Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Floridian Rip Van Winkle Meets the Body Snatchers

I am a fifth generation Floridian. My nephews and niece are six generation Florida crackers. My ancestors were among the first settlers in north Florida and pioneers in then rural Dade County. I have lived in every part of this state from the southeast coast where I was born to the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle. With the exception of some summers abroad and a four year hiatus to northern California (which I will always see as my second home), I have lived in this state all of my 54 years.

These days in the post-Jeb Bush era in Florida, I find myself on the set of a bizarre movie in which Rip Van Winkle meets the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Daily we see legislators who look like human beings, sound like human beings, but it is clear they are not fully human. Both brain and heart seem to be missing though the greed function is still intact. And what seems clear is that they are here to take over and eventually destroy this state recasting it in their own image. Like Rip Van Winkle, I look around me, shake my head and wonder how long I've been asleep and how I could have awoken to such a different Florida from the one in which I grew up.

Amidst the latest gossip about Brittany and Heath this past week were stories of public school closings and teacher layoffs. At the university where I work, the administration is asking departments to consider how they will cut 20% from their budgets even as the university continues to admit ever more students to the university. This translates to cutting positions and in some cases, whole programs. A young woman who adjuncts for the department teaches in nearby Seminole County, a Republican bastion and a wealthy county. She reports an assembly in which it was announced 23 of her colleagues would be let go at the end of the current school year.

This is unprecedented in Florida. And while such cuts are happening in other places around the country (California was announcing 10% cuts in public school budgets when I was there in March), Florida was already a poorly funded system to begin with. And it's hardly just the schools being slashed. Health care to seniors, the indigent and children are on the chopping block. Any spending which ameliorates human suffering is in danger in this state.

That hardly means the legislature has not been busy. They've busily debated whether to pass laws to criminalize droopy pants which reveal underwear. They've passed a resolution which apologizes for slavery a mere 143 years after its end (with no financial reparation, of course). And they've made it possible in a state where gun violence has become the norm of public schools, convenience stores, club parking lots and now amusement parks to bring guns to work. So, a less educated public can now tote guns into public spaces but only so long as they pull their pants up and feel duly sorry that our white ancestors enslaved our black ancestors. Fellini could not have written a better script if he tried.

Of course, such idiocy could not occur without a lapdog press. And, in all fairness, we are participants in this devil's bargain. It's a bit like the Soviet Union where the people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them. Here, the corporate media pretends to inform us with half truths and we pretend they're informing us. Of course, how much press real news stories get in the first place is always dependant upon the latest "breaking news" of Brittany's latest meltdown or the most recent shootout. (Isn't something that breaks into our consciousness simply news?)

While our legislators have been busy defunding the state government and dealing with non-issues, our local representative of the global corporate media monopoly has repeatedly told the lie that the cuts in our schools and social services are due to unexpected drops in revenues due to the bust in the inflated housing market. Such explanations are only too absurd for anyone with the capacity and the will to recall the last election when Floridians voted themselves $250 tax rebates at the expense of the very schools and social services now being slashed. And, if they sift through the "news" about the local corporate entertainment unit Orlando Magic and about how live broadcasts from one's laptop can provide "reality show" entertainment for the world, they might even find the story about the proposed 25% further cut in the property taxes which support schools which appears headed for our ballot this fall. Sadly, I have no doubt that Floridians will both instantly recognize that such cuts are socially irresponsible and self-centered but behind the curtain of the voting booths will readily pull the lever to approve them.

There is an apocryphal story of the pastor of a small parish who began his annual stewardship sermon with the following: "Today I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have the money to operate our parish another year. The bad news is that it's still in your pockets." Florida has devolved into a state of wealthy haves - retirees and corporations - whose bought and paid for legislators have protected their interests at the expense of all the rest of us have not schmucks. The responses of local governments struggling to keep their heads above water has been to increase tolls, fees and charges for services, and to pass local option sales taxes. All of these are by definition the epitome of regressive taxation, a reverse Robin Hood where the poor carry the burden for the whole society while the wealthy enjoy the free ride and demand services.

What is more troubling to me is that I see this trend toward privatization and patronage, toward defunding public institutions while demanding ever more micromanaged accountability, toward providing a good life for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else as representing a looming failure of the social contract. Locke's theory, which underpins the American republic - itself in danger of floundering and failing - provides that the people agree to give up some of their natural rights - life, liberty and property - to adequately and consistently fund the government thus formed whose duty is to protect those remaining natural rights which remain. The social contract is not about individuals. It's about the "general welfare" our Preamble speaks of. It recognizes Ronald Reagan's question of "Are you better off than you were four years ago" to be a betrayal of every citizen's social responsibility to the common good.

The current Speaker of the Florida House is a handsome grandson of Batista era exiles to Miami. The US supported Batista regime featured American corporate control over virtually every aspect of Cuba, widespread organized crime connected to gambling and prostitution, low literacy rates, squalid housing and miserable public health. It may have been good for an elite few who benefited from the misery of many. But it also set the stage for a Castro socialist revolution in which anything would be seen as better than more Batista misery. There is no small amount of irony in seeing the grandson of Batista exiles leading the charge to make Florida look much like the Cuba of his forebears.

But what troubles me most is the apparent indifference of most Floridians to this melt down of a state which once held great promise. What a far cry from the Florida of the 1970s in which hope for a new Florida with good schools and a decent standard of living for all were actually considered to be a possible dream. But Bushes and Batista legacies do not come to power without the consent of the governed. What troubles my soul is the knowledge that at some level, this is the Florida that today's residents of Florida - 3/4 of whom were not actually born here- either want or are willing to accept. As I rub the Rip Van Winkle sleep from eyes, I wonder, how could this have happened? And I wonder what legacy my generation of Floridians will bestow upon the sixth generation now growing up in this state I once loved and returned from California to serve.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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