All societies are defined by the two social orders under which their members live, and in this America is no different. One involves the culture, cravings, conspicuous consumption, and civic responsibility of the moneyed class. The other involves the daily trials, tribulations, triumphs, and tragedies of the common people – defined as those not fortunate to have been born into perpetual wealth.
Americans, with our self-styled meritocracy, have always had an uneasy relationship with class. After all, ours is a society in which the hard working and industrious individual can break through the boundaries of birth and “make it to the top,” or so the occasional legend goes. And, yet, the definition of “top” has morphed into a glass ceiling through which it is increasingly impossible for any but the most fortunate to break through. Indeed, the America of the 21st century may well be defined as the rule of the “common” class, in which some form of meritocracy still exists, by an oligarchy that shrouds itself in the cloak of a kleptocratic government that may resemble a democracy from the outside, but which is ever diverging from the agenda of the unwashed masses it claims to represent.
Perhaps this partially explains our fascination with the military. It is an institution, after all, that somewhat earnestly attempts, in its modern incarnation, to model itself after the American ideal of equal opportunity – to any that can hold a rifle or push a button – and in which those of poor-born roots can still work their way up through the system and into positions of real power. A model, by the way, from which our august system of higher education, with its gated ivy league pastures, increasingly deviates. For while our military still promises to elevate those who have the aspiration to rise up, our academic institutions are in danger of becoming a two-tiered system: one for the masses, and one the playground of the moneyed class, through which it can bar entry to the rungs of power to all but a chosen few.
But it was not always this way. The great American middle class owes itself, in no small part, to a public system of affordable higher education that was once the envy of the world. And, no more than a generation or two ago, the military suffered through the public wrath of two highly unpopular wars which was, in no small part, due to the forced induction of the poor, who were subsequently shipped off to fight in the service of corporate aggression. A lesson not lost on the current crop of armchair warriors, by the way, who have succeeded in funding a trillion dollars of popularized hostility against the “Islamic Hordes” in the hallowed name of freedom, and the fight against terror.
For, despite all its talk of world peace, this is a nation that now loves its military. Perhaps not in the way of those societies that prefer to show their adulation through the public display of marching soldiers and powered weaponry, but certainly through our movies, media, and “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” where millions can collectively enjoy the war-porn thrill of demolishing the enemy without the fear of disfigurement and psychological distress encountered by our military hospitals, which overflow with forgotten heroes.
And, of course, this love of the military has spilled over into our civilian paramilitary organizations: specifically the law enforcement community and federal agencies on which depend the functioning of an orderly society. For long gone are the wistful days of the fictionalized neighborhood peace officers of Mayberry yore, replaced by Kevlar-clad warriors dressed out in the latest urban pacification gear, with shiny boots perfectly suited, as Orwell would say, for crashing down on a face, and with little pretense as to which of our two social orders they serve. For the moneyed masters that employ our democratically elected leaders have little tolerance for the freedom of assembly, organized protest, public display of disorder, civil disobedience, and the other trappings of a healthy, representative republic.
It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Indeed, everyone over the age of five understands that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But the American fantasy requires the appearance of equal justice under the law, and thus an immense sense of outrage when it is not. It is quite the experience when one finds oneself on the business end of the electric prod, rubber bullet, pepper spray, nightstick, and other instruments used to remove people from what used to be considered constitutionally protected activities. One begins to understand how twisted the rule of law is when confronted in the courtroom by the best legal team that corporate money can buy. The halls of justice are quite lonely for those who seek to challenge the establishment, even in the face of obvious wrongdoing.
And, yet, the spirit of democracy still lives in the hearts and minds of the masses. One still has a feeling of accomplishment at the ballot box, even though the system has been hopelessly gerrymandered. Gone are the water hoses and the attack dogs and the open intimidation. People of all races and sexes are allowed to participate, though against varying levels of institutionalized disenfranchisement. And, occasionally, the tide of public desire can still overwhelm even the strongest defense of the moneyed elite, and liberty survives to fight another day.