Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day: Patriotism vs. Plutocracy

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed, 40 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it had outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.


  1. Can't find anything to disagee with, and agree with everything.
    I'm pretty discouraged as well, perhaps more so. You describe the mechanisms of change that will be need to happen to keep our culture from driving off a cliff.

    The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys. Facts: the enemy of Republicans.

    Reagan once said: "facts are stupid things"... and this is their poster boy.

    I would agree with these ideas, but the more I study and research human behavior and the evolution of our species and culture, the more pessimistic I become about change. Our science gives a birds eye view of the mechanisms that affect behavior, in general (the ones you describe above are just a subset of these). These mechanisms for change are clearly in the hands of the wrong people, but the methods you describe are possible ways to wrench it out of their hands. A big problem is that our environmental time clock is ticking and we are not just moving toward the cliff, we are accelerating toward it. Which means the longer the time it takes to start the change, the less effective the change will be to stop the momentum. The math models we've derived from the quantitative analysis of behavior paint the picture of a species that is not well built for the monumental task at hand of changing the behavior of a culture, but perhaps a piecemeal method might work... if we have enough time.

    So what that means is that you will need to continue to speak and speak louder, without care to who is offended (remembering, of course that just presenting facts will likely offend some people, but hey...)

    As for me, I'll continue to speak at conferences and invited addresses, and teach classes 2x each year to bring students into contact with science and facts. Some may not like these facts, but they better know it because it's on the final exam!

    Ed Abbey once said that every writer has an obligation to use that position to write about things that matter and to bring about change in our society to preserve the environment (I'm paraphrasing because he said this much better than I just did).

    Continue kickin' butt.

  2. Excellent comment @ Jeff Kupfer !!!

    I would like to add, taking a LONG view, that part of society's issue is the lingering yet persistent *hard wiring* of animal-herd behavior.

    I think we, mankind, are at a very uncomfortable juncture as a developing species. Will we have, DO we have, time enough left to us to evolve past the resource grabbing, reproductive-focused animal? I'm serious when I ask this.

    I've heard psychologists claim we are collectively *against* the wall. However, it is a well known evolutionary phenomena that by subjecting a species to great stress is the surest & shortest route to intellectual progress. Sort of a make or break deal, I imagine. The question is: which will it be?

    While we tend to view events within the course of a single lifetime, I cannot help but feel inclined to believe that our stresses are coming faster & harder, exponentially so. Even though we no longer, most of us, need to slay the beast for sustenance, or rub two sticks together for warmth, our stress levels are of a higher ilk altogether.

    My point being that while there is certainly no denying the current state of world affairs is a dismal thing indeed, in the lonnnnnnnng term, for our species collectively, stress is the great motivator, the challenger to our complacency.

    And, be it political, financial, et al - we, as a species, can never be greater than our weakest links.

    Finally, as harsh and uncompromising as this may sound, I think we (again I am speaking collectively, not on an individual basis) pretty much deserve exactly the mess we find ourselves in.

    We don't give a damn for the relentless suffering we subject lesser species to, as long as they serve our purpose [think factory farming as one reprehensible example]. We don't care about this planet, excepting the fact that it serve our requirements. One thing I truly do pray for is that we DO NOT find the means to inhabit other worlds, for God forbid we spread our disease elsewhere.

    We may bemoan the 1%, but we just go right on spending our dollars carelessly, with scarce concern for who's pocket we are lining. Because we are lazy and don't care to be inconvenienced with all the messy details.

    All the great men in the world, through out history, can only make so much of a difference. They can lead, inform & educate, AND inspire, but they do not mitigate the herd's instinct to *follow*. I know, if the herd MUST follow, then let it be in the right direction lol

    In my opinion, every institute of education should teach/require courses of self-responsibility, self-determination, and self-accountability.

    Instead, the great minds along with the *not-so-great* are in fierce competition to sway the masses by influencing group-think.

    Anyone who voluntarily surrenders self-determination, who voluntarily hands over self-authority to an outside agency, deserves what they get. And that is precisely the mess we find ourselves in, a mess where might/money makes right.

    It's a 5,000 year old mess (and then some) ... and now our back is at the wall.

    Love your posts, Keith! Thanks for letting me vent out loud <3