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Henry Adam thought that when Grant was elected there would be a drastic overhaul of a document he realized was already out of date.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.

Is Change In The Offing?

Years ago I wrote the following blog (with minor recent additions) which no one read and which I now realize was a bit pessimistic. Perhaps that was just how I felt at the time — or I was using hyperbole to get a response. In any event, with the recent vote on the ACA by the Republicans in the House and the talk about voting the bums out of office I thought it might be timely to revisit the theme. Are people finally going to get off their collective butts and vote the bums out and try to elect people who will be responsive to their own needs? That’s the million dollar question at this point. How much does it take to make people realize that the real problems are ones that are being ignored altogether — problems like climate change and overpopulation? The answer is,  of course, it will happen when people wake up and realize that these problems are not theoretical: they will directly impact their lives in a very serious  way. In the meantime I wonder if my cynicism was out of order.

Generally speaking, radical change, if it occurs at all, comes from the top down. It is rare that those at the bottom of the food chain are able to effect meaningful change. There are exceptions, of course, as in the case of revolutions. But after their revolution the French would probably point out that the rascals who take over often exhibit the same qualities as the rascals who have been chased out. Lord Acton was right: power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It doesn’t seem to matter who holds the reins of power, they tend to choke those at the other end.

My good friend Dana Yost made an excellent suggestion recently about how to change the mess that is college football, where corruption is rampant and greed is the name of the game. He suggested that the NCAA be scrapped and that limits be placed on coaches’ salaries — at least in the public colleges and universities. This would be an excellent start, but unfortunately this won’t happen. And it won’t happen because the only people who can effect real change in this situation are those in power and they don’t want to cut off their noses to spite their faces. There’s far too much money involved. Or the change could be mandated by government. But that won’t happen either, because elected officials owe their place on the public dole to the wealthy power-brokers who will resist change. The NCAA has considerable political clout. And in this case politicians are smart enough (barely) to know you don’t mess with sports in this country. It’s tantamount to messing with religion.

Solutions are sometimes so easy to see, not only in the case of collegiate football, but also in the case of the mess in our public schools, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that radical change is in order — elimination of the education bureaucracy that has a choke-hold on the system, and eliminating the ridiculous “methods” courses required of education majors, among other steps .But that won’t happen, either. The problem, again, is that those in power are not about to give it up. And only those in power can mandate change. It must come, once again, from the top down. The idea that real change can be effected in the schools by reducing teachers’ salaries is positively stupid. Teachers are already underpaid, and that’s a big part of the problem. But while it is obvious that change in the schools is needed, it won’t happen, either. The education establishment (the “blob” as it has been called) would have to be eliminated, or greatly reduced, and the only people in a position to do that are the members of the education establishment themselves. One might as well ask the local school superintendent to reduce the number of administrators in his school, or state university boards to reduce their own numbers instead of cutting academic programs. It isn’t going to happen if left up to the people in charge: it diminishes their control. Or, again, we could appeal to the politicians to make change. But the education establishment is powerful enough to exert considerable influence in political circles and politicians are smart enough (barely) to know which hand feeds them.

So, in the end, one must peck away at the fringes and hope that a sufficient number of people become disgusted enough to exert influence on those in power to counter the effects of those with big money who hold the reins. But, short of a revolution, it will take a huge effort to effect any of these changes, if it happens at all. And to make matters worse, there is no guarantee that change, if it comes, will be for the better. Often it is not — as the French will attest, and as we ourselves learned in the 1960s when we saw radical change initiated by the counterculture destroy civility in this country and, some would say, brought about the rise to the top of people like Donald Trump.

 

I ask again: has the time come when the sleeping giant, which is the American public,  finally wakes up and demands change?  Change in the case of the current administration can only be change for the better. Time will tell.

 

 

Tyranny of the Majority

One of the more captivating notions to come out of de Tocqueville’s truly remarkable book Democracy In America was the notion of the tyranny of the majority. Coincidentally, John Stuart Mill arrived at pretty much the same notion at about the same time and the two men became close friends and mutual admirers. The exceptional Lord Acton — whose name (are you ready for this because it will be on the Mid-Term?) was John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton — agreed with de Tocqueville and Mill about the tyranny of the majority, though he thought they were both all wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of Democracy. More about that below.

de Tocqueville convinced the French government to fund his trip to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to examine our prison system. Instead he examined our system of democracy because he was convinced this was the direction that all Western nations were headed and he wanted to be in a position to shout warnings if necessary and to help the process along if possible. But after visiting a number of New England town meetings he came away with a distrust of the majority rule — and with good reason. He said, among other things:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not changes their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

This is, surely, one of the most eloquent statements ever set down regarding the weaknesses of majority rule — which can indeed become tyrannical just as much as a single powerful King, perhaps even more so. But de Tocqueville didn’t stop there; he made an attempt to explain the psychology behind the tyranny of majority opinion:

“. . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. . . .I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and free discussion as in America.”

We do not often find ourselves in decision-making groups where the majority votes on large issues. Not as a rule, certainly. But we can recall the discussion and vote in our Congress not long ago over the question of the invasion of Iraq in which the wave of emotion swept the floor and the yeas had their day and the nays were derided as “unpatriotic” if not “cowards” or “treasonous.” We might call it “peer pressure” these days, but the force of the will of the majority can be powerful indeed; it is not always enlightened or even reasonable, and the voice of dissent is often silenced and refused a hearing when the majority is in full voice.

I mentioned Lord Acton above, and he tended to agree with de Tocqueville and Mill about what Acton called the “despotism of democracy.” In fact, he noted that:

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.”

This devout Catholic witnessed first-hand the tyranny of the majority when in 1870 he fought unsuccessfully the attempts of Pope Pius IX to institute the doctrine of papal Infallibility. As pressure from Rome increased one after another minority Bishop succumbed to the “latent power” of majority opinion until the doctrine was approved. Earlier, in discussing the American Civil War, he analyzed the despotism of democracy noted above. Like many Englishmen, especially among the wealthy classes, his sympathies were on the side of the South. He was convinced that the Northern states were not so much interested in the emancipation of the slaves as in subjecting all of the South to the authority of the national government and reducing the population to a single, undifferentiated mass. He was convinced that a plurality of nations within a single civil state was to be preferred to a homogeneous group of people who all looked, dressed, and thought alike.

Just as majority opinion tends to silence dissent, the movement toward Nationalism, toward a single (isolated?) geographical and political unit, as Acton saw it, was a movement toward homogeneity, toward like-mindedness; he fought it in the name of pluralism. As he noted:

“A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State that labors to neutralize to absorb or to expel [different races] destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include [different races] is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

In a word, the tendency to silence dissent, to follow the “latent power” of the majority opinion to a single point of view — thereby silencing the minority, the attempt to build walls and send certain peoples away from this country, are all insidious and in direct opposition to the open and free discussion of ideas and the freedom of opinion that are the warp and woof of this nation. Without this sort of freedom there can be no real freedom whatever. And this appears to be where we are headed at the present moment. It is time to call “foul” and consider where we are headed.

Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

Funny Pages

I was recently looking on the net at the various comics I enjoy reading each day when I came upon one that was trending toward political commentary. As the trend became obvious to the reader the final square of the comic was totally black. The next day the entire comic consisted of four black squares with a message in a small box in the center telling us that the Federal Bureau of Media Content had determined that the content of the comic was “inappropriate” and would therefore not be shown. My heart skipped a beat as I went to other comic pages to see if censorship was now the order of the day; but it was not. I realized that the artist was making a comment about the possibilities facing us all of a repressive government deciding for us what we can and cannot read or hear. The following day the comic strip focused on an innocuous “knock-knock” joke that was, we are told, approved by the Bureau.

Needless to say, this was disquieting since I, like all of us I suppose, simply take for granted that we can say, read, write, and think as we wish. It is other societies that must worry about censorship and the closing of lines of communication among dissidents. But then I reflect on the distinct possibility that this could very well happen in this country in spite of the First Amendment. Machiavelli taught us those lessons years ago.

I then realized that my own urge to write about the things that matter to me together with my ability to read others who agree or disagree with me have to say is something I simply take for granted. But I should not. We live at a time when those in power have the ability — and the desire I daresay — to shut down lines of communication and silence all opposition to the doctrines they regard as appropriate, to wit, those doctrines that support their political agendas and help them maintain control over the minds of the citizens of this country —  increasing numbers of whom are becoming docile and are apparently willing to go along with the political forces at work wherever those forces may happen to lead.

At the same time, I realize that I must guard against paranoia. My example was merely one comic strip which was making a bold statement. I must beware the tendency to leap to the nearest conclusion and suppose that censorship is waiting in the wings to be ushered forth on the stage of my realities.  In saying this I recall the sage comment: “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” It is wise to be cautious but it also behooves us all to keep our sense of balance (and our sense of humor) while we count our blessings that we live in a country that allows dissent and encourages disagreement with one another and with those in power. So far.

Impeachment?

I predicted quite some time ago that impeachment of this president would not be long in coming. After all, he alienates everyone he works with and is determined to ignore Constitutional restraints as he does things his way — even if his way leads down a blind alley. There are simply too many powerful men and women in Washington whose egos are as big as Trump’s to allow him to have his way! Apparently the movement to impeach is growing as a recent article in Huffington Post reports. I quote a part of that article here in order to give my post some credibility:

Trump has been trying to govern by impulse, on whim, for personal retribution, for profit, by decree ― as if he had been elected dictator. It doesn’t work, and the wheels are coming off the bus. After a week!

Impeachment is gaining ground because it is the only way to get him out, and because Republicans are already deserting this president in droves, and because the man is psychologically incapable of checking whether something is legal before he does it.

Impeachment is gaining ground because it’s so horribly clear that Trump is unfit for office. The grownups around Trump, even the most slavishly loyal ones, spend half their time trying to rein him in, but it can’t be done.

They spend the other half fielding frantic calls from Republican chieftains, business elites and foreign leaders. Trump did what? Poor Reince Priebus has finally attained the pinnacle of power, and it can’t be fun.

It is one thing to live in your own reality when you are a candidate and it’s just words. You can fool enough of the people enough of the time maybe even to get elected. But when you try to govern that way, there is a reality to reality—and reality pushes back.

One by one, Trump has decreed impulsive orders, un-vetted by legal, policy, or political staff, much less by serious planning. Almost immediately he is forced to walk them back by a combination of political and legal pressure—and by reality.

I also noted some time ago that Trump is an impulsive man and thought at the time that his impulsiveness would get him into big trouble. He is clearly incapable of seeing the broad canvas or imagining the consequences of his actions — or caring what is legal or moral. He simply has a notion and then acts — usually tweeting about it as he does it. And then he waits for the glory to descend on him, people giving him the applause he thinks he richly deserves. If no one else will shout how great he is, he shouts it himself. He seeks to impose his sense of reality on the world around him, to force others to see the world as he sees it — with him at the center. He is a spoiled, delusional child who needs constant reassurance that his way is the only way. It was clear from his campaign that this man would be unable to work within the confines of a republican system of checks and balances. He has always seen himself as a dictator — like the men he praises to the skies.

In any event after only a week on the job it is becoming increasingly clear that he will be removed in the not too distant future. I suspect the Republican powers in Washington will approach him and offer him the opportunity to resign — as was done with Richard Nixon. Given Trump’s ego he will probably refuse and impeachment will proceed. It will be ugly and there will be a hue and cry from Trump’s mindless minions who will be convinced (as they have been throughout) that this man can walk on water.

My main concern, which I share with a couple of my favorite bloggers, is the damage he will do in the meantime. But I try to find solace in the thought that the damage will be less than it would be if he were to remain in office for the full term.

Will To Power

It is possible to see Donald Trump’s craving for attention as simply one feature or aspect of what Nietzsche called the “Will to Power.” Nietzsche was convinced that life itself is nothing but a will to power, over oneself and over others as well. As he said toward the end of his troubled life:

“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on. . . “

Whether or not what Nietzsche said is true, it helps us make sense of the actions of certain people — for instance the very wealthy who never seem to have enough wealth, given that in our culture wealth is indeed power. There are, of course, other forms of power. For example, in ancient cultures the priests held the power by way of their superior control of language, They were the ones who could read and write while their minions were ignorant and held the priests to be gods. Their priestly power over language translated quickly into power over others.

As our country becomes increasingly run by the wealthy and powerful it seems prudent to attempt to understand the nature of power. Lord Acton told us that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That seems right as we look at such people as Donald Trump who has made the move easily from a reality show where he fired people with a smirk to center stage in a political battle where he can dismiss all who disagree with him with a wave of his hand and another insult. This means that he is the one in control: he has the power, which is much like an intoxicant: it causes the possessed to become blinded by its presence and in search for more. There is never enough. And those around the powerful are easily taken in by the presumption that the powerful are somehow “in the know,” and will soon bring them into his inner circle.  The powerful seem sure of themselves and they hold sway over others by virtue of their power and their position — not unlike the priests in the ancient world.

Except that Trump, and those like him, are not priests even though they preach the doctrine of self-importance and are able to convince the ignorant they have the answers to all the complex problems that have troubled the world since history began. Power is not only intoxicating to those who wield it, but also to those who are around it and want to be near it. By identifying with those in power, those who lack it entirely can transcend their pathetic lives and become a part of another world, a world in which they, too, are powerful.

How else can we explain how an entire country became transfixed by the power that was wielded by Adolph Hitler, a  power that began, interestingly enough, with his consummate skill with words. Germany after all was a country that was the source of some of the most extraordinary philosophy, art, and literature that humankind has ever created? The Nazi movement was successful because it promised those who followed the powerful that they themselves would also become powerful. Their nation would not only regain what they had lost in the First World War, it would expand its territory and the citizens would regain their lost pride and their nation would once again be great.

Trump’s followers live shallow, vapid lives and they seek to become one with a man who seems to them to be both powerful and invincible. In fact, however, his soul is atrophied and his skin is as thin as an onion’s, but his minions fail to see this because they live in the hope that this powerful man will also empower them. They are deluded, but it is not by the man himself; rather, it is by what he represents: he represents the very power that they themselves both lack and crave, but which they cannot possibly attain alone. They lack power and he promises that if they follow him they will become powerful — just like him.

Nietzsche may not have been entirely right in what he said about the will to power. But he was not altogether wrong, either.

Corporate Power

One of the major issues facing this nation, and one which I have addressed several times on this blog, is that of the immense power of the corporations and their determination to take control of this government. It goes without saying that we are becoming an oligarchy, if that ship hasn’t already sailed. The wealthy hold the reins of power. The real strength of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is his determination to take control away from the corporations and return it to the people — where it should reside. Our democracy is under attack and most of the citizens of this country are totally unaware of this fact. If they pay any attention to politics they simply want do move away from “politics as usual,” a sentiment I strongly share. But the real problem, the elephant in the room, is the unfettered power of major corporations.  The following comments from a site called macintosh reader.com show that this is not a new problem:

If the populace ever had true control of the US government, they lost it shortly after the nation’s founding. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people, we have the finest government money can buy.

In 1816 Thomas Jefferson said:
I hope we shall … crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

In 1864 Abraham Lincoln said:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country … corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

In 1947 George Seldes said in One Thousand Americans:
The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling power. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.

In 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower said:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Since the founding of this nation, prominent thinkers such as those above have warned about the unrestricted power of the corporations. Lincoln’s comment is particularly prescient. The Supreme Court decision Citizens United determined that corporations are legal persons and entitled to the same rights and privileges as you and I. This decision opened the coffers of the corporations who have untold treasure and are throwing it at political candidates right and left in an obvious attempt to buy the government. Sanders is perfectly correct, but the real question is whether he can get enough popular support to stem the tide and return this country to some semblance of what the Founders envisioned.

Related to that, as I have noted in previous blogs, is whether a Democratic Congress would have enough courage to support Bernie in some of his more radical innovations (such as taxing the wealthy!).  It seems doubtful given the number of politicians the corporations already own. A Hillary presidency seems a real possibility given the support that she has within her own party and the fact that she is not much of a threat to the corporations.  So, instead of a return to true democratic principles where the people run the government, it appears we will continue to snail along toward a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

 

Women As Victims

In a recent comment on one of my posts dealing with the notion of “feminist ethics, I was encouraged to reflect on the related issue of women as victims, a recent cultural movement that has pretty much displaced radical feminism. In thinking about the issue I came across an essay on the topic by Alesha Almazroui that speaks to the important role words play in the way we think about and eventually deal with reality. It is suggested in this essay that the word “victim,’ like so many words we bandy about, demeans and exacerbates the situation of women the world over who are, indeed, discriminated against and often subjected to rape and domestic violence. The article suggests that we start to talk about such women differently if we are to avoid reducing the issue to one of self pity and perceived weakness; instead we should stress those situations in which those “victims” become empowered as a result of their experience. I enclose much of that discussion below, since I really cannot put it any better.

In a legal context, the word “victim” is usually used to describe an individual who has experienced injury or harm (or both) as a direct result of a criminal offence. However, using the word in a public discourse can, arguably, do more harm than good, as it helps to reinforce the disempowering narrative of victimisation of women.

This is not to underestimate the serious challenges that women around the world face every day. But the human ability to learn from our experiences and heal ourselves is something to consider and support when dealing with those who suffer from abuse, violence or discrimination.

The word “victim” is controversial, because it emphasises vulnerability and powerlessness. It is in essence a one-dimensional view that reduces a human being to a passive individual and undermines the human capacity to thrive after adverse events.

The term can be associated with weakness, deficiency, fragility and even shame. It could mean that the person is entirely dependent on others’ support to survive. Thus, it may potentially affect how women view themselves, how others treat them and how support to these women is designed and offered in the forms of programmes and services.

An important question here is this: if the word is avoided while discussing women’s issues, will it change anything? I think it will.

In this context, it’s helpful to remember how changing “disabled” to “special needs” has changed the entire discourse regarding this group of people. Pushing the term “persons with special needs” into the mainstream had led to a shift in attitude to the treatment and education of people who were traditionally described as “disabled” or “handicapped”.

The focus has shifted from what people with special needs were not able to do towards how we can, as a society, meet and support their special needs.

Reframing an issue by adopting a vocabulary that is more objective and less biased is more than an act of playing with semantics.

Such examples highlight the power that language has to construct. Viewing oneself as a victim can lead to a culture of dependency.

On the other hand, the word “survivor”, for example, has a positive connotation. Survivors are strong. They have conquered their bad experiences and managed to move forward with or without support. Language has the power to create positive and negative images of people which, in turn, affects social practices and even public policy.

Women who survived abuse or violence might be victims in some ways – but they are definitely more than that. There is much more to them, their lives, their feelings and their personalities than the instances of abuse or violence they have experienced no matter how profound these are. Each one of them has her own cultural and individual experiences. They are human beings worthy of dignity and respect.

Focusing on a negative narrative can be counterproductive. Instead, we can focus on “survivors” and tell positive stories to inspire young women to cope better with their challenges. It’s all about the narrative. ​

It is indeed all about the “narrative.” So much of our thinking is determined by the words we use and when we use them loosely it is highly likely that we will find ourselves thinking loosely as well. There’s far too much of that sort of thing going around. The notion that women who have been victims have shown the courage to become survivors changes the way we look at the situation and restores the women who have been badly treated to positions of strength. Self pity is replaced by a sense of self-worth by the women themselves  and negative connotations are replaced by positive ones on the part of those who know of their situation only from the outside..

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.