Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sorry to Harp

It just so happens that my favourite magazine goes by a name I've come to loathe, Harper's.  Fortunately while our Harper may not be worth a dam, the American Harper's remains a first-rate read.Here are a few notations from the October, Harper's Index: 
-  Total number of pages in the financial reform bill enactedby Congress in July:  848
-  Number of pages in the bills that created Social Security and the Federal Trade Commission, respectively:  29, 8
-  Percentage of all U.S. railway freight cars that are currently in storage:  23
-  Percentage of Afghans in a July survey who said they believed NATO forces were in Afghanistan to rebuild the country:  1
-  Percentage who said NATO was there to destroy Islam:  9
-  Number of the world's ten largest banks that were Chinese-owned in 2000 and 2010, respectively:  0,4
-  Percentage of this year's federal budget deficit attributable to Bush-era tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:  38.
What I appreciate in the Harper's Index is the ability of just a few simple facts to paint a truly stark picture.  An 848 page financial reform bill?  Remember, that's just the bill.  It doesn't include the operating regulations.  848 pages.   There's an awful lot of junk that's been stuffed into that bill since it was introduced - the sort of junk that litters a truly broken government.
The American people have been told their democracy is under attack.   The Republicans point to Obama and accuse him of plotting a socialist (i.e. totalitarian) takeover.   The Dems blame the Repugs for obstructing the work of Congress at every turn.  Yet almost no one ever talks about the cancer metastasizing through American democracy - corporatism and the emergence of oligarchy.That theme is tackled in this month's Harper's in excerpts from Roger D. Hodge's new book, The Mendacity of Hope:  Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism.   Here are a few passages from that book:...Through hard and painful struggles, against daunting odds, our forebears and elders fought so long for voting rights - for unpropertied men, for women, for blacks - that we may perhaps be forgiven the error of thinking that casting a ballot is the perfection of civic virtue, the ultimate and sovereign duty of the citizen-ruler.  Alas... voting is the beginning of civic virtue, not its end, and as suffrage has expanded so has its value been steadily debased.  The locus of real power is elsewhere.  Wealth and property qualifications, poll taxes, and the like are very far from being historical curiosities, they have simply mutated.  Campaign contributions and other forms of political spending have assumed that old exclusionary function, and only those who can afford to pay are able truly to manifest their political will. 
The Atlantic republican tradition that informed the minds of our founding generation had a name for this state of affairs: corruption, a term that suggested far more than mere bribery.  Corruption, in its institutional sense, denotes the degeneration of republican forms of government into despotism, and typically comes about when the private ends of a narrow faction of citizens succeed in capturing the engines of government...  Citizens, like states, are susceptible to the disease of corruption, and in the classical republican understanding a corrupt citizenry is one that has allowed its private and narrow personal interests to trump those of the general public.
Those last two sentences speak to two themes that regularly appear on these pages; the rise of oligarchy to supplant  democracy as well as the institutional and public rejection of posterity.
Oligarchy arises out of corporatism when private money's whispered influence insinuates itself between the legislator and the electorate.   It doesn't work perfectly, at least not yet, but it's getting there.  Never before has corporatism toiled so hard to influence, even warp, the public debate.   The corporations and their rentier classes realize they don't need to own votes, merely to shape them to their purposes.  So long as they can deliver, en masse, the readily manipulated voter to the legislator, their part of the bargain is completed.
The American people and, to a lesser extent (at least, perhaps, for now) our own, are increasingly exhorted to indulge their "private and narrow personal interests" to defeat "those of the general public," the public interest.   It is the public interest that represents not only the existing citizenry but the generations to follow.  It is the public interest that weighs and balances immediate concerns along with concerns for the future.   It is the public interest out of which stewardship of the land and the economy and the national institutions finds the strength of purpose to exist.   

Defeat the public interest and you're left with a voting public that never looks to the future, an electorate that constantly chases the shiny thing.  I really do fear that the public today is being put into harness, complete with blinders, like so many draught horses.  We're fed a diet rich in fear and anger and then set to pulling someone else's wagon.
But then again, I'm sorry to harp.

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