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Medieval Minds and the Plutocratic Plague

Medieval Flagellants

Medieval Flagellants

At the Republican caucus retreat, President Obama showed us the potential of a real-world, unscripted partisan showdown before an unblinking camera. Proving the democratic potential, FoxNews blinked and cut away from the event. That’s how important fakery and deceit are to its mission, and to the success the Right.

It takes more than a willingness to lie to convince Americans that health care reform is a communist plot or that Obama is an illegal alien. It takes contemporary political media more welcoming of artifice than truth.  And, it takes money.

That brings us to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision. (The term “Supreme Court” has always given me pause, since too often the adjective “supreme” is taken to modify its wisdom and judgment rather than its standing among the many courts.) In this case, the Court, ignoring precedent, common sense and the law, said corporations can spend unlimited amounts to influence American election outcomes. The decision, Frank Rich writes today, gives “corporate interests an even greater stranglehold over a government they already regard as a partially owned onshore subsidiary.”

No one disputes that right wing spending over the last 40 years has warped our political opinion environment. Their think tanks, television networks, publishers, hate-radio hosts and front groups dominate the message environment. But our reaction too often reminds me of Medieval Europeans’ reaction to the Plague. To find a place for the Black Death in their worldview, only God could be responsible. He must be mad at them. Out of such nonsense were the Flagellants born, a 14th Century group that marched around barefoot whipping themselves with scourges in hopes of warding off Death.

Before we ridicule the Flagellants, however, we ought to check our own duffel of delusions. It’s just as nutty to believe that all forms of communications are equal, that all people are possessed of pure reason, that ideas can and are judged fairly and equally by an informed citizenry who possess free and equal voices and access to information. These beliefs don’t just inhibit discovery of a cure, they help spread today’s plutocratic plague.

In order to believe that our own minds remain supremely rational and unbent by propaganda, we project that belief onto everyone (or almost everyone). It isn’t true of anyone. In order to believe the wealthy have no advantage in the universe of ideas, we believe that all forms of communication are equal. That’s not true, either. This essay can’t compete with $1 billion spent on TV advertising.

Yet, this is precisely what progressive defenders of the Court’s Citizens United opinion mean when they ask us to “trust the free market of ideas,” a phrase Adam Bonin used last week at Kos.

There is no more of a free market of ideas than there is a free market of health insurance. It is dangerous and destructive to believe otherwise.

The person with more money to spend on contemporary communications is almost always going to prevail. It puts the lie to the superstition that equal ideas have been openly discussed and weighed rationally by equally thoughtful citizens.

When money equals speech, the person with more money has more speech. There’s nothing free or equal about it. Give me a proposal with some cash behind it and I’ll bury the impecunious idea nearly every time. There are rule-proving exceptions, of course, but not many.

Let’s look again at the Flagellants.  We’d think even less of them had they kept at their whips long after some impossible genius discovered the disease’s true bacterial cause and invented an antibiotic to cure it. I fear the analogy might fit our own behavior, except in our case it’s not hypothetical. We know the cause of our troubles, but we can’t admit it because it doesn’t fit our mythology that good and true ideas prevail because Reason ultimately demands it and because all forms of communication are equal.

While leaders have always lied, and new ways of lying were always looked for, the Framers didn’t contemplate and couldn’t have contemplated political speech in the context of today’s dizzying and costly media world. We have to adjust to our real circumstances.

The Court ruled as it did to advance plutocracy. The Court’s majority knew exactly what it was doing. You could see it in Justice Samuel Alito’s smugness at the State of the Union speech. Some, like Glenn Greenwald, say we are not to base Constitutional interpretations on outcomes. But, if we seek to avoid an unconstitutional and undemocratic outcome – the very outcome sought by the court – how in the world do we refrain? We at least must negate an outcome.

The Court was wrong for many reasons. Corporations aren’t persons. Money and speech are not equivalent. The federal government can regulate the speech and actions of entities it creates or grants benefit to.

We’ll get back on the road to democracy when we put down the flagellants’ whips and make decisions based on reality. We need full public finance of campaigns to equalize the playing field. We need mandated public affairs programming in which political opponents engage one another just as Obama engaged Congressional Republicans. We need a Constitutional Amendment stating that corporations are not persons.

There is good news in the Court’s action. Most Americans see that it threatens democracy. Many see that it’s actually meant to do exactly that. There is opportunity here. Real opportunity. There is also great danger. If we fail to act, progressive outcomes we think possible today will be impossible tomorrow.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith