BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 17, 2010
As someone who has long believed that there is something morally repellant about living in a country that prides itself on being the greatest democracy in the world but where the top one-tenth of one percent of the people "earn" as much money per year collectively as the entire bottom fifty percent of working people, I would like to offer a modest proposal that might "level the playing field," as the popular saying has it, and thus provide a foundation for a democracy worthy of the name. Instead of the old Marxist plan to redistribute property--and let's face it, that always took a bloody revolution and even then, it didn't always work out so well--how about redistributing babies at birth, a kind of big baby lottery?
Since it is a matter of sheer luck whether one is born into a rich family and then, as a birth-right, is entitled to first-class housing, top-flight health insurance, excellent schools, and, if need be, the best attorneys money can buy, or whether one is born into a poor or middle-class family and not be assured of getting any of these amenities, why not give rational order to what has been a wildly haphazard and obviously unjust state of affairs? A public program implementing the big baby lottery would at last make official what has in truth been the unspoken ethos of our government policy for decades and is in accord with the casino way of life--the stock market, the housing market, the state lotteries--to which so many Americans are wholeheartedly committed.
And just think of the unexpected public benefits my little plan will reap, not least of which would be immediate racial harmony through the creation of integrated families--think Asian Obamas, black Kennedys, white Jacksons, the kind of thing trail-blazing mothers like Madonna and Brad Pitt's current wife and, lest she be forgotten, Mia Farrow have been achieving through adoption of "third-world" children, but now in our own backyard!
Forgive me, dear reader, if what I am about to observe appears at all vainglorious. But, since we are living in a time when our government comes to the aid and protection of the speculating rich yet leaves the speculating middle class and the unlucky poor to make their own fortunes, does not our moment seem propitious for implementing my plan for a just society? After all, the big-baby lottery would work like adoption, altruistically speaking, but now it would go both ways: Not only will poor and middle-class babies have a chance of landing in rich households, but also rich and middle-class babies will have an even better chance of ending up in poor households. Who knows, with all the atavistic attachment parents have to their precious genetic heritage, there is a good possibility that those who believe the Democrats’ health care plan is a socialist plot might suddenly see the light (and these days it is not only the insurance industry and their toadies in Congress that oppose it, but over half the Americans polled on the subject). Maybe those people who don't mind that children in inner-city public schools must pass through metal detectors before they get to eat their state-provided breakfast might feel a twinge of discomfort at the thought that those imperiled children might be their children--literally. I am of course not being so bold as to hazard any predictions here, but the big baby lottery could be a step toward igniting social consciousness and sympathy for the downtrodden on a scale that earlier reformers would never before have dared to dream. ...
I have been wanting to present this modest proposal ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but well-meaning friends have repeatedly cautioned me against it, for fear--baseless, no doubt--that my intentions will be misunderstood. The more I protest that my scheme is as clear as the night is long --the old New York lottery slogan "You gotta be in it, to win it" at last made universal; Rawls's theoretical "veil of ignorance" finally put into practice--the more insistent and stern and dour these same friends become: "You'll see, they will think you are trying to destroy their precious idea of the American family, the bedrock of society." "You'll see, they will accuse you of being a fascist, a Nazi." "I don't know," I reply. "I can imagine someone complaining about the kind of bureaucracy that would have to be created, I can imagine talk of bloated government, inefficiency, waste, you know, 'just look at the way the post office runs,' that kind of thing ...". But my friends were not amused. This gave me pause. Have we now come to the point, I wondered, that our shared sense of reality is so tenuous that something as outrageous to common sense as my big baby lottery will not immediately be recognized as political satire?
That this question could occur to me made me feel glum, downright alienated, but I put it to you, dear reader, has it escaped your notice that our public sphere has acquired an increasing feel of irreality? After hearing President Obama's truly modest proposal for how to "seize the moment," as he put it, and rescue Americans from the devastation caused by the financial collapse in his State of the Union speech and the even more humble alternative offered by the new bright night-light of the Republican party, Governor Bob McDonnell--the less government, the better, and this to a cheering crowd in his Potemkin-village State Capitol in Virginia--I found that I could not quite tell who was serious and who was not. The meagerness of their responses to the enormity of the hardships overwhelming so many blameless people is so flagrant that one might take it for satire--mild, even flat-footed satire, to be sure, but such intentional insults to the common sense of the American people certainly must be on account of something.
As chance would have it, just as I was trying to remember the last time I felt so disoriented--I think it was when Sarah Palin demonstrated her foreign-policy credentials by announcing, "As Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska"; and Tina Fey, exploiting our incredulity, brought "Saturday Night Live" back from the dead by simply repeating essentially the same utterances--my husband came in from the other room and told me he had just heard something very bizarre on a PBS radio show. The army had a new slogan: "Join the Army--It's just like a video game." I of course thought he was joking or that he had not been paying proper attention to the program. But, he replied, as he so often does these days, "You can't make these things up."
So I did what any responsible person with a computer would do and Googled the phrase. Sure enough, I found a three-minute news clip reporting that the army had set up a multi-million dollar "Army Experience Center" in a working-class suburban mall near Philadelphia outfitted with video games that simulate attacks on enemy positions from on-site army helicopters and humvees. What in the world was I watching? The Vietnam-era anti-war activist decrying the Army's tactics of trying to "indoctrinate children at the youngest age"; the Asian teenage girl being told by a recruiter sporting casual civilian clothes that "all the $18,000 [of your student loans] would be covered if you’d join the army as an officer"; the black teenage boy explaining to the camera that "I can either go and make something of my life or I can stand on the corner and deal drugs.” This news report so transparently manipulated and edified suspicions about how the military works these days that I could only conclude it was a rather bumbling piece of anti-American propaganda. So I decided to watch it again and--trust me, dear reader, I'm not inventing this--it turned out that it was an Al Jazeera broadcast. But, then again, on the Internet, who knows? It could just as easily have been a satire on propaganda that Al Jazeera might be suspected of broadcasting.
Then it dawned on me: It was a satire in its own right, exploding the cliche that young people can no longer tell the difference between the faux heroics and hyper-excitement of brutal war games on video and the gruesome, dangerous reality of actual war by turning it into a patently absurd army-recruitment slogan. Like Tina Fey mimicking Sarah Palin, what passes for satire today plays on our incredulity, presenting us with an exact replica of something real but at the same time so absurd that it beggars our belief. It gets a laugh, but what is missing is the wild, inspired, visionary flights of imagination that masters of satire like Jonathan Swift so excelled at. Through caustic hyperbole, Swift's "Modest Proposal" to raise Irish babies like cattle and sell them to Englishmen for dinner in order to eliminate overpopulation and poverty in Ireland made his first readers--and us, too, almost three centuries after them--see and feel how the world appears from the standpoint of common decency. Nobody writes like that any more and I could not help wondering if the extinction of satire that attempts to shame people into recognizing that there are things higher and worth striving towards than what merely happens to exist was a sign of just how poverty-stricken our moral, political, and literary imaginations have become.
Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic once again, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.