Her name was Liz. Blonde, trim, attractive, well-spoken, 60-ish she was a long-time flight attendant for Northwest, now employed by Delta in the same capacity.
I first noticed her at the boarding gate just prior to departure while she was embroiled in an intense discussion with the two women working the counter.
Despite their increasingly hostile insistence, Liz politely but steadfastly refused to give up her assigned seat so that a young man—the son of another Delta employee — loitering nearby could take the overbooked flight to Orlando accompanied by the young woman standing beside him. If Liz did not go along with the proposal, the couple would have to travel on separate planes.
“No, I’m sorry,” she kept responding with a tight, apologetic smile. To give up her assigned seat would mean riding three and a-half hours in a jump seat – something she could do because she was a flight attendant, though not one working this particular flight – and she was not going to do that. “I’m coming off a four-day shift and I’ve been on my feet since 5:30 this morning,” she explained.
I couldn’t help admiring her willingness to stand up for herself and told her so when she ended up settling into the seat next to mine.
Still mildly agitated, she defended her refusal to give up her seat then went on to tell me about herself. A native Minnesotan, she used to own a place near Mille Lacs but moved to Florida to escape what she described as Minnesota’s “outrageous” income tax. She now lived out on Cape Canaveral, commuting 45 miles of toll roads three times a week to Orlando International. After 40 years as a flight attendant, she was looking forward to retiring so she could spend more time with her daughter and her daughter’s family.
“I’ll tell you something else I’m looking forward to,” she confided, resting her head on the seatback and closing her eyes blissfully. “Having more time to go to Tea Party rallies!”
Over the course of the next 20 minutes, she elaborated on her discontent with the state of things in America, countering my observations comparing Minnesota’s income tax with Florida’s regressive levy of toll roads and sales taxes on necessities like groceries and clothing by dismissing the latter as “user fees” rather than taxes. Repeatedly she referred with scorn to Barak Obama as “the little man in the White House,” until I couldn’t help myself.
“Little man in the White House,” I mused. “Are you referring to President Obama?”
Not yet on to my game, she grinned maliciously. “Yes,” she hissed. “The little man in the White House.”
“Little man,” I went on in the manner of someone trying to tease out a puzzle. “Is that the same as saying ‘The boy in the White House?’”
Suddenly suspicious, she regarded me with narrowed eyes. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well,” I pressed on in my best Socratic manner, “a ‘little man’ is a young male and another word for a young male is ‘boy.’ So, I’m wondering if you are referring to Barak Obama as ‘boy?’”
“I’m not a racist!” she snapped, shutting her eyes and foreclosing further conversation.
Sure, it’s easy to poke fun at people like Liz, as it is to poke fun at the the Tea Party in general, especially now that the ginned up “grassroots” movement – jumpstarted by populists like Rupert Murdoch, Dick Armey and the Koch brothers – has turned to grifters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck for leadership.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the Tea Partiers as just a bunch of rightwing nutjobs, and not just because they, like all of us, have legitimate reasons to be angry.
“What’s wrong with Kansas?” Thomas Frank asked in his book of the same name. Why would the citizens of a state economically challenged by global capitalism and culturally assaulted by media operated by that same capitalist system consistently support candidates and policies aligned to the interests of corporate capitalism — and at odds with the interests of ordinary Kansans?
The painful truth, though, is that we could just as easily ask “What’s wrong with San Francisco?” or “What’s wrong with Linden Hills?” In 2008, after all, Obama progressives were no less deluded about where their interests lay and who they should turn to for leadership as any periwigged participant of one of the Tea Party rallies Liz so looked forwarding to attending.
Indeed, deluded political behavior – born of distraction, misinformation, desperation and a host of other easily discernible causes – is the hallmark of the American electorate, liberal or conservative.
This is no accident; it is the signature achievement of Stage-4 consumer capitalism. To put it into different terms, the triumph of Stage-4 Capitalism is its transformation of nearly all of America’s 310 million residents into members of the lumpenproletariat, no matter their ostensible socio-economic status.
Initially identified in the 19th Century as a classless class of swindlers, con men, pimps, madams, street vendors and others inhabitating society’s fringe, the lumpenproletariat is characterized by the inability of its members to grasp their own class interest; instead, they tend to admire and even hope to emulate the very ruling class responsible for their immiseration and oppression.
As a result, over the past 200 years the lumpenproletariat have provided a rapt audience for reactionary demagogues like Glenn Beck who pose as populists but are in fact working hand-in-glove with the ruling elites. It was the lumpenproletariat that fell in behind Louis Napoleon – a swindler and confidence man worthy of a trading desk at Goldman Sacs – and it was members of the lumpenproletariat who fleshed out the ranks of black- and brownshirts marching along behind Mussolini, Hitler and Franco.
The big difference between this more traditional lumpenproletariat and the contempoary American version of it is that our lumpenproletriat don’t dwell at the fringes of society; they are right in the center, members of an increasingly beleaguered middle class. Almost to the last of us, all Amercians are lumpenproletariat now.
Exactly how this strange state of affairs came about — and what might be done to change it – will be the subject of my next blog entry.