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Monthly Archives: August 2010

America — Behind the Mosque

August 29th, 2010 - 10:06 am

Blah, blah, blah

We’ve had nearly a month now of fruitless acrimony over the Ground Zero mosque.

About everything that can be said has been said. Little-read Newsweek and Time have published a near dozen “I accuse” essays about America’s supposedly yokel intolerance — as if we did not get their message at about screed two.

The past inflammatory statements and hypocrisies of the Janus Mr. Rauf have been widely aired, and juxtaposed with his occasional Aspen-like ecumenical “I feel your pain” outreach. We have learned that to emphasize the former is considered bigoted calumny, but to cite the latter is called context.

Rauf, from 1-4

In varying degrees, all four possible motivations of Mr. Rauf have also been widely dissected. For a brief moment let’s review them.

1) Rauf is a sincere ecumenicalist, who simply wants to turn the “tragedy” of 9/11 into a teachable moment of interfaith bridge-building: the mosque, in other words, will be a beacon of America’s tolerance;

2) Rauf is part crass P.T. Barnum, part new-age Deepak Chopra con artist whose therapeutic mish-mash and narcissistic efforts to build a $100 million-complex will result in a lot of lucre and influence for himself: the multistoried and multimillion-dollar mosque then will be quite a nice headquarters for Rauf, Inc.;

3) Rauf is a simple naïf who sort of bungled into a controversy, fled the country, and has no idea of the firestorm he inadvertently lit and so when or how or if to come back: the mosque will not be built as he retreats back to a less foolhardy, less ostentatious project;

4) Rauf is a wily, cynical divisive figure who knows darn well that, on his Islamic flank, radical Islamists will use his mosque for triumphalist propaganda value, while, on his liberal flank, the clueless multicultural left will see it as a way of contextualizing America’s role in the world — as all the while he emphasizes a supposed litany of America’s overseas transgressions; if the mosque is built, it surely by intent will be a much discussed, perennially controversial center aimed at offering context to often polarizing Islamic ideas about everything from Iran, Hamas, and bin Laden, to Sharia and the role of religion and state — a project as praised by the left in the U.S. as it is employed as a banner logo on radical Islamist Internet sites in the Middle East.

The Elite Take

I could analyze all this a zillion ways, but let us try some economic reductionism, crude though it may be. A majority of those in the elite liberal culture (CBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the foundations, universities, Hollywood, and the usual suspects) seem to have opted for explanation 1, while a vast majority of Americans, even in liberal New York, seems to agree with 4. So the mosque is as much about ourselves as it is about the seemingly permanently absent Mr. Rauf.

This same divide plays out in varying degrees over the Arizona immigration bill, the gay marriage propositions in California, and even much of the Obama agenda itself.

I have no interest in trying to persuade the elite why or where they are wrong, or in hearing from them for the nth time why I am supposedly not only mistaken, but bigoted for thinking a huge Islamic complex juxtaposed to Ground Zero is in itself bad taste, but, under the leadership of Mr. Rauf — given his written and oral corpus of unhinged and crack-pot ideas — bad taste to such a degree that all legitimate rhetorical means should be employed to persuade concerned parties to move it.

A World Apart

Instead, I am curious about the material foundations that frame each side of the divide — not so much money per se, but the very nature of work. Here I ignore both those on the hard far left who do not like America at all for what it has been, and the hard far right who clearly do not like America for what it has become.

In between those poles, it seems to me that the loud voices of columnists, politicians like Mayor Bloomberg, the concerned in the universities and the arts, many on the public payroll, and the elite self-appointed minority spokespeople assume that the building of the mosque near Ground Zero says something about themselves as caring, tolerant, and liberal souls — the sort of progressive community that they wish the world to see and hear about.

To the extent that there is any danger in alienating millions of Americans, or causing grief to families of the murdered, or the possibility of insidiously lending support for revising the 9/11 “narrative,” or even galvanizing extremists abroad, these are all negligible risks or even fatuous concerns.

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We Are Not Greece

August 26th, 2010 - 6:17 pm

Decline is a Choice
As the summer winds down, there is more and more talk of decline in the air. Some of it comes from the left, as a sort of giddy notion that we are now, at best, devolving into what the Greeks called prôtos metaksu isôn, first among equals, enjoying traditional prestige but otherwise nothing much special in comparison to the Europeans, India, and China.

In the age of Obama, the notion of not being exceptional or preeminent comes as a relief to millions on the left who pretty much are in sync with the protocols of the United Nations. On the right, there is a sense that Obama is the ultimate expression of downfall; given the wild spending, the iconic efforts abroad at apology, and the rampant entitlements we simply aren’t what we once were. In between, most aren’t quite sure—but sure are worried that we may never climb out of our self-created indebtedness crater, and that the culture’s education, the nation’s borders, and the civilization’s values are eroding.

I agree with the latter take, but see decline in history as largely psychological. After all, a Rome that was little more than 4 million and half of Italy almost simultaneously fought both Hannibal and Philip V and ploughed on after losing over 100,000 dead between 219-216 BC to victory, while by AD 450-80 an empire of 70 million, with a million square miles of territory, could not thwart thuggish tribes across the Rhine and Danube.

A very poor United States in 1941 defeated imperial Japan and helped to defeat Nazi Germany in less than four years. A few hundred thousand immigrants between 1870 and 1960 took a godforsaken desert in California’s central valley and turned it into an oasis of agriculture, for nearly half a century with no more than muscle and mule power.

And in the Plus Side

On the plus side, as I mentioned last time, our economy is almost three times larger than China’s.  American agriculture is the most productive in the world. There is simply nothing like the farmland in the Great Plains, or the 400 miles of irrigated expanse between Bakersfield and Red Bluff. For all the damage done by the federal government, we remain the most orderly free society on the planet, where merit still to a large degree determines success—not class, race, or tribal affiliation. While our universities in the humanities are increasingly corrupt, their science, engineering, and computer science departments, as well as professional schools in business and medicine, are the best in the world. It is not that Cal Tech, MIT, Harvard or Yale or Stanford are better than counterparts in Germany or Russia or China, but that an entire array such as UCLA, USC, Texas, Ohio State, Duke, and dozens of others is as well.

We have huge reserves of both coal and natural gas, and can quite easily quadruple our nuclear power generation. The U.S. military is not just the most technologically advanced and supplied, but the most experienced in all phases of modern challenges, from air campaigns to counter-insurgency.

I have lost confidence in American arts, in the sense of fiction and poetry, which are now in large part warped by the cult of race/class/gender orthodoxy that brings intertribal awards and recognition, but American scholarship in science, medicine, and the professions remains preeminent.

Our population, even without immigration, remains stable; we have none of the demographic nightmares of a Japan, Germany, or Russia — or the warped gender dynamics of a one-child China. Christianity and Judaism, the pillars of public religiosity, are compatible with plurality, tolerance, and democracy in a way a one-billion-person Islam is so far largely not. The wages of atheism and socialism that one sees in a shrinking, entitled, and static Europe so far have not taken over here. When people protest in the United States it is more often about too much federal spending, not too few entitlements, as is true in Europe.

There is an amazing uniformity of affluence in the United States. I have picked up the same kidney stone medicine prescription at Rite-Aid in 20 different cities. I am assured that the supermarket will have pretty much what I want at a reasonable price and with an assurance of general safety in almost any state. When one goes in the EU from Amsterdam to rural Greece, or from eastern Poland to western Germany, there is not the same uniformity of convenience.

A Generational Problem

I could go on, but you get the picture: our parents and grandparents left us a wonderful infrastructure, methodology, and constitutional system. So it is hard for our generation (I was born in 1953) to screw things entirely up, although we have done our best, within a mere twenty years of coming into the responsibility of governance.

Look at the often cited pathologies that are destroying what we inherited, and note how easily they are within our material ability to cure—and yet how psychologically we simply lack the courage to take our medicine.

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America — Compared to What?

August 22nd, 2010 - 1:57 pm

While America debates whether a “bridge-building” Imam Rauf should erect his $100-million, 13-story outreach “Islamic complex” (is the name “Cordoba House” now officially to be dropped? And if so, could Mr. Rauf or the media explain why?) next to Ground Zero, Islam seems to be at war with most of the rest of the world, or perhaps vice versa.

Not So Nice Elsewhere

Time magazine has a rare essay on the brutal Russian response to Islamic-driven terror. Apparently, 3,000 “suspects” have disappeared since 2000. Tens of thousands of others were killed in the Chechnyan wars. There are only three mosques allowed in Moscow. In short, Putin is leading a right-wing, nationalist effort in what might be charitably called a genocidal war against Islam — brought on either by Chechnyan-inspired terrorism, Russian social injustice, or both, or neither. We don’t care much; I suppose our elites would say they expect as much over there.

Authorities in Hamburg closed down a mosque used by the 9/11 killers; there was good reason to do that. But it is the sort of preemptive action that had the U.S. done it, we would have earned another cowboy America story in the perpetually resentful Der Spiegel.

In France, the burqa is now banned. Imagine doing that in the U.S. Well, don’t. Europeans are so liberal that they do not even need habeas corpus or a Bill of Rights to protect them from tea party types. Heck, they don’t even have tea party types.

And then we come to the Chinese, who are systematically crushing the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province. Well, wait, we never quite come to the Chinese. They have so much of the world’s money, and are so well-known for tolerating no criticism, that our brave cadre of crusading journalists self-polices itself and sort of keeps quiet (I don’t think New York Times columnists will be writing much about another green revolution or entrepreneurial zone in Tibet or Xinjiang).

So Why the Double Standard?

Readers, you all know why none of these stories make much international news in comparison to our ongoing psychodrama of a self-described Sufi healer trying to gain stature, publicity, Middle Eastern money, and Western guilt by building near Ground Zero. Let us review the reasons once more.

Self-loathing

1) It starts at home. The so-called cultural elite — professors, those in the arts, the foundations, the establishment media, the Kerry-Edwards-Gore-Kennedy type, multimillionaire liberal politicos, the inherited Big Money, the doyens of the race industry — are now disconnected from material reality. Most have not a clue how hard it is to pump oil out of the ground, grow food, or build a bridge; all such largess is taken as givens, and produced by a money-grubbing distant “they” who like this sort of icky, retrograde work. (Had a young Barack Obama put away the Panama hat and the federal money for a summer, he could have apprenticed on an oil rig or picked peaches and learned something.)

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With a Whimper or a Bang — or Not at All?

August 18th, 2010 - 7:59 pm

Are We Tottering?

Societies can sometimes implode abruptly, like the Mycenaeans from mysterious causes, the Aztecs before Cortés, or the Zulu nation in 1879 — or gradually and insidiously, such as Rome in the latter fifth century BC or Britain between 1946 and 1960.

I don’t believe America is in inevitable decline or will falter, but I am starting to see things, superficially, that I have not observed in the past.

California is bankrupt and it shows. Drive Highway 101 between, say, the general Watsonville and the Monterey Bay areas — potholes, poorly marked exits and entries, trucks in both lanes. The road is unchanged since the 1960s, but with ten times the traffic. And it is a veritable death trap on any given evening. Ditto almost all the main north-south arteries. One can travel long distances on 101, 99, and 5 where there are only two lanes, in places where there should be at least three. When I see a Caltrans road crew, I expect to see half not working, or all sorts of warning signs and orange cones that advise about non-existent work in progress.

Refined Stasis

I pass on east-west California arteries. There are really none much other than freeway 80. My favorite are 168 and 180, good highways that abruptly stop near the Sierra Crest — roads to nowhere. Over a half-million acres are not farmed because academics with tenure and publicly employed scientists have decided that a fish is a better barometer of civilization’s health than are food-producing plains.

Illegal immigration? I can drive two miles from my farm and shop with hundreds of California residents who are here illegally, do not speak English, and are entirely dependent on a government to which they can hardly feel any special allegiance or gratitude.

They (the majority of illegal aliens) identify more with a country that drove them out, and feel no special affinity with a nation that took them in, given that we, the host, rarely can define who we are or what others should do to join us. I know if I am hit again in traffic (twice is enough), the other driver (as in both cases) probably will not have a license, registration, or insurance, and may well try, again, to hoof it, if uninjured. I don’t drive on late Saturday afternoons on rural roads out here, since there are simply too many who drink and think stop signs mean to slightly yield.

Your money was unfairly obtained

More concretely, I know that in California the nation’s highest sales, income, and gas taxes somehow lead to the country’s highest deficits — and that the answer will be to raise taxes and call them “fees.” If 2,500 of the state’s better-off are fleeing per week, the solution will probably be to tax more highly the fewer who somewhat foolishly stayed behind (e.g., “at least we warned you.”)

Gorging the Beast

I think on the federal level, the Obama thinking is to “gorge the beast.” That means to spend so much money on so many things that higher taxes become inevitable. In the redistributive scheme of things, high taxation is a good thing, income being now capricious, unfair, and not entirely the property of the recipient.

I fear greatly the federal and state judiciaries. I know that special prosecutors like Patrick Fitzgerald hold press conferences, bankrupt their prey through drawn-out legal procedures, and then usually fail to prove much of anything against the likes of a Scooter Libby or Blago (and so settle for perjury convictions when they find contradictions in the miles of confused subpoenaed testimony).

Arizona and California plebiscites mean little. A judge or two can overturn the votes of millions. One rarely sees a left-wing ballot proposition overturned by a right-wing judge, as the former has not the votes and the latter usually objects to the procedure.

The federal government will sue those states that try to enforce Washington’s statutes, but ignore dozens of cities that undermine them. Contracts do not mean much either, not after the Chrysler reversal of its creditors. BP should pay, let’s say, 20, 30 — or, damn it, why not 40 billion dollars?

The academic elite is becoming bankrupt. And by that I mean utterly mendacious. The email disclosures about faking the global warming evidence, the BP scientific hysteria to stop drilling, the Gore saga, the nuclear power furor, the Delta smelt — no one much believes that the old rules of peer-reviewed, dispassionate scholarship apply when one can make the case that the egalitarian ends justify the tawdry means. Plagiarism depends — a progressive mistakenly cuts and pastes an email, or had lousy research assistants, or mixed up his index cards; a less hip scholar who fudges is a crook as he should be.

Lala Land

My favorite elite trope of the day is “Cordoba,” as in the “Cordoba Initiative.” Liberals rush to embrace the “Cordoba Initiative” as if that Islamic Lala land, because it had a 10th-century library, was some sort of Islamic Athens. (Cf. the president’s untruthful Cairo references about a non-existent Muslim Cordoba [the Christians retook it in 1236] by the time of the Inquisition (1487) showing singular religious tolerance). Meanwhile, with a wink and a nod, the message from the brilliantly cynical Imam Rauf gets through to radical Islam that an al-Andalus, the Islamic occupation of Iberia, was a golden moment that we all can gush about. He reminds me of the guy who throws a cherry bomb into a crowd, speeds off, and watches with glee the human fireworks from his rear-review mirror. (So Rauf jets off for a month to raise money from the “liberal” gulf autocracies; the bridge-building, healer Rauf wants not a 3, 4, or 6 story mosque, but a 13-story “Islamic complex” to contemplate and mediate and think about the misunderstandings that drove two planes to mysteriously take down two towers. This guy read Obamism to the tee, and is going to make a lot of money and gain a lot of attention playing its adherents as the fools they are)

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The Enigma of Our Age

August 15th, 2010 - 6:33 pm

From Arizona to Ground Zero

The recent controversies over the Ground Zero mosque and Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law are windows into our collective souls. Think of the paradoxes.

A self-professed ecumenical Islamic organization picks a spot next to the site of the mass murder of 2,700 New Yorkers by radical Islamic terrorists — a deliberately provocative act designed to, at best, bother millions and, at worst, provide the sorts of visuals and optics that will shortly appear in DVDs and on the internet throughout radical Islamic enclaves in the Middle East, as a mosque is juxtaposed to the memorial shell of the World Trade Center. (We know what’s next: “O blessed Holy Warrior Atta, you took down the looming tower of the infidels and raised a mosque in its place!”)

The president weighs in on a local issue (cf. the Professor Gates/Officer Crowley mess), deliberately misrepresenting it and inflaming passions quite gratuitously by suggesting critics wanted to ban by law the mosque rather than pressure the organizers to reconsider. Surely Barack Obama knew the issue was one of decorum and taste and reverence, and surely Barack Obama tried to obfuscate all that by demonizing opponents as awful sorts of un-Americans without tolerance of religious diversity (revisit the clingers riff of 2008).

Then there was the question of reciprocity. To build a church in Mecca would mean death on the spot (to visit Mecca as a Christian or in general as a non-Muslim is a suicidal act). Why would not reform-minded Muslims seek first to change the hearts and minds of bigots in the Middle East, before testing the patience of liberal-thinking Americans?

And, of course, there is the old issue of “compared to what”? Americans object to the decorum of building a Middle East-financed, 13-story mosque next to Ground Zero, but, of course, grant the legal right of someone to be so boorish should they choose. But why would not the world turn its attention to the Chinese and their rather illiberal treatment of Muslims, or the Russian scorched-earth strategy in Chechnya — or the endemic intolerance of Muslims themselves?

In Arizona’s case, review the now tired paradoxes. Mexico, with an awful record on illegal immigration to its south, lectures Americans about its ethical shortfalls up north. Millions of illegal aliens are angry that the state wishes to enforce federal statutes, but not quite to the extent of being too angry to quit residing illegally in the United States. The federal government sues a state for enforcing federal law, and ignores cities that subvert it. The president weighs in again, unnecessarily so, and once more misrepresents the issue, by suggesting the innocent on their way to buy ice cream will be profiled and deported.

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The Weeping, Wailing, and Gnashing of Teeth

August 12th, 2010 - 12:46 pm

Posse on the Horizon

The usual rush to the exits from a sinking administration is now ongoing. The only difference this cycle is that –  whereas in the case of the Bush departed who, we were lectured, were rightfully bitter that their genius was not appreciated (e.g., Paul O’Neil, Richard Clarke, Scott McClellan, etc) by the Bush Neanderthals, and were men of conscience who were “blowing the whistle” — we are now told by the New York Times that the Obama parachutists are burned out and “exhausted,” from “blackberrying” all day long!

You see, we should not imagine that these technocratic careerists want to leave the bank before the posse arrives in November, or are moving on to lucrative seven-figure jobs after the requisite administration bumper-sticker billet, but rather after being on the cross suffering for our sins for 18 months, well, can suffer no more for the unworthy. We hoi polloi didn’t turn around the economy, and we couldn’t win the war, and we made them keep Guantanamo open, and we wore them out over health care, and we forced more of those once damn Predators and formerly unconstitutional renditions down their throats.

Defeat?

Al Gore just shrieked that his green war is over. He says he lost and is withdrawing from the front. His retreat from his epic Stalingrad-like stand-off had nothing to do with the green equivalent of the ice and cold, the Red Army, or his shaky Eastern European allies, but was simply a crisis of will among the faithful: no one was brave enough to follow Commander Gore into battle anymore.

So Gore did not bring up the recent green-gate email revelations, the weirdly cold weather the last two years in a variety of places (my grape crop is 2-3 weeks late here in once scorching California), the lack of green leadership shown by his splurging on multiple estates all the way to Montecito, or his own public devolution from Nobel Laureate to “sex poodle.” (Green gurus can’t fly on private jets; sorry, they just can’t — at least if they want still to remain green gurus.)

The Thrill Is Gone

Obama himself is not the Obama of 2008 when all America’s problems were declared coterminous with twangy George Bush, and executive governance was defined at sitting at a Senate hearing table in front of blaring cameras and pontificating before squirming witnesses. (Obama, Biden, and Hillary sitting in judgment of Petraeus [who in just three years would now offer them a life-raft for the moment] was one of the more bizarre moments of the last twenty years.)

The tingling legs are gone. The Newsweek editor who declared Obama a god is gone. Heck, there is not even a Newsweek anymore, wrecked on the shoals after sailing blindly to the siren song of hope and change. Even the left is saying if you sing “Close Guantanamo” for years, then, close Guantanamo.

I don’t think we will hear any more Obama assurances of on-hand first responders, ready to attend to the fainted at his hope-and-change rallies. There is no more Victory Column, faux Greek capitals, or cooling planet moments any more. The fair left town and all that is left is the clean-up and the remorse for acting so stupidly last Saturday night on the Midway.

Now we will see the real Obama. Does he have the character to persevere with soon to be 40% something approval ratings, an angry base, a fleeing media, and an organized, energized opposition? Or is it to be two more years of golfing, Bush did it, Martha’s Vineyard, blame the limb-lopping surgeons, beer summits, killing time in preparation for a $50 million a year, Mandela-like, globe-trotting post-presidency.

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A Rather Angry America

August 7th, 2010 - 1:49 pm

Unemployment is still high, growth low, deficits huge. States are cutting out everything from streetlights to paving. Public pensions are exploding everywhere.

A class war looms between retirees who want their sweet-heart obligations honored, and strapped, poorer taxpayers who feel about those bloated payouts as they do their underwater mortgages.

What Did You Expect?

In a progressive culture, where ads blare hourly about skipping out on credit card debt, shorting the IRS, and walking away from mortgages, did the public employee unions really think they were exempt from a Chrysler-like renegotiation?

In the age of Obama, there is no real contractual obligation: everything from paying back bondholders to fixing a BP penalty is, well, “negotiable.” When the money runs out, the law will too. Law? There is no law other than a mandated equality of result.

The Talkative Crowd

On the Internet recently appeared the pictures of the JournoList bunch, who at least between themselves gave up their usual pretense that the media was unbiased. With all due respect (confession: I was briefly mentioned by the list as someone that the racist card might work on in connection with the illegal immigration debate), they appear to the eye as a sort of nerdish group.

They remind me of what we used to call the “wimp table” at a pretty tough Selma High around 1970. It was there that the high school’s handful of geeks, toadies, and picked-upon used to eat, under the protective eye of yard-duty teachers. The assumption was that with a few steps further onto the grounds, the entire sorry bunch was fair game for every bully on campus. And that sad outfit filters, disseminates, and arbitrates our news? Most from their writing and appearance seemed either neurotic overachievers or twenty-something bloggers who confuse calling someone something with erudition.

Up Is Down

No wonder aristocratic golf became needed presidential relaxation, the old first lady hysteria over things like Nancy’s china cooled when Michelle hit the Costa del Sol, and Guantanamo became A-OK. The news now for these guys is sort of like writing boilerplate race/class/gender oppression papers for a Yale undergrad gut class.

Populism Is Now Bad?

In contrast, the proverbial people seem angry. A book will have to be written explaining how in 19 months Obama blew a 70% approval rating and is headed for under 40% — something that took Bush six years. A handful of judges nullified what millions voted for in Arizona and California, apparently on the premise that wanting federal immigration law enforced, and seeing marriage as a traditional bond between a man and woman as it has been for 2,500 years in the West, was bigoted, analogous to the racism of the Jim Crow South, and thus in need of judicial intervention.

A guy in Bakersfield might think it prejudicial that a gay judge struck down an amendment to the Constitution passed by a majority of voters and opposed by the gay lobby; a guy in DC would think the guy in Bakersfield prejudicial for coming up with that preposterous conclusion.

Meanwhile, in our postracial age, race is everywhere: Charles Rangel, who won’t follow the tax laws he writes, whines about an “old-English, Anglo-Saxon procedure.” Maxine Waters (under the cloud of insider bank influence peddling) and the Black Caucus (recipient of federalized GM donations) cite racism as the source of their ethical dilemmas (at least Larry Craig did not cite gay-bashing and Duke Cunningham reverse discrimination and Chris Dodd ageism and the late John Murtha girthism).

A mass murderer at a beer distribution center (so much for Van Jones’s assurances that such mayhem was a white thing) is portrayed on the airwaves as an aggrieved victim of racism lashing out. Not a word about the shattered lives of those gunned down and their families. Welcome to the post-racial Obama age — with much more to follow. (Nemesis gives no quarter: once Barack Obama years ago went down the patronize-and-use-Rev.-Wright path, the payback was only a matter of when, not if.)

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A Weird Sort of Depression

August 2nd, 2010 - 9:49 am

Bad and Not Bad

Economic statistics paint a pretty grim picture: annual growth coming out of a recession at an anemic 2.4%; unemployment rising at 9.6%; and foreclosures again on the rise.

Here in California the jobless rate is 12.5%. And where I live in Fresno County it hovers at 16%. Bleak.

I can see some of that general depression when my son’s friends gather out here at the farm. About 5-6 guys he knows are in their mid-twenties. Like him, all have BAs and skill sets (accounting, teaching credentials, computer degrees, bio certifications, etc.); all are “semi” working at part-time jobs (no benefits); and living at home. None have been able to find the sort of job we used to count on — a full-time entry position at about $30K that invariably leads to both advancement and higher salaries, along with retirement and health benefits. Higher education does not lead to a good job; no higher education leads to even less.

Great Expectations?

And yet, I don’t sense Dickensian poverty, in that the half-employed somehow through parental support, or cheap Chinese goods, or exemption from income taxes, seem to have plentiful appurtenances and even fairly nice cars. So what’s going on?

I was curious about this. So equipped with rough statistics, I decide to write down what I saw over a few days. Warning note: I live in southern Fresno County, rated, in per capita income, 49th out of California’s 56 counties.

I am not far from the Tulare County border (57th of 58th), at the nexus of the illegal alien explosion in Selma, California (rated in per capita income at 874 of 1076 California communities, at $12,834 per capita income).

I am also about 10 miles down Mt. View Ave. from Cutler/Orosi (1074 out of 1076 at $4,984), and in a 10-mile radius of about 5-6 communities that are ranked among the poorest 20 cities in California by per capita income. So this is what I would call an impoverished region.

Or is It?

I shop at the Food 4 Less 2 miles away, on the outskirts in town. Often I am one of only two or three English speakers in the huge store. People sometimes gawk at me as some sort of weird alien. The local Wal-Mart is not far away; English also seems rarely spoken there by the customers.

I ride a bike about 20 miles every other day I am not up in Palo Alto, usually heading west toward Highway 41, along little used, pot-holed one-lane roads that cut across the fabric of rural impoverished southwestern Fresno County. I see some strange things — cars simply dumping their wet garbage along the isolated roads, packs of pit bulls that seem to roam wild through the vineyards, a low-rider who cruises too close to my bike to give me the “look,” an occasional nut shooting his pistol without worry about trajectory, and again very few of the more refined sorts that live and work at Stanford. It is a rough Wild West frontier of sorts. (To wear biking gear [e.g., spandex, bright colors, designer shades, etc.] would be to beg violence.)

My point? Here in one of the poorest regions in California we are engaged in a great experiment of trying to turn mostly Mexican nationals (thousands without English, legality, or high school diplomas) from Oaxaca and Jalisco into American suburbanites within 10-20 years. And, of course, there is endemic poverty that translates into every depressing statistic imaginable. But there is something even stranger. By world and historical standards this is not an impoverished region.

The Veneer

What do I mean by that? I continued my informal survey of cars at Home Depot 3 miles away:15 late model Ford or Chevy pickups, 5 of them crew cabs. There were 22 (I counted) SUVs: Tahoes, Yukons, Escalades, etc.; at least 12 were what I would call new or nearly new. In addition, I saw 5 Honda Accords and 3 Camrys. Many, of course, are used, but they look great, both the result of better built cars, and an affluent society whose castoffs are better than the top-of-the-line new models twenty years ago.

Inside, the aisles were busy, especially the flower and garden section (is that a sign of disposable income?). About 2 miles away there is a large subdivision at the border of vineyard land. The homes are about 5-years-old, about 1800 sq. feet, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. Newer cars are parked out front. I think the hot water is as hot as in those homes in Beverly Hills; the roofs leak less than brownstones on the Upper West Side, and the ranges cook as well as those in Atherton. I imagine the new air conditioners work as well as those in Chevy Chase.

On the face of it, here in one of the most impoverished areas of a bankrupt state, things are not going well. But yet, by any abstract measure, we are far wealthier than, say, in the mid-1960s when things were booming.

OK-How Can That Be?

Let me explain. In 1984, in my first year teaching at California State University, Fresno, a doctor’s wife used to brag that she was getting a “mobile phone.” About a year later she packed in a monstrosity in a suitcase-like contraption. It looked like a first-aid kit, and I recall that she boasted it cost over $1,000.

Yesterday, I saw about 150 people on i-Phones, BlackBerrys, and flip cell phones in the food store, many of them at the checkout line using social service prepaid food cards. The mobiles seemed to all work better than that $1,000 suitcase phone of yesteryear. Many users were text-messaging and emailing.

I remember our foreign language department’s first computer about 1985. It was a huge black-screened Burlington something. The secretary had a five-page booklet of prompts as ugly orange letters flashed across the screen. This week in the Selma Park I saw two impoverished men in straw hats playing checkers on a Mac laptop.

Today, a Spanish-speaking family was buying a bike for their son at Wal-Mart; it was about $50; in 1975 (35 years ago) I remember saving up in graduate school to buy a crappy bike for $50 to ride from East Palo Alto to the Stanford campus.

Statistics Lie

I could go on, but you get the picture. Poverty is now relative more than absolute. Statistics don’t quite reveal the true story of the underprivileged. In further curiosity, about the health care mess, I drove by the Selma Hospital Emergency Room, the Parlier Health Center, and another state-run medical clinic in Selma. All were packed, as was the Rite-Aid drug store prescription department.

In other words, a number of cosmic forces have combined to redefine poverty as I once saw it growing up in Fresno County, where outhouses, an occasional dirt street, and clunkers by the side of the road were common. Statistics on per capita income don’t factor in a number of criteria that have revolutionized American life.

1) Workers of world. The addition of over 1 billion Chinese and Indian workers in the capitalist global system in real dollars has made cheap consumer goods accessible to even the very poor. DVD players, Blu-ray discs, cell phones, Chinese-made jeans and shoes (indistinguishable to the naked eye from designer fashions) are now within the grasp of 300 million in this country. On very little money, a poor family that by federal statistical standards is proof of our collective failure has a cheap laptop, cell phone, TV, and can thus enjoy an electrical existence well beyond what was available to the billionaire in 1980.

2) Federal entitlement. The gargantuan expansion of federal and state entitlement, from subsidized housing and food, to free clinics, cheaper medicines, and free education programs for the disadvantaged, has meant that millions don’t save for college, don’t buy private health care insurance, and don’t have dental plans — and yet find that their families have access to health care and higher education in a way undreamed of by the middle class of the 1960s.

Yesterday at the AM/PM gas station, three Mexican nationals (yes, I am profiling) who spoke only Spanish at the gas island all had braces to correct an apparent overbite. In contrast, I remember in 1964 the rich kid in Selma who wore a bothersome horse collar around his neck as we gossiped that his parents were “millionaires” to afford such a contraption. For all the liberal hysteria, the U.S. entitlement industry is huge and gives even new arrivals from Mexico often the semblance of a middle-class existence. We get no credit for this, but millions leave central Mexico, not just for jobs, but for the larger landscape of a humane society in the north.

3) Non-compliance with the law. I conclude that the enforcement of the law is capricious. The number of those in my town who want to cut limbs, tile floors, haul trash, or do some roofing for cash is enormous. One can be on welfare, disability, or unemployment and augment income through cash wages, and it is done ubiquitously. Such stealthy workers do not appear in statistics as employed, but, together with federal largess, no taxes, and cash income, they can carve out an existence that ensures they are not poor by past standards.

I have had several minor brushes with uninsured drivers, either being hit by two of them, or having about five or six end up in my vineyard. I think we have a police force, but there seems to be very little consequence to driving without registration, insurance, or a license, since in all cases the drivers lacked one, or all, of the above “requirements.” In other words, vast numbers of Americans simply do not pay for the sort of fees the majority does, and that too saves money.

4) Taxes and debt. Lots of people are not paying income taxes and renouncing debt. April 15 is seen as a holiday rather than some Satanic reckoning, given that in my town most get credits rather than further bills. Cash sales denominate at swap meets (an enormous one down the road every Sunday draws thousands) and roadside food, produce, and gift stands, where sales taxes are nonexistent. In addition, our local airwaves are dominated by three commercial themes: how to get out of credit card debt, avoid paying the IRS, and skip out on your mortgage. It seems that 24/7, some fast-talking salesmen blurts out how you need not meet any of your contractual obligations.

Cruel Hearted?

Every time I read how the United States is cruel, without compassion, and destroying the poor, I wonder if the aggrieved DC-NY blogger or columnist has ever left his cocoon. Poor? It is now a relative term that means no Yellowstone or Yosemite or Disneyland with the family, no office at home, no big-screen TV in two rooms, no camp for the kids, and no new car every 4-5 years. No cultural opportunities or much travel. No daily Starbucks hit. But as far as clothing, housing, basic transportation, and appurtenances go, our poor are the 1960s rich. For about $2,000 one can buy new clothes at Wal-Mart, get into a Selma subsidized apartment, and buy enough food and furniture to experience what the once wealthy thought was their own monopoly.

To suggest all this is seen as either lunatic or reactionary, but it is true.

We have Dickensian statistics, but we are not London of the 1850s — or even Fresno of 1965.