Since the beginning of the 21st century and, more particularly, since September 11, 2001, the notion of security in the West has turned around the idea of terrorism and, more particularly, Muslim terrorism. During its first term, George W. Bush’s administration categorically refused the CIA’s findings identifying white supremacy as by far the most significant threat to national security. Bush forced the agency’s experts to put Muslim terrorism at the top of the list, despite all evidence to the contrary. Bush needed a reason to call himself a “wartime president.”
Organized violence, such as the threat of war or terrorism, is not the only threat to security — or even the most significant. Today’s pandemic provides a dramatic example of a threat to security with an impact as great as war.
Poverty has always been an unrecognized security threat. In a capitalist society, we have all been taught that poverty is inevitable because some people have failed to take advantage of the opportunities civilization offers them. Poverty represents some people’s failure to exercise their freedom to succeed. For some, it may be due to unmerited misfortune. But for most, it is explained as their own moral failings or their incapacity to rise to the challenge. That is why that wonderful activity we call charity exists. Because poverty is seen as an inevitable consequence of our wonderful system of economic organization, it is dismissed as a security threat.
As past history has shown, poverty and famine have often led to revolt. But in this age of technology, those who might fear revolt take comfort from the sophistication of the technology that now exists to repress it. Pitchforks simply cannot rival armored Humvees operated by the security state.
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Nevertheless, poverty has other ways of destabilizing societies whose elites believe their way of life represents the ideal of order and good behavior. The Trump years have vindicated the CIA’s traditional analysis identifying white supremacy as the most obvious threat to domestic security. Republicans like to characterize the essentially peaceful protests of Black Lives Matter as threatening, but they have clearly retained a character of protest rather than revolt. No one knows how the white supremacists currently refusing Trump’s electoral defeat may react when he is definitively dislodged in January.
US culture has always minimized the reality of poverty, which now has a new face. Living in squalor in the inner city is one thing. But now more and more “respectable” Americans simply don’t have enough to eat. And at the end of this month, millions will discover they won’t be able to pay their arrears on rent. Already, millions can’t afford their daily bread. Some struggle to even bury their dead.
The Associated Press quotes a report that lists some startling numbers: “In four states — Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana — more than 1 in 5 residents are expected to be food insecure by year’s end, meaning they won’t have money or resources to put food on the table.” Some states are more affected than others: “Nevada, a tourist mecca whose hotel, casino and restaurant industries were battered by the pandemic, is projected to vault from 20th place in 2018 to 5th place this year in food insecurity, according to a report from Feeding America.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The inability to feed a significant portion of the population, a condition that theoretically disappeared after the agricultural revolution of the 20th century, but which has become endemic principally in the United States in the 21st century due to the acceptance of its dogma that wealth inequality is the vocation of a dynamic modern society.
The media present the idea of food insecurity as a problem for individuals and their families, not as a social problem. And yet the queues of cars waiting for hours for handouts bear comparison with the image of soup lines we associate with the Great Depression. The sheer length of these modern-day bread lines puts to shame the black-and-white images of people waiting for handouts in the 1930s. For many, the car they drive to the food banks has become their only shelter. Many have lost their homes, as many more will in the months to come. It isn’t even clear how many own their cars, though repossessing from the homeless has become a challenge for creditors.
Law enforcement strategists may already be thinking that the idea of food insecurity represents something more than a state of personal anguish for isolated individuals in times of pandemic. At some point, today’s pandemic may become tomorrow’s pandemonium. In other words, like everything else in a society built on the foundational idea of the individual’s “pursuit of happiness,” the cumulative effect of an experience shared on an increasingly wide scale leads to its recognition as a potentially insoluble social problem.
What better illustrates the phenomenon than the opioid crisis? Until only a few years ago, US media treated the problem of addiction as a personal drama that affected random individuals. Like Frank Sinatra’s character in the 1955 film “The Man with the Golden Arm,” the victims needed to acquire the courage to kick the habit and rejoin healthy society. But when, a decade ago, statistics began revealing a rapidly mounting number of deaths by overdose — not limited to down-and-out jazz musicians in an urban nightmare or the black minority — opioid addiction became “the opioid crisis.” Even rural whites were involved.
That meant that it was time to analyze the phenomenon as a security threat, to be treated the way any extensive social crisis is treated, by taking into account complex economic, sociological and even commercial factors that structure the crisis. It became a topic that politicians could now talk about out in the open. In 2020, food security is reaching a similar point of public recognition. Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Republicans have led an insurgency campaign against food stamps. They see food assistance as a demeaning symbol of the acceptance of the maligned welfare state. Given a challenge, true Americans will always rise up on their own initiative to meet it. Handing out food shamefully discourages that vibrant sense of initiative.
Earlier this year, as the cars began lining up in increasing numbers on their way to food banks, the Trump administration tried to block the distribution of food stamps allowed by the Coronavirus Food Assistance program. But in an economy that is shedding jobs, hunger doesn’t simply go away thanks to an individual’s willpower, especially in a consumer society that for decades has literally fed the trend toward super-sizing and obesity.
When the symptoms of poverty traditionally associated with marginalized minorities emerge as a feature of the landscape to which a majority may be exposed, even an ideologically rigid society may begin to rethink the relationship between poverty and security. The poorer classes in the US have for most of the past century created a false sense of order in their lives through obsessive consumer behavior. Addiction took a variety of forms, most of which were deemed “healthy” for the economy, if not for the consumers themselves, from Coca-Cola and McDonalds to reality TV.
Addictive behavior seemed to define the American way of life. In contrast, the wealthier segments of society focused on ensuring their security by living in a separate mental and physical world. One prominent late 20th-century trend among the upper-middle class was the retreat into gated communities. Seeking to move further and further away from multiracial cities, neighborhoods emerged that looked comfortably residential while benefiting from military-style security, including armed guards at their unique entrance. They were effectively sealed off from the rest of society.
The gated community mentality has now become a largely unconscious feature of US culture. The idea of security has itself become an obsession in stark contrast with the romantic tradition that celebrated the rugged individualism of the West and of early capitalism. It has justified the creation of the national security state.
The US is now undergoing perhaps its deepest historical and cultural psychodrama since the Civil War. The reality of a crisis of “food security” reflects more than just the disastrous material effects of growing inequality. It highlights an extraordinary conflict capable of undermining traditional cultural assumptions. History has repeatedly shown that there is no cure for cultural chaos.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.