Over the Moon: The Fallacy of American ‘Exceptionalism’
On this episode of democracy-ish, Whitey is on the moon, while Danielle and Toure are down-to-earth as ever.
The richest man in the world, former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, briefly left Earth this week in a flagrantly dick-shaped rocketship.
Meanwhile on terra firma, income inequality is as conspicuous as ever. When a tiny fraction of the population holds the majority of wealth, what hope do people who work for a living really have?
Why are billionaires so interested in going to space instead of improving conditions for their workers, and the rest of humanity?
The show begins with a dramatic recitation of Gil Scott-Heron’s classic 1970 spoken-word poem “Whitey on the Moon.” It’s been recently rediscovered in pop culture, gaining new relevance as billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson each briefly leave the planet and return far too soon.
“Whitey is on the moon, in a –– what does he call it? ‘Blue rocket?’” asks Toure.
“Which one? Are you talking about the dick rocket that Bezos took? Which one are you talking about?” Danielle replies.
This week, it was Bezos, but it doesn’t matter.
“We have billionaires going into space and millions of people working for minimum wage, working multiple jobs, hungry, scrapping, starving … This entire system is totally backwards and fucked,” says Toure.
“It doesn't make any sense to me,” says Danielle.
Episode Highlights –– Whitey on the Moon
Who’s really ‘exceptional’?
While the White House referred to our current dick race to space as “American exceptionalism,” Danielle thinks it’s “the epitome of American greed.”
Toure is bothered by those who argue that the billionaire shuttle club has the right to spend their money the way they want.
“That’s the most reductive way of looking at this, and the smallest possible aperture … Yes, Jeff Bezos is sitting on $50 billion and he has the quote, unquote, right to spend it how he wants, however, let’s pull back and talk about how one person is able to amass so much money.”
It’s largely due to “a taxation system that he and other wealthy people are able to manipulate,” Toure adds. “Thank you, Citizens United.”
As he points out, Bezos wasn’t exactly self-made. He got a $250,000 loan from his parents, which went a long way toward building a business.
There’s nothing exceptional about that –– or Donald Trump’s inherited wealth, or Kylie Jenner on the cover of Forbes as the youngest-ever “self-made” billionaire. Instead we should celebrate those “who have had to go through all of the obstacles this country puts in place for people of color, for women, for people with disabilities, for queer people,” Danielle says.
“That is exceptionalism –– when you're able to move outside your station and outside the box they want to place you in.”
‘Good choices’ v. ‘character defects’
Too many people think the rich are rich because they're smart and they made good choices, says Toure.
“You’d think that four years Donald Trump would prove that you can be really dumb,” he adds. “At the same time, there’s also a perception that the poor are poor because they made bad choices, they’e dumb or perhaps they have character defects.”
That’s a gross misunderstanding of American class structures “and how it’s harder than ever to move up in class,” Toure notes.
It might be because it’s expensive, and taxing, to be poor: multi-generational economic issues lead to multi-generational poverty. The fact that a few “random, exceptional people” have escaped it doesn’t prove everybody can, he says.
“It's sort of the other way around.”
A tone-deaf ‘thank you’ from America’s newest astronaut
Perhaps what makes Bezos so loathsome is the way Amazon treats its workers. That the most valuable company in America hires “with a plan to fire people before a certain level of benefits kick in,” says Toure. And that’s not even the worst of it.
He points to a viral TikTok: “A brother sitting in an Amazon picker jacket is saying, Amazon treats us like slaves,” Toure explains. “It’s a stitch, so it then jumps to another brother, who’s also in a picker jacket. He’s like, Well, I don’t know what Amazon he works for. Because at the one I work for, they don't let us sit.”
Danielle recently saw an Amazon commercial that featured a Black woman talking about their Black accelerator program.
“So as Whitey was headed to the moon, Bezos was like, here –– let me roll out some more propaganda for you during a pandemic. Do you know how many Amazon employees came down with COVID? How many of them don't receive health care?”
And still, Jeff Bezos thanked his employees for enabling him to go to the fucking moon.
“That statement was completely tone deaf,” says Toure.
The ‘politically naked’ truth
The deplorable conditions in Amazon warehouses, and the lack of benefits for those who sweat inside them all day, is the result of a “decades-long destruction of unions in America by the GOP and the right since the early ’70s,” says Toure.
“Because they wanted big business on their side, they have been targeting unions over and over, to the point where the average American thinks unions are the problem.”
As a result, workers have little protection and no recourse when they’re mistreated. And it’s impossible to fight management if they're not united.
“The destruction of unions in America has left the average worker making $15 or less, completely politically naked, and vulnerable,” Toure argues.
For Danielle, anti-union sentiment illustrates “how we reduce conversations to nonsense … we formulate everything as [simply] good or bad.”
The persistent myth of the ‘Welfare Queen’
Here’s what happens when everything is a dichotomy: A simplistic idea takes hold, like people who are racist are bad people who say bad things.
That gives anyone who’s accused of being racist a loophole to argue, But I don't say those bad things. So I'm not a racist.
And so they think their careless behavior or their endless opportunities don’t have anything to do with the system that was created for them. They think their efforts are their own, unsupported by a structure designed to help them thrive.
That simplistic view of racial divisions is not unlike conversations about capitalism, Danielle says. “We just say, if you are poor, it’s because you're a bad person, which enforces why we don't create policies to help the poor –– they’re undeserving.”
That school of thought led to President Reagan’s “imaginary welfare queen –– because these people want handouts,” she adds. “If only they would get themselves together, if only they would pull themselves up.”
If you’re wondering how to pull yourself up if a boot is on your neck, you’re probably never going to the moon.
We lionize the rich as they steal from the poor
The demonization of the poor and the lionization of the rich has been a “long-term development,” says Toure. Though the wealthiest among us have always been admired, studied and emulated, the rise of digital technology, particularly in Silicon Valley, led to entrepreneurs “taking on a vaunted place in society.”
And he understands why the people who created the products that are beloved by so many are, quite naturally, compelling.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with that,” Toure argues. “I want to read the book about Elon Musk. I am interested in his journey.”
But the “lionization of these people has led to the middle class being blinded to their theft,” he adds –– meaning that, because they aspire to reach Musk- and Bezos- and Branson-level someday, they won’t criticize them for their tax breaks and political advantages. They’ll just look down on the poor instead.
The American dream fallacy
Aspirational thinking works against us in this country, says Danielle.
“We never lambaste the rich, because it’s the American dream –– fantasy –– that one day, our lottery ticket will be called, too. And if my lottery ticket is called, I want all of the protections the rich will have.”
We actually have the power to change the system by voting in people like Elizabeth Warren, who simply want to tax them a bit more to pay for just about everything we need.
But we’re stuck with a fallacy: That could be me one day. And yet what the popular myth-making about wealth misses, Danielle says, is that money enables us to dream.
“Poor people don't have the freedom to be able to dream, to innovate their way out of situations when they are just trying to make ends meet. Money gives you time to think … time to not be stressed. So if I'm constantly worrying about how I’m going to pay my rent next week, how can I have time to read a book, to philosophize about where I want my life to go?”
The ‘Hunger Games’ economic model
The current system isn’t sustainable, says Toure.
“And we're not talking about socialism, we're talking about a more equitable distribution of wealth. The country itself is stronger when there is a strong and broad middle class, not a small group of people at the top who have most of the money and a large group of people at the bottom, who have very little.”
That’s a system that only works for the people at the top, he adds.
“It’s how you develop the Hunger Games,” says Danielle. “It’s how you develop a system that eventually will topple over.”
Universal basic income: Can it impact crime rates?
Danielle asks why we can’t have what Andrew Yang and others have proposed: a universal basic income.
“Why can't we have that, in the wealthiest nation on earth? Imagine what would happen with our entrepreneurship, our ability to innovate, if everyone knew their rent, and their mortgage was going to be paid –– if every American was getting $2,000 or $3,000 a month?”
But the criticism of UBI is that it would somehow “create mass laziness,” says Toure.
“And that is a lie. It’s a distraction,” Danielle counters. “It is to have people who are poor at each other’s throats. It’s to have the middle class be in this place where they have somebody to look down on, but also have somebody to look up to. And then everyone is so distracted with trying to make their basic needs met that the rich get away with everything.”
Toure wonders what impact the UBI, an experiment that’s underway in Stockton, California, has had on crime rates. He imagines it’s a really powerful way of stopping crime, “because crime often comes from a sense of anxiety and stress. When people don’t have enough money, they have to do whatever they can to get it.”
Why doesn’t Bezos just cut a check to eradicate poverty?
Lawmakers on the right would have us believe the free market will sort out the problems in our society, “if only the government would get out of the way,” says Toure.
“Well, now we have people who are more powerful than the government because they are in control of a shit-ton of money.”
But very few of the world’s uber-wealthy are using their wealth to address major societal ills. When someone is worth billions, they could peel off what would be relatively little money to, say, fix Flint’s water crisis, or homelessness, or “end Fox News,” Toure notes.
“According to some stats, it would cost $25 billion to wipe out childhood poverty,” Danielle says. That’s a drop in the bucket to someone like Jeff Bezos, whose net worth once increased by $13 billion in a single day. In fact, he’s so wealthy that an average American who spends $1 to buy something is akin to Bezos spending about $1.3 million.