The Reguilded Age
Corporateers, conmen and crazies.
It was SRO on Main St. inside Mandate Press, Sunday night, January 15, as 16 Utah poets and writers arose and read or performed their five minutes of inspiration as part of the national post-election Writers Resist movement, organized locally by Paisley Rekdal with Michael McLane and Chad Nielsen. The attentive crowd exceeded the 60 chairs available by more than 200. Compassion, equality, free speech and social justice were the themes of the night. The culmination and highlight was historian Will Bagley. Here’s the essay upon which his speech was based.
During the 1950s teachers, doctors, journalists, park rangers, politicians and the police made life better for all, or at least most, Americans. They often worked in community institutions delivering education, health care and public safety, which served the greater good.
Both political parties wanted to build a better country and, despite their differences, worked as public servants to run a good government that governed well. I attended Oceanside High School. Serving an integrated California community next to the biggest military base on the Pacific Coast, it was a first-rate working-class educational institution. Many of my classmates’ black, brown and cracker parents served in the U.S. Marine Corps. I learned some interesting American history at Oceanside High, especially the story of the Gilded Age and its successor, the Progressive Era, which led to reforms regarded as the foundation of the extraordinary prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s—anti-trust laws, the progressive income tax, social security, workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively, and regulation of meat-packers and speculative bankers.
Since I graduated from high school 50 years ago, America has seen the tragic transformation of our country’s hopes and visions. The Sixties were no golden age, but benevolent institutions—unions, religions, newspapers and publishing, governments and public education, health and safety—made life better for Americans.
Since the Reign of King Ronald, those institutions have been systematically converted into rackets, which all serve a common purpose: to shovel money from those who have very little of it to those who have all of America’s vast wealth, or at least 90% of it. Like all predators, these racketeers target easy prey: For 21st century corporate land pirates, that means us—the “stupid” people too poor to dodge taxes.
My life has witnessed a continual escalation of racketeering. Its agenda is to disenfranchise the majority of Americans, loot and pillage the middle class and pursue a murderous War on the Poor. As the reign of King Donald begins, we enter not a Gilded Age of ruthless robber barons but a rabid right-wing Regilded Age of corporateers, conmen and crazies.
Americans need to ask harder questions, such as:
Why should anyone profit from human suffering?
Why should racketeers profit from prisons?
Why do we pay twice as much as any other industrialized country to get the 35th-best medical system in the world?
Compassionate nations know that the key to effective health care is a single-payer system that forbids profiting from misery. For a model of how to implement a just and effective law check out the Canada Health Act of 1985. It’s 19 pages long—and it’s in both French and English.
As a writer and public historian, I wrangle words, investigate the past and ponder the peoples of our native home of hope, the American West. I learn something new every day. What turns up in old newspapers and the writing of plain-spoken eloquent dead folk is inspiring, troubling, terrifying, baffling, often horrifying and always intriguing. Many discoveries in this old news make me mad as hell, but not half as mad as what I read in today’s newspapers. History can’t prove anything and no one seems to pay attention to it, let alone learn anything from it, but it shows how humanity can be indifferent about justice, how dedicated it can be to vice, greed and ignorance and how easily demagogues can use hatred and fear to seize power.
I’ve been a yellow-dog liberal Democrat—a disciple of FDR and Barak Hussien Obama who would vote for a yellow-dog before voting for a Republican—but the Circus that was 2016 proved we can no longer tolerate crooked corporate politics. Bernie Sanders was right: What we need is a movement to restore economic justice and our democracy.
When we awoke on November 9, a rigged election had installed the most successful snake-oil salesman in American history as traitor-in-chief. My first thought was, “Well played, Vlad.” We have all lived in a surrealistic dystopian novel every day since. The Empire will now pour even more middle-class money into our rabid military-industrial complex as hunger, homelessness and hopelessness ravage our cities. It will be the same ole same ole as corporations ramp up their war on the poor and compassionate. But oligarchs be warned: Enjoy your gated communities before floods and madness tear down your walls.
Where there’s life, there’s hope, a jail mate once told me. My hope is the certainty that a new generation will feel the burn, see through the decrepit deceptions of the deceiving class, take back democracy, and demand liberty and justice for all.
Will Bagley has won most of the major writing prizes given in the history of the American West. He is a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society.