Saturday, August 21, 2004

Just read Garrison Keillor’s e-mail interview with David Talbot in Salon, who expresses the thought that he is writing highly partison polemics against the right these days because he feels the country is “slipping away.” Great words for a thought I have all the time: it’s starting to feel like the mid-1930’s in Germany here: we can see Very Bad Things occurring, brought on by the calculated actions of Very bad People, and yet we seem nearly powerless to do stop it.

Except we’re not. We could vote the bastards out. This exact moment, I’d like to think Senator Kerry will eke out a narrow win. But the big picture indicators aren’t so clear. Economy is improving. Iraq will be better off. Nader is on the ballot in enough states to force Kerry to win big if he’s gonna win at all. And finally, the cause for greatest alarm: 45% of my fellow Americans think George Bush is a wonderful leader.

Certainly some of the blame can be laid at the feet of our lazy, inept and foolish media. But theie ultimate goal is to sell soap. If Americans flocked to cable news channels where all they did all day long was discuss ways we could improve the lives of our fellow citizens, there’d by a dozen such channels. Old Ben Franklin was right in this as in so many things: “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” We now face the exact danger the good Doctor warned us of. Will we Americans be able to reclaim our heritage of freedom? I think we will, but it’ll be a close thing.

Perhaps it will teach us that we must be constantly on guard against the inherent dangers of a free and democratic society.

I wonder if we aren’t reaping some of the rewards of our inattention (and in the case of some antii-taxers, all out war) on quality public education. Our press corps is so poorly educated that they do not seem to recognize any of the fundamental truths of the political process. They seem totally unaware of their complicity in bringing about the downfall of democracy—remembering that democracy is not a partison concept, but a national one. Again, as old BF put it, “It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

Indeed, those who would be the masters of our unfree society are actively campaigning against free speech. Anyone who dares to gainsay their lies and foolishness is shouted down as a pariah, a fringe lunatic who should be ignored. Once more, Ben Franklin: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Aye, Dr. Franklin, aye.
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” America remains at its heart a virtuous nation. But that virtue is under attack by those whose interests in threatens. It is not virtuous to abandon civil institutions like government, schools and libraries in favor of corporations. When I see the members of the US Olympic team mumble through or ignore altogether the words of the US national anthem, I wonder if their children will remember when Olympians were members of nations first, corporate sponsors second. Or will they stand on the platform to receive their gold medal, while the FedEx anthem plays, or the Nike theme song?

My friend Ray likes to think that corporations shouldn’t be treated like second class citizens because, after all, they are comprised of inddividuals: shareholders, employees, customers, vendors, etc. And of course, corporations are composed of such people. But a corporation is by legal definition an entity designed and solely dedicated to the diverting of wealth from all its constituents to its shareholders. It is a model that has many virtues since it allows many people to exchange their commodity (labor, capital, etc.) for a commodity they value more highly (money, power, etc.) But ultimately, the model is just that: a model. It is a means to an end. When we lose sight of that end, we begin to lose ourselves. And boy, have we started to lose sight of the end.

The goal is not to amass more toys than the other kids. The goal is to have as many of us as possible have the greatest number of toys possible. And if that means limiting the number of toys any one person can have so that there is enough to go around, so be it. The slight dimunition in initiative caused by the limit is regrettable and its effects should be minimized. But the limit is not to be avoided for that reason.

Just like helping people in need: helping people in need will no doubt entail problems of people either feigning need when it does not in truth exist, or of motivating some to seek out need knowing that it will be addressed by others’ generosity. Real problems indeed – problems that should be addressed with real care. But not problems sufficiently vexing to forbid the helping of others, or to make that help so niggardly and stingy that it is nearly no help at all. We are a virtuous people – mostly, still. How can we let the moneyed interests convince us not to use our own money to help our brothers and sisters who need it? How have we let them convince us that the best way to help others is solely by helping ourselves. Self-indulgence is not virtue, and those that ask us to celebrate it appeal to our worst selves. Those that ask us to lend a selfless helping hand to our neighbors see the virtue in us. We should thank and celebrate them.

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