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Anger amid a dark season

June 09, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ."

The phrase was written by Charles Dickens 150 years ago in "A Tale of Two Cities," a novel rooted in the French Revolution. A casual conversation at a gas station made me wonder if the words will someday apply to a troubled America.

The best of times will be recorded as our forward plunge into space and medicine, and in a major party's nomination of the first African American presidential candidate in United States history.

The worst of times would be the continuation of a war in Iraq that has already killed at least 4,090 of our soldiers and an estimated 92,000 civilians; spiraling foreclosures that are forcing thousands from their homes; a rising unemployment rate; and soaring prices of food and fuel.

Revolutions are rooted in the dissatisfaction of a people who are forced to go hungry while royalty feasts.

The widening gap between the haves and have-nots fires the will of the masses to take to the streets; people are driven by desperation to awaken the ruling class to their deepening anger.

It was the price of fuel and that chance encounter at a gasoline pump that made me think of the opening phrase of "A Tale of Two Cities."

I was already seething for having to pay $4.68 a gallon at a Thrifty service station I once considered to have the best prices in town when a stranger at a nearby pump, his anger overflowing, began a rant on the cost of gasoline that left him in such a rage that his hands shook.

He called the oil barons "America's new kings" among other less-printable descriptions and demanded that something be done.

Red-faced and furious, he was a character in the old movie "Network" shouting in rage and frustration from his open window that he was madder than hell and not going to take it anymore.

His anger was well placed. In the first quarter of the year, Exxon alone posted sales of $116.9 billion.

That's more in three months than all but 52 nations of the world do in a year. This while gasoline climbed to over $4 a gallon amid predictions that it could rise to $7.

Wasn't it just yesterday that we wondered if regular would ever top a dollar? And when it did, wasn't that us muttering our displeasure but going about our lives while few among us protested and no one in Washington offered help?

We bundle together like creatures running from a forest fire, unsure of the direction that the flames will take, blinded by the smoke, desperate to breathe.

We feel trapped by circumstances beyond our control.

It isn't just the fuel prices, although they're the centerpiece of events that have us as nervous as a nun at a biker's rally.

Food prices, from beer to bread, have gone up at a rate of 5% each of the last six months, the fastest food inflation since 1990.

Almost 50,000 jobs were lost last month in America as the unemployment rate, at 5.5%, climbed to its highest point in 20 years. General Motors was the latest to announce that it is closing two factories in the U.S. at a cost of thousands of jobs because the gas guzzlers it was turning out aren't selling anymore.

And now we hear that the rate of home foreclosures in California is at its highest level in 15 years, driven by declining values and by the at-risk mortgages that are finding borrowers frantically seeking other places to live.

From January to March, lending institutions sent homeowners 113,676 notices of default. That's up statewide by 143% from the first quarter of 2007, and up 130% in L.A. County for the same period.

But, hey, don't even mention the word "depression," and for God's sake don't call it a recession either.

Call it, as some do, "stagflation" or "inflationary stress."

These are the kinds of euphemisms that also allow us to wage a foreign war for the cause of Pax Americana and to dismiss civilian casualties as collateral damage.

The war itself, that endless round of killings in Iraq that was to have cost $60 billion, has already cost roughly $600 billion and some say the price could approach $4 trillion, depending on its length.

How many lives could be saved from starvation or disease by the billions we've spent on war, and the trillions we will spend? How many bags of rice or corn or flour or quarts of milk or tanks of water would a billion buy? Enough, I think, to save a world.

War, greed, job losses, foreclosures. The litany beats like funeral drums. The best of times and the worst of times are on a collision course. I'm sticking my head out the window and screaming that I'm madder than hell and not going to take it anymore, but I fear that no one is listening.


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