By Andrew Wilk
I am a huge fan of schlocky 1950s science-fiction movies, and one of my favorites is "The Fly," starring the late Vincent Price. The basic story is straightforward enough: Something goes horribly awry in the laboratory, and Price's brother ends up as a monster sporting an insect head. Even worse, after this hideous monstrosity has killed himself out of sheer misery, his other half — the fly with the human head — finds itself trapped in a spider's web, screeching in terror as doom in the form of a particularly ghastly spider advances closer and closer.
Am I going too far if I say this all reminds me just a bit too much of our two political parties as we stumble through this stupendously screwed up period in our nation's history?
I'll leave it to wiser heads to decide which human/insect amalgam represents the Republicans and which the Democrats, but each shares a common fate with the mad scientist in "The Fly": catastrophe derived from the mistaken belief that they are a shade more intelligent than they actually are. Both of our major parties have unfortunately degenerated into mechanisms for collecting cash in exchange for dispensing favors to their respective constituencies in order to either gain or hold power, and each seems to believe they are clever enough to obfuscate and bloviate past the obvious difference between governing and campaigning — all this while simultaneously ignoring the laws of addition and subtraction.
It is not good for our citizens that government has become the de facto guarantor and overseer of virtually every part of our daily lives; by the same token, it is untenable to believe that all our problems instantly will be solved if we simply allow human avarice to be the law of our land. Like that monstrous fly composed of incompatible parts, we have created a system that is the worst of two extremes: a byzantine bureaucracy that still leaves tens of millions of our citizens to survive on their own — ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-educated, and fearful that they will be left to die should they actually become ill. At least we have well-staffed government agencies in place to count the carnage.
Nothing seems to be working as it should. We spend mind-boggling amounts on weapons systems that either don't work as advertised or are simply too expensive to risk in actual combat operations. We outspend the world on public education, but it was recently revealed, for example, that 80 percent of New York City high school graduates cannot read well enough to take college-level courses. Our financial institutions are so large and unwieldy that we have to let them off with relatively piddling fines rather than hold those in charge criminally liable for misdeeds as severe as laundering cash for drug cartels and terrorists — our fear being that charging bankers with crimes might precipitate an economic collapse that will destroy us all.
As for our local, state and federal politicians, they have become the screeching flies caught in a web, seemingly unable to govern because they are so completely beholden to those who keep them in power. It is not unsurprising that, according to a recent poll, more citizens than at any time since Watergate now identify government itself as the main problem confronting our nation. Why would we feel otherwise as we watch the daily dance of lobbyists and politicians divvying up the dollars with little concern for the costs and consequences that will land on the rest of us?
The city of Detroit — once a metropolis that was the incarnation of American power and ingenuity — has just gone bust. The incredible part of Detroit's demise is the many years — and decades — of warnings that a day of reckoning was coming, but still no level of government took sustained action to avoid a financial apocalypse. In fact, the real shame of virtually every problem we now face in our country is not simply that we cannot muster the will to solve them but that we have been so repeatedly and loudly warned about every single one.
It is not like no one cautioned us that speculative bubbles always pop, an aging population needs more medical care, pension payments come due, wars are expensive and brutal, infrastructure wears out, and lowering educational standards produces illiterate adults. Everyone knew there were risks and grave consequences to ignoring problems as they festered and grew, but for decade upon decade our politicians simply chose to ignore them. These were problems we could attend to some other day — far, far in the future when somebody else had to make the tough choices.
Is it any wonder that polls show more and more voters are characterizing themselves as independents — or are simply abandoning the political process? Our citizens are hungering for a third way, a path distinct from the options afforded us today — one that has less to do with choosing sides and more to do with teaching everyone to recognize that we are all in the same rickety boat together. Most of our nation is smart enough to realize that continuing to rock this boat pointlessly, refusing to work cooperatively, and insisting that it is every man (and woman and child) for oneself will result only in a faster trip to the bottom. Everyone must pitch in or we will, both figuratively and literally, be sunk.
Divide and conquer has long been a winning strategy in both war and electoral politics, but it is a lousy way to build a civil and successful society.
Walls can be built only so high; therefore, our best hope for solving our many problems is to acknowledge the difficulties we face, stop enabling status quo solutions that benefit the few at the expense of the many, and insist on accountability both in our own lives and at the voting booth.
Of course, the biggest problem we now face in finding an alternative path is that our two monstrous flies — our two major political parties — are anxious to preserve their own power and have erected a firewall of rules whose explicit purpose it to prevent any new political party from usurping their teetering domain. As frustrated as people are, they are highly unlikely to have anyone on the ballot beyond the man/fly and fly/man choices. Annoying, isn't it?
Perhaps, therefore, if we really want to effect change in our nation, we need to recognize that continuing to play by the existing rules is a losing strategy when someone else has written the rules to ensure they always win.
Perhaps the only way forward, should we be committed to keeping our ship of state afloat with all hands aboard, is to simply refuse to legitimize what exists today by finding lawful and visible ways to loudly and consistently proclaim we are done with all the double dealing, double standards, and double talk of both major political parties.
Perhaps we need to stop allowing ourselves to be told that everything that is ruining our lives is really for our own good and reject the pointless rules that are born in the petty minds of those seemingly unable to fully comprehend the actual problems people face every day. After all, now that you're sleeping in your car because cutting your job was necessary to pay the bonuses of the executives who took that taxpayer bailout, does it now actually help anything for your government to levy a fine if you are sold a soda larger than 16 ounces?
And perhaps now is the time to start swatting some flies — and keep right on swatting them until we have a real electoral alternative. Government is supposed to serve the needs of the governed — not the other way around. It is time we demand a national political party that remembers this simple but powerful truth.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.