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Larry Beinhart's Body Politic: The Grand Bargain 

click to enlarge DION OGUST
  • Dion Ogust

The America I grew up in had full legal segregation in the South. By now, we have a couple of generations that barely know what that means. Who can't imagine laws that mandated schools, including universities, for whites only. That in many states it was a felony for whites and blacks to marry. Plus a host of other laws and rules that kept the races separate in every aspect of life—where they could live, what jobs they could hold, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, riding buses and trains, using public restrooms, what beaches, parks, and playgrounds they could use.

All the rest of the country had de facto segregation, though not by law. There were no blacks in white neighborhoods, a practice enforced by all sorts of contracts, covenants, bank lending, local ordinances, and, on the rare occasions when all that failed, by intimidation and violence. Schools were kept segregated in much the same way. New York City, then, as now, the most liberal and cosmopolitan place in the nation, was a segregated society. As someone who lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was probably less than 5 percent white (I didn't actually get that white people were a majority group until I went away to college in upstate New York), I was very aware when I went to Manhattan it seemed all white from the Battery up to 110th Street. Greenwich Village was the exception, with a smattering of people of color, all apparently musicians, writers, or artists—rather like the demographics of Woodstock today.

I didn't think it was unlikely—I thought it was impossible—that I would see a black president in my lifetime.

When I was growing up, married people on television didn't have sex lives, they slept in twin beds. Depicting, examining, even joking about sex in speech, in print, and in pictures could be criminal acts. In 1964, Lenny Bruce was arrested and convicted for using obscenities in a stand-up comedy performance at the Café Au Go Go in New York.

Is it possible to even conceive of anything a stand-up comic could say today that would be considered obscene enough to launch a prosecution? Can we imagine HBO or Showtime without all the proud nipples and bared, blemish-free bottoms? Or regular (sort of regular) TV prosecuted for "Sex Box," "Dating Naked," "Naked Castaway," or "Naked Office" (a UK show, not yet replicated in these United States). Let alone the Internet without pornography, classified, by actual count of one website, into 1,140 separate categories.

One of Lenny Bruce's best routines was about a prison break. In it, he refers to the prison having a gay wing. That wasn't a part of the prison that segregated homosexuals, it was for people incarcerated for being gay. Arrests for being gay, acting gay, and hanging out in gay places were routine in New York as elsewhere. That may seem long ago and far away, but it wasn't until 2003 that the Supreme Court struck down the peculiar "sodomy" laws—against specific sexual acts, any and all of which heterosexuals can, and do, engage in—that were used to criminalize homosexuality. With all that, I might have thought that homosexuality would be decriminalized, but I would never have expected that gay marriage would become legal.

Then there's reefer, ganja, weed. Between 2001 and 2010 there were 8.2 million arrests for marijuana. Roughly 12 percent of the people in federal prison are there for marijuana offenses. Now there's medical marijuana in 23 states and full recreational use in two. Legal weed! Who would have believed there would be legal weed?

Yes, the Right makes the most noise. Yes, they dominate the talky-talk to such a degree that all political candidates do Bible babble affirming how their faith inspires them in spite of the fact that they're running for office in a country with a constitution that says "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" style speeches Yes, the anti-abortion movement is hacking away at a woman's right to choose so that, de facto, in many places, a great many women can't get an abortion. And yes, de facto segregation persists and we continue to find new and inventive ways to have all-white and all-black schools and communities.

Still, overall, the Left is winning the Culture Wars. More and more people can have sex in more and more ways, talk about it, share it, and display it. And we can all get stoned. Not just on prescription meds, ever more widely distributed, but now on nature's own green high. However hard, and effectively, many people work to maintain separate schools and separate neighborhoods, nobody actually defends the ideology of segregation (except David Brooks of the New York Times, who compared integration to Communism, well intentioned but doomed to failure by human nature). Even the right to kill black men, just because they look scary, is being called into question.

But while that has happened, the Right has been winning the economic wars—all the economic wars. One of the great peculiarities is that in the culture wars, the Right represents a broad spectrum of people. In economic matter,s the Right represents the interests of a very small segment of society. And as they grow ever richer and more powerful, that segment, the top 10 percent, has narrowed to a slice, the 1 percent, and down to a sliver, 0.1 percent.

Our dominant myth is that earnings and wealth come from hard work and talent. That poverty is the result of indolence and indulgence. So the rich are to be admired and the poor are to be despised.

From the 1930s to 1960s, when productivity—dollar value produced per hour of labor—increased, general income increased. Since the 1970s, all the profits from increased productivity have gone to the top. Since 1980, incomes have risen only for the top 1 percent. While wages stagnate, corporate profits get higher and higher.

Are we to believe that starting in the 1970s and accelerating in there 1980 there was a sudden upsurge of talent among one out of a hundred? That simultaneously 99 percent of Americans got lazier, laxer, and looser?

Or could it be, must it be, that beyond a certain degree the concentration of and the accumulation of wealth is a matter of policy and that policy is the result of the exercise of power. That these trends have been launched by the simplest of all means, cutting taxes for the rich. They have been accelerated and sustained by breaking down the only source of economic power for the non-wealthy, unions. Power shifts the money, then money buys even more power. So now we have a Supreme Court that believes that corporations are people, super-people with more rights than mere mortals, that money is speech and therefore the First Amendment protects unlimited spending and it is natural for elected officials to be particularly responsive to the people who pay them in technically legal ways.

So we—the 99 percent—have sex, sexy entertainment, more universal marriage, less racism, good stuff to smoke, while the 1 percent has that and all the money, too. What a deal!

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