Sunday, June 05, 2005

Is America a Family or Plantation?

One of our political parties has claimed to have family values that the other party lacks, and pundits on the left and right have embraced the similar idea that the right is a “stern father” and the left a “nurturing mother.” The real struggle in America though is between visions of America as family or a plantation, which is clear when you look at how each institution deals with various issues.

For example, the purpose of a family is to look after the welfare of all its members, however imperfectly it does that in reality. The purpose of a plantation is to use most of its members to support the welfare of the very few up in the big house.

Though the family does have a hierarchy of rank from child to parent to elder, it is assumed that as the child matures, he will share in the family decision-making process. On the plantation, though the older slave may become a field boss or even overseer, all real power stays with the plantation owner. Period.

The family wants to see its children grow in independence and autonomy. The plantation wants to see its children grow in blind obedience and respect for authority.

The family sees religion as a way for children to grow and understand the world around them. The plantation only allows and encourages religion to the degree that it teaches obedience and hierarchy.

It is the same with education. In a family, education is meant to build independence of thought and self-reliance. The plantation only wants you to know what makes you an effective worker, and all other knowledge is cut off and feared.

The family sees it’s members as individuals. If the parents harbor dreams of their children becoming doctors or lawyers but they instead decide to become mimes or fashion designers, well the parents get used to it because having the relationship with the child is the most important thing. If a child of the plantation doesn’t want to pick cotton and the master doesn’t see how his alternative occupation immediately profits him, that child will be beaten senseless until he sees the wisdom of picking cotton.

If someone falls sick in a family, the family does whatever it takes to make them well, staying home from work to make chicken noodle soup, driving the patient to the doctor, and re-arranging finances to pay the medical bills. If someone on a plantation falls ill, a cost benefit analysis is done. If the future work of the slave is worth more than the cost of treating him, he lives. If the master can’t profit by restoring him to health though, he will be left to die. If it is a sharecropper plantation instead of a slave one, the sharecropper would be over-charged for some medical attention that his family will still be paying for well after his death.

This would be the same if someone became a thief, addict, or worse. The family would fret and try various combinations of tough love and treatment, all aimed at preventing the person from harming themself or others. The plantation owner sees this in purely economic terms. If it profitable to repair the slave, he will do so. If the addiction improves his work output and prevents rebellion and resentment, it is not a problem. If there is money to be made off of feeding the addiction of his slave and those on neighboring plantations, say by selling drugs or building prisons for addicted slaves, he will do so. If there is no way to profit from this defect, the slave will be killed.

Ironically, the plantation spends more time talking about being a family, especially when the slaves are getting disgruntled, and need to be reminded how lucky they are to get their half cup of gruel a day as they serve the master. A real family doesn’t have to say how great the family is—its members see it in action and feel it everyday.

In a family, people have intrinsic value in and of themselves, no matter what they do. On a plantation, people have value as things, a money making piece of equipment in the account books. When they no longer make money, they are removed from the books, and never thought of again.

The saddest thing about this analogy is that for the most vocal advocates of the plantation model, it isn’t an analogy at all. They worked their fields with people they bought and sold for hundreds of years, and for another hundred years they charged the field workers for the privilege of being treated little better. This is the model of human society not just in the American South but throughout the world for most of human history—most work for the good of the few, and the middle class lifestyle many of us enjoyed in America has been a brief, happy exception. Now all of America is being sold down the river to the plantation, and like the sharecropper, we can never quite come out ahead as our debts mount but the master always has money to build another wing on the big house and spends the day drinking mint juleps on the porch while he tells us how lucky we are to have a master who tolerates our lazy and shiftless ways.

And just as that master in the South didn’t willingly let the slave have a place at the table as an equal, we cannot today expect the same corporations that send our jobs overseas, make education harder to get by demanding tax cuts then avoiding paying them anyway, charge us 30% on credit card debt, deny us health benefits, and try to deny us healthcare even when we pay for our policies, will voluntarily start treating us like members of the family. We need to act as we would if our brother or child has been kidnapped and forced to work on a plantation, and no one in authority will lift a finger to rescue them. Because our family, our country, has been kidnapped, and those we elected because we thought they saw us as family are quietly sitting on the porch, drinking mint juleps with the master.

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