In the Eighth Circle of Thieves
What is to be done now, when the Constitution is subjected to corporate-groomed politicians who read it as no more than a postmodern self-deconstructing text? The present wide-open, scandalous system of campaign financing is rationalized by a rightist ideology that portrays the federal government as stiflingly bureaucratic, intrusive and inimical to the natural rights of a free people. In the lifetimes of many of us the federal government has been just the opposite, a means of redress, redemptive justice and societal healing, as, for instance, when it enacted the Depression measures of the thirties and the Great Society legislation of the sixties. Today the corporate rightists in Congress mean to privatize the Social Security system, vouch the public school system out of existence and do whatever they can to limit if not decimate the regulatory agencies established to control their worst business excesses. By the logic of their thinking even the National Office of Weights and Measures could be construed as an impediment to business practices.
It is not that members of Congress--or indeed the media or the American public--are not aware of the inequity of the present money-soaked system of political life in our country. But to what extent that system is responsible for the grotesque distortions of our present priorities--with the resultant poverty of so many children; the way our jails proliferate for the incarceration of black men, with more and more penal systems run privately for profit; the drift into monopolization of our media and means of communication, with fewer and fewer mega-corporations controlling more and more of what we read, see, hear or understand as the news; or the cost of health insurance policies that insure people until they get sick; the inequitable tax structure; the international trade agreements that rescind our environmental laws; the list is long--and how all of this is connected to the system of unrestricted and flamboyant political donations may not be always appreciated by the public or acknowledged consistently even by those members of Congress who have voted to reform the laws of campaign finance.
In fact, campaign finance reform as a phrase has been bruited about so long and to so little effect and is so yawningly dull, dreary and unresounding, it makes one wonder if it's not partly responsible for the conditions it has so far failed to address. Perhaps there is a basement office somewhere in Washington where mischievous lexicographers of a certain political orientation have the assigned task of finding the words and phrases to defuse the issues that threaten the interests of their employers. If so, campaign finance reform has done its work well. Because what is hidden in that modest little phrase is the vision of an honest, vigorously realized democratic republic.
To effect a true and thoroughgoing reform would not change the innately raucous competition of interests among us, but neither would it provide for the amplification of some of those interests to a level that is deafening. It would amount to a kind of revolution of our national political behavior; it would bring people of talent and vision into political life who are not now available to the nation; it would be breathtaking, predictive of a new authentic polyvocal Union; and with the possibility, at last, of addressing our entrenched social and economic inequities, the distortions of our priorities and what is grotesque about our public institutions, we would begin to come out of the terrible alienation that afflicts us and think again of the beauty of our national promise. We would hope to fashion ourselves more recognizably to the ideal of human rights implicit in our Constitution.
Perhaps, then, we should not rely on Congress to find the votes to pass a true and thorough reform bill that restores to us our dignity as citizens. A genuine ad hoc social movement may be required, a state-by-state struggle by referendum, issue-specific ratings at election time, an Internet-organized lobby to end all lobbies, but in any event something--some great public outcry to flatten back the ears of the distinguished colleagues in their paneled chambers.
To imagine such glory is to invoke the idealism of Walt Whitman. Whitman did not buy the elitist presumption of classic conservatism--that it was in the nature of some to lead and most to follow--even as it claimed to recognize its responsibility (as it does not now in its corporatized form) to look after, to take care of, as one looks after or takes care of children or pets. He saw it as a terrible depressant of human energies. He understood American democracy's breakout potential to enlarge the dimensions of human life, and thought that if the discourse was truly national, the communications omni-directional, the minds of a populace living in neighborly freedom could constellate into a universe that we hadn't yet dreamed of. That is why when he walked the streets of nineteenth-century New York, Whitman embraced everything he saw. He loved the multitudes, the industry of working people; he loved the ships in the harbor, the traffic on Broadway. But he was not naïve. He knew the newspaper business from which he made his living relied finally for its success on the frail shoulders of itinerant boys and girls, street urchins who lived on the few cents they made hawking the papers at every corner. Thousands of vagrant children lived in the streets of the New York Walt Whitman loved. Yet his exultant optimism and awe of human capacity was not demeaned; he could carry it all, the whole society, and attend like a nurse to its illnesses, but like a lover to its fair face.
And so must we.