This is the age of corporatized politics. That means we may admire our leaders, but we can't depend on them. We're paying the price for Thomas Jefferson's unfulfilled desire to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
This July 4th, politics is too important to be left to the politicians. The stakes are too high and the system is too broken. Citizen action is everyone's job now, and it will be as long as our political debate focuses on misplaced austerity and ignores the majority's yearning for jobs, growth, and those things that government does best.
But the problem isn't just with politicians, or even the system. The problem is dependence itself.
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We call it “Independence Day.” But the British didn't leave on July 4, 1776. The war lasted until September 3, 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed. July 4th is the day we declared ourselves independent. Victory came with the recognition that freedom is our natural condition. Our country wasn't born with violence, but with the realization that freedom is discovered and claimed, not granted by others. That's why we celebrate July 4, not September 3, as our Day of Independence.
That will disappoint the history-challenged right-wingers whose patriotic posturing is limited to speaking in their odd pseudo-military lingo, that echolalic Esperanto for fantasy revolutionaries. They don't realize that war is a tactic, not a system of values. And “independence”? Today's “Tea Party” wasn't named for the tea-dumping patriots of Boston, but for some self-entitled commodities traders shrieking “losers!” on cable television. They were sneering at struggling homeowners, mocking middle-class people like the Tea Partiers themselves. And they were enraged at the idea that ordinary families might be rescued the same way their own financier class had been rescued.
They won. Nobody’s rescued the middle class yet. Unlike them, the Founders believed in common purpose. They shared George Washington's goal of “protecting the rights of humane nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.” They understood what conservatives don't: There's a difference between declaring independence and telling people they're on their own.
When Sarah Palin tells her followers to “RELOAD!” she has no idea where to aim. When Michele Bachmann says she wants people to be “armed and dangerous,” she doesn't understand who or what would be endangered. When John Stossel “jokes” about hanging Barney Frank in effigy, he's putting reason (and the tattered shreds of his own reputation) in the noose generals once used for hanging enemies – and patriots like Nathan Hale.
At least their mangling of Revolutionary War history gave us a great chuckle, when Keith Olbermann said Sarah Palin thought Paul Revere was “warning the British Invasion that kicks keep getting harder to find.” Conservatives adopt the Revolution's pose and forget its principles. They're dress-up generals in a make-believe war, corporate servants who use the rhetoric of yesterday's revolution to serve today's Redcoats.
We fought for the principles of self-representation and economic freedom. Those principles are under attack again today. But there's no place for rhetorical violence (or any other kind) in today's debate. When corporations intimidate us with economic pressure and distorted information, the best responses are communication and mobilization.
We resisted Britain's state-sanctioned monopolies in 1776. Today's government-sanctioned corporations hang out on Wall Street, not by the chartered Thames. The spirit of the East India Company lives in the five banks which now control nearly 96% of the derivatives market in this country. Our financial oligarchs receive Treasury Department money, Federal Reserve giveaways, and get-out-of-jail-free cards for a corporate crime wave that would make Al Capone blush.
Some of our ancestors came to this country as slaves or indentured servants. The slaves were freed in body but their descendants' economic freedom is not yet fully won. Unemployment's much worse for African Americans. Infant mortality rates are 2.5 times higher than they are for whites and life expectancy is years shorter. Indentured servitude's making a comeback, too. In colonial days people signed away years of freedom for the “loan” of ship's passage to America, where they were sold to bidders for a period of bondage. If only Wall Street had existed then! Imagine the money Goldman Sachs could have made on selling “IBS's” – “indenture-backed securities.”
And then shorting them, of course.
Today’s borrowers aren’t exactly indentured servants, but their contract terms can be unilaterally changed and their debts sold and resold without notice. Their homes may be foreclosed by unknown lenders for violating terms they didn't know existed. If they resist paying unfair penalties the full weight of the law will be brought down on them (but not the banks.) Bad credit may leave them unable to borrow money, rent a home, or even find a job.
These economic injustices and others will continue as long as wealthy contributors corrupt our political process. Many of us feel the President can and should do much more to rein in Wall Street, create jobs, and defend Medicare and Social Security. But any likely opponent would probably be far worse. Politicians in this post-Citizens United world are either limited by corporate power or prostituted to it..
So we must work around, as well as within, the electoral system. That means getting the truth out, speaking for the majority's viewpoint, and outlining the real choices we face. That's especially hard when almost everyone in Washington is pushing austerity over jobs and growth (no matter how many Nobel Prize-winning economists tell them they're wrong), and when media empires mislead us about our situation and its causes. So we must wage a war for the mind – a war against corporate think tanks and TV talking heads who tell us our problems arise from self-indulgence and those in need, not corporate malfeasance and runaway greed.
Politicians can help this war against media monopolies and for publicly-financed elections. But they can't lead it. This week some conservatives claimed John Lennon was a secret Ronald Reagan fan. Jon Weiner, the writer and historian who's authored two books on Lennon, effectively refuted them. Weiner points out that Lennon's last political statement was in support of union workers. But to truly dismiss their claim, all you need (besides love, of course) is this Lennon quote:
“You make your own dream … If you want to save Peru, go save Peru … Don't expect Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself.”
Lennon was right, and if he were still around I suspect he'd add another Presidential name or two to that list.
We can vote for the best (or least objectionable) choices in the next election, but we can't surrender our fate to them. We'll need to keep pressuring them with calls, petitions, and other initiatives. In this corporatized system, we can't expect many leaders to heed Revolutionary pamphleteer (and ur-blogger) Thomas Paine, who said “Attempting to debate with a person who has abandoned reason is like giving medicine to the dead.” Paine also made this timely observation: “Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.”
Some of us have surrendered to despair. Chris Hedges, one of our most brilliant political writers, wrote recently: ” When did our democracy die? When did it irrevocably transform itself into a lifeless farce …?” But he's wrong. Democracy hasn't died here, not yet. Despite a half-century of corporate manipulation and misinformation the country elected a President with an unlikely name and biography, one who promised real change.
What we've learned since then is that the system itself must change. That begins with the vision of something better. “Revolution is not the uprising against preexisting order,” said the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, “but the setting up of a new order contradictory to the traditional one.” We have to imagine what our leaders can't or won't imagine, then work to bring it into being.
Hard? Sure. But democracy? Dead? Tell it to the Egyptians. They won't be completely free or democratic until we're completely free and democratic. But they've accomplished what seemed impossible, and so can we. It will take action – independent action, action that doesn't depend on a leader or a spokesperson or party, action that rejects even the most informed pessimism or the deepest despair. That kind of action needs an independence that comes from within.
Happy Independence Day.