It’s finally turned wintry here after a long, leisurely and very pleasant autumn, and those Christmas decorations no longer look peculiar. My thoughts turn to those many Christian celebrations in Latin America designed to imitate northern Europe’s festivals of light despite the little detail that December hosts the longest, most sun-filled days of the year in the southern hemisphere.
During the bleak Pinochet years in Chile, we would often repair downtown to watch the very regular dust-ups between citizens yearning for democracy and the agents of the military state. In late springtime, i.e. early December, the plazas would fill up with small groups who might risk singing the national anthem in public, which would merit a police baton or worse while the evangelical preachers harangued passers-by (those heroic defenders of God’s will were never molested by the professional assassins).
Soon the tear gas would begin to fly, and the freelance Santa Clauses, who had set up in the main squares dressed for a Dutch winter to bounce toddlers on their laps for tips, would be dashing not through the snow nor in a one-horse open sleigh but on foot into a chaotic downtown mall in 90-degree heat, tears running down their false white whiskers.
Once the festivities were underway, and the riot police and their plainsclothes goons were fully activated, the water cannons racing up and down the thoroughfares and the whole downtown section obscured by a haze of tear gas, lemon venders would promptly appear shouting their odd wares. Because a taste of citric acid neutralizes the effects of tear gas on the mucous membranes, a slice of lemon suddenly commanded a quarter each, and no commercial opportunity would be missed by the hawkers as they put Milton Friedman’s philosophy to work in their modest way while Pinochet’s economists applied it in theirs.
But although Chile and all of Latin America have looked to Europe and gobbled up American-style mass culture for decades, there also has been movement in the other direction. In fact, we remain saddled by the social experiment we imported from the South after it had been tested out under optimum conditions—of dictatorship.
Chile has long been a social laboratory, and the worship of free markets got a head start there in the mid-1970s with Pinochet’s gorilla state so beloved of Nixon, Kissinger and their CIA pals. While we were still enjoying the waning days of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, the Chileans were showing the world how to crush labor unions, privatize public services and ram a monetarist paradise down the helpless throats of the destitute. Britain’s Thatcher and our own two-party duopoly were quick studies.
And so authoritarian cowboy capitalism became a non-traditional export along with copper, grapes and the final remnant stocks of Chilean sea bass. With Reagan’s smiling salesmanship the white working class bought into the new Ayn Randian vision; government became the whipping boy, and cash the king. We live with that legacy today, so while it is fun to laugh at the slavish consumption of American mass culture by Third World wannabees, the last laugh is really on us.
Thanks to the Reaganite legacy, we no longer believe that the role of the state is to succor the weak and vulnerable and limit the greed of the rich and rapacious. Instead, we glorify individuality in its multitudinous manifestations from Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump, gaze awestruck at obscene wealth, sneer at the vulnerable and take pleasure in seeing ‘losers’ trampled underfoot.
The latest example of the triumph of elitist contempt for anyone not in the club is Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of a silly magazine bimbo as Commissioner of Education.
In a sane world the appointment of Cathleen Black, a Hearst Corporation executive in charge of overseeing Seventeen magazine and Good Housekeeping, as educational anything would be a bad joke. At best Black would be permitted a gig as a flashy, superficial media advisor, in charge of handing out invitations for reporters to clamber onto Bloomberg’s private jet and rub elbows with his important guests. It’s an insult to the thousands of struggling kids and their parents that this glitzy suit is taking over the nation’s largest school system with absolutely no credentials other than wealth and connections.
Black has no educational background, doesn’t even hold the required master’s degree and required a waiver from the state to be permitted to assume the job. Bloomberg, in his typically high-handed fashion, pulled her out of a sack with no prior warning and, of course, no consultation with anybody.
The idea that a rich babe with her kids in private school, lucrative links to Coca-cola (in a city being crushed by the obesity/diabetes epidemic), and a net worth greater than the combined income of an entire city block should suddenly be in charge of the city’s creaking public school system during a huge crisis is a scandal.
But it’s all of a piece with the steady erosion of the idea that we should provide free, public education for all children in pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of a shared social experience for future citizens. Problems in education? Oh, that’s the fault of teachers and their nefarious unions, and the answer is to smash them and pump up the charter school movement, aided and abetted by propaganda like Waiting for Superman, Oprah’s new film toy, in which little kids compete for something they should have a right to receive automatically.
Diane Ravitch took down the contemporary unwisdom emerging from that film in the New York Review of Books, but she’s a voice in the wilderness while Obama’s neoliberal team faithfully carries out the right-wing education program—pretty much consistent with his role in our lives, i.e., to deepen and consolidate the Bush legacy.
And so the Chileans’ revenge is complete: they gave up their dream of a more just society 37 years ago and then again 17 years later after the ouster of Pinochet left the system intact. After decades of showing the world what they have to do, we get to have a taste of our own national medicine—perhaps it’s time to be fitted for a colorful poncho.