Tuesday, November 23, 2010

fence books reading at The Kitchen twitter review

So Fence Books, evermore publishers of always the most amazing, most interesting work, held a reading last night showcasing their fall catalog authors: Nick Demske, Martin Corless-Smith, and Jena Osman. Martin I've seen read before, though I forget where. Jena was/is co-publisher of Chain/Chain Links. Nick's name I'd seen here and there, but I'd not run up on his work before.

Here is my condensed soup of a review of the reading via twitter:
The Fence Books reading at the Kitchen was quite spectacular. Jena Osman had an awesome, Flash (the superhero) infused presentation...to go along with her reading of the poem "Mercury Rising".

I really hope she finds a way to post that online someplace. Martin Corless-Smith remains one of the best reading poets I've seen.

And Nick Demske's reading seems a little much at first, but he wins you over with sincerity, humor, and energy.

Bought all three books. I never buy all three books.

If any of you are thinking, "hey, I just don't have enough BOOK on my holiday gift list": http://fencebooks.fenceportal.org/new_titles


Not my past glory of Year of the Hug reviews (The Year of the Hug was dedicated to reviews of live poetry readings), which maybe I'll just try to import all over here at some point, but still something, and the reading was a good place to extricate some peace after what was, in many way, a BIT of a day.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Shades of Howard Zinn: It's Okay If It's Impossible

Reposting this from CommonDream.org. It's long, but every word here is pristine, transformative, and it will have made you a better person by the time you are done.

It's Okay If It's Impossible

By Bill Moyers

The following remarks were prepared for delivery on October 29, 2010
as part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series at Boston University:

I was honored when you asked me to join in celebrating Howard Zinn's
life and legacy. I was also surprised. I am a journalist, not a
historian. The difference between a journalist and an historian is
that the historian knows the difference. George Bernard Shaw once
complained that journalists are seemingly unable to discriminate
between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization. In fact,
some epic history can start out as a minor incident. A young man named
Paris ran off with a beautiful woman who was married to someone else,
and the civilization of Troy began to unwind. A middle-aged black
seamstress, riding in a Montgomery bus, had tired feet, and an ugly
social order began to collapse. A night guard at an office complex in
Washington D.C. found masking tape on a doorjamb, and the presidency
of Richard Nixon began to unwind. What journalist, writing on
deadline, could have imagined the walloping kick that Rosa Park's
tired feet would give to Jim Crow? What pundit could have fantasized
that a third-rate burglary on a dark night could change the course of
politics? The historian's work is to help us disentangle the wreck of
the Schwinn from cataclysm. Howard famously helped us see how big
change can start with small acts.

We honor his memory. We honor him, for Howard championed grassroots
social change and famously chronicled its story as played out over the
course of our nation's history. More, those stirring sagas have
inspired and continue to inspire countless people to go out and make a
difference. The last time we met, I told him that the stories in A
People's History of the United States remind me of the fellow who
turned the corner just as a big fight broke out down the block.
Rushing up to an onlooker he shouted, "Is this a private fight, or can
anyone get in it?" For Howard, democracy was one big public fight and
everyone should plunge into it. That's the only way, he said, for
everyday folks to get justice - by fighting for it.

I have in my desk at home a copy of the commencement address Howard
gave at Spelman College in 2005. He was chairman of the history
department there when he was fired in 1963 over his involvement in
civil rights. He had not been back for 43 years, and he seemed
delighted to return for commencement. He spoke poignantly of his
friendship with one of his former students, Alice Walker, the daughter
of tenant farmers in Georgia who made her way to Spelman and went on
to become the famous writer. Howard delighted in quoting one of her
first published poems that had touched his own life:

It is true
I've always loved
the daring ones
like the black young man
who tried to crash
all barriers
at once,
wanted to swim
at a white beach (in Alabama)
Nude.

That was Howard Zinn; he loved the daring ones, and was daring himself.

One month before his death he finished his last book, "The Bomb." Once
again he was wrestling with his experience as a B-17 bombardier during
World War II, especially his last mission in 1945 on a raid to take
out German garrisons in the French town of Royan. For the first time
the Eighth Air Force used napalm, which burst into liquid fire on the
ground, killing hundreds of civilians. He wrote, "I remember
distinctly seeing the bombs explode in the town, flaring like matches
struck in the fog. I was completely unaware of the human chaos below."
Twenty years later he returned to Royan to study the effects of the
raid and concluded there had been no military necessity for the
bombing; everyone knew the war was almost over (it ended three weeks
later) and this attack did nothing to affect the outcome. He wrote
"The Bomb" to remind himself and us that sometimes we have to throw a
wrench into the machine.

He believed in small acts of rebellion, as his long-time friend and
colleague Gregg Ruggerio recalls, which means - and these are Howard's
final words in the book, "acting on what we feel and think, here, now,
for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and
obedience."

Howard never forget what it was like growing up poor in a working
class immigrant family, which is probably why, as Gregg Ruggerio also
reminds us, "Shifting historical focus from the wealthy and powerful
to the ordinary person was perhaps his greatest act of rebellion and
incitement." Let's begin, then, with some everyday people.

***

When she heard the news, Connie Brasel cried like a baby.

For years she had worked at minimum-wage jobs, until 17 years ago,
when she was hired by the Whirlpool refrigerator factory in
Evansville, Indiana. She was making $ 18.44 an hour when Whirlpool
announced earlier this year that it was closing the operation and
moving it to Mexico. She wept. I'm sure many of the other eleven
hundred workers who lost their jobs wept too; they had seen their
ticket to the middle class snatched from their hands. The company
defended its decision by claiming high costs, underused capacity, and
the need to stay competitive. Those excuses didn't console Connie
Brasel. "I was becoming part of something bigger than me," she told
Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times. "Whirlpool was the best thing
that ever happened to me."

She was not only sad, she was mad. "They didn't get world-class
quality because they had the best managers. They got world-class
quality because of the United States and because of their workers."

Among those workers were Natalie Ford, her husband and her son; all
three lost their jobs. "It's devastating," she told the Times. Her
father had worked at Whirlpool before them. Now, "There aren't any
jobs here. How is this community going to survive?"

And what about the country? Between 2001 and 2008, about 40,000 US
manufacturing plants closed. Six million factory jobs have disappeared
over the past dozen years, representing one in three manufacturing
jobs. Natalie Ford said to theTimes what many of us are wondering: "I
don't know how without any good-paying jobs here in the United States
people are going to pay for their health care, put their children
through school."

Now, if Connie Brasel and Natalie Ford lived in South Carolina, they
might have been lucky enough to get a job with the new BMW plant that
recently opened there and advertised that the company would hire one
thousand workers. Among the applicants? According to the Washington
Post; "a former manager of a major distribution center for Target; a
consultant who oversaw construction projects in four western states; a
supervisor at a plastics recycling firm. Some held college degrees and
resumes in other fields where they made more money." They will be paid
$15 an hour - about half of what BMW workers earn in Germany

In polite circles, among our political and financial classes, this is
known as "the free market at work." No, it's "wage repression," and
it's been happening in our country since around 1980. I must invoke
some statistics here, knowing that statistics can glaze the eyes; but
if indeed it's the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved
by statistics, as I once read, this truly educated audience, then I am
sure you will be moved by the recent analysis of tax data by the
economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. They found that from 1950
through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but
the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation's
economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of l0
Americans was growing, too - from $17,719 to $30,941. That's a 75
percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow
handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefitted. The line
flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from
that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average
income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

That's wage repression.

Another story in the Times caught my eye a few weeks after the one
about Connie Brasel and Natalie Ford. The headline read: "Industries
Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts." Nelson Schwartz reported that
despite falling motorcycle sales, Harley-Davidson profits are soaring
- with a second quarter profit of $71 million, more than triple what
it earned the previous year. Yet Harley-Davidson has announced plans
to cut fourteen hundred to sixteen hundred more jobs by the end of
next year; this on top of the 2000 job cut last year.

The story noted: "This seeming contradiction - falling sales and
rising profits - is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more
buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and unemployment
shows few signs of easing."

There you see the two Americas. A buoyant Wall Street; a doleful Main
Street. The Connie Brasels and Natalie Fords - left to sink or swim on
their own. There were no bailouts for them.

Meanwhile, Matt Krantz reports in USA TODAY that "Cash is gushing into
company's coffers as they report what's shaping up to be a
third-consecutive quarter of sharp earning increases. But instead of
spending on the typical things, such as expanding and hiring people,
companies are mostly pocketing the money or stuffing it under their
mattresses." And what are their plans for this money? Again,
theWashington Post

.... Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are
buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have
announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more
than five times as much compared with this time last year... But the
rise in buybacks signals that many companies are still hesitant to
spend their cash on the job-generating activities that could produce
economic growth.

That's how "capitalism" works today: Conserving cash rather than
bolstering hiring and production. Investing in their own shares to
prop up their share prices and make their stock more attractive to
Wall Street. To hell with everyone else.

Hear the chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Ethan
Harris, who told the Times: "There's no question that there is an
income shift going on in the economy. Companies are squeezing their
labor costs to build profits."

Or the chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York, Neal Soss: As
companies have wrung more savings out of their work forces, causing
wages and salaries barely to budge from recession lows, "profits have
staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and
the first quarter of 2010."

Just this morning the New York Times reports that the private equity
business is roaring back: "While it remains difficult to get a
mortgage to buy a home or to get a loan to fund a small business,
yield-starved investors are creating a robust market for corporate
bonds and loans."

You get that, I'm sure: Capitalism should be helping everyday
Americans and businesses get the mortgages and loans - the capital -
they need to keep going; they're not, even as the financiers are
reaping robust awards.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But he's run off with all the toys.

Late in August I clipped another story from the Wall Street Journal.
Above an op-ed piece by Robert Frank the headline asked: "Do the Rich
Need the Rest of America?" The author didn't seem ambivalent about the
answer. He wrote that as stocks have boomed,

"the wealthy bounced back. And while the Main Street economy" [where
the Connie Brasels and Natalie Fords and most Americans live] "was
wracked by high unemployment and the real-estate crash, the wealthy -
whose financial fates were more tied to capital markets than jobs and
houses - picked themselves up, brushed themselves off, and started
buying luxury goods again."

Citing the work of Michael Lind, at the Economic Growth Program of the
New American Foundation, the article went on to describe how the
super-rich earn their fortunes with overseas labor, selling to
overseas consumers and managing financial transactions that have
little to do with the rest of America, "while relying entirely or
almost entirely on immigrant servants at one of several homes around
the country."

Right at that point I remembered another story I had filed away, also
from the Wall Street Journal, from three years ago. The reporter
Ianthe Jeanne Dugan described how the private equity firm Blackstone
Group swooped down on a travel reservation company in Colorado, bought
it, laid off 841 employees, and recouped its entire investment in just
seven months, one of the quickest returns on capital ever for such a
deal. Blackstone made a killing while those workers were left to sift
through the debris. They sold their homes, took part-time jobs making
sandwiches and coffee, and lost their health insurance.

That fall, Blackstone's chief executive, Stephen Schwarzman,
reportedly worth over $5 billion, rented a luxurious resort in Jamaica
to celebrate the marriage of his son. According to the Guardian News,
the Montego Bay facility alone cost $50,000, plus thousands more to
sleep 130 guests. There were drinks on the beach, dancers and a steel
band, marshmallows around the fire, and then, the following day, an
opulent wedding banquet with champagne and a jazz band and fireworks
display that alone cost $12,500. Earlier in the year Schwarzman had
rented out the Park Avenue Armory in New York (near his 35-room
apartment) to celebrate his 60th birthday at a cost of $3 million. So?
It's his money, isn't it? Yes, but consider this: The stratospheric
income of private-equity partners is taxed at only 15 percent - less
than the rate paid, say, by a middle class family. When Congress
considered raising the rate on their Midas-like compensation, the
financial titans flooded Washington with armed mercenaries - armed,
that is, with hard, cold cash - and brought the "debate" to an end
faster than it had taken Schwartzman to fire 841 workers. The
financial class had won another round in the exploitation of working
people who, if they are lucky enough to have jobs, are paying a higher
tax rate than the super-rich.

So the answer to the question: "Do the Rich Need the Rest of America?"
is as stark as it is ominous: Many don't. As they form their own
financial culture increasingly separated from the fate of everyone
else, "it is hardly surprising," as Frank and Lind concluded, "that so
many of them should be so hostile to paying taxes to support the
infrastructure and the social programs that help the majority of the
American people."

You would think the rich might care, if not from empathy, then from
reading history. Ultimately gross inequality can be fatal to
civilization. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or
Succeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond
writes about how governing elites throughout history isolate and
delude themselves until it is too late. He reminds us that the change
people inflict on their environment is one of the main factors in the
decline of earlier societies. For example: the Mayan natives on the
Yucatan peninsula who suffered as their forest disappeared, their soil
eroded, and their water supply deteriorated. Chronic warfare further
exhausted dwindling resources. Although Mayan kings could see their
forests vanishing and their hills eroding, they were able to insulate
themselves from the rest of society. By extracting wealth from
commoners, they could remain well-fed while everyone else was slowly
starving. Realizing too late that they could not reverse their
deteriorating environment, they became casualties of their own
privilege. Any society contains a built-in blueprint for failure,
Diamond warns, if elites insulate themselves from the consequences of
their decisions, separated from the common life of the country.

They seem to relish the separation. When Howard came down to New York
last December for what would be my last interview with him, I showed
him this document published in the spring of 2005 by the Wall Street
giant Citigroup, setting forth an "Equity Strategy" under the title
(I'm not making this up) "Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting
Richer."

Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich,
political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an
American word and wasn't meant to become an American phenomenon - some
of our founders deplored what they called "the veneration of wealth."
But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of
coining a variation on the word- "plutonomy", which describes an
economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer
and that government helps them do it. Five years ago Citigroup decided
the time had come to "bang the drum on plutonomy."

And bang they did. Here are some excerpts from the document
"Revisiting Plutonomy;"

"Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by
market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper... [and]
take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years."

"...the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the United States - the
plutonomists in our parlance - have benefitted disproportionately from
the recent productivity surged in the US... [and] from globalization
and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor."

"... [and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years.
Because the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact."

I'll repeat that: "The dynamics of plutonomy are still intact." That
was the casebefore the Great Collapse of 2008, and it's the case
today, two years after the catastrophe. But the plutonomists are doing
just fine. Even better in some cases, thanks to our bailout of the big
banks.

As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist

- no Marxist journal but one of the most influential business
publications in the world - of a study by Pew Research:

More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of
unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go
part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly
six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth
of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans
have cancelled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their
mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have
moved back in with their parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect
their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and
more than a quarter say it will be lower. For many Americans the great
recession has been the sharpest trauma since The Second World War,
wiping out jobs, wealth and hope itself.

Hold on that for a minute. Let it sink in: For millions of
garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a
paucity of hope.

Time for a confession. The legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow
told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you
don't try to hide it. Here is mine: Plutocracy and democracy don't
mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction
block, subject to the highest bidder.

Socrates said to understand a thing you must first name it. The name
for what's happening to our political system is corruption - a deep,
systemic corruption. I urge you this weekend to read the recent
edition of Harper's Magazine. The former editor Roger D. Hodge

brilliantly dissects how democracy has gone on sale in America.
Ideally, he writes, our ballots purport to be expressions of political
will, which we hope and pray will be translated into legislative and
executive action by our pretended representatives. But voting is the
beginning of civil virtue, not its end, and the focus of real power is
elsewhere. Voters still "matter" of course, but only as raw material
to be shaped by the actual form of political influence - money.

The article is excerpted from Hodge's new book, "The Mendacity of
Hope." In it he describes how America's founding generation feared
this kind of corruption - the kind that occurs when the private ends
of a narrow faction succeed in capturing the engines of government.
James Madison and many of his contemporaries knew this to be the
corruption that could consume the republic. Looking at history through
a tragic lens, they thought the life cycle of republics - their
degeneration into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy - was inescapable.
And they attempted to erect safeguards against it, hoping to prevent
private and narrow personal interests from overriding those of the
general public.

They failed. Hardly a century passed after the ringing propositions of
1776 when America was engulfed in the gross materialism and political
corruption of the First Gilded Age, when Big Money bought the
government right out from under the voters. In their magisterial work
on The Growth of the American Republic, the historians Morison,
Commager, and Leuchtenberg describe how in that era "privilege
controlled politics," and "the purchase of votes, the corruption of
election officials, the bribing of legislatures, the lobbying of
special bills, and the flagrant disregard of laws" threatened the very
foundations of the country.

I doubt you'll be surprised to learn that this "degenerate and
unlovely age" - as one historian described it - served to inspire Karl
Rove, the man said to be George W. Bush's brain and now a mover and
shaker of the money tree for the corporate-conservative complex (more
on that later.) The extraordinary coupling of private and political
power toward the close of the 19th century - the First Gilded Age -
captured Rove's interest, especially the role of Mark Hanna, the Ohio
operative who became the first modern political fund-raiser. "There
are two things that are important in politics," Hanna said. "The first
is money and I can't remember what the second one is."

He didn't need to remember. Hanna tapped the banks, the insurance
companies, the railroads and the other industrial trusts of the late
1800s for all the money it took to make William McKinley governor of
Ohio and then President of the United States. McKinley was the perfect
conduit for Hanna's connivance and their largesse - one of those
politicians with a talent for emitting banalities as though they were
recently discovered truth. His opponent in the 1896 election was the
Democrat-Populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan, whose base
consisted of aroused populists - the remnant of the People's Party -
who outraged at the rapacity and shenanigans of the monopolies,
trusts, and corporations that were running roughshod over ordinary
Americans. Because Bryan threatened those big economic interests he
was able to raise only one-tenth the money that Mark Hanna raised for
McKinley, and he lost: Money in politics is an old story.

Karl Rove would have learned from his study of Hanna the principles of
plutonomy. For Hanna believed "the state of Ohio existed for property.
It had no other function...Great wealth was to be gained through
monopoly, through using the State for private ends; it was axiomatic
therefore that businessmen should run the government and run it for
personal profit."

He and McKinley therefore saw to it that first Ohio and then
Washington were "ruled by business...by bankers, railroads, and public
utility corporations." The United States Senate was infamous as "a
millionaire's club." City halls, state houses and even courtrooms were
bought and sold like baubles. Instead of enforcing the rules of fair
play, government served as valet to the plutocrats. The young
journalist Henry George had written that "an immense wedge" was being
forced through American society by "the maldistribution of wealth,
status, and opportunity." Now inequality exploded into what the
historian Clinton Rossiter described as "the great train robbery of
American intellectual history." Conservatives of the day -
pro-corporate apologists - hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian
liberalism and turned words like "progress," "opportunity,"

and "individualism" into tools for making the plunder of America sound
like divine right. Laissez faire ideologues and neo-cons of the day -
lovers of empire even then - hijacked Charles Darwin's theory of
evolution and so distorted it that politicians, judges, and publicists
gleefully embraced the notion that progress emerges from the
elimination of the weak and the "survival of the fittest." As one of
the plutocrats crowed: "We are rich. We own America. We got it, God
knows how, but we intend to keep it."

And they have never given up. Today the Gilded Age has returned with a
vengeance. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s,
when Ronald Reagan began a "massive decades-long transfer of national
wealth to the rich." As Roger Hodge makes clear, under Bill Clinton
the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an
ever-growing share of national income. The trend continued under
George W. Bush - those huge tax cuts for the rich, remember, which are
now about to be extended because both parties have been bought off by
the wealthy - and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking
in 50% of the national income. Today, a fraction of people at the top
today earn more than the bottom 120 million Americans.

You will hear it said, "Come on, this is the way the world works." No,
it's the way the world is made to work. This vast inequality is not
the result of Adam Smith's invisible hand; it did not just happen; it
was no accident. As Hodge drives home, it is the result of a long
series of policy decisions "about industry and trade, taxation and
military spending, by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in
concrete-and-steel buildings." And those policy decisions were paid
for by the less than one percent who participate in our capitalist
democracy political contributions. Over the past 30 years, with the
complicity of Republicans and Democrats alike, the plutocrats, or
plutonomists (choose your own poison) have used their vastly increased
wealth to assure that government does their bidding. Remember that
grateful reference in the Citigroup's document to "market-friendly
governments" on the side of plutonomy? We had a story down in Texas
for that, about the poker game in which the dealer says, "Now play the
cards fairly, Reuben; I know what I dealt you."(To see just how our
system was rigged by the financial and political class and how that
collusion produced the Great Collapse of 2008, run, don't walk, this
weekend to the theatre nearest you showing Charles Ferguson's new
film, "Inside Job." Take a handkerchief because you'll weep for the
republic.)

Looking back, it all seems so clear that we wonder how we could have
ignored the warning signs at the time. One of the few journalists who
did see it coming - Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post - reported
that "business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging
competitive instincts in favour of joint, cooperative action in the
legislative arena." Big business political action committees flooded
the political arena with a deluge of dollars. They funded think tanks
that churned out study after study with results skewed to their
ideology and interests. And their political allies in the conservative
movement cleverly built alliances with the religious right - Jerry
Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition - who
zealously waged a cultural holy war that camouflaged the economic
assault on working people and the middle class.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan also tried to warn us. He said
President Reagan's real strategy was to force the government to cut
domestic social programs by fostering federal deficits of historic
dimensions. Senator Moynihan was gone before the financial catastrophe
that occurred on George W. Bush's watch that paradoxically could yet
fulfill Reagan's dream. The plutocrats who soaked up all the money now
say the deficits require putting Social Security and other public
services on the chopping block. You might think that Mr. Bush today
would regret having invaded Iraq on false pretences at a cost of more
than a trillion dollars and counting, but no, just last week he said
that his biggest regret was his failure to privatize Social Security.
With over l00 Republicans of the House having signed a pledge to do
just that when the new Congress convenes, Mr. Bush's dream may yet be
realized.

Daniel Altman also saw what was coming. In his book Neoconomy he
described a place without taxes or a social safety net, where rich and
poor live in different financial worlds. "It's coming to America," he
wrote. Most likely he would not have been surprised when recently
firefighters in rural Tennessee would let a home burn to the ground
because the homeowner hadn't paid a $75 fee.

That's the kind of world our prevailing ideology is producing.

***

Here we are now, on the verge of the biggest commercial transaction in
the history of American elections. Once again the plutocracy is buying
off the system. Nearly $4 billion is being spent on the congressional
races that will be decided next week, much of it coming from secret
slush funds. The organization Public Citizen reports that just 10
groups are responsible for the bulk of the spending by independent
groups: "A tiny number of organizations, relying on a tiny number of
corporate and fat cat contributors, are spending most of the money on
the vicious attack ads dominating the airwaves" - those are the words
of Public Citizen's president, Robert Wiessman. The Federal Election
Commission says that two years ago 97% of groups paying for election
ads disclosed the names of their donors. This year it's only 32%.

Donors are laundering their cash through front groups with
high-falutin' names like American Crossroads. That's one of the two
slush funds controlled by Karl Rove in his ambition to revive the era
of the robber barons. Promise me you won't laugh when I tell you that
although Rove and the powerful Washington lobbyist who is his
accomplice described the first organization as "grassroots," 97% of
its initial contributions came from four billionaires. Yes: The grass
grows mighty high when the roots are fertilized with gold.

Rove, other conservative groups and the Chamber of Commerce have in
fact created a "shadow party" determined to be the real power in
Washington just like Rome's Opus Dei in Dan Brown's "The DaVinci
Code." In this "shadow party" the plutocrats reign. We have reached
what the new chairman of Common Cause and former Labor Secretary
Robert Reich calls "the perfect storm that threatens American
democracy: an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the
top; a record amount of secret money, flooding our democracy; and a
public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government
that's raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it
back to work. We're losing our democracy to a different system. It's
called plutocracy."

That word again. But Reich is right. That fraction of one percent of
Americans who now earn as much as the bottom 120 million Americans
includes the top executives of giant corporations and those Wall
Street hedge funds and private equity managers who constitute
Citigroup's "plutonomy" are buying our democracy and they're doing it
in secret.

That's because early this year the five reactionary members of the
Supreme Court ruled that corporations are "persons" with the right to
speak during elections by funding ads like those now flooding the
airwaves. It's hard for patriots to admit it, but the United States
Supreme Court has promulgated a Big Lie: Corporations are not people;
they are legal fictions, creatures of the state, born not of the womb,
of flesh and blood, but of the imagination of fabulists. They're not
permitted to vote. They don't bear arms (except for the nuclear bombs
they can now drop on a congressional race without anyone knowing where
it came from.) Yet five men in black robes have bestowed on them the
privilege of "personhood" to speak - and not in their own voice, mind
you, but as ventriloquists, through hired puppets.

Does anyone - even them - really think that's what the authors of the
First Amendment had in mind? Horrified by such a profound perversion
of the First Amendment, the editor of the spunky Texas Observer, Bob
Moser, got it right with his headline: "So long, Democracy, it's been
good to know you."

This is the work of fabulists or dupes. You'll remember that soon
after the Court's decision President Obama raised the matter during
his State of the Union speech in January. He said the decision would
unleash a torrent of corrupting corporate money into our political
system. Sitting a few feet in front of the president, Associate
Justice Samuel Alito defiantly mouthed the words: "Not true." It was a
remarkable revelation of the majority's mindset on the court. Alito
was either disingenuous, naïve, or deluded. He can't be in this world
without knowing he and his four fellow corporatists were giving big
donors the one thing they most want in their campaign against working
people: an unfair advantage.

Alan Grayson, for one, got it. He's a member of Congress and knows how
the world is made to work. He recently said: "We're now in a situation
where a lobbyist can walk into my office...and say, "I've got five
million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against you.
Which do you prefer?"

Just the other day my friend and colleague Michael Winship, the
columnist, told a story that illuminates the Court's coup de grace
against democracy. It seems the incorrigible George Bernard Shaw once
propositioned a fellow dinner guest, asking if she would go to bed
with him for a million pounds (today around $1,580,178 US dollars).
She agreed. Shaw then asked if she would do the same for ten
shillings.

"What do you take me for?" she asked angrily. "A prostitute?" Shaw
responded: "We've established the principle, Madam. Now we're just
haggling over the price."

With this one decision, the Supreme Court established once and for all
that Shaw's is the only principle left in politics, as long as the
price is right.

Come now and let's visit Washington's red light district, the
headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the front group for the
plutocracy's prostitution of politics. The Chamber boasts it
represents more than three million businesses and approximately
300,000 members. But in reality it has almost nothing to do with the
shops and stores along your local streets. The Chamber's branding, as
the economics journalist Zach Carter recently wrote, "allows them to
disguise their political agenda as a coalition of local businesses
while it does dirty work for corporate titans." Carter found that when
the Supreme Court came down with its infamous ruling earlier this
year, the Chamber responded by announcing a 40% boost in its political
spending operations. After the money started flowing in, the Chamber
boosted its budget again by 50%.

After digging into corporate foundation tax filings and other public
records, theNew York Times found that the Chamber of Commerce has
"increasingly relied on a relatively small collection of big corporate
donors" - the plutocracy's senior ranks - "to finance much of its
legislative and political agenda." Furthermore, the chamber

"makes no apologies for its policy of not identifying its donors."
Indeed, "It has vigorously opposed legislation in Congress that would
require groups like it to identify their biggest contributors when
they spend money on campaign ads."

Now connect some dots: When the House of Representatives recently
passed a bill that would require that the names of all such donors be
publicly disclosed, every Republican in the Senate opposed it, and
there it died. This, despite the fact that Senate Republican Leader
Mitch McConnell had actually claimed that "sunshine" laws would make
everything okay by letting people see who was buying their elections.
Hardly had the public begun to sing "Let the Sunshine In" than
McConnell lined up every Republican in the Senate to black out the
windows. When the chief lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce was asked
by an interviewer, "Are you guys eventually going to disclose?" the
answer was a brisk: "No." Together, the chamber and the Republicans in
the Senate are determined not to reveal the corporate sources of their
slush funds. Why? Because those very corporations are afraid of a
public backlash. Doesn't that tell us something about the nature of
what they're doing? In the words of one of the characters in Tom
Stoppard's play Night and Day:"People do terrible things to each
other, but it's worse in places where everything is kept in the dark."

That's true in politics, too. Thus it turns out that many of the ads
being paid for secretly by anonymous donors are "false, grossly
misleading, or marred with distortions," as Greg Sargent reports in
his website The Plum Line. Go there and you'll see a partial list of
ads that illustrate the scope of the intellectual and political fraud
being perpetrated in front of our eyes. Money from secret sources is
poisoning the public mind with toxic information in order to dupe
voters into giving even more power to the powerful.

On another site -thinkprogress.com - you can find out how the
multibillionaire Koch brothers - also big oil polluters and Tea Party
supporters - are recruiting "captains of industry" to fund the
right-wing infrastructure of front groups, political campaigns, think
tanks and media outlets. Now, hold on to your seats, because this just
might blow you away: Among the right-wing luminaries who showed up
among Koch's ‘secretive network of Republican donors' were two Supreme
Court Justices, both right-wingers: Antonin Scalia and Clarence
Thomas. That's right: 2 of the 5 votes for corporate slush funds came
from justices who were present as members of the plutocracy schemed to
take over our government.

Something else is going on here, too. The Koch brothers have
contributed significantly to efforts to stop the Affordable Care Act -
the health care reforms - from taking effect. Justice Clarence
Thomas's wife Virginia claims those reforms are "unconstitutional,"
and has founded an organization to fight to repeal them. Think about
it: Her own husband on the Supreme Court may one day be ruling on
whether she's right or not ("Play the cards fair, Reuben; I know what
I dealt you.") There's more: The organization Virginia Thomas founded
to kill those health care reforms, also a goal of the Koch brothers,
got its start with a gift of half a million dollars from an unnamed
source. It's still being funded from secret sources. You have to
wonder if some of them are corporations that stand to benefit from
favorable decisions by the Supreme Court.

This truly puzzles me. It's what I can't figure out about the
conservative mindset. The Kochs I can understand: messianic Daddy
Warbucks who can't imagine what life is like for people who aren't
worth 21 billion dollars. But whatever happened to "compassionate
conservatism?" I mean, the Affordable Care Act - whatever its flaws -
extends health care coverage to over 40 million deprived Americans who
would otherwise be uncovered? What is it about these people - the
Clarence and Virginia Thomases, the secret donors, the privileged
plutocrats on their side - that they can't embrace a little social
justice where it counts - among everyday people struggling to get by
in a dog-eat-dog world? Mrs. Thomas is obviously doing okay; she no
doubts takes at least a modest salary from that private slush fund
working to undermine the health care reforms; her own husband is a
government employee covered by a federal plan. Why wouldn't she want
people less fortunate than her to have a little security, too? She
based her organization at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, a
reportedly Christian school aligned with Falwell's Moral Majority. How
is it she's only about "Live and Let Live?" Have they never heard
there the Old Time Religion of "Live and help live?" Why would this
cushioned, comfortable crowd resort to such despicable tactics as
using secret money to try to turn public policy against their less
fortunate neighbors, and in the promise compromise the already
tattered integrity of the United States Supreme Court?

Time to close the circle: Everyone knows millions of Americans are in
trouble. As Robert Reich recently summed it up: They've lost their
jobs, their homes, and their savings. Their grown children have moved
back in with them. Their state and local taxes are rising. Teachers
and firefighters are being laid off. The roads and bridges they count
on are crumbling, pipelines are leaking, schools are dilapidated, and
public libraries are being shut.

Why isn't government working for them? Because it's been bought off.
It's as simple as that. And until we get clean money we're not going
to get clean elections, and until we get clean elections, you can kiss
goodbye government of, by, and for the people. Welcome to the
plutocracy.

Obviously Howard Zinn would not have us leave it there. Defeat was
never his counsel. Look at this headline above one of his essays
published posthumously this fall by The Progressive magazine: DON'T
DESPAIR ABOUT THE SUPREME COURT. The Court was lost long ago, he said
- don't go there looking for justice. "The Constitution gave no rights
to working people; no right to work less than l2 hours a day, no right
to a living wage, no right to safe working conditions. Workers had to
organize, go on strike, defy the law, the courts, the police, create a
great movement which won the eight-hour day, and caused such commotion
that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, and Social
Security, and unemployment insurance....Those rights only come alive
when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel
and violate the law in order to uphold justice."

So what are we to do about Big Money in politics buying off democracy?
I can almost hear him throwing that question back at us: "What are we
to do? ORGANIZE! Yes, organize-and don't count the costs."

Some people already are. They're mobilizing. There's a rumbling in the
land. The corporate media may not pick it up, but despite the odds,
folks are organizing, on various fronts, against money in politics and
the secrecy that surrounds it. Veteran public interest groups like
Common Cause and Public Citizen are aroused. There are the rising
voices, from web-based initiatives such as freespeechforpeople.org to
grassroots initiatives such as "Democracy Matters" on campuses across
the country, including a chapter here at BU. Moveon.org is looking for
a million people to fight back in a variety of ways against the
Supreme Court decision.

What's promising in all this is that in taking on Big Money we're
talking about something more than a single issue. We're talking about
a broad-based coalition to restore American democracy. There's plenty
of outrage to fuel it. Fed-up Democrats. Disillusioned Republicans.
Independents. Greens. Even Tea Partiers, once they wake up and realize
they've been sucker punched by the very people who are bankrolling
them.

We should be smart about the nuts-and-bolts of building a coalition,
remembering that it has a lot to do with human nature. Some will want
to march. Some will want to petition. Some will want to engage through
the Web. Some will want to go door-to-door: many gifts, but the same
spirit. A fighting spirit. As Howard Zinn would tell us, no fight, no
fun, no results. But here's the key: If you're fighting for a living
wage, or peace, or immigration reform, or gender equality, or the
environment, or a safe neighborhood, you are, of necessity, strongly
opposed to a handful of moneyed-interests controlling how decisions
get made and policy set. All across the spectrum people oppose the
escalating power of money in politics. It's because most Americans are
attuned to the issue of fair play, of not favoring Big Money at the
expense of the little guy - at the expense of the country they love.
The legendary community organizer Ernesto Cortes talks about the
"power to protect what we value." That's what we want for Americans -
the power to preserve what we value, both for ourselves and on behalf
of our democracy.

But let's be clear: Even with most Americans on our side, the odds are
long. Money fights hard, and it fights dirty. Think Rove. The Chamber.
The Kochs. We may lose. It all may be impossible. But it's OK if it's
impossible. You heard me right. I've learned something about this from
the former farmworker and labor organizer Baldemar Velasquez. The
members of his Farm Labor Organizing Committee are a long way from the
world of K Street lobbyists. But they took on the Campbell Soup
Company - and won. They took on North Carolina growers - and won,
using transnational organizing tactics that helped win Velasquez a
"genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation. And now they're taking
on no less than R. J. Reynolds Tobacco and one of its principle
financial sponsors, JPMorgan-Chase. Some people question the wisdom of
taking on such powerful interests, but here's what Velasquez says:
"It's OK if it's impossible; it's OK! Now I'm going to speak to you as
organizers. Listen carefully. The object is not to win. That's not the
objective. The object is to do the right and good thing. If you decide
not to do anything, because it's too hard or too impossible, then
nothing will be done, and when you're on your death bed, you're gonna
say, ‘I wish I had done something.' But if you go and do the right
thing NOW, and you do it long enough good things will
happen-something's gonna happen."

Shades of Howard Zinn!
_______

ABOUT AUTHOR

Bill Moyers is managing editor of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local
airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.