United States

The American Oligarchy

American democracy, as it was designed, is dead. At the very least, it’s on life support and has been for a while. If we aren’t careful, we aren’t going to be able to revive it and the Founding Fathers’ efforts to give it to us will be lost.

As the story goes, Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was asked by a woman if the new government was a republic or a monarchy. It was reported that without hesitation he responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” So, what exactly did he mean and do we need to heed his warning today?

Today, if you walked down the street of any American city and asked any average citizen what kind of government we have in America today you would likely hear from nine out of ten people, “A democracy.” That answer, to a degree is correct. A democracy is “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” (1b) That other person (I am being optimistic here), the one out of ten, would answer “a democratic republic.” This answer would be more correct. A republic is “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.” (1b.1) America is both a democracy and a republic. Or, at least it was.

I say “it was” because I am beginning to believe that it may no longer be. We the people, I think, like to pretend that we still have a democratic republic but does the “supreme power” really rest in the hands of the people? I would argue that it does not. What do we really have? It is now more of an oligarchy. An oligarchy is “a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” (2)  Thomas Jefferson once said, “Liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it [be]comes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of the government by an individual, by a group.” (NOTE: Jefferson was not talking about fascism in the WWII sense that we tend to think of it today. He was talking about it more in the economic sense.)

The key part I want to focus on is that our government is now run by a small group of elites, by a group of people who have tremendous economic wealth and through that wealth “own” the government. Let’s first start with the distribution of wealth in our country. To understand this argument, you have to start here because wealth is the means to power.

Did you get that? The richest 1% of the country has 40% of all the nation’s wealth and they own 50% of all the investments in the stock market. What do they do with all that wealth? Well, they invest it of course because that generates more wealth but they also put it to good use by buying elections. Yep, I said it, they buy elections!

This is where the oligarchy of our government comes in. Our government, Congress and the President, is “owned” by private power, a small percentage of super rich elites, who use their wealth to perpetuate what is best for themselves and their friends. The last presidential election cycle is a good example to show my point. Why? Well because we are seeing it happen before our eyes. One thing that I have become keenly aware of is that in order to run for a political office, you need a pretty substantial stack of cash along with some pretty hefty backers as well. If you don’t have the financial support of a few big donors or the very influential party you choose to side with (who also have their own big donors), you likely can’t win an election in America. Running a campaign has become extremely expensive and it has gotten worse over the years. As a result of the media exposure, costs have gone through the roof. How do you make a win happen? Find and use a money source. Well rather, in many cases, they find you. If you don’t find yourself in the “favor” of those with the wealth, you probably don’t stand much of a chance on winning.

The total cost for the federal election cycle of 2012, Congressional and Presidential, was just under $6.3 BILLION. That’s a big pile of dough! If you click on those links, you can see that being a politician is an expensive venture. So, does all that cash come from their pockets or do they have help? Many of those who ran for office did have their own wealth, and collectively the 535 Congressional members have a net worth of more than $1 million each. The millionaires’ club has now gone over 50%. So, what does all that mean? The group of rich people in Congress, those men and women who make our laws, don’t get much competition when it comes to running for office because the average Joe can’t afford to run. Yes, there is competition and in some cases it was a very fierce competition (just look at the top 11 campaigns for self funding) so money doesn’t always guarantee a win, but it does certainly help in a vast majority of campaign races. And, of course, there is help from many other sources as well, all of whom represent a small percentage of the population but a large percentage of the wealth.

Oligarchy.

Thomas Jefferson spoke of it, and Ben Franklin warned us about losing control of the very government the Constitution set up. We have not heeded the warnings of our Founders. We the people are all created equal but if we don’t keep private power from controlling the government, equality of opportunity isn’t going to survive in the land of the free. Instead, those who have the wealth and the power control opportunity and access will be severely limited to those who can afford it. We already see this in practice as the costs of college have gone up in the last decade. Not just slightly, but by leaps and bounds.

The American government can’t be allowed to continue towards a more powerful oligarchy, but we are well on our way down that road. We have to fight the rise of private power by being educated in our voting and not merely settle for whom has the best commercials or most striking mass mailers. We can’t rely simply on the incumbent, who often becomes entrenched with tenure and power, or vote because it is the only name on the ballot we recognize. We can’t just let those with great personal wealth or with seemingly unlimited backing from a small percentage of the population continue to gain control of our government. For if we do, it will no longer represent us – as many have made the case for already.

Our democratic republic is in danger and our Founder Fathers would be disappointed in us.

A Liberal Double Standard

Let me first start, right from the top, by saying that this has nothing to do with political parties and everything to do with the small erosion of our rights.

Recently in class we have been studying the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments added to the Constitution in 1791. This is a yearly occurrence in my classroom with seniors and I try to get them to think about their rights in a different ways. I also try to point out areas in our society where the Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, makes the news almost on a daily basis. I try to impress upon them that this is still a living and active document. Some days are more successful than others.

The 1st Amendment has five clauses: freedom of religion, press, and speech; the right to assemble and petition the government. We focus on all of these, admittedly some more in-depth than others, but the one that usually makes me ponder more deeply about the state of our society is our “Freedom of Speech.” Because of our discussions in class, I can’t help but notice that our freedom seems to be getting eroded piece by piece, making this natural right harder and harder to use. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the government is taking away that freedom, we are actually doing it to ourselves.

It is generally believed that the only real limits to our speech are those that pose an imminent danger to society (i.e. shouting fire in a theater), statements of libel, or when there are certain national security interests involved (though there has been a flood of classified info on the government/national security in print lately). With these limitations in mind, why do we censor ourselves and others in society? The discussions with my seniors always make me wonder this. They believe that it is wrong to utter words that hurt someone’s feelings or that offend the sensitivities of others. They have all bought into that old adage that our mothers used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire (though attributed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall, his biographer)

Our debate in class usually begins with a discussion about the quote above. Based on the discussion, I can gauge that it appears to make sense to them and yet they still want to qualify it. They get stuck on the idea that something that may be offensive and, yes, even hurt someone’s feelings still shouldn’t be spoken. Have we gotten to be that sensitive, that thin-skinned, that mere words can hurt? What happened to the old “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” chant we used to hear on the playground? OK, yes, I admit it. Words can hurt. We all know that truth and I am sure we all have experienced it at some point in our lives. However, no matter how much they hurt, or are offensive to someone, don’t we (or they) have a right to say them if we choose to do so?

As of now, many of the words that have been CENSORED from society are still legal to say. We have taken it upon ourselves to declare them socially irresponsible, thus socially “illegal.” (Plug your ears or cover your eyes if you are sensitive because I am about to be socially irresponsible and politically incorrect). “Oh, that’s gay!” and “Man, that is so retarded.” There are other words out there but we don’t need to get into all of them. I think you understand my point. Now, we have seen our society jump all over people in the media or celebrities for using these words and typically there is an apology issued because of the pressure put on them via social media, etc. If directed at an individual and intended as an insult, these statements would obviously hurt an individual’s feelings or offend. If said as a general statement of disgust or disappointment, someone may get offended but in general there was no specific hurt intended or group targeted. This is the part where the first part of Voltaire’s statement applies – “I disapprove of what you say, but…”  Many people will say things that we don’t like or approve of. Many of us will be hurt by what others say or hurt others by what we say ourselves, but that is the crux of our liberty. We have the right to do so, if we choose, and we shouldn’t be made to censor ourselves because of someone else’s sensitivities.

This is one place where a liberal double standard comes in. In general, liberals are all about being open and permissive. “Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?” “I’ll do what makes me happy.” “Hey, live and let live.” We can see this attitude in our society as things that once were seen as unacceptable have become, increasingly, more acceptable. The list is long and I won’t even try to make it complete but I offer a few examples: abortion, tattoos, divorce, same-sex marriage, legal marijuana, assisted suicide, casual sex, atheism, nudity and cursing on television. As our society has grown more open and permissive in most areas, we have become more restrictive in others, language being one of them. So how far do we go in accepting these limitations? How much erosion of our freedom of speech can we tolerate? If it hurts someone’s feelings (and we are all a bit too sensitive these days), it is now off limits…I disapprove of what you say, but…

Let me be clear, I am not condoning the use of offensive or hurtful language. No one has a compelling need to use their words in that manner and certainly we should work to hone our own internal filters when it comes to the use of language. However, I am condoning a careful examination of the external censorship we allow others to exert on us. I have a right to say what I please and I have a right to choose not to talk that way. It was bestowed upon me at the foundation of my country. However, others do not have the right to tell me what I can and can’t say. The freedom of speech, as written in the Constitution, wasn’t intended to be abridged. There wasn’t supposed to be a limit on it, ever. Infringing my rights, or the rights of others, lets others censor us in the name of stamping out insensitivity. That sounds callous, I know, but the fact is that even in callousness there is freedom. “…but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It is better to be angry than to be silenced.”  Megan O

The quote above is from one of my senior students. She reworded and summarized Voltaire’s statement with  a rather profound statement of her own. She realizes that being angered by someone’s voice is better than not hearing their voice, now matter how much she may disagree with what she hears. She understands that as soon as she silences the voice of another, her voice could be silenced as well. Her voice, as of now and into the future, isn’t something she is willing to give up.

A President’s Cone of Silence

It seems that our national security people have learned a little something from the old television series, “Get Smart.” The president travels with a sort of “Cone of Silence.” Check out the link from the New York Times.

Obama’s Portable Zone of Secrecy (Some Assembly Required) – NYTimes.com.

For The Veterans

Unsung heroes from WWII that sacrificed it all, even when the country they served didn’t see them as equal. What an incredible story! Had to share. Click on the link below to read the story @ USA Today. The photo below isn’t connected to the story, but when I did a Google search for the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion this photo from the National Archives came up.

Account of black soldiers killed by Nazis coming to light

“… troops of a field artillery battery emplace a 155mm howitzer in France. They have been following the advance of the infantry and are now setting up this new position.” June 28, 1944. Rothenberger. 111-SC-191890-S

Eject “God Bless America” from Baseball.

Fireworks are launched during the national anthem. The Seattle Mariners defeated the Houston Astros 3-0 during Opening Day at Safeco Field Monday April 8, 2013. Photo by Daniel Berman/www.bermanphotos.com

I hope I don’t come off sounding too unpatriotic for this, but I hate “God Bless America” at the ballpark, or any other sporting event for that matter. It doesn’t belong there any longer, and it most definitely doesn’t deserve the same respect. It had its place and time, but that time has gone and it is now time to send it to the showers. I am patriotic. I love my country. I love the flag. Perhaps that is why I can’t stand this seventh inning disrespect.

My last visit to the ballpark this summer on a Sunday afternoon in Seattle found me rising for the traditional singing of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I love this part of the game. I love this part of tradition and I believe that all sporting contests should start this way. And, why not play it before a baseball game? After all, baseball may have started the tradition in the first place, though not at the beginning of the game but during the seventh inning stretch. According to an article I found on ESPN.com, “The Song Remains the Same,” Game 1 of the World Series between the Cubs and the Red Sox in 1918 would establish its place in the sport. Eventually it would be moved from the seventh to the pre-game festivities, as an opening of the contest. I think we can all agree that it belongs there. It belongs there because sporting contests are often referred to as “battles” so the connection to armed conflict isn’t too big a stretch, especially since the origins of the song are centered directly there.

I very much appreciate the significance of the national anthem. I teach American History, Contemporary Issues, and Civics so I know the story well. The song was written by Francis Scott Key to commemorate the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. This part of the story is what makes the national anthem great – Key saw the American flag flying over the fort after an intense battle and knew that American forces had endured; that America would endure. These facts are set in history. It is also set in history that President Wilson recognized the song for official use in 1916 and it was adopted as the national anthem in 1931 by a congressional resolution and signed into law by President Hoover.

Typical protocol for the national anthem is as follows: when the flag comes onto the field, all stand and face the flag, take off their hats (if they’re men), put their hand or hat over their heart (military personnel in or out of uniform salute), and stand respectfully (quiet and still) while the anthem is played. One part that people often forget is that they should continue this respect until the flag has left the field. This is the proper way to honor the symbol of our nation, one that men and women throughout our history have fought and died for – protecting our own liberties or those in need of some.

The seventh inning stretch gets my American blood boiling. The public address announcer says something to the effect of, “Please rise and remove your hats for the singing of ‘God Bless America’.” What happens? Nearly everyone stands and removes their hats for the singing. However, I DO NOT AND NEVER WILL. I don’t care if I get “the look” from others. I don’t care if people think I am being disrespectful. I sit in my seat, talk, eat, I don’t remove my hat and generally just go about my business as I normally would during the seventh inning stretch. I am not trying to be obstinate or overly obtuse.

Wikipedia tells me “God Bless America” was inserted into our national pastime as a display of solidarity against the tragedy of 9/11. The Padres, in a show of sensitivity to our collective beat down, first thought about removing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” baseball’s anthem, and inserting the familiar tune. But that tradition would have been missed so, instead, they inserted it just before the anthem of frivolity. All of baseball was soon mandated to follow suit.  I understand the reason behind this action. I even participated in it for a while. Although I understood and I participated in it, the more I thought about it the less comfortable I was with it. These days, apparently, it is optional and left to individual teams to decide how or if they want to continue its use.

So why do I have such a problem with it? Well, it is NOT the national anthem!! It doesn’t deserve the same respect! Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful song, but to give it undue significance is disrespectful to the national anthem. It has been artificially elevated to a lofty position and, as a result, it lessens the value of the national anthem. Nothing else should ever be raised to that level. Nothing. The national anthem is enough to remind us of our past, our present, and our future. We don’t need “God Bless America” for that.

Next time you are at the ballpark, please, don’t participate in this now silly and inauthentic show of patriotism. Let the MLB and the teams know that it is time to eject “God Bless America” from baseball and return the game back to the way it was. Please keep and even elevate your acknowledgement and respect for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After all, it is still there, gallantly streaming, over the land of the free and brave.