In 1976, I had press credentials from the Lawrence Journal World and used them to cover the war in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. The African country was still under white rule at the time, but was the target of a Soviet-backed insurgency, which ultimately prevailed. The subsequent Marxist dictatorship under tyrant Robert Mugabe has resulted in the near total destruction of the country. As I stood at the border with Zambia where the insurgency was based, I realized this was yet another boundary between Western civilization and barbarism. I knew once it was breached, a lot of very bad things would happen to a lot of good people, black and white.
I was right.
When I worked at the Department of Defense in 2002 I came across a serious security breach. As I prepared a report for Secretary Rumsfeld, I had to confront the career bureaucrats whose carelessness had caused the breach. When I read them the riot act in a tense late afternoon session in my boss’s office, it was as stressful a situation as I’ve ever been in professionally. I took solace in the idea that defending my country was a more meaningful way to live than fighting over slip-and-fall cases in Kansas City. In the words of The Talking Heads; “This ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”
I got the name of this post from an incredible PBS production, “Concealed Enemies”, from over 20 years ago. It is a dramatization of the story of Alger Hiss, a distinguished public servant serving in the highest ranks of the U.S. Government in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he was confronted by accusations that he was a Communist agent, Hiss vehemently denied the allegations. His accuser, a former communist operative turned magazine editor named Whittaker Chambers, turned over to the federal prosecutors both stolen secret documents (on micro-film, hidden by Chambers in a pumpkin patch on his Maryland farm at one point, hence the “Pumpkin Papers”) and the names of critical eye-witnesses from the time years before when both Hiss and Chambers were part of the Communist underground.
One such witness was an elderly black woman from the Baltimore ghetto. The FBI brought her to New York to testify and before putting her on the stand, they had her stand quietly in the lobby of the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square. As Hiss strode into the building, with a phalanx of high-powered lawyers, trading asides with a number of reporters taking down his every word, the black woman looked intently at him. At his moment of seeming triumph, the woman looked up at the two towering FBI agents and gave them a nod of recognition, confirming that Hiss was indeed the man she remembered. Based on the actual historical and legal account, this film depiction is both faithful and dispassionate, taking no sides. It is only that moment that reveals what is at stake and who is telling the truth.
I felt that same thrill and trepidation last week, Thursday, May 22, at an event in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. John Nichols, the Washington editor of The Nation, the one and fifty year old “liberal” magazine was here to talk about a book he authored with a Robert McChesney, “Dollarocracy, How The Money and Media Complex is Destroying America.” (The Kauffman Foundation made the evening possible, which is ironic since it was a diatribe against wealthy people, like Ewing Kauffman, and corporations, like his Marion Labs!)
Nichols’s appearance was complete with his own cheering section.
There were a dozen blue t-shirt clad members of The KC Move to Amend (“a coalition of hundreds of organizations and hundreds of thousands of individuals committed to social and economic justice, ending corporate rule, and building a vibrant democracy that is genuinely accountable to the people, not corporate interests”). One couple had brown t-shirts that read “Oligarchy Response Squad”, though I admit they were being somewhat tongue-in-check, which was a useful corrective in an evening where humor and irony were in short supply.
Nichols delivered the identical message that we have heard from other left-of-center authors the last couple of years in talks at the library, to wit: Corporations and the wealthy are in control of everything in the U.S. The Money Power has pulled off a “hostile takeover” of American Democracy. The press has been neutered and has abdicated its traditional role as watch dogs against corruption and abuse of power by government. Huge amounts are being spent by special interests in order to undermine democracy and take away the right to vote from millions.
Nichols placed particular emphasis on the paramount need to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. This is the case where the right of corporation and unions to political free speech was upheld, i.e. they have first amendment rights just like individuals. Nichols at this point in his remarks recognized the audience members from Move to Amend, the local “progressive group” that wants to establish that corporations have no constitutional rights.
When they say we need to take away all constitutional rights from corporations, I take them at their word. All rights means all rights, including the right of contract, the right to bring a cause of action civilly, the right to own property (real and personal, tangible and intangible), and the right not to have it taken from you without due process of law. I clearly understand it to mean taking the First Amendment protection from corporations, which include the right of free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion (many, if not most, churches are non-profit corporations).
According to the Right to Amend folk’s logic, I could beat up or kill the entire staff of the Star, blow up their printing presses, stop its papers from being delivered, prevent them from receiving payment from third parties for subscriptions and advertising, and no one could stop me or seek any recourse against me for my actions. As a corporation, The McClatchy Company would have no rights or legal recourse.
To show that I’m not exaggerating, go to the Move To Amend blog, where it’s proposed that the principle of limited corporate liability would also be taken away. Corporations and their employees and their owners would lose the most basic legal protection that goes back thousands of years to Roman times. Nichols and his friend also support another amendment proposed by that shining example of disinterested good government, the Senator from Las Vegas, Harry Reid, in which all political fund raising and expenditures would be under the strict supervision and control of Congress.
Mr. Nichols echoed all this in his remarks as being a necessary corrective to “The Money Power”.
Yet the Money Power we need to be on guard against is only coming from The Right.
There are twelve references to Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino owner and conservative donor in the index to Dollarocracy. There are six references to Charles and David Koch. (Harry Reid, on the other hand, says that Adelson is a man of principle unlike the Kochs who are, Reid says, just in “it’-politics-for the money! Could it have something to do with the fact Adelson is one of Reid’s constituents?)
There is no mention of financier George Soros, who has spent over a hundred million dollars on left-wing causes. There is no mention of former New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, who spent an equal amount on his personal campaigns for Senator and Governor. There is no mention of publisher and media mogul Michael Bloomberg, who spent equivalent sums on his campaigns for Mayor of New York and gun control.
We did hear from Nichols, about such saintly characters as Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay councilman who was murdered; Keith Ellison, the Black Muslim Congressman and follower of Louis Farrakhan from Minnesota; and I.F. Stone, the radical journalist who was later disclosed to be a paid agent of the KGB after the Kremlin archives were opened. These are the kinds of people that a thousand of your fellow Kansas Citians applauded.
I should not have been surprised when I recalled that The Nation was an unrepentant apologist for Stalin for decades, just as they are for Putin right now. What seems so frightening is that no one seemed to notice or care in the audience that what we are being asked to embrace is the view that American society has always been a force for evil, i.e. “capitalism” at home and “militarism” abroad.
In yet another quote from Orwell, referring to left-wing English intellectuals but which is true, as well, for their American counterparts; “There is no enemy so evil that it would cause them to take sides with their own government.”
The overall impression is of people who did too many drugs in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Who else could believe that a memo from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a nefarious plan for world domination? Who else thinks that the late Justice Lewis Powell, an Establishment lawyer who went to the Supreme Court from that nest of radical firebrands, the American Bar Association, was the avatar of Satan behind all our current woes?
As humorless as this group of zombies was, I decided to have fun at the speaker’s expense and to see if I could get a rise. I asked Nichols how he could reconcile his attacks on concentrations of wealth and on corporations with the fact that his editor and publisher, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, was only able to buy The Nation because of inheriting a three hundred million dollar fortune from her grandfather, record and movie mogul Jules Stein, founder of The Music Corporation of America. Nichols immediately shifted into rhetorical flight and evasion mode. After a few moments of scrambling (“That’s a really good question! I’m actually quite glad you asked that. Let’s give the man a big hand for asking!”), we got the stock answer on this point: “I’m not against concentrations of wealth.” (If they belong to his employer?), “Well, maybe I am, but not in this context. I’m not going to talk about it. It’s actually only wealth used to gain unfair political power that I object to.”At this point his voice sped up and grew shrill,like Alvin and The Chipmunks.I’ll give him credit,though,he never stopped talking.
When I pointed out that there are plenty of left-wing billionaires who use their wealth to political ends (like Tom Steyer, the hedge-funder who is spending $100 million to stop the Keystone pipeline), Nichols fell back on the chestnut that its only people using the power their wealth has given to them to protect that wealth by gaming the system or otherwise advancing their own interests financially that he objects to. In other words, it’s not about money, it’s about power. But it’s only about power to the extent it’s about money!
There is no morality but class morality.
There is no objective truth except in a class context. Marx lives, at least among a thousand or so septuagenarian Mid-Westerners. Fun stuff,indeed, to spend an evening with so many people who hate the traditions, the history, and the institutions of this country.
(I did learn that this summer’s fashion accessory is a copy of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in The Twenty-First Century”; That and matching Paul Davis for Governor buttons and bumper stickers.)