Chickens and Eggs

One of the most difficult things to establish is the relationship between cause and effect. Which came first? And can we say with certainty that the one that came first is the cause of the second? To establish cause and effect, one would have to show that, say, A comes before B and B would never  have happened without A. Further, it would have to be shown that every time you have an A you have a B. Logicians say B if, and only if, A. The reason the cigarette manufacturers, for example, were so successful for so long in denying that smoking causes lung cancer is that many folks who do not smoke get lung cancer and some folks who smoke do not get lung cancer. For years it was known that there was a correlation, but that alone does not satisfy the strict requirements. Eventually, the correlation was so high and so prevalent, it could no longer be denied — especially when it was revealed that  the tests conducted by the cigarettes companies themselves showed a very high correlation between smoking and lung cancer.

In this regard, I have always wondered about the correlation between entertainment and the development of a taste for violence in this country. In a word, does watching television increase the desire for violence in the young, or do the kids already crave violence and television simply “gives the kids what they want?” Can television, for example, actually manufacture “wants.” I suspect it can. Further, I do think we all have a hidden desire for violence. Freud thought it showed itself in humor: we laugh to release unconscious violent, even sadistic, impulses (think of the pie in the face or the chair pulled from beneath the unsuspecting sitter). It’s possible that watching violence over and over increases this desire. Quite possible. After all, were all learn by imitation.

If we take the case of football in this country as an example, we can see some interesting factors that may help us decide the question one way or the other. Professional football has now surpassed baseball as the nation’s favorite sport. As we know, football is filled with violence, whereas baseball is not. That may be part of the appeal of football, though it is difficult to say. But, then television networks such as ESPN discuss football year around, even during the off-season. When there are no games, they discuss the draft, outstanding college players who might “declare” for the draft, free-agency, the latest instance of domestic violence involving yet another football player. And so forth. To be sure, there are other athletes in other sports who engage in domestic violence, but I am talking about the amount of air time that is given to discussions about football and football players and the undeniable fact that the sport has grown by leaps and bounds — as have the incidents of violence in our country. There certainly appears to be a correlation.

The number of fans in football has grown drastically in the past few years. That’s a given. There is more time on television devoted to football in the past few years. That’s also a given. The question is whether the networks are simply giving the fans what they want or whether the industry is indeed manufacturing a desire for more football. Which comes first? And which causes the other? To help answer this question, I turn to a related sport, namely, soccer.

Soccer has never been as popular in this country as it is the world over. Soccer season overlaps with football, for one thing. For another, there seems to be a lot of time when nothing much is happening, and there really isn’t much violence. But I note that in the past few years ESPN has given more and more time to soccer, covering Olympic soccer (amidst much jingoistic hype) and lending increasing amounts of air time to showing highlights (especially moments of violence on the field) to international soccer and the professional soccer league in this country; they are clearly promoting the sport. Recently, 60,000 fans showed up for the inaugural match between two professional teams in this country. That number of fans for a game of soccer is astonishing. Is it just possible that the desire to watch a soccer match has been manufactured by the television networks?? I suspect the answer is “yes.”

But, the cause/effect relationship is very hard to establish, as I noted at the beginning. So I can’t say with assurance that the networks are manufacturing desires in their audience. But the correlation is interesting and worth watching. If the networks start showing more and more women’s basketball and the interest in that sport starts to grow, we might have even more reason to suspect a causal relationship. But, then the women who play basketball aren’t nearly as violent as the men and that might detract from the interest the typical fan might otherwise have in these sports. Perhaps, the folks at ESPN need to encourage a bit more bashing and thrashing to help things along –as in, say, cage fighting. Clearly American audiences want to see violence. The only question is whether the networks have nurtured and encouraged this desire and made it stronger.

Sad Business

Call him Freddy. That’s not his real name, of course, but he is the thirty year old son of the man who owns the local grocery store in the small town in which I live in Southwest Minnesota. The store once had seven or eight refrigerated cases. It now has one. Hand lettered signs tell us that if we want anything refrigerated or frozen we are to ask someone and they will fetch it from the back. The floor around the machine that dispenses healthy water in a town where the water from the tap is not fit to drink has broken tiles with a hole in the main floor that shows the sub-floor.  That machine may be the only reason many people come to the store — that and the fresh pastry that arrives each day early from a nearby town and is immediately taken down the street by the retired county sheriff to the overweight Republicans who gather each day for coffee and pastry to discuss the weather, bash Obamacare, or deny global warming. The merchandise on the shelves in the store has been moved to the front of the shelves to disguise the fact that there is nothing behind it. And the produce amounts to a few oranges and a couple of apples. No bananas today. When the store next to Freddy’s Dad went under they asked him to sell off all their left-over merchandise, prayer hands, statues of small children with tears in their eyes, scented candles, sympathy cards with bad poetry inside. Freddy’s Dad moved ten or twelve feet of food from the nearly bare shelves to make room for this dreck and it just sits there gathering dust. There’s a good reason is was left-over: it still doesn’t sell. It’s been there a couple of years now.

But Freddy just sits at the cash register with a doleful expression and stares out the door at the empty streets watching the leaves blow around in the relentless wind, waiting for the occasional customer. Waiting. His favorite grandpa recently died, the only person I ever heard Freddy speak of with affection. I always make a point of greeting Freddy cheerfully and talking with him about the latest Minnesota sports team debacle. There’s always something to talk about, of course, because Minnesota professional sports teams have an annoying habit of losing and in doing so looking bad — except the Lynx who no one around here talks about, but who are very successful women’s basketball team. No one talks about them, I suppose, because they are women and this is small-town mid-America. Freddy and I discuss the latest men’s game and dissect it until we agree what needs to be done to make things right. If it were up to us we would have fixed all their problems long ago and all of those teams, the Twins, The Vikings, the Timberwolves, would be champions wearing the cherished ring on their collective fingers.

I worry about Freddy. What’s to become of him? He lives alone in an apartment over the store. His father obviously doesn’t care about the store; he lets it run down and run out. He doesn’t seem to care much about Freddy, either, preferring to talk about his older son who recently joined the National Guard and went off to Iraq to make the world safe for Democracy by pushing around papers in an office somewhere in the Middle East. He’s one of our nation’s heroes. His father, on the other hand, is only a few years from retirement. What then? What will become of his younger son who just sits there and has learned very little about much of anything? The chances are he will end up at the Walmart down the road, the store that is largely responsible for the fact that his Dad’s store is barely getting by. Now that would be ironic. But it would also be very sad. I worry about Freddy.

Teddy’s Transformation

One of the most captivating political phenomena in this country to my mind is the radical transformation of Teddy Roosevelt from his early years to his run for the presidency in 1912. He began as a wealthy, landed Republican with strong convictions about the benefits of free-enterprise capitalism and became a radical proponent of the rights of the common man (and woman) in his run for reelection in 1912. Along the way he was known for his progressive programs, his growing sympathy for the disadvantaged, and his hatred of the predatory rich — those whose only goal in life is to accumulate wealth with no concern whatever for their duties as wealthy citizens (you know, like the Koch brothers). During this period he was close friends with William Taft who wore himself out stumping for his friend during Roosevelt’s first run at the presidency. Teddy, in turn, after serving as sitting president for seven years, worked hard to make sure Taft was elected as his successor to carry on with his progressive programs. It is interesting in this regard that, despite his bluster, Teddy was successful in pushing through fewer progressive programs than his successor, even though he later criticized Taft for being too conciliatory and too willing to compromise with the trusts.

In any event, when the split finally came between Taft and Roosevelt, it was deep and wide. After the Republican convention in 1912 selected Taft as the Republican candidate for president, Roosevelt accused Taft of stealing the nomination and split with the Republican party to form  an Independent Party that embraced his principles and promised him another term in the White House. He ran a vicious campaign, one of the first in which the man himself actually rolled up his sleeves and went on the campaign trail, something the old soldier loved to do. He continued to attack Taft, often personally, and the rift between the two men became wider and wider — though Taft refused to lower himself to the ad hominem level where Teddy was very comfortable, preferring to remain as much out of the public eye as possible and responding only to a list of Roosevelt’s charges against his presidency that were clearly based on untruths.

But what is most interesting during this period is the platform that Roosevelt pushed through the convention he called in Chicago that nominated him for president. It reflected Roosevelt’s growing populism, his conviction that the people, including women, should be more involved in the political process and entitled to government protection against the blind greed that was motivating the corporate giants. He even advocated a judicial override system that would allow citizens to overthrow the decisions of the courts through a referendum! As noted in Doris Goodman’s excellent study of the Bully Pulpit, his platform included, besides a call for the right of women to vote,

“a living wage . . .  the prohibition of child labor, federal regulations of interstate corporations, a graduated inheritance tax, an eight-hour workday for women, new standards for workmen’s compensation, and finally a system of social insurance designed to protect citizens against ‘the hazards of sickness . . . involuntary unemployment, and old age’ to which employers and employees would both contribute.”

As Roosevelt himself noted, “Whatever fate may at the moment overtake any of us, the movement itself will not stop.” He was right, but also aware that as an independent president he would have no allies in Congress and his chances of pushing through any of these items were slim at best.

Because of the radical nature of this platform, which resembled in many ways the platform Woodrow Wilson ran on as the Democratic candidate, Taft had to distance himself from Roosevelt and adopt a decidedly conservative platform — despite the fact that he was at least as passionate about the rights of the disadvantaged and the excesses of the trusts as was his former friend. Needless to say, they split the Republican vote and assured Wilson of a victory (sound familiar?). If Roosevelt had remained in the Republican fold, his party would have had the necessary electoral votes to reelect a Republican president, as he himself acknowledged later on.

As it happens,Taft, who was a gentle man not cut out for politics at all, and Roosevelt, who had supreme confidence in himself and a fierce love of political infighting, managed to mend their tattered relationship and once again became close friends in their declining years — due largely to Taft’s persistent determination to knock down the fences between them and repair the damage. But the fact that stands out above the rest is the strange fever that attaches itself to many in the political arena that inflames their emotions and blinds them to the obvious. I am put in mind of Socrates’ admonition that a person cannot become involved in politics and remain true to himself. Roosevelt’s ego was immense, doubtless a part of his charm, but it became so large — as a result of his love of power, perhaps — that he nearly lost a dear friend and caused a split in the party to which he had devoted his political life. Ironic and a lesson to be learned. The ancient Greek dramatists would have loved this story.

The Tail of That Dog

I have written about the tail that wags the dog for many years and general awareness has increased; none the less, the problem isn’t any closer to being solved. I speak of the inordinate amount of money and time spent on athletics, especially in NCAA Division I schools, that seriously undermine the higher purpose of education. A recent article in Sports Illustrated about the scandal at The University of North Carolina focuses the issue nicely. The author, a graduate of UNC, turns his attention to the weakening of the academic program that is in direct proportion to the rise of the athletics programs at one of the most prestigious Division I schools. He raises the question”How Did Carolina Lose Its Way?”

It is especially disturbing to see the problem growing in the face of the inordinate costs of athletics, reflected in the fact that public universities, like UNC, now spend three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as they do on academics per student. Even more remarkable is the fact that the average amount of money lost, I repeat, lost, on athletics among Division I public universities is $11.6 million each year. So the myth that athletics brings in the dough turns out to be just that, a myth — except for those schools at the top of the pyramid, including the University of North Carolina where the cost of athletics has grown from $9.1 million in 1984 to $83 million last year, and the cost to the university in the reduction of the quality of education is beyond rubies.

The problem doesn’t end with the cost to the athletics program at that university. It extends into the classroom as well. At UNC where the recent controversy centers around the Department of African and African-American Studies, the main problem started to appear in 1993, the year that a woman by the name of Debbie Crowder headed up the AFAM department. The SI story describes the program she initiated in which

She began to devise “paper classes.” The “shadow curriculum” run by Crowder and department head Julius Nyang’oro “required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that Crowder awarded without reading the papers,” the report said. (Crowder retired in 2009 and Nyang’oro was forced to retire in ’11). A disproportionate 47.4% of the enrollees in AFAM classes were athletes, mostly the football and men’s basketball players.”

The problem at UNC also includes “special admits,” the alarming number of students who are admitted to the university with “rock-bottom SAT verbal scores of 200,” scores well below the acceptable level, coupled by the placement of those students very carefully into special classes designed to guarantee their success — at the university if not in later life. One is put in mind of the parent who allows his child to continue to eat candy thinking they are doing the child a favor while, in fact, the child’s teeth are rotting out. In any event, as it happens, the problem at UNC goes beyond the AFAM program and included

“philosophy lecturer Jan Boxill, who was chair of the faculty and head of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics (!), [who] was discharged last October for steering athletes into sham courses, doctoring students’ papers, and sanitizing an official report in an attempt to shield the athletics department from NCAA scrutiny. From 2004 to 2012, The Daily Tar Heel reported, Boxill also taught 160 independent studies — 20 in one semester. (The standard runs between one and three per year).”

Those independent studies courses, of course, were a joke. But apparently the fox was caught guarding the chicken coop! (A philosophy professor, I shudder to admit, and chair of an Ethics Center to boot!) But the problem extended beyond the playing fields and the gymnasium as students across campus became aware of the “cake courses” being offered by various departments. According to the report, those taking Crowder’s “paper classes” numbered  3,100 students, the majority of whom were not athletes.  This is not new — students will always find the easy courses to help their GPA — but it has simply grown by leaps and bounds at North Carolina, where some courses aren’t even real courses, but most are encouraged by the demands of the athletics department.

Thus does the infection begin to seep into the bowels of the university itself and infect the entire student body. A recent book by two professors at UNC, Cheated: The UNC Scandal: The Education of Athletes and The Future of Big-Time College Sports, focuses attention on the problems at that university, where “We show pretty persuasively that it all started with easy-grade-independent studies in the late ’80s for a handful of weak students on the men’s basketball team and mushroomed from there.” But as the SI article points out, the issue is broad and deep. The author of the article asks in discussing the current situation with the new chancellor at UNC, where things have reportedly been put straight, “. . . [whether] the money in college sports — at least $16 billion in TV contracts alone — [makes] ‘the right way’ impossible”? That is the $64 million question. In saying this, however, it is important to point out that it isn’t only at the University of North Carolina where these sorts of problems exist. They are becoming all-too common, not to say prevalent. The tail is indeed wagging the dog.

Two Gods

Some years ago, when I was teaching a required course in great books that we called “Humanities,” I was discussing with the class the assigned reading, the Book of Job. The discussion was going  well, I thought, but my repeated reference to the “God of the Old Testament” apparently riled one of the students who spoke out: “it’s the same God as in the New Testament, you know.” Well, I didn’t know. The student was a Born Again Christian and I had only been born once. From my apparently stunted perspective the two Gods seemed miles apart, the Old Testament God a vengeful and even vindictive God who would throw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for disobedience and punish Job for bragging rights. He’s the God who said to Eve: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow shall thou bring forth children; and thy desire shall be thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The God of the New Testament struck me as a forgiving God, a god of love and compassion. He is the God who said “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you.” The two seemed, as I say, miles apart. But clearly I did not know what I was talking about.

In any event, in reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a novel recommended by a good friend, I came across the same concern I had expressed, to wit, the reflection by one of the main characters in the novel that the two Gods were very different. The novel raises a number of interesting questions and, while disturbing in many ways, is a good read, focusing on a very twisted Baptist preacher who decides to do a year of missionary work and hauls his wife and four girls to the Congo to drag the natives out of the utter darkness (where they appear to be quite happy, thank you very much) and into the light that apparently only he can see. Needless to say, he botches the job, alienating the natives entirely while abusing and doing untold damage to his children and making life a living hell for his poor wife. But such is the enthusiasm of the “true believer” who is convinced that he (or she) has the truth and everyone else should shut up and pay attention. Our hero is a hellfire and brimstone preacher who hopes to save souls by scaring the shit out of them. His mania can be found just this side of insanity. He bases his world view on a reading of the Old Testament having, apparently, never gotten as far as the New Testament — except for the Book of Revelation. Yet he insists that he is a devout Christian.

All of which raises the deeper question of the untold damage “Christians” have done over the centuries in direct defiance of the teachings of their Founder. How on earth the message of peace and love got translated into a message of intolerance and hate defies reason, though it would appear folks are simply more comfortable with the Old Testament God. But, then, many things we humans do defy reason. The sad thing in this case is that so much good has turned rotten and so many lives have been ruined by well-meaning zealots who think they know all that needs to be known. Just like my student who knew that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament, a conviction I knew better than to tamper with by trying to get her to think.

Refuge of Scoundrels

Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. During the Viet Nam war we learned what he meant when the “true patriots” of the “my country right-or-wrong” variety were telling critics to love their country or leave it. But unqualified love, blind love, is the sign of a bigot and a zealot, not of a true lover. One who loves his or her country is aware of its faults, but loves it just the same — much like the couple who have stayed together for 50 years and plan to stay together for the rest of their lives.

When traveling abroad in years past I was proud to carry an American passport. I have always thought this was a remarkable country, one that provides an opportunity for all to achieve their dreams. This is the country that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, a war we entered in our own small way on behalf of Britain even before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. But this was the country that also locked up Japanese citizens in concentration camps during the war, so one had to maintain some sense of balance and perspective. Still, we seemed to be on the right track, concerned about the moral high ground and doing the right thing by the rest of the world. After writing a Constitution that protected slavery, for example, this country eventually managed to free the slaves and years later struggled against Southern bigotry to guarantee those former slaves the right to marry, vote, ride on buses, and eat in restaurants. We even came to realize that women ought to be able to vote! We seemed to be on the right track.

This is the country, after all, that managed to put a bridle on the unfettered greed of capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P, Morgan and bring them to heel, softening somewhat the blows of the predatory rich against those who worked in their dark mines or stifling tenement sweat shops for pennies a day.  This is a country that seemed, not long ago, to still know where the moral high ground was located even if we weren’t holding it quite so tight.

But then something happened to turn the country away from the moral high ground and it seemed to be slowly disappearing in the distance. While our education system began to fall toward the bottom of the heap, we learned that our country was engaged in torturing prisoners, spying on its own citizens, incarcerating people for years on end without the fundamental right of trial by jury, killing suspected (I stress suspected) terrorists living half-way around the world with unmanned aircraft, breeding hatred in those we suspected might be our enemies. All in the name of  Homeland Security. Moreover, as we know, America leads the so-called “civilized” world in the number of shooting deaths and gun control is not seriously discussed. Somehow, the moral high ground that folks like Martin Luther King so eloquently urged us to seek and find not so very long ago was becoming an empty phrase. We had lost our way as the corporations once again grabbed the reins of power and filled out the dance card of the puppet politicians they bought and paid for, the military increasingly determined foreign policy, and the middle class began to slip into the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Soon less than 1% of the people in this country were contributing nearly half of the money needed to elect a politician who would be beholden to that money interest, money that might better have been spent on maintaining a tottering infrastructure or, perhaps, helping those in need, those living in cardboard boxes and eating out of trash cans. We seem to have become a nation of “ugly Americans.”

So, how far does patriotism go? At what point does one cease to love his or her country when aware of the sins of omission and commission it is committing on a daily basis? As suggested, I answer that true patriotism consists in an awareness of those sins coupled with the determination to point them out and do whatever can be done to mitigate them somehow. Criticism and rebellion were the forces that created this country, after all. To pretend the sins don’t exist, to rewrite history, to curse those who insist that they do exist, is not the mark of a true patriot. It is the refuge of a scoundrel. The true patriot, if there are any left, continues to love his country in the hope that it will once again turn toward the moral high ground and do whatever it takes to hold it and not let go. The only worry is that some day, after hope has died, the love will also die.

 

 

Constitutional Oversights

I have blogged in the past about the failures of the authors of the U.S. Constitution to anticipate the immense power of great wealth in this country which has resulted in the present shut-down in government — following directly from the obedience of our elected officials to those who have provided the bulk of the immense amounts of money required to place them in office. This, of course, results in allegiance to those to whom much is owed and to the Party they support, making cooperation with those across the aisle nearly impossible.  These things were not, indeed they could not have been, anticipated by the authors of our Constitution writing in the eighteenth century.

At a time when the U.S. Senate was not elected but appointed by state legislatures, often at the beck and call of vested interests, Henry Adams hoped that President Grant would initiate steps to remedy at least one shortcoming of the Constitution; namely, the extraordinary power vested in a Senate that was not responsive to the electorate. This resulted in a corrupt Senate with considerable power coupled with the inability of the executive to get much of anything done, a problem that persists to this day. Adams was disappointed, and the improvements he hoped for in the Constitution never came to fruition. Indeed, despite the addition of a few amendments from time to time, the possibility of opening serious discussion about the revisions necessary in what has become a sacred, albeit dated, document have never been seriously considered. In fact, the mention of even minor changes to that document strikes many as heresy.

Now, when one goes back and reads the statements of those closely connected with the writing of our Constitution one realizes that they themselves thought that the document would be updated and improved from time to time as a matter of course. It was never regarded as written in stone. One merely has to read the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay to persuade New York to ratify the document, to realize how open to suggestion and change were those who first conjured up the document which was, at the time, designed to keep the colonies together (by allowing such things as slavery, for example) and mitigate against the separatism that was beginning to tear them apart soon after the revolution. One especially concerned spectator who worried that Europe would get the last laugh, and who was determined to prove that the Republic would hold together despite this factionalism, was George Washington who presided over the Constitutional Convention for the four months during which the Constitution was written. He penned a most interesting document to his friend Lafayette, lauding the document and pointing out its merits.

“First, that the general government is not invested with more powers than are indispensably necessary to perform the functions of a good government, and consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of power delegated to it.

“Secondly, that these powers, as the appointment of all rulers will for ever arise from and, at short, stated intervals recur, to the free suffrages of the people, are so distributed among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches into which the general government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.”

Fascinating! What jumps out, of course, is his preoccupation with the limits of governmental power coupled with the presumption, which Washington shared with most of those who helped put the document together, that citizens would act “virtuously” — which was an Enlightenment notion that focused on what was regarded as the natural desire of civilized people to live together, to put the common good above their own private good.  This strikes us today as incredibly naive. But, as Washington saw it, along with brief terms in political office, civic virtue was a necessary condition if the country was to avoid “despotism.”

And it is precisely despotism that has replaced the Republic that the founders had in mind. Whether it was because of the disappearance of civic virtue or the rise of incredible wealth in the hands of a few unscrupulous, greedy men and giant corporations is a moot point. I suspect it is a combination of the two. After all, what is the citizen supposed to do about choosing enlightened leadership when those with great wealth hand-pick politicians who will carry out their own private agendas?

Clearly, as I have noted in previous posts, what we now have in an oligarchy, and it is precisely the type of thing the founders were convinced they had guarded against. A radical alteration of the Constitution curtailing the influence on the wealthy on elections might restore this country to a Republic, but this will never happen as long as those who might engineer those changes see them as threatening their own power and prestige. Washington’s supposition, shared with the authors of the Federalist Papers, that politicians would serve short terms has also given way to career politicians who hold their offices interminably (literally) and, in order to assure themselves of a continuance in office, simply carry out the programs set out for them by those wealthy few who have had them elected and will keep them in office. Thus, while the time is long overdue for radically rethinking the Constitution, it will not happen. Even a necessary first step, such as the adoption of an amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s abortive decision in the Citizen’s United case giving corporations unlimited access to the reins of government, is extremely unlikely. It’s a Catch 22.

 

The Predatory Rich

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.

History Spirals

There are several theories about history. One is that history repeats itself in cycles so if we want to plan for the future we must learn from the past. Another view is that history is a straight line on which present and future events are totally unlike the past, in which case there is not much to learn from reading history. A third view is that history is a spiral in which present and future events resemble, to a degree, past events but are always full of novel and unpredictable situations. In this case, we can learn from history, but are not able to say that the future will be just like the past. I tend toward the third view. I think there is much to learn from reading history, but we must acknowledge that the future will be full of surprises. Humans don’t really change that much, but circumstances do change enough to make prediction difficult.

With that in mind, I reflect on the situation that confronts us today in which the middle class is disappearing in the widening gulf between the very wealthy and the very poor. It resembles, in many respects, the situation that we read about at the turn of the last century, the age of the infamous “robber barons.” The period is described for us by Doris Goodwin in her excellent book The Bully Pulpit in which she says:

“At the start of [Teddy] Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between the rich and the poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions.”

These conditions brought about the age of the “progressive” Republican party and the “Trust Busters” with Teddy in the lead.  Roosevelt became famous and beloved because he was viewed, despite his patrician background, as “one of us,” complete with his cowboy and rough-rider images. He was a brash extrovert, an astute politician, and was smart enough to befriend members of the “third estate” to take on the machines and giant trust companies that controlled politics. He was also a man of wide interests and remarkable intellectual acumen who connected with the common folks around him because he really did believe that everyone deserves a “square deal.”

I have often wondered during Barack Obama’s presidency why he hasn’t used the media to arouse the public more than he does. Reagan knew how to use it, and Obama has considerable rhetorical skills and could go before the public and make his case for some of the programs he has been unable to work through a small-minded and obtuse Congress. Immediately after the shootings in Sandy Hook, for example, he could have gone before the public with an appeal to encourage them to put pressure on an intransigent Congress, urging some sort of  gun control. But he maintained his usual low profile, despite the fact that the vast majority of the citizens in this country, and even a majority of those who hold NRA memberships, wanted some sort of gun control measures. Obama simply rattled his verbal sabre a bit and the time passed for action without anything being done, despite his promises to the distraught parents of the slain children.

So, as one looks around to see if there is any politician determined and brave enough to take on the likes of the NRA and the other corporate giants who have taken over the reins of government, any possible “Trust Busters,” one sees only a couple of faces that stand out — such as Bernie Sanders, whom many reject as a bit “out there,” and Elizabeth Warren, who is relatively new at the job, but does seem to be bright enough and determined enough to take on the powers that be. Can she establish the rapport with the press that Teddy Roosevelt had in order to arouse the giant that is the citizenry in this country, asleep on its couch watching the latest sporting event? Or will she be bought out or silenced somehow, as we in Minnesota suspect Paul Wellstone might have been when he became a thorn in the side of the powers that be? In that regard, while we do live in an age that resembles in many respects the world in which Roosevelt lived, it is also an age in which the wealthy have refined their slight-of-hand tactics to very effectively manipulate the strings of power, clandestine maneuvers have become the order of the day, and the corporations have become owners of most, if not all, of the public media. One must wonder if Warren’s voice, as an example, would be allowed to be heard if that voice was saying the kinds of things the media don’t want the people of this country to hear? Gone is the “Golden Age of Journalism.” McClure’s Magazine is no more.  Now we have Fox News and the corporate-owned media simply entertain; they provide precious little information. Where are the voices that need to he heard?

These are interesting questions, and it remains to be seen if there is anyone in the political arena who, with or without the help of the third estate, is willing and courageous enough to take on the powerful lobbies and corporations that support them and go toe-to-toe with the unscrupulous powers that pull the strings in Washington. And if there is anyone courageous enough, will they be able to swim against such a powerful current? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then we are not likely to see another Teddy Roosevelt emerge, take the country in hand, and lead it out of our present morass. What then?

Conservative Types

There are at least two different types of conservative, the “intellectual conservative,” and the “dollar conservative.” The former wants to conserve the very best of the past and learn from it going forward into an uncertain future. The latter, of course, simply wants to make more and more money. Please don’t confuse the two.

I have posted a number of blogs critiquing the dollar-conservatives, those types the wealthy Republican Teddy Roosevelt described as the “predatory rich,” those “mere money-getting Americans, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.” These are the folks who don’t want to pay taxes — except to support “defense” — and want to tear down the agencies of government that are designed to control our mindless determination to destroy the planet, all in the name of greater profits. I have noted the obvious fact that taxes, while there is assuredly waste, are the glue that binds this society together; among other things, they go to support those agencies that have been put in place to fill the void created by the “predatory rich.” Moreover, they help those who are in greater need than those who pay them, to wit, people, like you and me who have come on hard times and need a hand up.

This country was never healthier, financially, than right after the Second World War when the wealthy paid their fair share of their wealth into taxes. They now pay little or nothing at a time when there is great need to collect and spend tax monies wisely and the country as a whole ranks 32nd out of 34 among the world’s largest countries in percentage of income paid in taxes. And yet we hear that we are taxed “enough already” and there are shouts of complaint from the predatory rich that taxes should be done away with, along with the agencies they support. Meanwhile, these dollar-conservatives are busy hiding their wealth in off-shore accounts or taking their money elsewhere by moving themselves and their companies to countries that have lower labor costs and income tax rates. All of which is to the detriment of the disappearing middle class, those in real need, and the maintenance of the infrastructure that allows us to carry on in our daily lives.

But intellectual conservatives, such as myself — who lean decidedly to the left politically and willingly (?) pay our taxes — are concerned about the disappearance of rich veins of intellectual wealth that are also disappearing from the country as a result of various popular waves generated by the counter-culture that are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Notably, the urge in our colleges and universities to read only contemporary tracts and literature that reflect the views of a small group at the center of this movement has grown to dominate the college educational scene. The result is that our future leaders, when they read at all, are told to read material that has a very short shelf life and which almost certainly promotes the political agendas of the ones assigning the material. It is said that the so-called “classics” by “dead, white European males” are totally irrelevant to today’s needs. And while I think this is true of some, perhaps many, of the books we have treasured for centuries, we need to be wary about replacing the books that past minds have drawn from to the benefit of our current age only to replace them with inferior material that tends to state the obvious and will soon pass into oblivion. The one expands the mind, the other shrinks it.  Young people can learn a great deal more about justice by thinking their way through the dialogues of Plato and discussing them in small groups than they can be sitting passively and listening to a zealot go on about his or her favorite injustice lately committed.  Additionally, they learn to think in the process. It’s a zero-sum game, and one that is played by many with little or no consideration for the price that is paid by all of us in turning our backs on seminal ideas that have brought us so many of the benefits we take for granted.

Like so many words we use carelessly, we need to be sure how we use words like “conservative,” because there are conservatives of many stripes, and they don’t all get along. I know I am myself reluctant to be confused with the “predatory rich” who want nothing more than to continue to accumulate wealth until the day they die.