‘Burning Down The House’


We can't seem to shed a feeling of angst about what 'feels' like a slide in cultural stability in America. Events great and small add up to what appears to be a major paradigm shift in governing positions, social conscience and the reality behind 'basic' human rights in a republican democracy. In simplest terms, 'basic' rights is generalized as "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

In the history of America these latter ideals have always been the crucible by which our rough and tumble democracy thrived, the standard by which the world guaged 'freedom' as a governing principle and by which an advantageous future could actually be realized for those willing to work hard enough to achieve the 'American Dream."

Economic and social justice is what has always characterized American democracy as the most unique and longlasting experiment of its kind since the Athenian city state. That appears threatened, in the intricacies of the microcosm, reflected by the large national movement toward Neo Con theocracy  turning back the clock on what several generations knew as the American New Deal. After the failure of the Democratic Party during the last election many of us now have no voice. The change  seems beyond the power of a single vote these days.

The most distinguishing quality of traditional democracy in America, one that stands out unique to our nation, is the idea that out of the crucible of diverse politics comes the general mean for the common good, but one that safeguards the dignity and rights of large minorities in the body politic.

The frightening thing about the new 'one party' deus machina that has captured the nation is that it is a majority by only a few percentage points, yet it's extremest views are being made into law every day and will impact an enormous minority of dissenting citizens for a generation to come.

Further changed is the nature of the judiciary to a theocratic special interest group. Part of the reason for this is due to the evangelical dominionist view of governance as an authoritarian, corporate-like, downward dispensing order of idict. Law is the greatest tool and treasure of the corporate paradigm. Corporations are not democratic. They are pyramid structures where authority is dispensed downward. Law sets the structure in place for the manipulations of power.

Corporate power has always been the greatest potential threat to democracy–hense General Eisenhower's admonishment nearly fifty years ago about the military/industrial complex. His grim vision seems to have come true. While the competitive market forces of the past decades have created the illusion of choice and democratic function, the reality is that law has become separated from justice. Now justice is a commodity, a highly valued asset to assert and protect privilege over the pursuit of truth.

Law is a function of wealth now not justice. Take some time and sit in on your local Superior Court sessions and view the most hair raising, compilation of daily personal tragedies and plea bargained injustice imaginable. History shows us repeatedly that the ascent of privilege without the recourse of justice leads to disaster, massive social corruption, revolution or worse.

Look at your local level–town, city, and county. That is where the microcosm reveals the major events of the national trend. We live in Northern California in Sonoma County. Sonoma is a perfect petri dish for issues of social and economic justice.

Thirty years ago this part of America was rural, a place where 'average' Americans made a decent living in agriculture, processing and the service industries. A majority could afford to buy a house, send kids to school–even college, and manage a decent retirement on adequate pension funds.

A friend in Healdsburg bought a three bedroom house in the 1950's for roughly seven thousand dollars. That house today is worth seven hundred thousand dollars. Like many of her generation she's finding it very difficult affording the status quo.  Ironically, her long term investment has become too expensive to sell. Other adequate housing near her family in the area is too expensive.

In Spring thirty years ago driving from San Francisco North on Highway 101 one could see from a two lane highway  miles and miles of blooming apple, plum, peach, and cherry orchards interspersed by dairy farms. In less than one generation all has been changed forever.

The orchards are gone, the highway is four lanes, industrial vinticulture  and high density housing tracts sprawl out-of-sight. It now looks like Umbria on steroids. The impact on the local culture has been devastating. Justice is a 'vine' industry thing now.

The county's jails and courts are filled with a majority of Latino miscreants driving unlicensed cars, arrested for drunken assults,  stealing,  gang activity,  family 'disturbances'–domestic violence,  big-time drug selling and on and on. The plea bargain system in the county allows for swift judicial handling in these cases to enrich the court system or funds the extraordinarily high incarceration rate in California while ignoring the causes.

Offical statistics look normal, but those living with the daily reality of crime in the County are rightly concerned. Hate crimes, Latino discrimination and police brutality are simply not recognized or recorded. Thus, those problems don't exist in world famous tourist destination, wine-and-dine, Sonoma County.

An army of illegal immigrant farm workers numbering in the tens of thousands labor at minimum wage or slightly above, often under the books and lost in the protection of corporate agriculture. Many are crowded in sub standard housing seldom found outside of the worst slums in Calcutta. Many prefer to live outside where it is cleaner and safer–at least temporarily.

The system works like that in Iraq, where the government hires outsource jobbers to find the labor and then 'doesn't ask or doesn't tell." At the same time Republican owners of such high stakes viticulture support Governor Swartzenegger's  pro stance on anti-immigration laws and encourage vigilant posse's to hound those slipping across the border, threatening them with beatings and armed violence. The fact that the Governor is an immigrant seems lost to irony among voters. The galling hypocrisy of it is magnificant.

While no one is naive enough to suppose that Rockwellian days of a former country paradise ever existed in Sonoma County or ever could, it is clear that paradise is not for everyone now. It begins with working poor wages on one hand and secure gated communities on the other. The disparity between the poor, working poor and lower middle class in the County is demographically extraordinary. The solid middle class has virtually disappeared. The school systems are collapsing. The public works are underfunded and infrastructure is decaying.

Yet, the blindness of Versailles thrives among the new Mc-mansioned class buying up old farmland for couture estates in the golden hills of old Sonoma. During the past weekend, the following article appeared in The Press Democrat, a New York Times affiliate, by Randi Rossmann at http://www.rrossmann@pressdemocrat.com :       "Hilltop home burned for practice."

On a hilltop site of one hundred acres overlooking the town of Healdsburg a couple spent millions to buy an estate whose large home they disliked. Rather than dismanteling the home, giving usable, recycled parts to projects like Habitat, they simply had it burned down for practice by the local fire department . And, oh–because they got a tax break by doing so.

We have no objection to people doing what they want within common sense and the law with their private property, but it struck us as blissfully immoral to burn that house down when a few thousand homeless are camped out several miles away under bridges and river bushes. The fact that it probably didn't even occur to the breathless owner who gushed about the stunning views and the relief of getting rid of the house simply boggled our minds.

Several days later Mike Micciche, CEO of the California Human Development Corp. wrote to the paper this letter: "Decent Housing"–Editor: The recent articles about the 29 farmworkers found living in substandard conditions in Windsor (near Healdsburg) confirms a problem C.H.D. Corp. and others have recognized for the past 37 years. It is unfortunate that some members of the wine industry have not taken advantage of programs and resources willing to work with them to provide decent housing for their labor force."

….."In Napa County, vineyards have agreed to a tax, based on grape acreage, that provides funding for decent affordable housing for Napa's agriculture labor force. "With this funding, situations identified by the articles may not be completely eliminated, but for those who benefit, they will at least have hot showers and a safe place to sleep while they work our vineyards."

We have got to ask our selves, "When was the last time I worked at a job and couldn't even afford housing decent enough to take a hot shower?" Memory may have been a long time ago in a far distant youth when it was less about surviving than experiencing the rush of life.

The vine growers to their credit have stepped up to the plate in other instances by staging lavish $500.00 a bottle charity events to supplement causes untouchable by the dilapidated social services of the County, who are top heavy with expensive management and bottom abundant with gross inefficiency. Most field caseworkers spend ninty-five percent of their time shuffling desk papers. Those motivated and talented are soon discouraged leaving the cynical and hostile to tend the tsunami of human damage on their desks.

And so- looking at the local scene, our discouragement deepens and we wonder if the nation at large is burning down its house.

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