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In the Eighth Circle of Thieves | The Nation

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In the Eighth Circle of Thieves

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The fundraising dinners are affairs of the wealthy. If you are a politician, the fatter the check that comes in, the greater your indebtedness. Your conscience becomes an instrument of self-deception. Some politicians are entirely at ease with this, either because they are themselves wealthy and are one with their contributors, or so reliably conformed to the values of the plutocracy that they rise up fully banked--as for example the Governor of Texas, noted for his rigorous support for the death penalty and for the civil rights of heavily polluting industries, who miraculously appeared in all the papers two years before the primaries as a front-runner and who now floats atop a campaign fund of $80 million.

About the Author

E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories was recently published in paperback.

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What kind of political culture does the politician cheerfully acknowledge, who can say, as Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has said, that to back reform of the system of campaign money-raising would be an idiotic thing for his party because it collects more money than the opposition? What degree of public alienation can a politician like Senate majority leader Trent Lott depend on, who has brazenly said in sponsoring legislation written by corporate lobbyists... that after all they are the specialists in their field, who know the issues better than anyone else? These are the remarks of senators confident of a general population so numbed and alienated that barely 50 percent of eligible adults bother to vote in national elections. These are the flaunted values of politicians who know of the conglomerate-owned press culture, that there will be no editorial muckraking from the "in depth" journalists of the broadcast media, that the rampant corruption in Washington, the vast, deep and dangerous mutant character of the present state of things, will not be defined for what it is, and that who speaks of the bewildering broad front of failure and mendacity and carelessness of human life in so much of our public policy in tones any louder than muted regret will be marginalized for this indecorous transgression as a leftist, a bleeding-heart liberal or perhaps a raging populist, but in any event someone so out of the "mainstream" as not to be taken seriously.

How many in Congress today have the integrity, the strength, to distinguish the interests of their districts or their states from the interests of their heavy donors? How many think there is a difference? How many can honestly admit to themselves that the big money is their constituency? To hear the points of view of some of these people, how they have become so much the forces that have bought them, is to realize they are no longer guilty of hypocrisy, having been transmogrified.

The instructive image here is from Dante's Inferno, Canto XXV. We are in a pouch of the Eighth Circle, where the thieves are kept. A monstrous lizardlike serpent leaps onto one of the thieves, wraps its middle feet around his belly, pins his two arms with its forelegs and, wrapping its rear feet around his knees, swings its tail up between his legs and sinks its teeth into his face. And so intertwined, monster and thief, they begin to melt into each other like hot wax, their two heads joining, their substances merging, until a new third creature is created, though somehow redolent of both of them. And it slowly slithers away into the darkness.

Back in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention had done its work and the drafted Constitution was sent out to the states for ratification, the public's excitement was palpable. Extended and vigorous statehouse debates echoed through the towns and villages, and as, one by one, the states voted to ratify, church bells rang, cheers went up from the public houses and in the major cities the people turned out to parade with a fresh new sense of themselves as a nation.

Everyone marched--tradespeople, workingmen, soldiers, women, clergy. They had floats in those days, too--most often a wagon-sized ship of state, called the Union, rolling through the streets with children waving from the scuppers. Philadelphia came up with a float called the New Roof, a dome supported by thirteen pillars and ornamented with stars. It was drawn by ten white horses, and at the top was a handsome cupola surmounted by a figure of Plenty, bearing her cornucopia.

The ratification parades were sacramental--symbolic venerations, acts of faith. From the beginning people saw the Constitution as a kind of sacred text for a civil society. Indeed, the voice of the Constitution is scriptural. It ordains. It empowers itself to give law endlessly into the future. Like the Bible, it requires interpretive commentaries that themselves have the authority of law because its principles must be applied to a multitude of situations. And where its prophecy has been false, as in the infamous Article IV, which made a slave in one state a slave in all, the national calamity of a civil war ensued before the text could be amended.

Today, the Constitution with its Bill of Rights and further amendments rules us with a set of behavioral prescriptions that, if we lived up to all of them, would make us a truly free and righteous people. When the ancient Hebrews broke their covenant they suffered a loss of identity and brought disaster upon themselves. Our burden too is unmistakably covenantal. We may point to our 200-some years of national survival as an open society, constitutionally sworn to a degree of free imaginative expression that few cultures in the world can tolerate; we may regard ourselves as an exceptional, historically self-correcting nation whose democratic values locate us just as surely as our geography... and yet we know at the same time that all through our history we have brutally excluded vast numbers of us from the shelter of the New Roof, we have broken our covenant again and again with a virtuosity verging on damnation and have been saved only by the sacrificial efforts of Constitution-reverencing patriots in government and out of government--Presidents, senators, Justices, abolitionists, muckrakers, suffragists, striking workers, civil rights activists.

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