I’ve personally hit a point where my righteous rage over the current political climate has given way to a form of acceptance, like in the 7 states of dying. It’s taking real effort to type these words, fighting the apathetic impulse and the voice in my head that says “they know, they know it all already.”
I know you do. And I know that if you’re reading this, you care. So I love you.
This might be a case of the more you know about the past the more you realize nothing changes and that… is… depressing.
I think it started when I read William Howard Taft’s quote that “I sometimes think America might just be the most conservative country on Earth.” Considering how we were born of revolution, an experiment in participatory democracy, all of the human progress that we rightly take pride in – we surely are always ricocheting back towards dark, dark economic royalist and religious patriarchical impulses. It’s always a struggle to do justice. A struggle for fairness. A struggle to progress. Why is it such a goddamn exhausting struggle just to do the right thing, all the time? Is it even fucking worth it? Or is this country an experiment gone wrong, like some freakish Dr. Moreau hybrid creature that should be put out of its misery before it can escape and infect everything?
The great conflict in America’s soul is the ongoing argument between Hamilton and Jefferson. Jefferson made it to Mount Rushmore and the nickel. Hamilton was never president, is never quoted, and yet made it to the $10 dollar bill. Jefferson is probably the most quoted, and misquoted of the Founding Fathers, revered for authoring the Declaration of Independence and reviled for having a romantic relationship and children with a slave. Hamilton was the primary author of our economic policies and, the Federalist Papers notwithstanding, that’s pretty much his legacy. But that’s enough for Hamilton to have had a more lasting and concrete influence on our history than any other Founding Father. We may quote Jefferson and Franklin and take a Monday holiday for Washington but it was Hamilton’s Anglophile reverence for finance that we really embraced as a philosophy.
Almost immediately we commenced as a country to accumulate wealth at the expense of democracy, extolling the wealthy individual and excusing their exploitation of others. Whether called gentlemen landowners, tycoons, captains of industry, moguls, robber barons, copper kings, war profiteers, monopolists or venture capitalists they have called the tune and Americans have largely danced – even if their pockets were being picked or their voices squelched.
America is like a fraternity where every so often our collective conscience sees the wreckage the morning after an epic kegger and says “we’ve got to clean this up.” But no sooner do we start cleaning than we tire of it and tap another keg to get the party started again. The Populists, the Progressive Movement, the New Deal, the Great Society were all moral efforts of people with conscience to clean up after really egregiously out of control parties. Each time there were drunken frat boys decrying their efforts as anti-capitalist and anti-American and soon enough the party would start again with the country electing reactionary conservatives like McKinley, Coolidge, Hoover, Reagan and Bush (43), when they’re not electing conservative status quo managers like Eisenhauer, Nixon, Bush (41), Clinton, and dare I say Obama? And don’t get me started on the Supreme Court and their shameful two plus century tradition of property over people.
On Cosmos last night the main story was about Clair Patterson’s incidental discovery of the heavy accumulation of lead in the air and water of mid-20th century and the 30 year fight against industry to have a virulent neurotoxin removed from paint and gasoline. How do we explain to our kids why it takes decades to get industry to do the right thing when it’s pointed out to them that they’re profiting by making people sick and killing many? Same story with cigarettes, air and water pollution, global climate change, gun violence, fracking, etc. Not to mention labor exploitation, economic inequality, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, etc. The struggle continues and continues and continues.
In any case, in the last month or so two very important works have been unveiled that should wake people up, but probably won’t. First is Frenchman Thomas Piketty’s new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, which is quickly becoming a touchstone of modern economics while Piketty himself is getting rock star treatment, for his work in documenting economic inequality.
… it [Capital in the 21st Century] has hit the New York Times best-seller list, and sold some 46,000 copies (hardback and e-book) — a stratospheric number for a nearly 700-page scholarly tome dotted with charts and graphs (as well as references to Balzac, Jane Austen and “Titanic”).
And not all those readers are economists. Six years after the financial crisis, “people are looking for a bible of sorts,” said Julia Ott, an assistant professor of the history of capitalism at the New School, who appeared on a panel with Mr. Piketty at New York University on Thursday. “He’s speaking to a real feeling out there that things haven’t been fixed, that we need to take stock, that we need big ideas, big proposals, big global solutions.”
Along with Paul Krugman, Robert Reich and numerous others, Piketty trumpets a cri de coeur to fix markets and equalize the distribution of wealth… or else.
Secondly, we have the concrete “or else” – that is, a study by political scientists from Princeton and Northwestern that explains that because of the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands and the Supreme Court’s ultra-conservative equating of money and speech, among other things, the U.S. is No Longer an Actual Democracy.
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.
Jefferson gets the speeches and the dinners, Mount Rushmore, a memorial in D.C. but Hamilton won and continues to win. He couldn’t beat Burr’s bullet, but he has surely bested Jefferson to an extent that might even alarm him if he were around to see the fruit of his work. In 1932, in running for president and trying to grope for answers to the Great Depression when the incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, was wedded to a philosophy of inaction and letting the markets sort it out, FDR mused that there were plenty of Hamiltons in the present environment, “but where are the Jeffersons?”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Address at the University of Pennsylvania, 1940 –
“With the gaining of our political freedom you will remember that there came a conflict between the point of view of Alexander Hamilton, sincerely believing in the superiority of Government by a small group of public-spirited and usually wealthy citizens, and, on the other hand, the point of view of Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of Government by representatives chosen by all the people, an advocate of the universal right of free thought, free personal living, free religion, free expression of opinion and above all, the right of free universal suffrage.”
Why the hell isn’t FDR on Mount Rushmore with Jefferson? Because of what Taft said “I sometimes think America might just be the most conservative country on Earth.”