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Who Stole Our Cheese (and Killed Our Democracy and Poisoned Our Planet)?


In May of 2005, on the pages of this blog, I said that I would produce an article on the the best-selling corporate-Orwellian fable “Who Moved My Cheese?” Then I tragically misplaced the notebook in which my reflections on that noxious neoliberal fairy tale were kept. Seventeen months later, I rediscovered the lost notes and belatedly delivered on my promise. The results appeared on the main ZNet web-site, with added reflections on the mid-term political situation in the imperial homeland and the war on a nation whose oil cannot be moved. Here, after a two-week grace period, is the long-awaited essay, now available in blog:

ZNet | Activism

Who Killed My Democracy? On Republicans, Cheese, Mice, Rats, and Littlepeople
Challenging Times for the War Party in Power

by Paul Street; October 15, 2006

These are dangerous times for the U.S. war party in power. Its messianic-militarist administration is mired in a disastrous occupation that has killed many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans. The reasons that it has given for this terrible undertaking have been revealed as transparently false.

More than half the U.S. population now says the war on Iraq is NOT morally justified. According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, a majority of the population now rejects administration’s efforts to link the war on Iraq with the so-called “war on terror.”

According to a CNN poll in August, 60 percent of the population opposes the war. Sixty one percent believe that some troops should be removed before the end of the year and 57 percent want a timetable for full withdrawal.

The president rejects these policy choices as naïve “appeasement” – so-called “cut and run” – even while he insists that the war is being fought on behalf of the idea that government should reflect the “will of the people.”

Meanwhile, the Republicans’ regressive, hyper-plutocratic domestic policy is highly unpopular. It stands in sharply and ironic contrast to its claim to be leading the nation in a war to save civilization and to advance core “democratic” values.

That policy is a big part of why wages, benefits, and incomes continue to stagnate for ordinary Americans. It is linked also to an endemic, increasingly transparent political corruption that has especially dirtied Republican hands.

The already rich are getting transparently richer than ever, the poor are getting poorer and the middle is still just scratching by while the president pours untold billions into the illegal, mass-murderous, falsely sold and unpopular invasion of Mesopotamia.

The in-power Republican right seems unable to shake the image of failure hung on it by Iraq and Hurricane Katrina even with a mild economic expansion and the surprising lack of a major terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

No wonder a big majority of the population now says that the country would be better off if the current war party in power was removed from office. Even with the well-known nothingness of the corporate-neoliberal Democrats, the defeat of the Republicans in November seems at least possible. If that happens it could open the door to some very serious investigations and proceedings against the Cheney-Rove cabal.

BE MORE LIKE MICE, LITTLE PEOPLE

It’s time, perhaps, for the Republicans to call on the services of Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of Who Moved My Cheese? In that corporate-anthropomorphic masterwork that became a runaway bestseller at the end of the last millennium, Dr. Johnson helped millions of Americans move beyond the negative thoughts and feelings they harbored over the loss of their jobs, earnings, lives and communities to the inexorable workings of the corporate economy. His book received rave reviews and gushing critical praise from such noted literary authorities as IBM, Exxon, Proctor & Gamble, General Electric and their friend the U.S. Army,

In Johnson’s story, four characters lived in a giant “maze.” Two of these characters were mice. One of the mice was named “Sniff.” The other mouse was named “Scurry.”

The “maze” was Johnson’s clumsy metaphor for the capitalist marketplace, which he conflated with material life and “the way things are” in the real world.

Two of the characters were “littlepeople,” no bigger than mice but endowed with reasoning and language capacities of humans.

The first littleperson was named “Hem.” The second was named “Haw.”

Once upon a long time, the story went, “Sniff,” “Scurry,” “Hem,” and “Haw” used to get their “cheese” – Johnson’s over-obvious metaphor for jobs and incomes – at “Cheese Station C.” The “cheese station” was Johnson’s over-obvious metaphor for the workplace.

The mice and the “littlepeople” had come to rely on “Station C” to provide with material security and a place in society. One traumatic day, however, for reasons that were unclear, the “cheese” ran out. There was no more “cheese.”

This was Johnson’s clumsy metaphor for corporate downsizing and deindustrialization, and the disappearance of jobs.

When the “cheese” left, the mice instinctively knew what to do. They went out into the maze and sniffed and scurried around for – what else? – “new cheese”

They didn’t worry about other mice left behind or the mouse community in general. They went out to get “cheese” for themselves.

The “littlepeople” responded in a more problematic and – to use a favorite term from the New Age 1990s – dysfunctional way, reflecting the fact that they possessed critical faculties and moral sensibilities. Like many over-entitled humans, they wasted emotional, intellectual, and physical energy feeling angry at the disappearance of their “cheese.” They spent an inordinate amount of time and effort discussing an irrelevant and useless question: “Who Moved My Cheese?” They lost precious vigor fretting over pointless moral abstractions related to the irrelevant issue of who controlled and abused the “maze” (market).

They questioned authority and sought fairness, futile endeavors that prevented them from getting to the real and only thing that mattered: “finding new cheese.” They worried about the fact that they had purchased homes and built families and communities in the vicinity of “Cheese Station C.” They became concerned and anxious over the meaning of lost jobs/cheese for littlepeople in general.

They needed to be more like the mice.

They needed to abandon grievance, drop their crippling concern with justice. They needed to get off their fat littlepeople buts and realize that life and the maze aren’t fair. They needed to realize that the marketplace entitles you to nothing in the way of steady earnings, meaningful work, material security, and community. They needed to get back into the maze and find new jobs – any job, anywhere – as soon as possible for themselves.

They needed to stop worrying about any littlepeople other than themselves. They needed to stop wondering who runs and profits most from “the maze.”

They needed to move on.

In Johnson’s fable, one of the littlepeople – “Haw” – gets it. Unlike “Hem,” “Haw” learns to accept the great core “life” lessons of classic bourgeois doctrine. He understands that it is a great error to think that people have rights entitling to anything more than the privilege to try their luck in the market.

It is a fundamental mistake, “Haw” realizes, to believe that mere people have any kind of place in society and a right to live or work with and around other people they care about in any specific location.

“Haw” learns to drop the human rights fallacy and to get on with “life.” He learns to stop thinking and feeling in accord with obsolete “old beliefs” like social justice. He agrees to be more like a mouse when life – the marketplace – hands him a raw deal.

He learns that resistance is futile. He learns to stop questioning mysterious corporate power and to jump in accord with the dictates of hidden capital.

He is cheerfully assimilated into the mindless, hyper-mobile terror of the global, corporate-neoliberal Animal Farm.

He gets his sniffing and scurrying sneakers on, runs out into the “maze,” and is rewarded with “new cheese.”

Along the way he leaves a number of messages posted the serve as what Dr. Johnson calls “The Handwriting on the Wall” for his recalcitrant throwback friend “Hem,” who just can’t let go of the old entitlement beliefs.

The messages include the following:

“Movement in a New Direction Helps You Find New Cheese”

“The Quicker You Let Go of Old Cheese, the Sooner you find New Cheese”

“It is Safer to Search for New Cheese Than to Remain in a Cheeseless Situation”

“Old Beliefs Do Not Lead You to New Cheese”

“Change Happens: They Keep Moving the Cheese”

“Move With the Cheese and Enjoy It”

REPUBLICAN BOOK PROPOSALS FOR FALL 2006

Millions of grateful readers were enlightened by this marvelous corporate-anthropomorphic fable, which helped “littlepeople” stop questioning state-capitalist authority and get on with personal and animal survival in a neoliberal era when people realize that ideas of justice and community are no longer helpful or relevant.
Doc Johnson helped grease the wheels of corporate globalization.

I think the Republicans should hire Johnson or some like-minded Orwellian to produce a series of quick fables to help keep the rabble in line during and after the upcoming mid-term elections.

Here are two possible titles and story lines they might wish to pursue between now and the upcoming elections:

WHO SENT MY SON OFF TO GET MAIMED IN AN IMPERIAL OIL WAR?

Plot: two chipmunk families and two littlepeople families experience the agony of their sons being blown up by angry squirrels predictably resisting an illegal, imperial, and murderous invasion of their oil-rich nation that was ordered by big powerful Ratpeople named Dick, Bush, and Rummy.

The Ratpeople sent the sons and hundreds of thousands of other troops off to the squirrels’ nation after some angry ferrets hijacked some planes and flew them into buildings in the nation run by the Ratpeople.

The Ratpeople told the chipmunks and the littlepeople that the ferrets’ criminal action justified invading the squirrels’ nation. They did everything it could to blur the distinction between squirrels and ferrets. For a while, many of the chipmunks and littlepeople had a hard time distinguishing squirrels from ferrets.

The Ratpeople also lied about the dangers posed to chipmunks and littlepeople by the squirrels’ nation. It claimed that that the squirrels possessed significant “weapons of mass destruction” that it was going to share with the angry ferrets and use against the littlepeople and the chipmunks.

Later, after all the lies were exposed and it was shown that 650,000 squirrels had needlessly died, the Ratpeople said it was too late to call off the invasion. Anyone who wanted to end this mass-murderous action, they said, was an anti-littlepeople/anti-chipmunk coward who likes to “cut and run.”

Rather than become upset at the terrible injuries suffered by their sons and the lies that caused them, the chipmunk families mate to produce new soldiers that the Ratpeople can use in future illegal wars.

One of the two littlepeople families had worked hard to secure a lot of cheese in the maze. It agrees to send another one of its sons in the quest to kill more squirrels and control their oil. It is rewarded with a big tax-cut from the Ratpeople and gets a mimeographed letter of thanks from the Rat named Rummy. The note says “thank you for sacrificing your son’s legs in our noble effort to free and control the squirrels.”

On the day that this family sent its second son off to kill and free squirrels, it put up a number of large posters saying:

“It is Safer to Kill and Die than to Remain Alive and Not Kill”

“Change Happens: They Keep Switching the False Reasons for Their Illegal War”

“Unjust Wars Happen and There’s Nothing You Can Do About it”

“The Quicker You Let Go of Peace and Freedom, the Sooner You Will Find Peace and Freedom”

“Absurdity and Lies Happen: the Ratpeople Know What They Are Doing”

“Move With the Empire and Enjoy It”

“Old Beliefs Will Not Give Us Global Dominance”

“These Colors Don’t Run”

“Movement in a New Direction Means Fighting Islamic Squirrel and Ferret Fascism in the Streets of Our Own Country”

“Freedom Isn’t Free”

“United We Stand”

“Support the Troops”

“Love is Hate; War is Peace”

“I am Chipmunk, Hear Me Chirp”

“Some People Think Too Much”

The other littlepeople family does not turn out so well. It clings to the dysfunctional notion that its injured son was maimed for no good reason other than to enact the deceptive, vile, and vicious Ratpeople’s imperial agenda. It can’t let go of the idea that their son deserved better from “their” government.

It fails to move forward and enjoy life’s opportunities because of its obsession with the pointless question: “Who Sent My Son to Get His Legs Blown Off in an Illegal, Imperial and Racist Oil War?”

As the story ends, it appears that the second family is going to lose its savings and sanity in pointless, self-destructive efforts to stop the illegal and murderous occupation and to unseat the nasty Ratpeople from power. It is crippled by its attachment to the preposterous notion that it is somehow entitled not to have its children maimed in criminal and unnecessary wars.

WHO FLOODED AND ABANDONED MY CITY?

Plot: two dog families and two littlepeople families experience the agony of having their city flooded and losing their homes in the wake of a tropical storm whose worst consequences could have been prevented if the federal government run by super-wealthy Ratpeople had paid adequate attention to maintaining levees and to emergency preparedness. The city is called Old Metropolis. The hurricane is called George.

After the city is flooded, the Ratpeople government is unable and/or unwilling to rescue hundreds of thousands of trapped dogs and littlepeople for days and days.

Part of the problem is that the governing Ratpeople gave other wealthy Ratpeople huge tax cuts that reduced government’s capacity to meet human needs. Another part is that the governing Ratpeople believe that government has no legitimate role to play other than fighting wars, repressing dissent, and paying corporate welfare transfers to other rich and powerful Ratpeople.

Rather than become upset at the terrible policy actions and beliefs of the Ratpeople, the two dog families just shake their mains and lick their wounds. They stay in a cheap federal kennel for a couple of months and move on in search of a new doggy treats.

They realize that their homes in Old Metropolis are gone and that that is the way things go when big storms like Hurricane George happen. Life isn’t fair.

They find new food, treats, and toys in another metropolis far away. They are happy to live their new dog lives.

One of the littlepeople families takes its cue from the contented canines. It leaves the old metropolis behind and never looks back. A family therapist tells them it would be self-defeating to spend time and emerging thinking about what happened to them and other littlepeople and dogs and why.

Those sorts of questions, it learns, are beyond their legitimate spheres of influence, concern, and understanding. It was dysfunctional and draining, they determine, to reflect on such matters.

The family members write notes to each other and to other families saying:

“Change Happens: They Flood the Old Food Bowl and You Have To Move On.”

“So What if They Didn’t Pay for Adequate Flood Protection?”

“People Are Not Entitled to Being Saved From Floods by Big Government”

“Abandonment Happens: Go with the Flow”

“The Quicker You Let Go of Old Metropolis, the Sooner you find New Metropolis”

“It is Safer to Sniff Out High Ground Than to Remain in a Wet Situation”

“Old Beliefs Do Not Distance You From Floods”

“Too Bad For People Who Get Stuck in Floods and Don’t Move On: It’s Their Problem”

“Move With the Dog-Bowl and Enjoy It”

“The Color of You Skin Has Nothing to Do With How Quickly You Can Find Dry Ground”

“When They Make Floods Happen, You Have to Cut and Run”

“Take Care of Yourself: You Could Get Flooded Anytime”

“Bow Wow!”

“Many People are Too Moral and Intellectual”

“Dogs Know the Score”

“You Can Teach and Old Wet Dog New Tricks”

The other littlepeople family is less fortunate. It can’t stop asking and demanding answers to difficult questions relating to structures of Ratpeople power and authority. It focuses on related abuses that led to the devastation of their homes and city. It becomes suicidal in its determination to fight “those dirty Republican Rats.” It wastes resources and energy in a futile effort to rebuild its city and society so that nothing like what happened after Hurricane George could ever occur again.

It wallows under the spell of the great fallacy that it is entitled to government protection from social and ecological disaster.

It is determined to destroy itself and drag others down into the floodwaters of anger and despair. Consistent with its dangerous and worn-out concept of social entitlement, it campaigns against the current war party in power.

Its vote doesn’t mean anything, however, since the hurricane had has cleared out so many Democratic dogs from its home state that the winner-take-all electoral count goes to the Ratpeople party.

“WHO KILLED MY DEMOCRACY?” AND OTHER FUTURE TITLES

I don’t think the Republicans have time to produce more than these two fables between now and the mid-term elections.

I also don’t want to leave the impression that the Democrats wouldn’t do well to hire someone like Dr. Johnson to produce some good Orwellian moral fables to cover their own moral and policy records. Many Democratic political leaders have been less than unwilling participants in the creation of the core corporate-imperial policies that brought us Operation Iraqi Freedom, Katrina, and other terrible developments that reflect poorly on the health of the democratic ideal in the United States.

After the elections, American political and economic elites of both parties might consider producing an extended series of further and related victim-blaming spin-offs of Who Moved My Cheese?

Titles might include:

Who Bankrupted My Government?

Who Poisoned My Ecosphere?

Who Melted My Polar Ice Caps?

Who Turned My Country into the World’s Most Unequal and Wealth-Top-Heavy State?

Who Extended My Working Hours to the Point Where I Could No Longer Participate in Civic Culture and Maintain Nurturing Human Relationships?

Who Cut My Health Care Benefits?

Who Killed National Health Care?

Who Killed My Democracy?

Who Turned My Country Into a Corporate Plutocracy?

Who Slashed and/or Capped My Wages?

Who Busted My Union?

Who Stole My Retirement?

Who Slandered My Social Security System?

Who Incarcerated My Neighborhood?

Who Made Prisons the Only Growth Industry in My Rural County?

Who Segregated My Metropolitan Area?

Who Re-segregated My Schools?

Who Gentrified My Community?

Who Under-funded My Schools?

Who Reduced My Disproportionately Nonwhite Public School’s Curriculum to Mindless and Regimented Preparation for Authoritarian Standardized Tests?

Who Priced Me Out of Higher Education?

Who Commodified My Culture?

Who Commercially Carpet-Bombed My Children?

Who Stole My Civil Liberties?

Who Stole My Civil Rights?

Who Negated My Efforts to Advance Racial Equality?

Who Manufactured and Sold Guns to My Spouse’s Murderer?

Who Crushed the Spiritual Health of My Nation By Investing More Public Resources in “Defense” Than in Programs of Social Uplift?

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005) Street’s next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).

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