Connecting the Dots
September 7, 2012
The madness and the histrionics of this year’s political discourse have prompted me, increasingly, to just turn it off.
Mainly that means turning off the TV, which feeds the insanity. Its merciless 24-7 news cycle demands something new every moment –even if the only way to meet that demand is to chatter endlessly about trivia.
I still follow politics. It is just that I’ve found that tuning out some of the noise enables me to be more cognizant of little nuggets of useful information that would otherwise get lost in the cacophony. Sometimes, if you can find the right dots to connect, the big picture starts to make more sense.
Take, for example, Mitt Romney’s penchant for verbal gaffes –which played so prominently in coverage of his trip to Europe and the Middle East. One of his least-covered misstatements on that trip was the one I thought most revealing: Romney’s misrepresentation of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
In seeking to explain the huge gap in economic development between Israelis and Palestinians, Romney summarized Diamond’s argument as saying that “the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there” and that “culture makes all the difference.”
Diamond was so taken aback by Romney’s misrepresentation of his work that he wrote a piece for the New York Times pointing out that his book actually was an examination of the advantages –in plant and animal species and in the size and shape of the land mass– that made it much more likely that rich and powerful societies would arise in Europe and Asia rather than elsewhere in the world.
The great European empires of the last five hundred years and their descendants in the United States and elsewhere have been the beneficiaries of those biological and geographical advantages that gave them an edge 13,000 years ago, when the world emerged from the last ice age and all humans were hunter-gatherers.
That is not to say that culture is insignificant –far from it. It only means that some people in some places had a head start in developing agriculture, which let them create the essential attributes of complex societies: centralized government, armies, writing and metal tools –in short, the culture that is at the root of modern wealth and power.
It is a worthwhile lesson to keep in mind when we consider the roots of poverty and economic underdevelopment abroad –or at home, for that matter. Some folks had a head start and the advantage compounds over time, in addition to what is gained by talent, persistence and hard work.
Now, one of the most influential products of Western European culture has been the ideology of capitalism. It accelerated the accumulation of wealth and power and has rooted itself so deeply in our thinking as to become –like religion– a matter of faith. For many, it is their religion and to question it is apostasy.
That is why Romney so avidly touts his Wall Street experience at Bain Capital. The logic of the faith is simple: who better than a successful capitalist to run a capitalist nation? Many accept that without question.
It is important, though, to distinguish between capitalism as an economic system and capitalism as an ideology. Capitalism as an economic system is simply a method for organizing the resources to produce goods and services.
Capitalism as an ideology, however, asserts that profit is the only value worthy of consideration. Profit takes precedence over everything else. But there is a problem with that ideology: it favors profits over people.
Large corporations (we’re not talking small businesses here) are essentially just machines for consolidating wealth. Once consolidated, that wealth can be (and is) used to influence the political system to help corporations accumulate still more wealth –regardless of whether that benefits the average citizen.
If you question that point, look around for some of the reporting that has been done on the impact of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court and the vast sums being spent by super-pacs to support candidates who favor lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations even if it means that everyone else’s taxes will go up.
Let’s bring in another dot to connect: a new book by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco – Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Sacco, an award-winning cartoonist and journalist, spent the last two years working to illustrate the reality of life in what they call “the sacrifice zones.” Those are places “where the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize earnings.”
Hedges and Sacco visited communities in South Dakota, New Jersey, West Virginia, Florida and New York City. The reality they present in the book will look very familiar to anyone who has spent any time in Detroit. Or Flint. Or Saginaw. Or Lansing. It is not a pretty picture because, Hedges and Sacco argue, “Corporations are disemboweling every last social service program funded by the taxpayers, from education to Social Security, because they want that money themselves.”
If you want to see how that works, just look at Highland Park, where school officials have decided to turn over their schools to a for-profit charter school company. A community that was sucked dry and trashed by corporations now is so poor it must turn its schools over a company so it can extract more profit. I understand that the schools are in serious trouble but is this really the answer –to transform our children into a profit generator for some corporation?
Does no one else find that concept morally repugnant?
Is everything to be sold to the highest bidder?
Is there to be no essential function of community?
That is not what founders fought a revolution for.
That is the big picture of what is at stake in this election. Both Democrats and Republicans have been complicit in the selling out of America to corporate power. It will take thoughtful, civic-minded and determined leaders of both parties to bring us back from that abyss.
And it will take thoughtful, civic-minded and determined voters to make them face up to the task.