Next month, Americans will flock to theaters nationwide to be amused by the performances of Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler and Matthew Broderick in a remake of “The Stepford Wives.” I hope to see it myself. While I hasten to add that in these times, humor is essential to our survival, and that I do not wish to suggest that we all need to wear “American Gothic” faces, I find curious the timing of this Hollywood redux.
This week, it is virtually impossible to read, watch or listen to any mainstream media that is not extolling the godlike status of Ronald Reagan, one of the most egregious war criminals and mass murderers in American history. Journalists Robert Parry, Will Pitt and Greg Palast have all written incisive pieces documenting the criminal acts of the Reagan Administration, most notably, the Iran-Contra scandal and the largest theft in the history of the human race, the Savings and Loan outrage of the 1980s. Unquestionably, Ronald Reagan should have died in prison, not in his cushy estate in California. That the aforementioned historical facts are not being reported by mainstream media and only by alternative journalists is blatantly symptomatic of the robotic trance Stepford America prefers over the wrenching realities of the smiling, dottering, “sweet old man”, former B movie actor turned President. Meanwhile, the entire world, with perhaps the exception of Maggie Thatcher fans in the UK, is aghast with our need to lionize Reagan in the face of the heinous atrocities he permitted and promoted internationally in the name of ridding the world of the “evil empire.”
Progressive journalists commenting on the deplorable Reagan policies, both foreign and domestic, remind us that our current situation under George W. Bush, Jr. is directly traceable to Reagan’s rabid anti-communism and his contempt for all beings less privileged than he. Moreover, his administration marked the birth of a new generation of journalists who essentially function as sycophantic stenographers for the ruling elite. But was it only Reagan and the media which paved the way for the horrific policies of the current administration? For all their power, these institutions could not have succeeded in producing the devastation we see around us were it not for the American people who refuse to accept anything but a happy face.
Indeed, the happy face of Clinton smiled and told us that NAFTA and free trade would save the American worker. Today, the American middle class is facing extinction as a result of globalization and the outsourcing of jobs offshore -- a happy face, promoting lies. With a happy face, George Bush, Jr. assured us at the 2000 Republican Convention that America needed to have a humble foreign policy, all the while packing his administration with neoconservatives hell bent on world domination. With a happy face, he strutted across the Aircraft Carrier Lincoln dripping with testosterone, clad in flight suit and those pubescent straps between his legs to declare that the Iraq “mission” had been accomplished. With a smile—or more accurately, a repulsive smirk, the “bring-‘em-on’s” and the cavalier threats of hurling nukes at the “evildoers” have cost nearly a thousand American lives, and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives. With a swagger and a scornful sneer, we are “reassured” that the most tyrannical piece of legislation since the early Colonial Intolerable Acts, that is, the Patriot Act, makes all of us safe from the “terrrists.” With a happy face, the handpuppet of the oil/gas/timber industries, Interior Secretary, Gail Norton, promises that her environmentally-gutting giveaways to her cronies will profoundly purify our air and water. With a bubbly, elfin grin, Norton’s colleague, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, announces that America is now swimming in jobs, jobs, jobs. And how many recent college graduates, not swimming but drowning in student loan debt, did she interview—those who cannot and probably will not find jobs unless they move to India or Indonesia?
But here we are, in the ghoulish Iraq debacle, an economy in shambles, a nearly decimated middle class, a planet on the verge of catastrophic, environmentally-induced climate change, an administration that seriously believes that America’s incalculable arsenal of nuclear weapons built fifty years ago must now be upgraded and that the testing of those weapons in Nevada must soon resume. As if these realities weren’t dire enough, petroleum geologists inform us that oil production worldwide has peaked and that without immediate, radical conservation measures, our planet will experience a calamitous energy crisis within the next two decades that could eliminate millions of people from the earth. Is that what it will take for America to stop smiling—to stop demanding that our media present pleasant and pretty pictures of the Stepford world we cling to? In my college history classes, I have actually seen students drop the class after the first day because they sensed that I would not be teaching a Disneyland view of history where we could all hold hands and dance around the illusion of “America the beautiful.”
Forty-one years ago, America made a choice—a choice to take the path of the happy face. When the Warren Commission concluded its hideously mendacious report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans smiled and allowed themselves to be conned, lied to, jerked around, violated. When the Pentagon Papers revealed that the President and the military never really intended to win the Vietnam War but keep it going as long as possible, we stood enraged over our 58,000 dead men and women, but in 1980, we chose the happy face of the smiling old man. When Ronald Reagan illegally arranged for the sale of arms to Iran and allowed Oliver North to orchestrate massive cocaine trafficking onto the streets of the United States—both operations created to finance the Nicaraguan Contras—American Stepford robots clicked their heels and exchanged platitudes about what a great communicator Reagan was and how nice Nancy looked in red. As the “smiling old man” turned his head and looked the other way while his organized crime pals looted the savings and loan industry and WE were once again violated, we began bantering once more about what a wonderful country we live in. We knew that Reagan had created the monster named Saddam Hussein, and we saw the Gulf War coming. As thousands of our troops returned with mysterious illnesses, we reminded ourselves of the short little video game that the Gulf War had been and how it didn’t last very long. Later, like good little automatons, we became voyeuristically obsessed with the stains on Monica’s blue dress and allowed our government to spend $70 million dollars investigating the guy who put them there. And now, yet another president has impeachably lied his way into a war in collusion with a Stepford media while a Stepford Congress scarcely blinks an eye.
Are you still smiling? Have I depressed you yet? I speak not only about the masses, but to and about my progressive peers. Why do we continue to insist that we live in a democracy—that clean elections in America are possible when every particle of evidence proves the contrary? Why do we tell ourselves that we have a political system that “works” when we are faced with two candidates who are an echo of each other? Why do we persist in believing that we are not yet living in a fascist empire? According to Mussolini, "The first stage of fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power."
Of course, all those who prefer to remain optimistic will ask, “So what should we do? What is your solution?” My answer is that we should stop believing that the system works and that choosing the “right” candidate in a rigged game where a “right” candidate cannot even be nominated is not a viable option.
Over $2.3 trillion dollars is missing from the Pentagon. At least $59 billion dollars is missing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Our government tells us that it has no way to account for that money and no way to audit itself in the future. Without question, the same kind of financial mayhem is going on at the local level, and most assuredly, those dots of criminality connect with state and national theft on a massive scale. First, we need to organize locally and make local politicians accountable for our money. Secondly, we need to VOTE DAILY with our time and money by giving no time or funds to corporate news media. We need to patronize local banks and retailers and buy out of corporate consumerism as much as humanly possible. Most importantly, we need to inform ourselves daily through non-corporate, independent media, and spread that information far and wide. In my opinion, at this point in our history, we have little hope of influencing our government nationally, and certainly not by voting in rigged national elections, but there is much that we can do locally.
Yes, I know, you do not like to hear this option, and I am certain to receive scathing responses about it. It means that we have to stop hoping for the “good” President and vote responsibly hour by hour. Even more sobering is the reality that unless we want to remain Automaton Americans, we must face one of life’s cruelest lessons, namely, that in spite of everything we do to create a more just and humane world, there are no guarantees.
As never before, we must cling to whatever gives our lives meaning, to whatever we deem sacred. We can learn much about that from our departed sisters and brothers of the anti-Nazi resistance movements of the 1930s and 40s. Whether or not our external struggles can transform our world sufficiently or in time to avert catastrophe, no evil on earth, as numerous holocaust survivors discovered, can obliterate the bone marrow truth of our inherent human dignity. What we must always remember, therefore, are the words of the former slave, Frederick Douglass, who reminds us that “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” In other words, intentionally informed, questioning, critically thinking citizens who reject and expose the criminal enterprise that our government has become, cannot be Stepford Americans.
Carolyn Baker is a professor of U.S. history living in New
Mexico. She can be reached at