame? The truth about the postal service’s financial health (or terminal illness) is hard to come by. Like Qantas, it suffers from clouds of witnesses, some of them working at the executive level of the service itself. And all around it, like a doomsayer’s edict, hangs the very American conviction that any government institution must, by definition, be inefficient, bloated, socialist – European.

And yet Americans love their Saturday mail delivery, their pick-up from the door-slot service, the frontier symbolism of the mail always getting through. Carved into the Corinthian-columned exterior – two blocks long – of New York’s Eighth Avenue James A. Farley Post Office is this boast: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’ But something is going to stay the Eighth Avenue couriers, because their Post Office is currently being gutted and refashioned into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Station. Rail commuters will cheer. The grandeur that was lost when the adjacent Penn Station was demolished and rebuilt into tawdry commercial catacombs will be restored.

But what of the 120,000 federal postal workers whose jobs are currently in jeopardy? What will they make of the proposed transformation? Will a mail clerk in a small town in Louisiana be bemused by American paradox when her local post office is closed and she is laid off? Will she be consoled by latter-day manifestations of American grandeur and exceptionalism in an age of austerity? Or will she simply decide that she won’t bother to come out and vote any more because American democracy no longer works for her.

In a different political age, the grand station project would be regarded as nation building, part of a getting-back-on-track process that involves collective purpose and a willingness to fund crucial infrastructure through taxation, including the relinquishing of tax cuts for those already well off – the wastrel legacy of George W. Bush. It is not as though America doesn’t have mighty precedents: Roosevelt’s New Deal, or the postwar nation building under Eisenhower, with its focus on science, on space research, on education, on the building of highways. But in this political age, with its bunkered-down individualism and entrenched suspicion of government initiative, America can’t even fix its bridges, let alone put a man on the moon.

The inertia is shocking to an outside observer. It is shocking to Americans themselves, but the remedy – revenue raising and a reassessment of the way of life that George H.W. Bush declared ‘not negotiable’ – seems to be even more shocking, or unacceptable. So the connective tissue of this vast country stretches and severs. When a vital commuter bridge in Philadelphia fell down last Fall, I listened agape as Public Radio traffic reports detailed the ensuing chaos, but not the action being taken to fix the problem. Why no fix? Because so many of the states are broke. And yet the resistance to raising taxes or to readjusting tax rates to ensure greater equity seems stronger than the will to keep Americans in work. So teachers and firefighters are let go, and the labour force that might be employed to fix the bridges, rebuild the highways, and service the hospitals goes looking for a job at Walmart, or onto the brutally time-limited dole queue. There are fourteen million people officially unemployed in America.

When President Obama addressed a joint sitting of Congress to present his Jobs Bill on 8 September last, in a speech that reminded America yet again of the rhetorical skills, the resolve and the wit to tell it straight, of their elected leader, the response from the Republicans was a frankly insulting silence followed by the kind of stonewalling that renders government impotent and Washington – the president included – indiscriminately loathed.

While Congress dithered, the circus of the Republican debates commanded the available media attention. Late-night comedians had a high old time with Texas Governor Rick Perry as he made an ass of himself, with Herman Cain for his ‘Like a Virgin’ routine, and with the newly righteous Newt Gingrich. But the spectacle was degrading, the satire jaded, and one longed instead for an acerbic Auden to revisit a dive on Fifty-second Street and decry, again, ‘a low dishonest decade’.

But poets and prophets don’t get much airspace in America’s public world. ‘Exert thyself ’till every art be thine’ is not an aspiration to catch the contemporary imagination or find a place in the platform of a presidential aspirant. Early in the Republican primary season, Mitt Romney, keen to divest himself of an inconveniently ‘liberal’ political past (progressive social policy and popular health care legislation during his time as governor of Massachusetts) did some prospective triage on American cultural institutions such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Public Broadcasting Service. All nice enough things to have, he allowed, but in hard times maybe they weren’t what a good presidential candidate would call necessary.

As for ‘Science invites’: well, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, who will not win the Republican nomination, most Republican candidates reject the scientific consensus on global warming, and a lot of other science besides. Mitt Romney at least vacillates. (On the human contribution to climate change: ‘It could be a little. It could be a lot.’) But he is not going to inspire a boom in alternative energy production. When an American scientist wins a Nobel Prize (as so many of them do), there is a flurry of media attention. But national pride does not lead to serious listening. American ignorance about science is frightening. American suspicion of intellectual élites (the president and First Lady included) is plain dangerous.

There is a publishing industry now devoted to analysing the short Obama years. The tone is often elegiac. Much of the commentary blithely or wilfully ignores the context in which the forty-fourth president has had to operate. It underplays the Republicans’ concerted resistance (and the implicit racist subtext of that resistance) to any legislative initiatives associated with Obama. It takes scant account of the conservative bent of the Supreme Court or of the corrupting effects of its unleashing corporate money into the electoral funding process through ‘Citizens United’. It neglects to mention the super majority required to get legislation passed (‘Why isn’t he Roosevelt?’), even during the period when the Democrats enjoyed a majority. Strong on frustrated hopes, the critics fail to acknowledge achievements: the revival of the American car industry; health care legislation; the withdrawal from Iraq; the elimination of Osama bin Laden. Under George W. Bush, the death of bin Laden would have been heralded as a victory – a mission genuinely accomplished. Under Obama, it is construed as a civil rights violation, or ignored, as foreign affairs generally are in this economy-obsessed country. As the 2012 elections approach, the scandal of Republican attempts to limit people’s voting rights (particularly in electorates where African Americans and Hispanics constitute a majority) has become an open one, drawing action from Attorney General Eric Holder. Too little too late cry the pundits. But what do they expect if the Republicans win?

I am not blind to the failures, the stumbles, the miscalculations, and the ill-advised appointments that have marred the Obama administration. They are endlessly documented. And if the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street was not initially so decried in the general population as it was in the press, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ has now made its condemnation a cause. But in its willingness to blame rather than build, in its impatience with Obama’s attempts at conciliation (‘banal’, according to some) and with its lethally short memory, America risks squandering an historic opportunity, and the talents of one of the most intelligent and thoughtful presidents it will ever have.

Just before I left Princeton late last year, I heard that the Post Office, a prime piece of real estate overlooking fashionable Palmer Square, was to be sold and the business relocated. I hope not. Hope is a resilient, not just an audacious virtue. And Mr Ron Clark is an indispensable part of American experience.


Postscript - August 2020

The Post Office is now gone from its central location in the town – relocated to a flimsy makeshift building down the far end of Nassau Street, a long walk from the campus, from the residential halls with their far-from-home students, and from the bustling life of the town. I am glad Mr Clark retired before he had to watch his workplace diminished and dishonoured.

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