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Being a Loser in America

My name is David R. Hoffman, Legal Editor of Pravda. And I am a loser
Actually, this inauspicious status was conferred upon me before I was even born, because I made the one critical mistake that, in American society, constantly delineates the boundary between what qualifies as success and what qualifies as failure:  I did not choose my family wisely.

Fortunately, my prenatal destiny did not cause any adverse effects during my childhood years.  While my parents were far from rich, I seldom missed a meal or doctor’s appointment because of financial hardship, and, since my social circle was limited to children similarly situated to myself, I rarely experienced any sense of deprivation.

This changed during my high school years, when the austere realities of “loserdom” first made their appearance.  I was one of the few “have-nots” taking college preparatory courses, and the experience of being surrounded (and ignored) on a daily basis by the surfeit of “haves” in the classroom provided an ominous glimpse into the realities of my existence.

So, after graduation, I prepared myself for a life of mundane labor.  After all, people like me never make a difference in the world.  We eat, sleep, work, grasp at vestiges of entertainment when we can afford to, and dream of retiring healthy enough to enjoy our twilight years.

But even that dream was not to be.  One afternoon in 1991 I received a telephone call advising me that the company I had devoted fifteen years of my life to was closing down the department where I worked and eliminating all the employees.  But even though this unforeseen development made me feel as discarded as yesterday’s rubbish, and I was without health insurance or income, I had a contingency plan.

Or at least I thought I did.  Just a few years earlier a documentary about the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had expunged the dismal memories of my high school “college preparatory” years, and inspired me to obtain a higher education.  Fortunately, at the time I lost my employment, I was just one semester away from obtaining my undergraduate degree.

But the years of stagnation in a dead-end job had left their mark, and I was weary of indulging the quixotic hope that my next employment venture would somehow spawn everlasting happiness.  So, on little more than a whim, I took the law school entrance examination (LSAT), and soon found myself enrolled in law school. 

After graduating and passing the bar (law licensing) exam, I idealistically looked forward to entering a profession where truth and justice prevailed over politics and propaganda--a profession that could allow me to make a positive difference in the world.

Reality, however, was not so cooperative.  Law firm after law firm sent rejection letters praising my qualifications but denying me employment.  Undeterred, I decided to visit law offices in several cities, hoping my physical presence would make more of an impression than mere words on a resume. 

It was then I discovered I had not chosen my family wisely.  Time and again I was informed that all available positions were being reserved for individuals whose relatives already worked at the firm.

After a few months of frustration, I found myself stocking pet food at a local grocery store for a few cents above minimum wage, a position I could have obtained without incurring the onerous debt of a law school education.  So, rudely awakened from my idealistic slumber, I soon learned that the legal system is not the only industry fueled by nepotism and cronyism.

During the Reagan presidency in the 1980s a political phenomenon known as the “angry white male” erupted against affirmative action policies, which had permitted employers to consider the race, gender or national origin of an applicant or employee when making hiring or promotion decisions.  The primary criticism of these policies was their alleged proclivity to give "preferential treatment" to minority candidates, thereby negating the rewards of seniority, hard work and discipline.

Yet one does not have to look very far to see the hypocrisy of such criticism.  The White House is currently occupied by a man whose educational, business, political and military careers (performing some nebulous National Guard duties to avoid serving in Vietnam) were augmented by his family's wealth and political connections.  Yet he still possessed the audacity to denounce affirmative action policies as “preferences.”  The entertainment and business worlds are also inundated with the offspring of the wealthy and/or famous. Yet nobody condemns them for benefiting from preferential treatment.  Instead they are the staples of movies and television shows, and coveted guests on the glut of programs devoted to kissing celebrity posteriors.    

My attempted sojourn into the legal world had confirmed one American reality: the backlash against affirmative action was not to preserve the principals of hard work and discipline, but to maintain the ability of the rich and powerful to exploit the poor.

Subsequently I decided to open my own law practice, thus encountering more American realities: First, the legal “system” is more adept at rationalizing injustice than doing justice; Second, the wealthy and powerful are constantly favored by the legal “system” over the poor and weak; Third, in the eyes of the legal “system,” the Constitution and Bill of Rights are not the cornerstones of freedom and individual rights, but simply nuisances to be explained away or ignored.  In such a system, an attorney can profit handsomely by simply taking a client’s money and going through the pretense of legal representation.  But the price is one’s soul.

Fortunately (or so I thought) I did not need to engage in such Faustian deals. To supplement my income while I was in the practice of law, I had begun teaching part-time at a local university.  After a few years of this, I was encouraged to "phase out" my law practice and move into teaching full-time.  A few months after completing this phase-out, I was verbally informed that I had been awarded a full-time position. 

But approximately a month later I received a letter, prominently signed by the very person who had offered me the job in the first place, stating that I was not even being considered for an interview.  For several months, I tried to convince the university to honor its original commitment, even offering to undergo a polygraph examination to prove the employment offer had not only been extended, but accepted.  I soon discovered, however, that even in the world of academia, the truth can be meaningless.

So I returned to the practice of law, working for an attorney on a commission basis with a small base salary.  But on the eve of potentially settling my first major case, I experienced, as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “Deja-vu all over again.”  Suddenly the percentage of the profits I had originally been promised was dramatically reduced.  Thus ended my second foray into the legal world.

Those who have heard of these incidents inevitably ask one question: “Did you get these offers in writing?” 

The answer is no.  And while I must agree that I would have been wise to do so, the fact that this question is foremost on people’s minds confirms yet another American reality: The culture is so dishonest that no profession or institution can be trusted to act with integrity.  Although many administrators in the academic world stress the teaching of ethics in the classroom and demand honesty from both students and faculty, they predictably feel no obligation to adhere to such standards themselves when it doesn’t serve their interests.  The legal profession as well is allegedly governed by a code of “ethics.”  Yet while attorneys are frequently "disciplined" for relatively minor infractions, the most egregious misconduct is often met with silence.  In some cases attorneys have not even been reprimanded for sleeping during trials, for intentionally withholding crucial evidence that would have exonerated an accused, or for participating in government-orchestrated frame-ups or perjury. 

In fact the opposite is often true.  While some attorneys have actually lost their jobs for refusing to criminally prosecute innocent people, those with no such scruples have become politicians, judges, or highly paid consultants for the government, the media or corporate America.  So naturally the injustices persist.

I will admit that I was reluctant to write this article.  After all, it is not easy to confess to a worldwide forum that one is a loser.  But last night, partially for the sake of research and partially to reflect upon dreams past, I began reading about the America of my youth, the 1960s and early 1970s.  I remembered how people were beaten, imprisoned, tortured and murdered simply for protesting an unjust war in Vietnam and/or an unequal caste system at home, where the wealthy (like America’s current Vice President and unindicted war criminal, Dick Cheney) were granted deferment after deferment to avoid the military draft while the poor were sent into combat. 

I recalled the activism and political awareness of America’s youth, and their willingness to risk their futures, their livelihoods, and even their lives for causes they had little hope of winning.  I also recalled how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., later in his career, had denounced the folly of militarism and war, and how that portion of his dream is consistently ignored by politicians and pundits in the war-crazed culture of today.

But what haunted me most about the 1960s and early 70s were the injustices, human rights abuses and murders that were ignored (and in some cases perpetuated) by the American power structure as a routine part of “doing business.”  While there may have been other times in our nation’s history where governmental excesses were more egregious, the 1960s revealed that many of the agencies supposedly created to uphold the Constitution were actually more lawless than many of those they targeted.  Thus another reality was exposed:  America is not a nation of laws, but simply of powerful people who operate above the law, who manipulate the legal system for their own gain, and who protect criminals who uphold the “status-quo,” while harshly punishing criminals, and even innocents, who oppose it.

For many years the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), under the auspices of J. Edgar Hoover,failed to acknowledge the existence of organized crime and only cursorily investigated crimes against civil rights workers in the American South.  Yet this same agency had no hesitation in employing any tactic, legal or illegal, to undermine the civil rights movement, and to destroy the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, and the Weather Underground.

Tragically, a significant percentage of Americans also revealed that such lawlessness would be quiescently accepted, and even applauded, when directed against racial minorities or those considered to be “leftists”—thereby casting doubt (at least in American culture) on Che Guevara’s theory that the violent repression of small groups of revolutionaries will plant the seeds of revolution in the larger population. 

As I contemplated the meaning of the 1960s, I also wondered what I might have done if I had been of college age during this era.  Would I have had the courage to risk a criminal record, imprisonment, injury or even death for what I believed was a greater cause?  Or would I have feared what the future could bring if I made such a commitment?

Would I have become one of the wrongfully imprisoned or martyred, many of whom are unfairly forgotten, or would my commitment have opened doors, as it did for many activists and radicals who went on to become professors, authors and business people?
 
Now, in the twilight of my years, closer to death than away from it, as I look back on what has been and what might have been, I face the somber reality that, despite having "played the game" by working hard, striving to be honest, and furthering my education, life has remained a struggle, where the moments of joy are too frequently overshadowed by the hours of sorrow.

On a national scale, I’ve watched the future I once dreamed of produce technological progress and sociological regress, as America, under the Bush dictatorship, has plunged once again into the quagmire of racism, injustice, hatred, despair, and war based on lies.

I thought about the duplicity of politicians who, as in the Terri Schiavo case, waxed poetic about the “sanctity of life,” yet are unwilling to sacrifice the millions of dollars “contributed” to their political campaigns by health-care and insurance company lobbyists, even though there are millions of Americans, like myself, who cannot afford health insurance.  How many of these uninsured will die in America this year because their inability to pay for health care or prescription drugs compels them to put off seeking necessary medical treatment until it is too late?

How many condemned Dr. Jack Kevorkian, now sitting in prison in the State of Michigan, because he supposedly denigrated this “sanctity of life” by ending the suffering of those with debilitating or terminal illnesses, yet remained silent while, in this very same State, a judge mocked the suffering of Maurice Carter, a terminally ill African-American man who spent decades in prison for a crime many believe he did not commit?  Although Carter was ultimately given a “medical commutation” by Michigan’s governor so he could seek medical treatment, (she refused to grant him a pardon, an act Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn called a “profile in cowardice”), it was too late.  He died just three months after his release.

This cowardice and disdain for life is also evident in the case of Roger Coleman, who was executed by the State of Virginia for a crime he insisted he did not commit.  Although evidence exists that could potentially clear Coleman’s name, the Virginia courts, under the guise of “mootness,” have refused to allow posthumous DNA testing on this evidence.  But what is ignored in this “mootness” facade is the very real prospect that an unapprehended murderer is safely walking the streets simply because gutless officials are unwilling to admit they may have killed an innocent man.

Of course, no “profile in cowardice” would be complete without the mention of the man who has the ignoble “honor” of being America’s first “pro-life” war criminal: George W. Bush.

After presiding over more than one hundred-and-fifty executions while governor of Texas, Bush boasted that not one innocent person had been killed “under his watch.”  Yet those who endeavored to challenge this braggadocio soon discovered that after an execution all evidence related to the case was conveniently destroyed.

But even when this evidence existed, and even when DNA testing was exonerating the wrongfully convicted across the nation, Bush consistently denied thirty-day reprieves to death-row inmates who requested such tests, even though the results would have virtually eliminated the risk of executing an innocent person.  His actions, along with the actions of countless judges and politicians in Michigan, Virginia and throughout the nation, lead to yet another American reality:  Those who pontificate the most about the “sanctity of life” are often those who demonstrate the most contempt for it.

Of course, Bush’s cowardice and the absence of a military draft have produced many emulators, like Bill O’Reilly, Dennis Miller, Toby Keith, Kid Rock, Richard Perle and countless others, who have aggrandized their careers by exploiting the popularity of the Iraqi war, yet who have never served in combat situations themselves.

O’Reilly, in a pathetic attempt at bravado during an interview with film maker Michael Moore, actually demonstrated how low these warmongering cowards will sink.  When asked by Moore if he would be willing to sacrifice the lives of his children in the war against Iraq, O’Reilly replied, “I’d sacrifice myself.”

Not surprisingly, while the Iraqi war drags on, O’Reilly, hypocrite that he is, remains safely ensconced in the studios of the so-called “Fox News Network,” and his evasion of Moore’s question establishes yet another American reality, one that existed during the 1960s and still exists today: While the rich promote the wars, they always expect the poor to die in them. 

Now America is reaping the antithesis of what was sown during the 1960s.  Although the motives for the Iraqi war, like the war in Vietnam, were based upon government lies, this has not resulted in an analogous sense of outrage. Instead the alleged “reasons” for going to war are no longer relevant.  What apparently is important to a substantial portion of the population, and the corrupt, corporate-controlled media, is the need to show the “peaceniks” that “true” Americans will “support the troops,” regardless of what they are dying for.
 
But even in these terrible (and some may say apocalyptic times) there's still a cursed thing called hope, that nagging little trickle of faith to make one believe that, in spite of the incessant triumph of evil, someday things will get better, that the universe will somehow seek a balance, and that all those causing the ugliness, death, and injustice will eventually be punished for their crimes.

But this hope of future justice provides little solace when I think of those wrongfully imprisoned in American gulags simply because gutless politicians and judges are more concerned about their own careers than doing justice.  Nor can I forget those who were martyred. I just wish they could tell me whether their sacrifice was worthwhile.  But death, the ultimate censor, has condemned them to silence.

So I ask, “Who are the wise and who are the fools?  Are the wise those who live long lives, acquiring material possessions through stealth, deceit and the exploitation of others while being trumpeted with sycophantic praise?  Are the fools those who dare to struggle for a better world, thus spending their often too brief time on earth in suffering, hardship and frustration?

I do not know the answers.  But I cannot help but think that thousands, perhaps millions, ask these same questions everyday.

The famed mathematician Descartes once said, "I think therefore I am."  But in American society this motto has been transformed into: “To be one must conspicuously consume.”  So, in the eyes of the society I live in, I do not exist.

Of course invisibility is a fitting fate for a loser.  But considering how low people will often sink in their quest to become “winners,” perhaps being a loser is not so terrible after all.

David R. Hoffman, Legal Editor of Pravda

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