During the lead up to the 2008 presidential election, I was teaching at Ithaca College. I had a 2-hour commute through some of the poorest rural areas in Upstate New York. I was shocked at the number of McCain/Palin signs planted on the front lawns of run down shacks and weather-stained mobile homes with rusted-out cars in weed-infested driveways and patched and ragged t shirts and jeans waving in the breeze from sagging clothes lines. Here lived the very people who for the past thirty years have suffered under the false hope of trickle-down economics. And yet here they were supporting the party that originated and promoted the myth that says if you take care of the rich, their consumption will drive the economy and provide opportunity for the rest of us.
There has been a great deal written about why the middle and lower classes are so easily convinced to vote against their own interests, but I think Plato may have nailed it when he wrote the Allegory of the Cave. In it, he describes a group of people who have lived their lives in the bottom of a dark cave in restraints so that they cannot move and can only look straight ahead. The lack of stimuli would be maddening, except for the good fortune of having a multimedia production crew working behind them to project shadow puppets on the wall in front of them. According to Plato's description, these were more than shadow bunnies and birds. This was big-time entertainment. The only problem is, shadows have no substance. There is no texture or depth. Yet this was all that these poor people had that passed for reality.
Just as Plato imagined what it would have been like for one of those individuals if they were suddenly released from their bondage and brought to the surface, I wonder how those people living in abject poverty in the back hills of Upstate New York would react if they could see past the elaborate shadow play created by the free market propaganda machine and the ruling oligarchy.
Would their eyes sting as the sun illuminated for them the fact that when their government calls their sons and daughters to take up arms against a foreign enemy, the only freedom being defended is that of the multinational corporations' right to safely access, extract, and transport the world's natural resources? And as their eyes adjusted to the light and they began to navigate their newly perceived reality, how would they react to the knowledge that they are supporting an economic system that socialized all the risk while privatizing profit?
Would they feel compelled to return to the depths of the cave to tell their fellow dwellers that for every Bill Gates-style success story there are millions of other men and women with equally great ideas that never get a break? Could anyone convince those left behind who were being served a steady diet of the American Illusion that they are being duped into thinking they have a chance of some day benefiting from the Bush tax cuts for the rich?
As I read the Allegory of the Cave, I realized we are all living in the cave. So move over Plato. It's a little crowded down here. Ain't it the pits!