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This Used to be a Helluva Good Country
April 23, 2002
By punpirate

That line, for those under fifty, comes from "Easy Rider," spoken by Jack Nicholson's character in that hippie coming-of-age film from 1968.

That comment is more true now than it was, and it wasn't universally true then.

I've spent a few back-to-back nights reading a couple of books which say the same thing in so many words: Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder, and Gregory Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.

The overwhelming message of both, and of recent practical experience, is that we've let our grip slip, folks. The Bushies and their cronies got their lumps in both books, but, the underlying message in each is that our problem is systemic, rather than party-oriented. Gore and Clinton don't come away unbloodied in these texts, and for good reason. Everyone in politics, these days, here and abroad, has become greatly enamored of "free trade."

Is that trade really free, or has the notion of a global economy which lifts all boats been transmogrified, by U.S. governmental order and influence, into a threat, backed by our military and monetary superiority, into something of benefit to U.S. corporations alone, under the cloak of our version of democracy?

There's lots of evidence to suggest the above is true. Privatization of public utilities, for example, has been a disaster for ordinary people all around the world, and, if we are, provincially, able only to note the suffering of our own in this regard, then, in California, too, thanks to the current administration and its all too cozy relationships with, notably, Enron, and other energy firms. That privatization of essential public energy services around the world has been largely been effected by the IMF, the World Bank and the U.S. government, through coercive and draconian terms forced on countries, in desperate need of relief, in exchange for economic development loans.

This is not to be a screed against either or both Bush and Gore, and about what needs to be done in the 2002 elections, or those in 2004, but, rather, is an appeal to all to think about the much longer term, difficult as that may be. It's terribly hard to think beyond one's own lifetime, but that is what we must now do.

First, the governments of the major industrial nations of the world must accept that virtually all of the verbiage of GATS, GATT, the I8, WTO, NAFTA, and the upcoming FTAA is nothing more than the jockeying of corporate interests to gain economic advantage for the rich and powerful stockholders of their nations, rather than for the people at large. If that weren't true, the Third World would embrace trade initiatives.

Second, principally, the various state and federal governments of the United States must understand that their self-interest has made this horror happen--by their support of over-arching economic and military power in the rest of the world, and willing relief of corporations from taxation and social responsibility at home.

Third, those various governments in the U.S. must come to realize that this state of affairs, in which the poorest parts of the world see the U.S. as a moral pariah forcing itself into their midst, is a direct result of U.S. governmental actions, by giving tax and trade advantages to corporations which owe allegiance only to the stockholder.

It's only in the last few years that ordinary Americans have asked, "what stockholders?" Recent conventional wisdom from the press is that the stockholders are all of us in the U.S., but the simple truth is that the real stockholders, the ones which corporations, by law, must respect--the ones who truly count--are the few percent of our citizens at the top. The rest of us, as the Enron debacle (and the savings and loan mess from fifteen years ago) clearly suggest, can go hang. Our government expects the taxpayers to pay the bills for the errant behavior of the well-to-do. State governments, and the feds, must come to realize that the system is rotten, just plain rotten. We can do so much more for ourselves and for the poor in the world if, by law, the rich were required to pay for their own excesses and their own mistakes....

Tax loopholes (which make up the largest portion of the tax code) have not been legislated for the benefit of the many, but rather for the corporate few. The clamps have not been put on campaign financing because the very people voted into office have depended not upon their heartfelt sentiments and high principles to keep them in office, but rather have depended on campaign contributions from corporate and rich private interests. Those circumstances have been grudgingly tolerated by ordinary citizens, rather than approved by them.

So, ordinary citizens... if you don't like it, it's time to say so. It's time to write or email your representatives, locally and federally, and to make your complaints specific enough to get the attention of your representatives (like the proverbial mule, you've gotta whack 'em between the eyes get their attention first).

If you like guns, you've got to temper the NRA's message to you with your other concerns. Just because a candidate shares the NRA's view and appeals to you and yours for that reason, that doesn't mean that candidate is good for the country or your other interests. That same candidate may roll over on a hazardous waste dump site in your neighborhood after you helped put him or her in office (just because you liked the way he - or she - talked about guns), or may vote to cripple air quality laws, and your kid's got asthma, and those relaxations of the law are going to make your life much more difficult, practically and financially. That same hard-line candidate may vote for reinstatement of the draft during a politically hectic time, and your kid's eighteen. One has to look at the broad view, not just in terms of one particular interest.

What is missing in the day-to-day analysis of politics in this country is that ordinary people who eventually will vote for one candidate or another, and, collectively, will decide the direction of the country and, therefore, its fate, have been steered by both politicians and the media to think in very simplistic fashion about the issues. One issue or another. Conservative or liberal (liberal, by negative repetition, being automatically perceived as bad). Never think about what is actually said and never demand more detail and explication of policy, but rather, be roped into reacting to a catch-phrase.

When a candidate says, "This Nation was founded on the Christian faith," do you know that to be true? (Careful reading of the founders' papers suggests that it isn't.) Do you think, "maybe this is meant to manipulate me?" Do you think, carefully, when a candidate says something of this sort, "what does the 1st Amendment of the Constitution actually say about freedom of religion," and "is this guy trying to get my vote by appealing to my ordinary sense of decency?"

When you read of the layoff of hundreds or thousands of your neighbors because a local branch of a multinational corporation isn't making enough money for its stockholders, do you think, "that's good, they were really messed up" or do you think, "something's wrong here." Asking the right questions, persistently, almost always produces the right answers. Maybe that right answer is to petition your state government to rewrite the rules of incorporation in your state. And, if your current legislators won't listen to that message, it's probably time to vote them out, and vote in people who have the largest portion of your interests (maybe not all) at heart.

George Bush never fails to mention, whether prompted or not, that the terrorists hate our freedoms. That sounds good, but how does it play, in practical terms? Maybe there's a clue in the way that he and his assistants in government threaten us, "you're either with us or you're against us."

It's time for all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, to understand that bad ideas will sink democracy, and will sink all of us (and, bad ideas can pose in the most benign and beneficial of guises). One of those freedoms, one of those good ideas, is that the people know best, and that the people know best about how to proceed, both with our own internal affairs and with regard to our relations with our global neighbors.

That good idea is also a responsibility. It's time for all of us to say to the blowhard who heard something haphazardly presented on the news and understood it imperfectly to explain the remark in detail. And, if that person can't, to accept the responsibility not to repeat that specious remark to others, and therefore put it into the common folklore as if it were true.

An object lesson in the matter of our nation's and our people's protection of democracy occurred last weekend. Our press and our federal government happily reported that Hugo Chavez, the twice-elected president of Venezuela, had been overthrown. Most of the media in this country reported only what the White House said about the situation in Venezuela. The White House said, in effect, that Chavez had it coming, because he was undemocratic.

In reality, the truth was buried by our media and our government. Chavez was democratically elected. The people who supported his forced removal from office were friends of the Bush administration. The titular head of the government installed by that business-oriented coup, Pedro Carmona, when he thought he was clear of political flak, dissolved the legislature, the provincial governors' offices, election offices, the attorney general's office, and, suspended the Constitution. No member of our adminstration stood up in umbrage and denounced the coup as being what it was - wholly undemocratic.

It was a very sad time in our nation's history. It made us seem, to the rest of the world, false and hypocritical and manipulative for the sake of greed.

We can undo that reputation we've created for ourselves: first, by cleaning house at home, and second, by living up to the precepts and obligations we've undertaken on behalf of other needy nations around the world. It will take lots of effort, and lots of time.

Corporations may have a place in our society in the future, but we can only fail if we allow corporations and powerful individuals to dictate their terms to us and the world, rather than the peoples' to them.

Ordinary people, recognizing what's best for them and their families, rather than what the very few want, will keep civilization, and the United States, on an even keel through the next several hundred years.

We, the ordinary people of the United States, have so much energy, enthusiasm, good will and knowledge to offer the world that we cannot afford to allow those gifts to the world to be subsumed in a conflagration ordered by people determined to create absolute power for the benefit of the few.

One hundred years from now, I hope my daughter is still alive to regale her chidren and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren about the way in which the people of the United States overcame the self-interest of the few and helped save the world, helped ensure the safety and well-being of all creatures on this planet. That would make a great story, equal to any mythic legend, ever.

George Bush says our enemies hate us for our freedoms. That's not true. The terrorists will hate us no matter what. The rest of world, good people in trouble and in need of our help, will pity us and shame us for not having the courage to live up to our public promises to them.

This used to be a helluva good country. But, it can be a good one again, and an even better one than it has ever been, if we work toward that goal now.

A good start on that path is to stop the continued election of politicians who can't keep their minds on the job of doing right by the people without money because they're too busy taking money from those who have it and want more.

And, the further requirement toward that goal is to stop voting for presidents who say, through their spokesmen, in effect, "democratic election does not confer legitimacy."

It's so simple, it's silly.


punpirate is a writer living in New Mexico who wonders why tarring and feathering of errant politicians has gone out of fashion.

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