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The gilded age

Little has changed in a century of American capitalism. 3_5_1001.xml hed: The gilded age dek: Little has changed in a century of American capitalism. blurb: Little has changed in a century of American capitalism. number of pages:1 By Michael Finley

I have been struggling for years to discover a metaphor that covers what technology feels like to the average Joe and Josephine of our newfangled era. It’s been right there on the tip of my tongue. But I couldn’t get it. So I forgot about it.

Lately I took refuge instead in the study of my ancestors. I had a grandfather, William Mulligan, who is said to have had a ticket for the first Atlantic crossing of the Titanic, in 1917 in Liverpool, but lost it in a card game. In the movie he was a Norwegian and he lost it to Leonardo DiCaprio. We don’t know about that. We just know he had to go back to work to earn passage on the next boat over, which didn’t sink, making this column possible.

Of course, once you were over here, to the land of milk and honey, where the streets were said to be lined with gold, it wasn’t much better. Newcomers were fleeced the moment they stepped off the boats, by grifters offering to convert immigrants’ life savings to American dollars. “I’ll be right back,” they’d say, but they never returned.

No government agency existed to protest these ambitious but innocent people from such predation. Immigrants had to cope with market crashes, swindles, snake-oil slicks, card sharps, land grabs, and repossessions, and there wasn’t much they could do about cons but narrow their eyes and promise they wouldn’t fall for that particular scam again.

Can you see the irony? By looking to the sepia-toned past, I found my key to the present. In going online, we become immigrants to a new world. It is a place of dazzling promises and countless successes. But it’s also a brutal place, loaded with scamsters offering you get-rich-quick schemes, spamsters knocking on your door at all hours urging you too to join their ranks and bother millions of people every hour of every day, pornsters cheerily greeting our children when they click open their e-mail, and wormsters fooling you into downloading programs that shatter your virtual plow.

Will government step in to protect people from these predators? Uh-uh. Agencies that might pursue such violations claim they are not set up to do it, that the fleecing is too rampant to prevent, that the ability to disappear online is too great. The privacy of criminals is total, while yours is zip. Gradually the paranoid thought dawns that the reason government does not go after these small-time individual crooks is that they are setting the table for big-time corporate ones, their Tammany dinner guests–and our eyeballs on toothpicks are the hors d’oeuvres.

Our “representatives,” and the big money that flushes them into office, see us as fodder to the greater economy, just like in the days of the Homestead Act. Back then the government built armories in every city to put down strikes in case we immigrants suddenly got smart and started unionizing. We’re building a space shield today, to keep an entire planet under the Big Giant Thumb.

We say, “But we thought this was the land of freedom.” They say, “Freedom for us to do things to you, not freedom for you to figure any of it out.” Well, they don’t right come out and say that. But the outcome is the same.

It was a time of scoundrels. Elections were rigged, and the powers that be, using the technology of the day and operating out of smoke-filled rooms, made sure the right votes were counted and the wrong votes were not. Under the guise of equal protection, the dead were enfranchised, while weird, witchy things befell the votes of the living.

Well, at least that part’s changed.

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