Happy Birthday to a Fractured America

July 4, 2008

American Flag, Old GloryHappy Fourth of July! Things have changed — but not for the better — since we posted our 2007 Independence Day reflections. Congress just appropriated another $162 billion for the Iraq War hydra, the subprime mortgage crisis has led to the virtual collapse of the housing market, and high gas and food prices are leaving angry — and sometimes laid off — Americans in their wake. Long-haul truckers can scarcely afford to truck the food we eat. People in rural areas such as this are hard-pressed to afford the gas to drive to work. While in the metro D.C. area last month, we had an interesting conversation with a Cisco systems analyst, who had an interesting take on the situation: He believes that our nation is perilously close to rebellion on the part of the working poor. There is a palpable resentment in the air, particularly about the cost of the Iraq War.

Congressman Keith Ellison of MinnesotaMinnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a first-term Democrat and the first Muslim elected to Congress, was one of those who voted against additional Iraq War funding. He said: “We have lost 4,103 of America’s best and brightest young people, another 30,000 are grievously wounded and will require care for much of their lives, and we are spending $10 billion a month in Iraq. We have built over 800 schools, nearly 5,000 water and sewer projects and over 1,000 roads and bridges — in Iraq — while gas and food prices go through the roof here, home foreclosures wreak havoc on American families, and our infrastructure is in a shambles. Enough is enough! One day of spending in Iraq would finance the entire reconstruction of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis.”

The subprime mortgage has crept into every nook and cranny of America. Here in our tiny hamlet of perhaps 250 people, two neighborhood homes have been foreclosed upon. One was the residence of a first-time homeowner, a single mother with a little girl of about six. As the young mother moved out, she said that a lawyer had told her that neither the bank nor the realtor who sold her the home ever should have. Too late, she found that out. In the space of a year, her adjustable-rate mortgage was resold four times; she had difficulty keeping track of where the payment should be sent. In the end, the monthly payment doubled and equalled the blue-collar salary she earned as a nurse’s aide at a regional hospital about 25 miles away. Her American dream of home ownership collapsed and she’ll have bad credit for years to come.

Foreclosed House in Tiny TownNext, a “fix and flip” plan was hatched for the house by an ambitious electrician who bought the three-bedroom, two-bath house at the courthouse door for about $54,000.00 — less than half of its previous value. He quickly encountered five feet of water in the basement of the house; the utilities had been turned off, so the sump pump didn’t work when it rained the night he bought the house. This is the only house in the neighborhood with a basement — you just don’t build basements in clay soil. After spending about $20,000 to repair that damage, he continued on: replacing windows, repainting, refinishing floors, buying new appliances. It was apparent that the housing bubble had burst, but he seemed oblivious, or as impermeable as the clay soil. The house has been for sale for months. His marriage is suffering over the purchase. In desperation, he’s rented the house out to make the house payments. Which will, of course, result in chipped paint and other wear and tear to the house. But he’s out of options. His American “get rich quick” dream is a nightmare.

A long-time employee of a local lighting fixture company told us tearfully that she thought she’d have to quit her job. The drive to and from work is eating up her paycheck. Horses, usually only an occasional sight on roads here, are reappearing in greater numbers. And suddenly, the local Amish community doesn’t look quite as out-of-synch with reality as it did before. One man drives his golf cart to the grocery store. Big, gas-guzzling Dodge Ram-type trucks, formerly the crown jewel in the area’s more macho driveways, are for sale. No one is buying. Gardens are bigger this year. Lots bigger. Everyone is dreading the winter, and the anticipated doubling of heating costs which are forecast. And such is the local microcosm.

Meanwhile, President Bush spoke at Monticello in Virginia today, and was heckled by an angry crowd calling him a “war criminal.” He’ll return to the White House to celebrate his birthday on July 6, over the long holiday weekend. And soon enough, he’ll return to Crawford, Texas to live happily ever after. With any luck, perhaps our long national nightmare will begin to wind down. Are Americans angry? You betcha.

Here’s the unconventional, yet masterful version of a shattered Star-Spangled Banner which was played by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969. Although it was actually José Feliciano who played the first unconventional version in 1968 and saw his career ruined over it, it was Hendrix, a veteran of the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, who provided a defining moment of the 1960s with this 1969 performance which was widely interpreted as a Vietnam War protest. As was the case with Feliciano, Hendrix’s rendition was deemed unpatriotic and disgraceful. Today, the stakes are even higher than they were in Jimi Hendrix’s time. Happy Birthday, America and Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Let the fireworks begin.

Read what was overheard at the Dollar-General Store

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