Saturday, March 29, 2014

From Proud Republic to Tattered Oligarchy




      
Let me tell you a story and it’s not a tale full of laughs and giggles, but one that probably needs to be retold. It’s not my story either, but the narrative of America, one of ebb and flow. Our proudest contributions to freedom throughout that 238 year history came when our backs were against the wall.
One might say we were born into that tradition, taking on England, the world’s greatest power at the time, with our puny colonial forces to win our quarter-millennium of republican freedom. The founders of our trembling political experiment forged what was perhaps the planet’s most promising document; the Constitution of the United States of America.
 But the road since sure has had its share of potholes:  

  • Another war in 1812, just thirty-six years later, when England sought to undo our break from sovereignty. English forces burned the White House, but we won that war as well and they’ve since left us in peace. 
  • Forty-nine years on was to come another existential test, as the American Civil War broke out, the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans and we’ve fought our share. Could a young America survive disintegration over slavery and the rights of all Americans to live free of tyranny? It seems we could. 
  • 1918, a scant fifty-three years down that potholed road, darkness descended over Europe and we fought for the first time off our own shores. It wasn’t our backs against the wall this time, but the home-countries of our immigrant Poles, French, Italians and Brits—and yes, Germans as well. 
  • Twenty years on to World War II, we lost 60% of our Pacific fleet in a single attack by Japan, Hitler declaring war against America just four days later. The wall was truly and nationally at our back once again.

That was then and this is now. We’ve fought foolish and debilitating wars since, but never has our existence as a nation been at stake. No military force on earth can defeat us and history shows that dominant civilizations fall quickly and always by their own hand. Thomas Jefferson nailed it at our birth:
“It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war (1776) we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in convulsion.”

Jefferson’s is not a voice from the grave, but more the concern of a parent at the birth of a child.  What’s it going to be, folks, revive or expire? Are we willing and able to grab what reins are left to us and revive, or satisfy ourselves with easy credit and the ‘best congress money can buy’ and twist slowly in the wind?
Benjamin Franklin put his oar in the water on that subject as well. Replying to an anxious query on the steps of the Constitutional Convention as to what kind of government had been given us, Franklin responded,
A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
            If we can keep it. I’d very much like to keep it and hope you feel the same, but the pothole we find ourselves in today hasn’t much to do with al Qaeda or Vladimir Putin and a great deal to do with what brings down civilizations. That cause is more often the distractions of ‘bread and circuses’ than military threat. I suggest, in these trying times, our national decline has much to do with the unfortunate co-existence of a rising oligarchy and diminished freedom of speech in America.
            The Constitution secures our freedom of speech in law. There’s no question of that. What it does not secure is our freedom to speak equally. Our collective voice is drowned out by louder voices and your or my right to speak doesn’t mean all that much if we’re not heard.
Indeed, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no ear to hear it, does it make a sound?  Dissent has been moved to ‘protest zones’ far from the object of protest while we were busy buying shoes. These closed-off areas, far from the conventions or international meetings we concern ourselves with are now the norm, answering the letter of the law, but hardly its intent. Occupy Wall Street scared the shit out of the powerful and police attacks in Berkley and Manhattan reacted with pepper-spray and batons.
            The Supreme Court confirmed the constitutional right of all people to contribute without limit to political discourse. Unfortunately, they included corporations among all people and therein lies the rub. While you or I might be perfectly content to allow a billionaire or corporation to share our stump, the Supremes, in all their jovial complicity, allowed them a nationwide stump. You and I, sequestered a half-mile from media attention, are fallen trees in an empty media forest.
Mr. Jefferson again,
            “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

An ‘aha’ moment, as Mr. Jefferson apparently foresaw the danger of our loss of freedoms at the very moment of our birth as a nation. There’s no crime in the fair accumulation of wealth, but when our highest court purposefully raises the ante on free speech and makes it beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, equality quickly becomes oligarchy.

Take the Senate—it’s there for the taking and as good as any example, with far more comedy to it than our dour, bickering House of Representatives. Harry Reid, the Senate’s erstwhile Majority Leader, pocketed $12 million for his last election campaign. Now twelve million may be quite a pile for dirt-farmers in Nevada, but its 90 minutes income for Bill Gates. If Bill were of a mind, he could virtually own the entire United States Senate in 6 ¼ days and never break a sweat, much less dent his bank account.
Bill doesn’t do that, but the Koch brothers and others like them do it with great regularity and absolutely legally. The Congress made all that legal in America and the tag-team of nine Supreme Court justices agreed. Agreed with greed, while homeowners sink and 60 million Americans are out of work, can you believe it? My astonishment is not that lawmakers are occasionally paid off, we’ve always had a degree of that in national politics. But never before has wholesale bribery been so overwhelmingly available to so few for so little money. The entire working machinery of the greatest nation on earth is on the block—for peanuts.
Thus far in the 2014 mid-term election cycle, ‘Americans for Prosperity,’ the Koch brother’s political PAC, aired more than 17,000 broadcast TV commercials.[1] I’m not sure Americans for Prosperity has you and me in mind, but certainly the Koch brothers have their prosperity very much in mind.

            Which brings us to how corporate interests glommed on to all that power. It seems that while no one was looking but them, they whispered into the ears of the Congress that it would be just dandy if lobbyists were able to directly pump money into political campaigns, for a vote here and there. Congress, frantically in search of campaign funds, thought that would be peachy-keen and, with a little greasing by Tom DeLay (the rat-exterminator turned politician from Texas) and Grover Norquist, author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge,[2] the deed was done. The starting-gun fired and we were off to the races. Money, which had always been a factor in America’s political history, now overwhelmed it entirely. As Mark Twain said over a hundred years ago,
“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

The big banks, Wall Street, major corporations and those of that tribe who were made wealthy, suddenly had their access—all legal, certified by Congress and with a stamp of approval by the Supreme Court. What a nifty gift-package for the transfer of republican democracy to the wealthy few.
In most advanced democracies fraud and corruption are punishable offenses. We Americans don’t have fraud and corruption. We have lobbyists, who pay off our representatives to vote the right way and then promise and deliver a prosperous afterlife as board-members or CEOs of the very corporations who had their hand deep in the American pocket.
After emphatically vowing not to lobby, Chris Dodd, the former five-term Senator, became Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, one of the most glamorous jobs in Hollywood, whose perks include a $1.2 million-a-year salary and getting to attend the Academy Awards ceremony.[3]

Ah well, good old red-carpet Chris. What the hell, thirty years in the Senate deserves something.
            So there you have it, a short history of the decline of a proud and respected Republic into the chaos and turbulence of the Tea Party, congressional deadlock, John Stewart, Bill O’Reilly and the nonsense that pretty much describes major media on all fronts.

            And while you and I quietly struggle with our lives, America is poised for yet another economic disaster, with these creeps sitting in the driver’s seat, our driver’s seat.







[1] Robert Reich’s Blog, The New Billionaire Political Bosses, March 26, 2014
[2] Wikipedia: a pledge signed by 95% of Republican lawmakers who agree to oppose increases in marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses, as well as net reductions or eliminations of deductions and credits without a matching reduced tax rate.
[3] Salon, Mar 2, 2011