Corporate Power

I taught Business Ethics for many years and during those years I came across a great many reports of the abuse of the power of corporations. It became increasingly clear as I read and thought about this misuse that it stems from the fact that the publicly owned companies ignore the stakeholder because they are primarily (if not exclusively) concerned about the return on the dollar, i.e., profits that can  be paid out to shareholders (and overpaid CEOs who typically make 400 times as much as their  average employee). What I now take to be an obvious fact has many ramifications.

I have posted before about the oversight on the part of the founders who were so sensitive to the abuse of power and who simply did not see the possible abuses of power that might result from the millions of dollars the corporations rake in every year. — and this despite the fact that Jefferson, for one, was fully aware of the dangers of immoderate wealth in the hands of a few. But the founders simply couldn’t see this coming, clearly. They did realize, however, that the Constitution was a document that required up-dating from time to time; it is not written in stone. Henry Adam thought that when Grant was elected there would be a drastic overhaul of a document he realized was already out of date. But that didn’t happen. But, surely, one of the issues that needs to be addressed in our day is the abuse of the power of corporations that can simply buy elections and determine who is allowed to hold public office and what those who have been elected will do when in office (if they want to be reelected).

In 2010 the Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5-4  in the “Citizens United” case that corporations are “persons” and have rights of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Under that umbrella, they were given the green light to contribute to political campaigns — which they have subsequently done, in spades. Elections were increasingly a battle of the rich against the also rich, but the contributions of the corporations — not to mention those who run the corporations — have upped the ante considerably. Now we find ourselves faced with continuous requests for money from candidates and political parties to “take on” the corporations — as though this can be effectively accomplished.

I don’t buy the notion that corporations are persons and I think the claim I have seen argued that, as persons, they might somehow be shamed into behaving ethically is a bit dubious. If the shame were to result in lower profits corporate CEOs would simply pass along the losses to the customers until the PR people could direct attention elsewhere and convince the public that no real harm was done. This was the case with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the waters off Alaska a few years ago when Exxon sent a team of people up to the region of the spill where they cleaned up several hundred yards of oil from the shoreline and then had it filmed and used the film in a public relations campaign to convince customers that they had eradicated the effects of the spill. Ignored altogether, we have since discovered, were hundreds of yards of shoreline out of sight that remained covered in oil. It seems to be in the corporate DNA to do whatever it has to do to “right the ship” in the case of an accident and make sure the image of the company is not seriously damaged. They have public relations people who do nothing else but address this issue. And they have lawyers, who they often call “ethics officers,” whose job it is to see that they take no steps that could possibly end them up in court — because they identify morality with legality and pride themselves in “doing nothing wrong.”

The recent attempts by the current administration to weaken, if not eradicate altogether, the E.P.A. and other regulatory agencies is extremely disturbing because history has shown that the corporations will not police themselves and if their feet are not held to the fire they will do whatever it takes to increase profits, full stop. In an economy like ours regulations are anathema to the corporations and their highly paid officers. But from the public’s perspective they are essential.

Furthermore, those corporations should not be regarded as persons and given the right under the First Amendment to contribute to political campaigns. The founders missed this one, but we are becoming increasingly aware of the abuses of power by the corporations and the need to rein them in by limiting their impact on the public domain. The first step, clearly, is the rejection of the Citizens United decision which at least two of the judges who voted for it now realize was a mistake. And, if we cannot revise the constitution, we can certainly modify it to see to it that controls are placed on otherwise unfettered power. That is, we can if we have the will.

Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.

The Fourth Estate

It is appalling that those now in power seek to undermine all confidence in the media in order, we must suppose, to then be able to inform us themselves about those things they think we need to know. This type of control over what we are privy to, coupled with the recent attempt to suggest that there are “alternatives” to the facts which determine the truth, are disquieting to say the least. A free people, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, require adequate information and the education necessary to separate facts from alternative facts.

And as a nation, we are slipping behind other developed countries in our commitment to an educated citizenry — which is essential to a democracy. But, despite this, we must be armed against any attempt to quiet criticism and stifle open debate which are the lifeblood of that type of government. Jefferson was, before all else, the defender of a free people in a free democracy, that freedom being predicated on a free press and a citizenry capable of reading and willing and able to discuss openly the issues of the day.

Accordingly, I thought it timely to return to some of the things that Jefferson said in this regard as we seem to be living in a period in which those in power would disarm us and render us ignorant of what it is they do and propose to do. A leader who brings his own audience with him to press conferences in order to hear their applause and who plans to expand the space in which the press corps meets to discuss the issues of the day in order, presumably, to allow room for his supporters and make it extremely difficult to hear those who object to what is being said, is a leader who would declare war on the exchange of free ideas and opinions and the open debate of decisions that will affect us all. This is not to be endured. It is antithetical to the fundamental principles on which this democracy were founded and they signal the death knell of this democracy if they are allowed to go unnoticed and unopposed.

Accordingly, I attach herewith some of the comments by Jefferson that speak to our present concerns:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have their propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

“. . . truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate — errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

” . . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

It is true, of course, that once he became President Jefferson was less enamored of the press, but this is to be expected. No one likes to be criticized and as President Jefferson made some terrible blunders — reducing the army and navy at a time when Britain was once again rattling its saber, for example. But he was large enough in the end to realize that his personal objections to what the press had to say about him were less important than the freedom of that press to write what they regarded as pertinent truths. No one in the public eye can expect to have his or her every move applauded unless they stack the decks and silence opposition. But that is not to be tolerated in a free government where the Constitution guarantees the right of the media to tell the truth and deny “alternative facts.” We as citizens have a right to know just as the press has a right to express itself without censorship. Thus, we must hope that these rights are protected in the next four years during which time they will be severely tested and attempts will no doubt be made to deny their legitimacy.

Euphoria

 

We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire. It is intent on speedily and relentlessly extracting the maximum wealth from that carcass, impoverishing our former working middle class.” E. Callenbach, 2012

The Republicans at the moment are experiencing euphoria. They act like it: positively giddy with power. After all, they now control the House and the Senate and have a president they think they can control (!). Accordingly, they are trying to manipulate the situation in order to have Trump’s incompetent cabinet recommendations approved as quickly as possible. They also plan to jettison the Affordable Care Act — despite the fact that they have nothing whatever to replace what they derisively call “Obamacare.” In addition, of course, they plan to scuttle the E.P.A. and any other regulating agencies that stand in the way of what they regard as “progress.” And all before the electorate catches its collective breath.

Predictably, many of these actions will take more time than planned, but, however long it takes, it is virtually certain that there will be some dreadful mistakes because of the political games that are being played and the haste with which these men and women want to take advantage of their advantage, as it were. These professional politicians are astute enough — or their advisors are — to know that they will not have Trump long in the White House. He won’t be able to work with them nor they with him. He has already insisted that he will not divest his businesses. At some point they will want to remove him, one way or the other, because they see Mike Pence as someone they can work with — he’s one of them, after all, equally nutty but not some brazen, outspoken, loose cannon who is bound to get them and their country into a mess if he remains in office for very long.

The whole scenario leaves us breathless. One worries that, based on history, actions taken in haste are usually regretted at leisure. (Think: Iraq.) Once the dust has settled and the economy is in serious trouble and the planet under even more relentless attack, there will be a good deal of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. Many who supported this car full of clowns will have regrets and those who supported a con-artist will begin to grasp the fact that they have been duped.

Once Trump’s nominees are approved, and most, if not all, will be (predictably) the Republicans will look to Trump to return the favor — after all this is high stakes politics: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours — and Trump will wonder what the hell they are talking about. After all, this is a man who is not used to returning the favor; he is used to having others do him favors. His is a business world where money talks and, since he has a great deal of money, people listen. He is used to being heard and having people bend to his will — from all reports. When the professional politicians he will be surrounded by in Washington come to him to demand that he now help them get what they want since they delivered to him the cluster of incompetent people he wanted to surround himself with, he will balk. Surely. And, I predict, this will be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. This is when (if it doesn’t happen before) the Congress will take measures to remove Trump from office, either by resignation or impeachment.

The rest of us, of course, will be left holding the bag, as it were. We should at that point — though judging form past experience we will not — replace the entire elected body with another group that might approximate a reliable coterie of men and women who will actually represent the will of the voters and not the corporations. This is one feature of the British Parliament system the founders did not choose to incorporate into our Constitution, sadly: the ability of the government to dissolve itself due to inability to work together and initiate new elections to make possible the replacement of one set of clowns with another. The only way the voters can do this in our system is to wait for the elections to roll around, and the founders were convinced this is how it would work; but we have shown ourselves unable to do this in the past as we keep re-electing the same group of clowns. Until they step on our toes.

 

Impulsive

Of all the qualities the president-elect has shown to us I think the most disturbing is his impulsiveness. I gather that this word means the tendency to act quickly without forethought — as we do in stores when we see something we don’t really need but it looks enticing. So we buy it.  This man shows every sign of being impulsive to a very high degree.

How does this fit in with the analysis I posted the other day, standing as I did on the shoulders of Arthur Schopenhauer? I have thought about this and it fits perfectly. The man of dominant will, the man who exhibits a diminished intellectual capacity, is likely to act on impulse. His intellect is completely at the service of his will: it simply shows him the way to achieve the ends he wants, it provides motivation. Period. His intellect lacks imagination and the ability to abstract from immediate experience; he has scattered ideas but lacks ideation. Impulse is the embodiment of this sort of behavior: immersed in the present, we simply grab what we want without giving it a thought.

Let us imagine that such a person is a TV personality who wants to improve his ratings and also to make sure he will get a great deal more money from the network bosses. Let us suppose further that this man decides that running for president will do the trick. He doesn’t think it through, indeed he CAN’T think it through. He doesn’t really know what the presidency involves and he has no idea what the Constitution of his country allows the president to do and what restraints it puts on that office. But he knows he wants to make the run. And in doing so he perceives around him an alarming degree of discontent and even anger and hatred on the part of a great many people toward those, like himself, who are wealthy and who have much bigger slices of the pie.

This man is clever and he realizes that his bid for success in the presidential race necessitates posing as one of those angry folks and encouraging their basest wishes — which are in many respects like his own. He is a super salesman: he has been selling himself for years and he knows how to play that game. (I never said this man was stupid. I simply said that his intelligence is totally in the service of his will). His will is very strong indeed, and has always shown him the way to achieve what he has gone after; and as his success increases his will becomes even stronger, much like a spoiled child.

Along with his impulsiveness, which leads him to say and do things he has not thought through, we discover in this man a tendency to react strongly to criticism and observations from others who oppose this will. Impulsively, he strikes out at those people, calling them names and threatening to sue, jail, and even to harm them. He is a bully and he sees those who oppose him as people to be eradicated, one way or the other.

This, as I understand it, is the sort of person Schopenhauer has described and the man we have selected for our next president. His will dominates his personality and he exhibits a mind that is enslaved to that will, a strong tendency to act impulsively. Recall how Schopenhauer describes such a person:

“. . . we find in many men a strong, i.e., decided, resolute, persistent, unbending, wayward, and vehement will, combined with a very weak and incapable understanding, so that every one who has to do with them is thrown into despair, for their will remains inaccessible to all reason and ideas, and is not to be got at, so that it is hidden, as it were, in a sack, out of which it wills blindly.”

There has been much talk lately about how this man is precisely the sort that Alexander Hamilton warned against in the Federalist Papers, the sort for man the electoral college is supposed to keep out of the highest office in the land. I would argue that he is the prototype of such a man, and his impulsiveness is the key to a personality that will act first and react later — showing a tendency to reduce what little thought he is capable of to finding fault with others and blaming them for his own shortcomings — and if impeded he will plot other avenues to the shallow goals he has set for himself. This is a personality that is lost within itself and acts only in those ways that will advance his own agenda and seeks blindly to find ways to eliminate those who oppose his will.

It is my sincere hope, and my expectation, that if the electoral college does not perform its proper function this man will enrage those he must please in order to realize his goals (to wit, the Congress) to the point that soon after his swearing-in he will be impeached by that Congress — a Congress made up of a majority of men and women from his own political party who will find this man impossible to deal with. They cannot understand him and he refuses to try to understand them — as though he even could.

Play The Hand!

“The fortunes that the gods give to us men

we must bear under necessity.

But men that cling willfully to their sufferings

. . . no one may forgive nor pity.”

(Sophocles: “Philoctetes”)

 

I am about to stop reading Facebook. Honestly! There are many reasons, but the main one is that so many contributors find it necessary to pull scabs off sores, refusing to allow time for healing. There is a surplus of weeping and gnashing of teeth about the new president-elect and everyone has an opinion about what will almost certainly happen once the man takes office, watching his every move while feeling it necessary to comment ad nauseam. And one person’s prediction is more dire than the next. If we could see these people we would expect to see them rolling around in the dirt tearing out their hair!

Can we all agree that this man is a wanker, as our friends across the Pond would say? He should never have been elected and he will turn government into a circus where he takes center ring demanding all the attention. In the end, it is my sincere hope, he will be impeached by a Congress that becomes sick and tired of his shenanigans, his thin skin and his vulgarity. But this is all speculation and it is time to stop speculating and accept the fact that the next four years are going to be difficult for us all, a real test of our fortitude and even our courage.

I find some solace in the fact that, historically, people have risen to the occasion. Challenges and problems tend to bring out the best in people. One of the greatest political documents ever written, the U.S. Constitution, was written by a handful of men while under the sword of the most powerful nation on earth. Most of the great art, literature, and music has been created during periods of great stress and even suffering on the part of the artist, writer, or composer. Dante, for example, wrote the Divine Comedy after being ostracized from Florence and separated for years from his family. Human beings have shown themselves to be incredibly resilient and creative during times of stress. We can hope that this will once again be the case.

Heaven knows Americans are a spoiled and self-indulgent people and we have needed a wake-up call for some time now. The ancient Greeks (sorry to bring them up again, but there were many wise people among them) together with great thinkers such as Dostoevsky were convinced that suffering brings with it wisdom, a deeper understanding and sympathy for other people and a greater appreciation for the gifts we usually take for granted; given the self-absorption of the American people this must be regarded as a good thing. We are facing a struggle like none other we have faced in several lifetimes. We can only hope that we will pull our collective head out of our collective butt and face up to the fact that the situation demands that we start to pay attention to what is going on around us, while not going on endlessly about what a terrible hand we have been dealt.

This means making every effort to effect change where we can have a positive impact and accepting as unpleasant, but inevitable, those things we have no control over. The important thing is to know the difference and to stop whining about the pair of deuces we have been dealt in what has become a high-stakes poker game.

Greek Wisdom

The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote a trilogy usually referred to as The “Oresteia.” It centers around the revenge death by Orestes of his mother who had killed his father Agamemnon after his return from Troy. Orestes is hounded by the Eumenides (the Furies) who represent the ancient concept of justice as “an eye for an eye.” In the third play, “The Eumenides,” Orestes flees to Athens where he seeks the protection of the goddess Athene. His advocate is Apollo who, at the urging of his Father Zeus, had urged Orestes to kill his mother, and her lover as well, because she had taken the life of a Greek hero.

Athene suggests to the Eumenides that rather than hound Orestes to madness or death he should be tried by a jury of twelve Athenian citizens. She will play the role of Judge and in case of a tie vote she will cast the deciding vote. After the two sides have presented their view of the matricide (during which Apollo presents the curious argument that the father is the true parent of the child; the mother merely carries the seed) the jury votes and their decision results in a tie which Athene breaks in Orestes’ favor. The message is clear: the new laws of Athens have replaced the barbaric laws of justice, represented by the Eumenides, and Athens herself now stands before the world as representative of civilization itself, defender of true justice. As Athene says in her summing-up:

“. . .In this place shall the awe of the citizens and their inborn dread restrain injustice, both by day and night alike, so long as the citizens themselves do not pervert the laws by means of evil influxes; for by polluting clear water with mud you will never find good drinking.

“Neither Anarchy nor tyranny shall the citizen defend and respect, if they follow my council; and they shall not cast out altogether from the city what is to be feared.

“For who among the mortals that fears nothing is just?

“Such is the object of awe that you must justly dread, and so you shall have a bulwark of the land and a protector of the city such as none of human kind possess…”

The Athenians are urged to take pride in their city which stands now as a beacon of justice in a barbarian world where once the Eumenides had reined supreme — higher even than the gods themselves. The Eumenides themselves are argued into submission after taking exception to the decision of the jury and Athene herself by the promise of becoming themselves helpful guardians of the city with a place of honor. They are appeased and they say near the end of the play:

“This is my prayer: Civil War fattening on men’s ruin shall not thunder in our city. Let not the dry dust that drinks the black blood of citizens through passion for revenge and bloodshed for bloodshed be given our state to prey upon.

“Let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will. . .”

Two things strike the reader at once: love is to replace hate and the laws replace brutal justice, laws that properly speaking demand our respect and even our fear. They define the state and they create a civilized world apart from the world of those who cry for blood.

I have thought recently how different Athene’s world is from ours of late. We have selected as president of this country a man who is well known to bend and at times to break the laws, believing himself to be above the laws and incapable of error. A man who faces a trial for serial rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. His loud and obnoxious followers wave their weapons of death high and shout hateful epithets; they thirst for “black blood of citizens through passion for revenge.”

We express our surprise, for some reason, as the man now proceeds to select like-minded men and women to surround himself with as president during the coming years, small-minded men and women who, like him, live in a small world filled with hatred and suspicion — even paranoia. Hatred seems to have displaced love as the central emotion in this new world which appears to be splitting into two halves; fear is directed toward the unpredictable behavior of this man and his cohorts rather than to the laws and the Constitution of the land that has heretofore defined this civilization as in many ways superior to those that surround it. Gone is even the faintest echo,”let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will.” How many of those who voted this man in are now beginning to have second-thoughts?

Ours is indeed a Brave New World. The Eumenides would be delighted.

The Test

Tomorrow the great American experiment will be tested as it has never been tested before. We will find out if popular democracy is good idea or a mistake of the first order. The test is fairly simple: do the American voters want a woman of proven experience and judgment or a vulgar man who has shown himself to be a bigoted, narcissistic megalomaniac? The latter likes to identify himself with the “common man,” whereas the former likes to present herself as a woman of the world who has the intelligence and experience to run the country — a woman who, while flawed like the rest of us, many regard as the most qualified candidate ever for this job. In a word, will the voters make informed choices or simply turn this race into a popularity contest?

The Founders, in their wisdom, did not trust the common man. They adopted the Roman model of a republic on purpose: representative democracy. They wrote a Constitution that required minimal property requirements of (male) voters who were only allowed to select their representatives to the House for two-year terms while requiring that legislators of the various states elect the Senate and the President.  The electoral college was devised to assure that the important offices would be reserved for those well qualified and the determination of those who were well qualified was reserved for those who presumably had the breadth of judgment to select the best qualified candidates. In a word, intelligence was considered a prerequisite for all the important votes. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia to educate citizens of the young republic.

I confess, I am not a populist. While I do not think that ownership of property should be a requirement to vote, I do think that the voters of this republic should know that the number of Senators in Delaware is the same as the number in Texas and that there are nine Supreme Court judges (as a rule). The evidence reveals that many college graduates today do not know these simple facts!  In a word, I think the voters should have had a course in civics and know at least as much as those born elsewhere must demonstrate they know in becoming American citizens. The Founders did not envision a country in which the average Joe or Jean, with virtually no education whatever, should be allowed to decide who is best qualified to run this country.

I do realize that much has changed since 1776. I do also realize that in the spirit of egalitarianism we hesitate any longer to judge any one person better or worse in any sense of those words than anyone else. But the fact is that some people are brighter and better able to make informed judgment than others. Some, at least, have taken the time and trouble to vet the candidates carefully. We have taken the egalitarian ideal to its extreme and the result is that we now have a baboon running for the highest office in the land and he has garnered a blind following that numbers in the thousands. This is not how it was supposed to be.

In any event, in November we shall see if enough people in this country have the intelligence (or is it simply common sense?) not to elect a man demonstrably unqualified for the job and reject a woman demonstrably well qualified. We shall see whether the American experiment is a success or a failure. As Bernie Sanders has noted, this is the most important election in our lifetime — perhaps ever.

The Relevance of Thomas Paine

I have been reading Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” about which Wikipedia has this to tell us:

Thomas Paine has a claim to the title The Father of the American Revolution,which rests on his pamphlets, especially “Common Sense,” which crystallized sentiment for independence in 1776. It was published in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776 and signed anonymously “by an Englishman.” It became an immediate success, quickly spreading 100,000 copies in three months to the two million residents of the 13 colonies. In all about 500,000 copies total including unauthorized editions were sold during the course of the Revolution.

The pamphlet came into circulation in January 1776, after the Revolution had started. It was passed around, and often read aloud in taverns, contributing significantly to spreading the idea of republicanism, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army. Paine provided a new and convincing argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense is oriented to the future in a way that compels the reader to make an immediate choice. It offers a solution for Americans disgusted with and alarmed at the threat of tyranny.

Paine was determined to get the colonies to unite and especially to write a constitution. He felt that as long as the colonies were “lawless” they were subject to usurpation by a despot who would be king. As he himself says:

A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflected on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool and deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now some [opportunist] may hereafter arise who, laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.

Now, while the minions who blindly follow today’s popular would-be-despot can hardly be described as merely “desperate and discontented,” they are certainly ready to follow the man who would be king. I would describe the minions in stronger terms than did Paine, but we get the picture. When men and women are “desperate and discontented” they are subject to the lure and promises of anyone who presents himself as the one WITH THE ANSWERS, who knows all, and who will sweep away the corruption he sees all around him and RESTORE this country to greatness — the greatness that followed upon the American Revolution, perhaps.

But, as Paine was careful to point out, the only king this country could possibly allow and remain free is the constitution, a body of laws that would make it possible for the citizens to protect their property and retain their freedom. They never looked to one man to deliver them from England and protect their property and freedoms, though they held George Washington in very high regard. He himself realized the dangers of allowing the executive in the new constitution to have too much power and he was, by all reports, a very restrained president.

The irony of the parallel I seek to draw here is that the man who would be king appears to be ignorant of the constitution (one of his first acts as president, he says, would be to jail “corrupt Hillary”) and to place himself in the place of that constitution as a law unto himself. But the truly sad thing is that his minions actually appear to believe that he can do just that and they are ready to support him and follow him wherever he leads. They desperately need to read history and take a course in civics to see how things are supposed to work in a republic defined by the balance of power.

This country is founded on the principle that no one person will have the power to determine the course of the country. The constitution is law and it rules in place of a king. The coming election will see this principle sorely tested and my hope is that we are the people that the founders hoped would make this country strong enough to reject tyranny and despotism no matter what form it might take.

Small Minds

Many years ago, in my misspent youth, I read an article in the Sunday paper, written by a Nun, that developed the notion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. I have always thought that was an interesting notion and it may have been (in a small way) the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in philosophy. At the very least, I didn’t want my mind to atrophy and I thought philosophy was the sort of subject that could keep my mind alive well into my dotage: questions that don’t have answers! Well, here I am.

But, with the exception of a few bright people who post blogs and comment from time to time about the issues, I appear to be surrounded by small minds discussing people. I am speaking of the elections, of course, in which ideas are scarce if present at all and events seem to have been ignored as well — unless they reveal a scandal about the parties involved. This election is all about people and the ad hominem fallacy abounds. I speak of that logical fallacy that redirects attention to the character of the person advancing an argument rather than dealing with the argument itself. One of the candidates, who will not be mentioned, glories in attacking not only his opponent but anyone who walks, rolls, or crawls and has the gall to disagree with him. I cannot remember any candidate in my lifetime who seems to enjoy attacking persons as does this man. And he has a great many followers who seem to enjoy it as well.

Politics has always been a bit dirty even from the get-go. And the ad hominem attack on the speaker has always been there in some form or other. But this election takes the cake and wins hands-down: it seems to have achieved a new low. We are scraping through the bottom of the barrel!

When one reflects back on the days when the Constitution was being considered for adoption the country (very small at the time, of course) was abuzz about the balance between states and nation; there was considerable fear of giving up the power that resided in the small relatively homogeneous states to a nation of people who disagree with one another about many of the important issues of the day. Where have those ideas gone? Where is that passion for thought on a large scale, a scale beyond the self? Why can’t people discuss issues with those whose opinion differs from their own? Why do we have to cast aspersions against those who disagree with us rather than listen to what they have to say?

When the Federalist Papers were written by three men of genius they were published in all the major newspapers of New York state and everyone worried whether by adopting the concept of a united country they would be giving up much of the power they had amassed as one of the most prosperous states in the colonies. Everyone who could read — and many who could not — discussed the ideas and thought about the issues involved. It is sobering to realize that those people were willing to think outside the box, to imagine a united country and the positive force it could be in the world. They saw beyond themselves and the present moment and made determinations based on the question of what would be best in the long run.

When this country celebrated its bicentennial in 1976 Henry Steele Commager, the great American historian, was asked what single thing differentiated the folks in this country when the Constitution was written and discussed from the people of America two hundred years later he answered quickly: in those days they thought about the future, about their children and their grandchildren. We no longer think about those things because we are fixated on ourselves at the present moment. That was in 1976. How much worse has it become in the interim? One can only wonder.

In any event, the answer to this question is revealed to some degree by the present lack of discussion in the political arena about the ideas that are so important to the future of this country. Instead we hear about every mistake (real or imagined) one or the other candidate has made in his or her lifetime (or what mistakes their significant other might have made). And it’s not just the candidates, either. The media glories in gossip and citizens who are about to go the voting booth are immersed in talk about the personalities and character (or lack of character) of those who are running for political office.  “I hate him,” or “I can’t stand her.”

We should be talking about qualifications, not personalities. We are lost in blather about people and have lost sight of the issues that confront us all and which will determine the course of this country for the next generation at least. Our minds have shrunk: they are small indeed.