Sellin’ the big nothin’


Public domain from Library of Congress

There is an emotional scene at the end of the movie First Blood. Rambo, the decorated war veteran with post-traumatic stress, is breaking down.

He tells his best friend – his only friend – how since leaving the army his life has gone to hell.

He shouts, “For me, civilian life is nothin’. In the field, we had a code of honor. You watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’.”

That nothin’ is what our elites are sellin’.

Oh, our leaders love them some troops in uniform. They put their hands over their hearts, get all solemn, and snap to attention when soldiers pass. They may even think they mean it. But the values they praise in the military are not the values by which they (and we) have organized an economy that no longer serves us. We serve it.

Inside the base perimeter, training instills esprit de corps. Teamwork. All for one, one for all. Self-sacrifice. We give medals for it. Leave no one behind. A code of honor.

But outside in Anytown, USA? Screw you, I’ve got mine. Anyone “out of uniform” is unworthy. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Stop picking my pocket. Everyone for himself.

Why is that? What is that?

Inside the perimeter (so the advertising goes), it’s values and honor. Outside? Dog eat dog. Profits before people. Nothing personal, just business.

This side of the line? Leave no one behind. That side? Nothin’.

The values we laud as honorable in our military – the best America has to offer – apply inside the perimeter for the few, for the chosen. But outside? Organizing government around that same code is subversive, contemptible, and dangerous.

What is that?

How did we get from all Men are created equal and caring for the general welfare to this wasteland of the soul and call it virtue? Perhaps it is a carryover from a time when in America, on one side of a line the same man could be free and on the other side a slave.

President Barack Obama’s eulogy for the slain Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney spoke of grace:

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — (applause) — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

But there is no United States of Grace. As much as we enjoy telling ourselves this country is uniquely blessed of God, we have constructed for ourselves and given ourselves over to an economic system where grace has no place and kinship has no worth. Those we carefully circumscribe within neat, safe boundaries. Inside the church: grace. Outside the church? Contempt for “the least of these.” Inside: unearned blessings, handouts from God. Outside? Handouts breed weakness. The poor deserve being left behind.

Why is that? What is that?

This is not to suggest a union of church and state. Those who think they want it would not stand for their government or their economic system serving the least of these as their holy book recommends. Thus, the system we have constructed bears little resemblance to the ideals therein. There are too many backs we have no interest in watching, and we are too falsely proud to allow them to watch ours.

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of Daily Kos once explained how he went into the army as a Republican and came out a Democrat. He described his time in the artillery this way:

The military is perhaps the ideal society — we worked hard but the Army took care of us in return. All our basic needs were met — housing, food, and medical care. It was as close to a color-blind society as I have ever seen. We looked out for one another. The Army invested in us…

The Army taught me the very values that make us progressives — community, opportunity, and investment in people and the future. Returning to Bush Senior’s America, I was increasingly disillusioned by the selfishness, lack of community, and sense of entitlement inherent in the Republican philosophy.

No code. No honor. Just the emptiness of the self, and an economy structured to make a few impossibly rich while leaving the rest behind. ISIS finds the concomitant sense of isolation fertile ground for recruiting.

At the end of First Blood, Rambo starts crying. Watching, maybe we do, too. Because we know he’s right. “Back here there’s nothin’.”

That nothin’ is what our elites are sellin’.

Maybe it’s time Americans stopped buyin’.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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