“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.
February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.
This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.
There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.
What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?
Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.
For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.
Tuesday the nation celebrates independence from the British Crown and eventual establishment of a democratic republic. That’s the story, at least. Of the independence part there is no doubt, because that is pretty straightforward. It’s the democratic republic part that doesn’t quite coincide with historical reality, and certainly not with what the United States of America has become today. Today it is an oligarchy, and looking back over the history of the country it becomes clear the inclination was always present.
The Founding Fathers were never for a broadly based democracy, instead leaning toward governance by a limited set of people – white males with property. Some Founding Fathers, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Washington among them, believed the democratic republic would be stronger if more people owned property, or capital, and therefore had a say and a stake in governance. Though they were rather wealthy men themselves, they would probably be horrified at the current state of income inequality in this country and how that has wrought havoc on the democratic republic they established.
Originally entitled Yankee Doodle, this is one of several versions of a scene painted by Archibald Willard (1836-1918) in the late nineteenth century that came to be known as The Spirit of ’76.
Suffrage has broadened greatly since the eighteenth century, but a vote for candidate A over candidate B makes little difference when both candidates are backed by the same small clique of financiers and corporate boards. Once the candidate is in office, he or she tunes in the oligarchy and tunes out the voters, at least until the next election. Of what use then is a vote when the person voted for doesn’t represent your interests when in office, will often in fact work against your interests? Strangely, people will vote for that person again two, four, or six years later.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood there is no real political power without economic power. Enactment of his proposed Second Bill of Rights is long overdue.
To regain political power, the people need to take back wealth; to regain wealth, the people need to take back political power. Hand in hand. Remember the capitalist credo: Money talks. We have the honesty of the Supreme Court to thank for enshrining in the 2010 Citizens United decision what everyone has always known, going back to the days of the Founding Fathers, it’s just that Washington, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson had the wisdom to understand the money should be spread around a lot more in order for the government to listen to we the people.
“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
― Will Rogers*(1879-1935)
Last Saturday, April 22, was the 48th celebration of Earth Day, and the first March for Science in Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of other cities around the world. Just when we might have congratulated ourselves that reason and scientific inquiry had pushed aside superstition and muddled thinking, the medieval mind rises again and reasserts itself, now with a in-over-his-head champion in the Oval Office who is quite pleased to indulge the self-interest of his oligarchic cohorts in the fossil fuel industry. The lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder grunt their approval of his policies because those obnoxious policies appear to rile up the fancy pants pointy-headed folks, and that’s always a nice, satisfying feeling. The folks higher up on the ladder are only too happy to let those lower down bear their weight, and the reasons they bear that weight are not important to the higher ups, only that they continue to hold up the whole enterprise without asking troubling questions. It’s worked well for Wayne Tracker, aka Rex Tillerson.
It’s not the fault of these hard-working men and their unfortunate mules they’ve been told to “keep digging”.
The amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere is higher now than it has been in human history, based on what we know from ice cores. Sea levels are high and getting higher as the climate warms, and are already affecting coastal communities. It has been at least thousands of years, possibly millions, since Earth last encountered conditions like those we are entering into now. There is no basis for comparison for humans in the present age, now known as the Anthropocene on account of the profound effect people have had on the Earth, because in the interregnum we have settled the coastlines so densely that in geologic time it would appear as no more than the blink of an eye. Around the world now there hundreds of millions of people living within 100 miles of the sea, and accompanying all that settlement there has been an enormous investment in infrastructure such as housing, office buildings, and roads, along with the economic fortunes and personal hopes of all those people. And all of those people will feel – are feeling – the impact of a warming climate sooner than other groups living in other situations farther inland. Around the world, most of those people living along coastlines are poor. Ironically, in the United States, the richest country in the world and one where having a beachfront property is often a status symbol for the wealthy, the effects of sea level rise will possibly be more severe than average.
A portion of a BBC Newsnight interview with Noam Chomsky from June 8, 2012. The situation he bemoans has not improved in the nearly five years since the interview.
Whether a person believes climate warming is caused by humans or not is, at this point, almost immaterial. It is happening; it’s here. If scientific evidence is not persuasive to some folks, then common sense should tip the scales for them. Sticking their heads out of air conditioning into the natural environment for more than a few minutes at a stretch ought to help. Too many people unfortunately are willing to ride along with Wayne Tracker, despite their common sense and their personal experience. If the Earth is a lifeboat in the cosmos (and what have we found so far to tell us otherwise?), then we are all in this together, and at this point arguing about how we got here serves little purpose. Certainly there are some people in the lifeboat who seem to feel it’s perfectly fine to flourish their revolvers and shoot holes in the boat, which of course makes things worse. What to do about them? If we can find the political will among our fellow survivors, we take away their revolvers, for they are imperiling everyone’s chances, and their ideology be damned. They should know better than to pound in the stakes of “Global Warming is a Hoax” yard signs in insufferable heat, throwing themselves into a tizzy, giving themselves a paroxysm of the vapors. They are dangerous nitwits.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 masterpiece Lifeboat holds our attention despite the limited setting because of the universal behaviors we can all recognize.
What would you do if you were on a lifeboat at sea and one or more of your fellow survivors exhibited behavior that was detrimental to your own survival, as common sense dictated it? If your children were with you on the lifeboat, and therefore your progeny were endangered as well? It’s hot, and your patience is growing short. What’s particularly annoying is that you notice some of the unhelpful survivors appear to be cynically manipulating the others, the true believers, for their own gain. Besides the danger, this behavior turns your stomach. If there were another lifeboat nearby, you’d dive off this one and take your chances with the sharks until you reached the other boat. But there isn’t another lifeboat as far as the eye can see. You’re stuck with these people. Nevertheless, with water everywhere, it’s good to know how to swim.
The passage of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial banking from investment banking, and for 75 years there were no enormous financial meltdowns in the United States originating from the banking sector of the economy. In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the main provisions of Glass-Steagall and, in the view of critics of the repeal, the countdown to financial meltdown began, culminating in the Great Recession which began in 2008. The meltdown, like the Great Depression which gave birth to Glass-Steagall, had worldwide repercussions, but in the aftermath there have been only watered down reforms of the banking industry in the US such as the Dodd-Frank Act, and no high level banking executives have gone to jail, been taken to court, or even been indicted. It’s only a matter of time therefore before a similar financial crisis strikes the US, particularly since the new presidential administration is talking about dismantling Dodd-Frank.
Crowd gathering on Wall Street after the stock market crash on October 25, 1929.
Like other European nations, Iceland was swallowed up in the 2008 financial crisis. Like the United States, it had its own unruly banking sector contributing to the crisis – casino banks, in the sense that they used the money from depositors in their commercial operations to gamble on dubious investments, always passing along losses to customers while reaping the profits mostly for themselves. As in casinos, the house rarely loses, and in the case of casino banks when it appears they might lose the government will be there to bail them out. That’s the deal banks have come to count on, particularly if they are “too big to fail.” Unlike other European nations and definitely unlike the United States, Iceland allowed its casino banks to fail and then vigorously investigated and prosecuted the casino bankers responsible. In Iceland, 26 top bankers have gone to jail since 2008, and moreover their economy has rebounded robustly. In the US, 0 top bankers are wearing orange jumpsuits as a consequence of causing the 2008 financial meltdown, and the economy has limped slowly toward recovery ever since.
It’s interesting to note that the 2016 Republican Party platform included a plank about reinstating Glass-Steagall. Wall Streeters were alarmed at first, but then everyone realized it was merely politics as usual and that the incoming Republican administration and Congress had no intention of taking the idea seriously. They have been proven correct. Democrats make rumbling noises occasionally about reinstating Glass-Steagall, but even if they had the will, they don’t have the votes. It’s all just politics at this point, since Wall Street money has long since turned heads in both major parties.
“Let them eat cake!”
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
― Gore Vidal, from his 1975 essay “The State of the Union”.
Social reforms wrought from identity politics are all to the good, but as always in our culture the primary fixation should be on the money. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this when he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to speak to striking African-American sanitation workers. Without work and the personal dignity that comes from a living wage, people cannot begin to address their social situation and have the energy to improve their lot within society as a whole. For the poor and the middle class it all starts with money, and for the rich it ends there as well. The oligarchic elite take advantage of social issues like gay marriage to divide and distract the majority while they continue to concentrate wealth and power in their own hands. There are two financial reforms which would go a long way toward stemming the rising power of the corporate oligarchy and restoring power to the majority of Americans: reinstatement of Glass-Steagall or something very much like it, and the legislative or constitutional rescission of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket, two marines engage in an ironic “John Wayne” face-off. Wayne’s chickenhawkish stances werewell-known and widely held in contempt by combat veterans fromWorld War II to Vietnam. Warning: foul language.
America’s wars continue with no end in sight, from one presidential administration to the next. One proposal to curtail the corporate oligarchy’s military adventurism is to bring back the military draft or to institute Universal National Service, the idea being that if a greater percentage of the population has a personal stake in foreign policy then they will be more likely to make their preferences known to their leaders, and people with a personal stake are less likely to want more war. The oligarchy knows this, too, as it’s a lesson they learned from an aroused public during the Vietnam War and are unlikely to want repeated if the public reawakens.
Since the draft ended in 1973, the per capita percentage of the population serving in the military has steadily declined, while the number of American military interventions overseas has drastically increased. Linking the two trends could be coincidental, but it’s worth considering that in the 40 years from 1933 to 1973, in most of which there was a draft, the US sent the military abroad on 27 occasions, and in the 40 years from 1974 to 2014 the US sent the military on 175 different foreign interventions. Has the world really become 6.5 times more dangerous since 1973? Or is it that the US has taken on in earnest the burden and profits of empire and the role of world policeman, putting out small fires everywhere, many times at the behest of corporate interests?
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
― Marine Major General (Retired) Smedley Butler, writing in the
Socialist newspaper Common Sense in 1935.
The 1994 Robert Zemeckis movie Forrest Gump is an excellent portrayal of the diversity of experience awaiting Vietnam era draftees, though of course most of them did not want to be there. Warning: foul language.
The majority of Americans catch the news about these numerous foreign conflicts as they go about their daily business, and because they don’t know anyone in the military and didn’t serve themselves, the news pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. Who can get agitated or even interested about what’s happening in Kosovo or Libya or Yemen or the Horn of Africa, wherever that is? Afghanistan and Iraq, oh yeah, are those still dragging on? Are we going into Syria now, too? And so these busy Americans go on with their lives, paying their taxes and going shopping, surprised to learn that when the US deploys Predator drones to these foreign hot spots, the controllers of the deadly drones sit in air-conditioned trailers halfway around the world in Nevada or Germany. It’s the New Age, alright, a deadly video game.
Or so we might choose to believe. As technocratic and bloodless as the military brass and the politicians may try to make modern war seem in order to make it more palatable for the general public, it will always nevertheless be a nasty mess both physically and morally. They don’t want to show that part, though; they learned that lesson from Vietnam as well. Rah-rah Hollywood movies are not the answer to getting Americans to come to terms with their current situation in world politics. Far from it. There are far too many chickenhawks making movies in Hollywood and making policy in Washington to serve anything but the basest emotions of too many Americans, the “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” among them, who are stirred to cheer movies glorifying war and the macho posturing of Supreme Leader. As long as they reflexively say “Thank you for your service” to a service member or veteran when they encounter one, they’re covered. Aren’t they?
An early scene in Full Metal Jacket depicts Marine boot camp in a less lighthearted vein than the boot camp of Forrest Gump. Some of that canbe attributed to the differences between the Marines and the Army, and some to the aims of the two films. Nonetheless, some of the drill sergeant’s insults will ring bells in the dark sense of humor shared by many veterans, an emotion Kubrick effectively turns inside out at the end of the scene. Warning: foul language, of course.
“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s easy to be a nondescript face in the crowd, to blend in, to not rock the boat. It takes no courage at all. It takes courage to stand out, to fold your arms when everybody else is saluting, to take a knee when others go with the flow. Dissent is not un-American, it is at the core of what it means to be an American.
A crowd in Hamburg, Germany in 1936 give the Nazi salute, except for August Landmesser, circled, who folds his arms in protest.
The corporate oligarchy in charge of the United States has co-opted “Support our troops” to undermine dissent from nonconformists against military adventurism overseas. Constant war keeps the profits rolling in for the defense industry and helps the oligarchy control the domestic population by curtailing civil liberties in the name of national security. Pressure from the crowd to support jingoism takes on the colors of patriotism when the oligarchy cynically whips up their fervor with “Support our troops.” That is a phrase which, like the phrase “States’ rights” when used to support Southern secession in the American Civil War, takes on some clarity and cuts through the emotional fog wreathing it when we append to it a questioning clause. States’ rights to do what? Continue slavery? Support our troops in doing what? Enforcing the agenda of the oligarchy?
At home, criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement is used to divert attention from the real need for police reform. Criticism of authoritarian, militarized, unaccountable police is co-opted by talking about and booing the nonconformist protesters of the abuses committed by those out of control police. There is no logic to this; it is all emotion used for manipulation. This is stepping through the looking glass. This is like diverting attention from the revelations about the misconduct of government officials at home and abroad published by WikiLeaks by making the conversation about Julian Assange and speculation about his sources instead. Personalities, not critical analysis of public policies, are what the mainstream corporate media are selling. America, love it or leave it, the mass of faces in the crowd bellow in return.
Blessed Are the Peacemakers by George Bellows, a 1917 anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus with a halo, wearing prison stripes, and in a sidebar a list of His seditious crimes.
So fold your arms when you feel the need, stand out when you have to, and take a knee when that seems the best course. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary. ― Ed.
“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.” ― Martin Luther King, Jr.
Americans’ distaste for the two major party candidates for president has never been greater than it has been this election year. When Americans vote on November 8, most of them will likely cast their ballot in the spirit of voting for the lesser of two evils, while a few others will vote for a third party candidate. When both major party candidates are highly disliked even by members of their own parties, justifying a vote for the lesser of two evils requires more mental and moral gymnastics than ever before. The arguments for and against voting third party, meanwhile, are the same as always.
“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David
Too many of us tend to think of politics as something we need pay attention to once every four years, and then we act surprised at the choices presented to us by the more politically active. Anyone paying attention to politics more often than once every four years should not be surprised at the rightward drift of the Democratic Party over the past generation to the point that a mainstream Democratic candidate now holds positions that thirty years ago we would have attributed to a moderate Republican. The Republican Party has steadily marginalized its moderate members, but until this year its establishment has managed at least for each presidential election to put forward a candidate acceptable to its conservative, but not radical, elite. This year at last the trends of the past generation have culminated in both parties nominating for president the candidates they have long worked toward presenting to the country, and therefore no one should be surprised.
1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.
In a democracy, so the saying goes, people get the government – or political candidates – they deserve. That seems like an awfully cynical assessment this year. We can’t pick and choose the times we would like to take responsibility for who we put forward for elective office, however, and so perhaps it would serve us better to pay closer attention to politics during the intervals between presidential elections. If we did that, then maybe we could take back this democratic republic from the corporate oligarchy which has steadily, year by year, day by day, stolen it from the people who are expected to trot out to the polls every so often and sign off on one side or the other of the same coin, the one that says on one side “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” and on the other “Corporations are people.”