The American system of oppression

Based on all the commentary and recollections since his death, apparently I am one of the few people on Earth who never personally met Nelson Mandela. I could only admire from afar his superhuman magnanimity and willingness to bond with those who so brutalized him.

But since I do the occasional guest shot on MSNBC, I obviously have met Al Sharpton and Chris Matthews, with whom I have very sporadic contact. Although we don’t agree on everything, I emphatically embrace the thoughts that Sharpton expressed, seconded by Matthews, that the GOP politicians in the United States “don’t care if the country suffers.” The Republicans, being the hand puppets of those who prosper from the growing gap between the have-nots and the have-nearly-everythings, foster a type of economic apartheid in our country. As a result, their principles fall short of those in South Africa who finally were willing to surrender power to the moral force of Nelson Mandela and abandon their country’s vicious system of apartheid.

The dictionary defines apartheid as “any system that separates people according to race, caste, etc.” In the United States right now, the top 10 percent takes in half the compensation. The typical CEO makes 273 times more than his or her average workers. Between 1970 and 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the very richest saw income growth of 275 percent — those at the bottom, just 18 percent. The gap keeps widening. Upward mobility, which defines our aspirations, is becoming a myth, and getting back to the comparison with South Africa’s ruling class, those in the U.S. continue to resist any effort to achieve a more equitable society.

It explains their fight to the death against labor unions, against raising a pathetic minimum wage, against paying their fair share of taxes or any semblance of it.

“That should offend all of us,” said President Barack Obama. “We are a better country than this.” But are we, anymore? Or are we totally at the mercy of the powerful, who refuse to share their hoarded wealth and band together to stave off any efforts to make them do so or to even be required to observe rules of common decency. If you’re familiar with my thinking, or lack thereof, you’re aware that I can be critical of Obama, but he’s certainly right about this. It is our most fundamental problem. Unlike South Africa, there is no movement toward solving it. In fact, we seem to be heading further in the wrong direction.

When we hear the word “Alec,” right now, most of us think of Alec Baldwin. But the vastly more pernicious ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which just met in Washington. The group is funded by a variety of corporate and right-wing money people, the infamous Koch brothers among them. This year’s agenda includes planning to fight against disclosure labeling for foods, even in the face of contamination. As always, they also discussed strategies to set up obstacles to union organizing; they bitterly oppose any environmental or climate-change initiatives; in other words, anything that might cause them to share for the greater good of society and to spread their wealth with anyone else they will try to stop, whatever it takes.

They and their accomplices also are working hard to undermine that most fundamental American birthright, the opportunity to participate in free elections. In various states under their control, they’ve taken actions to set up barriers against those who might cast ballots against their candidates or policies. It is reminiscent of the Jim Crow days, but nothing is too shameful for them.

Whether we met him or not, we all benefit from the example and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela. But he couldn’t do it alone. To rescue his country from oppression, he needed cooperation from the oppressors, and he got it. That isn’t happening here.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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