Once upon a time, there was a country called America. It was a land of hope and glory, where the lowliest citizen could rise to the top of the heap, where few went hungry and the vast majority were well clothed and fed with the promise of better times ahead. In that land, there was no such thing as class; everyone was equal in the eyes of the state and no one was above the law. Everybody had a chance to be somebody.
Growing up in the Jamaican hills, I used to read about that America in a magazine called Saturday Evening Post. My mother subscribed to it, or some relative in America sent her a subscription. I was too young to know, or care, why it arrived in the mail. But I was enthralled by the window on the world it provided. What a world!
I can still see some of the pictures in that magazine – an ad for a streamlined new Chrysler, for example, and neatly turned out housewives standing in front of gleaming refrigerators, stocked with all kinds of yummy stuff. And I remember the short stories – romantic and optimistic, sending me a message that if I came to America, I, too, could drive a beautiful big car and have romantic encounters like these.
It never occurred to me to wonder why none of the pictures in the magazine showed black families. Or Hispanic families. Or Asian families. I took it for what it was. And what it was was tantalizing.
Of course, that America was largely a figment of Madison Avenue’s imagination. But for the white majority back in the Fifties, America was about as good as it gets. The War was over, Johnny had come marching home again, the ticky-tacky houses were mushrooming across the landscape, gardens were popping up behind white picket fences…
But it was all a mirage.
Beneath the surface of that apparently idyllic America, persistent injustices festered from sea to shining sea. Beyond America’s shores, the rest of the world was paying an unsustainable price to support the almighty dollar. And both at home and abroad, unseen forces were at work, plotting to subvert the country’s democratic system. Paid propagandists were deployed to spread a doctrine of selfishness, greed, hypocrisy and self delusion. The American dream could not survive these toxic realities.
Inevitably, the symptoms of a sick society are appearing.
In Salon.com today, an article reports the responses 400 billionaires had to a suggestion that they pay a little more taxes to help provide jobs for the unemployed millions. Hardly any of the billionaires thought that was a good idea.
Next to that story is a tale about a community of squatters at the edge of the California desert, 155 miles from San Diego. This land of hopelessness and disillusionment is known as Slab City.
The photo above shows one of the squatters, ex-Marine George Carranco. Here’s what Salon.com tells us about him and his new life:
Unwittingly, the 56-year-old Carranco had joined the latest wave of migrants to Slab City: refugees of the recession. Beaten down by a brutal economy, they’re straggling to this desolate outpost of societal dropouts to recover their wits and duck the national malaise.
Of course, Slab City is no city, and no picnic. Some 640 acres of state-owned sand and scrub near the Salton Sea, it offers no electricity, no sewerage, no running water. Once, it was a Marine training base. When it was decommissioned, nothing was left but the concrete slabs where barracks once stood. Gradually, people with souls to mend or demons to kill started camping on the slabs.
Maybe after the apocalypse the world would look like Slab City. Slabbers live in trailers, trucks and old buses scattered as though a twister had tossed them up and dropped them. Power comes from solar panels, batteries and portable generators — you’re rich here if you have one. Signs and structures are made from tires, wires and spare parts.
There has been no apocalypse yet, of course, just the slow rot of pervasive corruption and greed. And it seems to me that unless some action is taken to lance the abscess, America the beautiful is headed for an ugly decline.