Texas Suicide Flyer Had Real Populist Grievances
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Liberals are dismissing Joseph Stack's rant as a brutal anti-government battle cry -- "Tea Party on steroids." Conservatives are dismissing it as the petulant whine of a "victim" who couldn't hack capitalism.
The tortured manifesto cannot be credibly labeled as left- or right-wing. Rather, it's a non-partisan screed against problems roiling the Republic -- and Stack's head -- for years. A crippled economy dominated by political and corporate potentates. A campaign and election system rotted by special interests and money. Byzantine tax laws that baffle small business owners and individuals.
History haunts Stack's crime and screed. His crime consciously mimics 9/11. And his suicide note recalls the Great Depression.
"I remember reading about the stock market crash before the 'great' depression and how there were wealthy bankers and businessmen jumping out of windows," Stack wrote. "Isn't it ironic how far we've come in 60 years in this country that they now know how to fix that little economic problem; they just steal from the middle class (who doesn't have any say in it, elections are a joke) to cover their asses and it's 'business-as-usual.' Now when the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die for the mistakes."
Stack's manifesto then agonizes over a more recent recession. "Return to the early '80s, and here I was off to a terrifying start as a 'wet-behind-the-ears' contract software engineer," Stack recalled. "And two years later, thanks to the fine backroom, midnight effort by the sleazy executives of Arthur Andersen (the very same folks who later brought us Enron and other such calamities) and an equally sleazy New York Senator (Patrick Moynihan), we saw the passage of 1986 tax reform act with its section 1706…"
The law in question, Section 1706 of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, "made it extremely difficult for information technology professionals to work as self-employed individuals, forcing most to become company employees," according to the New York Times.
Like much political fury today, Stack's rant is a sloppy kiss to populism: It confuses and conflates its Washington rage with its Wall Street rage. While the two forces clearly share their bed--or trough, more accurately--their problems and wrongdoings are not the same.
Those who muddle primal anger at Washington with primal anger at corporate America obscure the very nature of, and the viable solutions to, what harms them. Yes, pizza might aggravate an elderly man's heart disease, but banning pizza from his diet will eliminate neither his heartburn nor his heart disease. There's a difference between a problem, its mere irritants, its causes, its symptoms and its effects.
The gut, widespread anger at Washington and Wall Street often confuses all of those dynamics.
Stack's not-unique government contempt festered because of his financial duress. He complained of "living on peanut butter and bread (or Ritz crackers when I could afford to splurge) for months at a time."
It's deja vu: Stack echoes a discharged GI who blew up the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In his hometown newspaper in Lockport, New York, Timothy McVeigh lamented in the winter of 1992: "The American Dream of the middle class has all but disappeared, substituted with people struggling just to buy next week's groceries."
And Stack also bemoaned his being voiceless.
The 1986 Tax Reform Act "has ruined many people's lives, hurt the technology industry, and discouraged the creation of small, independent businesses critical to a thriving domestic economy," explains Harvey J. Shulman, an attorney, to the New York Times. "That the law still exists -- even after its original sponsors called for its repeal and unbiased studies proved it unfairly targeted a tax-compliant industry -- shows just how dysfunctional and unresponsive Democratic and Republican Congresses and our political system have been, even on relatively simple issues."
More broadly, our collective--popular, governmental, corporate, media--brushoff of economic hardship and anti-social vitriol is tragic. Add to McVeigh's, or Stack's, economic anxiety a dash of nativism, government bashing and (well-placed) resentment over Wall Street bailouts, and you have a recipe for even more violence.
"I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at 'big brother' while he strips my carcass," Stack's suicide note concluded. "Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."
Stack explicitly cites history in thought, word and deed: the Great Depression, the 1986 Tax reform Act, the 1980s Savings and Loan Crisis and "bailout," the Oklahoma City Bombings, the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the recent 2008 bailout. The rest of us should take heed: America suffers from amnesia. We ignore the historical, yet recurring, lessons that would make millions of our lives more financially, emotionally and physically secure.
Deplorable though he might be, Stack is not quite a "random bad apple." His act might be uncommon, but his jumbled populism is not. His crime is in no way excusable, but it spotlights a larger problem that both political and corporate elites like to caricature or dismiss: visceral populist anger.
Stack may have suffered from mental illness, but he is also an acute symptom of this nation's neglected wounds.
The fire this time inflicted just two deaths (including Stack) and injuries to 13 victims. The fire next time may be more traumatic.
We dismiss his screed, suicide and crime as "lunatic" at our own risk.
He is senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Demos and sits on the board of the Roosevelt Institution. His commentary is featured on NPR and Fox Radio, and in newspapers nationwide.