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Sasha Abramsky © 1998


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I've been living in the United States nearly five years now, which, I suppose, dates me somewhat. Though not as much as the fact that I remember Gorbachev's birthmark and Reagan's dementia first hand. Or that I still have nuclear nightmares involving flashpoints like Grenada and Libya. Grenada? Isn't that a Ford car? Point taken.

Anyway, since graduating in the early nineties, back when respectable writers still wrote longhand and only yuppies used laptops, and - more importantly - when The Voice of the Turtle was in both its infancy and its heyday, I've lived in New York. And, living here, I've seen a fair amount of America in action.

I don't want to diss on this country too much. Because, for all its many faults, I find it an intensely romantic place, where dreams aren't automatically laughed at, and where weird transformations not only do happen, but are supposed to. When it goes right, there's nowhere better. When it goes wrong, there's quite possibly hardly anywhere worse. It's that sort of place. Which leaves me, after five years, with a love-and-hate relationship to the country and its myriad cultures and landscapes - which, I suppose, is a whole lot better than the take-it-or-leave-it feelings that England inspires in me.

For example: nearly two million people are now locked away in prisons and jails in this country. And, in cities such as the capital, Washington, D.C., something like half of the black men in their twenties are either behind bars, on probation, or awaiting trial. I recently read that in Idaho (a remote rural state in the northwest, dominated by the Rocky mountains, salmon fishing and white supremacist mountain folks) total welfare spending for 1997 was $15 million. At the same time, $200 million was spent on building a single prison in the state. All that was needed was prisoners to fill this sparkling new abode. So the state set to work creating dozens of new crimes, and increasing the sentences for existing crimes, until the facility began to be populated - thus belatedly proving the need for its construction in the first place. But Hell! Since the poor in Idaho have lost 77 percent of their welfare cheques and food stamps in the last five years, they're probably better off committing these new crimes and getting accommodated in the new prison anyway. I mean, if you're the victim of a national war against the victims of poverty, you might as well at least get a free meal out of the concomitant war against crime.

At least the Idaho inmates will be marginally better off than the death row inmates in the sunshine state of Arizona. A couple years back, Governor Fife Symington decided to score easy political points by declaring that he would force those awaiting execution to work for their keep in desert chain gangs. Since then, the good governor has himself been impeached and sentenced to prison for his part in a rather large real estate swindle. But there's no word yet as to whether he'll be breaking sweat by breaking stones.

As it happens, though, the idea of forced labour is increasingly common in America these days. Since Bill Clinton's vaunted "Welfare reform" welfare has generally been converted into "workfare." These days, unless you can prove you're about to drop dead from chronic illnesses, or, if you're lucky, that you have an infant child and no babysitter, if you want a welfare cheque you've got to work for it. In Roosevelt's day, when the unemployed were put to work by the state, they called it "public works programs" and paid the workers a living wage. These days, they call it "workfare" and pay the workers "welfare." So, while the streets of America's cities look increasingly clean, and the parks increasingly manicured, the underside of this prettification process is an army of bonded labourers working at hourly wages that would shame the Indonesians.

The absurdity of this is compounded by the fact that the jobs done by workfare recipients are jobs that, until Mayors and Governors caught onto a good way to slash government payrolls and lower taxes, used to be done by paid, trade unionised, workers. Cleaning the streets and parks and subway cars, doing clerical work in government offices. This used to work deemed worthy of a salary.

But, in this post-modern, post-industrial, post-sane economy, public sector employees don't count for shit, if you'll pardon my French. So, the sacked employees are left with the option of either enrolling on welfare and, in all possibility, ending up "working" at their old jobs for about a fifth of their old salary, or turning to a life of crime and getting accepted into one of America's fine new hi-tech prisons (all meals included). Of course, the downside of the latter is that they'll probably get raped, tortured, and generally fucked in prison, and that, upon release, they won't stand a rat's chance in hell of ever getting a decent job again. But then, that's the price one pays for not being independently wealthy in the land of the free.




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