December 2011 Archives

What Can We Learn From Iowa and New Hampshire?

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       Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in a democracy, we get the government we deserve.   By and large, the historic record does not bode well. Sadly, the highest rate of voter turnout in a presidential election in the last half century was in 1960 when 63.1 percent of those registered to vote, cast ballots. By the time of the 1996 Presidential election only 49.1 percent, less than half the eligible voters, voted. Even in the throes of a growing recession and a bitterly fought Presidential Election, a mere 56.8% of eligible voters participated in the 2008 presidential election while, as a consequence of the 2010 elections in which an obstructionist, ideologically reactionary Tea Party majority assumed control of the Republican -dominated House of Representatives, a mere 37.8 % of eligible voters turned out.
The red "GOP" logo used by the party...

       Ignorance and apathy by citizens have enabled the political system of the United States to become totally corrupted. A large part of the problem may be traced to this country's failure to create a literate, educated citizenry. For example, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy deficiencies. More than 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. In addition, studies have shown that. Americans in general do not understand what molecules are, less than one third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, and one adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
       These disturbing trends are replicated the area of citizenship education. In a 2005 report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 14,000 freshman and seniors at fifty colleges and universities were administered 60 multiple-choice questions which were intended to measure their knowledge of American history and government, world affairs, and the market economy. The first of its major findings was that "America's colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America's history and institutions. There was a trivial difference between college seniors and their freshman counterparts regarding knowledge of America's heritage. Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshman, and, at many schools, seniors know less than freshman about America's history, government, foreign affairs, and economy. Overall, college seniors failed the civic literacy exam, with an average score of 53.2 percent, or F, on a traditional grading scale."

       As a consequence of voter indifference and literacy deficits, gerrymandering, voting restrictions and distorted, misleading political advertisements, fueled by millions of dollars contributed by  monied interests, have turned the electoral process into a lottery in which the intelligent, the principled, the bold leaders and the visionaries have little chance to be elected. By contrast, the peddlers of nonsense and the demagogues - witness the current GOP presidential contenders - are rewarded by their wealthy benefactors for supporting proposals to further reduce tax rates on the wealthy and corporations; gut regulation of the economy in the public interest; eliminate environmental protection laws; and, in a sop to the many religious lunatics who inhabit the current Republican Party, enable governments at all levels to invade the uteruses of every woman and female child in America.

       Given all of the problems that currently bedevil the American political system and its economy, it is inexcusable that two largely rural, monochromatic  white states, populated by large numbers of gun fetishists, climate-change deniers, evangelicals and recluses should be permitted to play the leading role in choosing Presidential candidates in either of the two alleged political parties.  These two states and their voters have little experience or understanding of the complexities of life in an increasingly cosmopolitan, urbanized society populated  by large numbers of people who do not share their ethnicities, races or religions or worldviews. Further, the rural orientations and nostalgic pining for a mythological American past make it difficult for many of the voters in these two states to understand the complexities or government and economics in the twenty- first century. 

       Because of the forums provided by the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, the GOP presidential candidates have been permitted, without any serious criticism or scrutiny by the media, to argue that, instead of  the current, grid-locked, paralyzed status quo - which already heavily favors the powerful and the wealthy - this country should revert to the kind of laissez-faire Social Darwinism that dominated American political thought duringthe post Civil War era. When that ideology controlled, labor unions were prosecuted as combinations in restraint of trade, child labor laws were outlawed, industrial accidents were not compensated for, and the poor, the inform and the elderly were left without any safety net except that which their families, churches and charities could provide.    
        John Adams warned that "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide." Empowering a small, unrepresentative sample of poorly informed voters, who are easily manipulated and persuaded by the propaganda of wealthy special interests, to set this country's political agenda is a prescription for collective suicide.

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The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas

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          The season inspires many of us to consider the plight of those less fortunate. At this time of year, we also remember fondly those who have passed on before us - the parents, teachers, public servants, clergy, neighbors, friends and sometimes utter strangers who, through guidance and good example, enabled us to succeed and to thrive as children and as adults. Their love and their efforts are a constant reminder that none of us is alone. They also remind us that each of us became who are because others took the time to help us along life's road, and that each of us is an indispensable member of a broader community of citizens and human beings who, through the civil institutions we have created and sanctioned, mutually nurture, teach and contribute of the well-being of one another.
English: Newt Gingrich with a crowd in Ames, Iowa

         It is thus remarkable that today, in the midst of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, a number of public figures and aspiring public figures in the GOP has chosen to eschew the central message of Christmas - that through the power of example and good works mankind can find hope and redemption. Instead, their message emphasizes the singular virtues of self-reliance and continued self-sacrifice on the part of the many. Equally disturbing, they continue to deny the efficacy of concerted action by citizens, through their elected officials and public institutions, to ameliorate poverty and suffering and to ultimately improve the conditions of life for everyone in our society.     

         Perhaps the most striking example of this re-emerging paradigm of selfishness is Newt Gingrich. His entire life has contradicted the ideology he claims to profess. A long-time supporter of the garrison sate, Gingrich avoided the Vietnam War through a combination of student and family deferments. A serial philanderer and adulterer, he now professes to be devoted to family values. A proponent of frugality, while a member of the House of Representatives, he wrote and bounced 22 checks on his Congressional House Account, most of which were supposed to pay the chauffeur who drove him around Washington, D.C. in a Lincoln Town Car.

        Gingrich also orchestrated the impeachment of President Clinton for his sexual peccadillo with Monica Lawinsky while he, himself, was exacting quid pro sex from a House staffer whom he subsequently married after he divorced his second wife. Later, Gingrich was censured and forced to resign as speaker for repeated ethical violations. After his resignation and to the present, Gingrich has continued to earn millions of dollars as a influence peddler and door-opener in Washington, D.C. for gaggle of well-heeled, special interests.

        Gingrich now assures us that he is a changed man. He claims that he was drawn to the Catholic Church because it is the faith of his wife and that he now shares its world view. But there is  little evidence that he understands traditional Catholic social philosophy. Rather, he continues to espouse the political ideas that emerged only in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation - the kind of individualism that was emphasized in the works of thinkers like John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith. These thinkers, by and large, defined freedom and rights broadly and negatively, as the absence of restraint, and as a necessary check upon the exercise of power by government. They viewed government as something alien and dangerous, and almost always in conflict with the interests of individuals.

        The  political ideas that Gingrich continues to endorse are not, in fact, conservative - in the Catholic or European sense of that  term - but rather are based upon those antiquated 18th century liberal notions. He is thus a right-wing, classical liberal parading as a conservative. Witness, most recently, his comments that child labor laws should be relaxed so that poor children could learn the value of hard work.

       By contrast, the Catholic conservative tradition is very different. It traces its lineage from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, to Catholic philosophers today. It is thus fundamentally at odds with the kind of anti-social individualism that dominates current U.S. political discourse. It is also very radical. Aquinas, for example, insisted  that, "It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but that "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need."

       In that broad Catholic tradition, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno has emphasized that "man does not live alone; he is not an isolated individual, but a member of society...Reason, that which we call reason, reflex and reflective knowledge, the distinguishing mark of man, is a social product." The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain has declared, in stark contrast to the myth of Horatio Alger that Gingrich continues to peddle in Iowa,  that "[T]he primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice....As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

       Had Gingrich read Pope John XXIII's encyclical, Pacem et Terris, rather than the writings of Ayn Rand, he would have discovered that much of Catholic social teaching is far more dangerous to his professed politics than those of the anti-colonialist, Kenyan socialist president whom Gingrich and his evangelical followers dislike. As John XXIII observed,  "Individual groups and intermediate groups are obliged to make their specific contributions to the common welfare. One of the chief consequences of this, is that they must bring their own interests into harmony with the needs of the community, and must dispose of their goods and their services as civil authorities have prescribed, in accord with the norms of justice, in due form and within the limits of their competence."   

       Lastly,  Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum Novarum, stands in stark contrast to Gingrich's professed contempt for child labor laws, labor unions, minimum wage legislation, universal medical care and a broad range of safety-net programs that promote the general well-being:  "Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice."

       In this season of hope, Newt Gingrich's politics promise not a better, more prosperous future for citizens in this country, but rather the introduction of the work-houses, debtor's prisons and the kind of intractable social inequality that Charles Dickens condemned in Victorian England. When this troubling vision is combined with Gingrich's promise to permit evangelical fundamentalists to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of us, fear rather than hope becomes the operative word.          

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