By William Rivers Pitt
Sunday 02 July 2006
Everything's gonna be smooth like a rhapsody,
When I paint
- Bob Dylan
Any starting point requires that we remember that this nation which birthed us, inspires us, blesses us, puts us to work, this nation that challenged us to remember the original promises whenever we said the Pledge of Allegiance all those times in school, this nation we'd all die for, this nation we call home is, in the end, nothing more or less than an idea.
An idea. A dream, an experiment, something sociologist Max Weber once described as "the slow boring of hard boards," a serious endeavor with a good chance of success but a better chance of failure, and if the one was to be saved from the other, there would have to be a lot of good will and hard work and devotion to the premises that got everything started in the first place. The lady who asked Benjamin Franklin what had been wrought after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 got the right answer. "A republic," Franklin told her, "if you can keep it."
"We the people" was a good start, if we're talking about the premises. No one had ever before, in all of history, bothered to lay down a national charter with that kind of thinking in mind. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was another original stroke. There were a dozen more at least, ideas that have been around since time out of mind to be sure, but ideas that no one anywhere ever used collectively and comprehensively to define the reasons for a diverse people to stand under one flag and salute, and mean it.
It was supposed to be a lot of things, but it was never supposed to be easy.
That is America, or at least it was for a while. The song remains the same, as the band once said, but we are certainly not operating off the same ideas that marked the blueprint these last several generations, and anyone who tries to tell you different is also trying to sell you something. Rose-colored glasses are selling cheap these days. They're going for the price of a flag or a few hours of round-the-clock cable-news talking-head pablum, and unfortunately for all of us, that's about as cheap as it gets in the 21st century.
Why? Because America was about a lot of things, back when it all meant something, but there was always a virus in the matrix. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the great thinkers put all the good ideas to paper, but they also made sure the thing was hard-wired to favor anyone with a lot of money.
It was the taxes that burned the Fathers out of neutrality, after all, as well as the denial of commerce by the Crown. So when the revolution was over and the smoke had cleared, the Fathers carved out a separation of church and state, and codified free speech, and laid the groundwork for more freedom for more people than had ever been seen before, but they also made sure the well-to-do were going to remain thus for time out of mind. That was fine, because they put the work in, and freedom also means freedom to make money and be rich. Before too much time had passed, that kind of thing was called The American Dream.
The problem, though, was the virus, which was money. Money slowly bought power, money slowly won elections that used to be free, money started to be the defining reality of Congress and then the presidency, money began writing and signing the laws, money got judges put on the Supreme Court by the purchased aforementioned, and money made sure those judges made decisions designed to benefit the money. Washington and Franklin would have been horrified to see the way it started to shake out even fifty years after they finished their work, but of course, they were gone by then.
Two Supreme Court cases tell the story of where we're at: Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad in 1886, and Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. The first, a relatively straightforward eminent domain case, granted 14th Amendment rights to corporations. The second declared that money spent to influence elections is a form of Constitutionally-protected free speech.
And we roll the bones, because the 14th Amendment says, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside," which makes corporations exactly the same as natural-born American humans, and further says that no state can create or enforce any law, "which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
So corporations are the same as natural Americans, but thanks to Buckley v. Valeo, all the money thrown at elections and candidates and campaigns and political parties is the same as free speech, and when massive multinational trillion-dollar corporations throw millions at the politicians, they do so with the same set of basic rights as the guy who empties their trash. Except they can't be held liable for anything, because they're corporations, and can hire million-dollar law firms to defend them, and those lawyers become judges appointed by the politicians who are bought and paid for, and it's all perfectly legal, and that's the virus.
Buy the laws, buy the law-makers, and you become the law. That is the definition of corporate freedom.
Money is why we're in Iraq. Money is why it's legal to spy on Americans, why the laws are rewritten to suit policy, why we go to war for resources, why we torture people. It doesn't have anything to do with safety or national security or anything else except money. Foreign policy decisions these days amount to little more than business deals writ large and with body counts to boot, but the latter is always folded in somewhere beneath the bottom line.
These are the Augean stables that have to be cleaned. It doesn't have a damned thing to do with George W. Bush or any of his merry men. That pack is a symptom, merely a cell, a string of proteins holding the genetic code for the virus that is everywhere, and it was there before they showed up, and will still be there when that pack is gone.
There is an election in November, which is good, because there are some people in Congress who know all this, and if it all shakes out the right way, those people will be in a position to make some changes. It's good because elections still matter, even with the corporate ownership of our votes. It's good because the idea may have been paved over with a hundred miles of money and corruption and greed, but that doesn't mean the idea is dead.
The nation which birthed us, inspires us, blesses us, puts us to work, the nation that challenged us to remember the original promises whenever we said the Pledge of Allegiance all those times in school, the nation we'd all die for, the nation we call home is, in the end, nothing more or less than an idea. It has trembled on the edge of dissolution for more than two hundred years, and never more so than today, but the margin is still there.
The margin, of course, is you and me, and everyone else. A lunatic might call this a great time to be alive, while a patriot would say it is a terrible time to be alive, and in the end, they'd both be right. Only a lunatic would think any of this could be changed, and only a patriot would stand up and volunteer for the fight to create that impossible change.
Lunatics and patriots, and a guarantee of broken hearts. That is what you sign up for if you get involved tomorrow, and that is what you've seen and felt and choked on if you were involved today. It was supposed to be a lot of things, but it was never supposed to be easy.
That was the idea to begin with, when you think about it. It has always been in danger, this idea, this dream, and it has been sustained all this time by edge-riders and lunatics and patriots. It was a masterpiece when it was created, and will be again when all is said and done. Too many of us refuse, absolutely refuse, to have it any other way.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.