Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bill Moyers: State of the Union

I'm bone tired tonight. Sometimes my body doesn't quite do what it's supposed to do and this is one of those times. But I got a lift tonight reading Bill Moyers. In his speech, there were a couple of times when Moyers mentioned Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, a tract too little read by the powerful in Washington in recent years. I've been thinking about Paine recently, thinking of how he must be turning over in his grave at the betrayal of democracy in the last couple of decades, but after reading yet another eloquent exposition by Moyers I rather suspect Paine may be sitting up on his elbow listening closely to Moyer's recent speeches. Moyers isn't the only one speaking up these days but his is a voice that has been with us for many decades, as American as they come and a part of a history too many Americans have forgotten.

President Bush will be giving his State of the Union address on Tuesday but I'm tired of being lied to, I'm tired of the real issues of American being ignored or trampled. Here's Moyers speech, Life on the Plantation, in Truthout; although I offer excerpts below, give the full speech a good read because Moyers is speaking the truth and giving the real state of the union:
...over the previous two decades a series of mega-media mergers had swept the country, each deal even bigger than the last. The lobby representing the broadcast, cable, and newspaper industry is extremely powerful, with an iron grip on lawmakers and regulators alike. Both parties bowed to their will when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest and most powerful media conglomerates in the world - Goliaths whose handful of owners controlled, commodified and monetized everyone, and everything, in sight.

Call it the "plantation mentality" in its modern incarnation. Here in Memphis they know all about that mentality. Even in 1968, the Civil Rights movement was still battling the plantation mentality based on race, gender, and power that permeated Southern culture long before and even after the groundbreaking legislation of the mid-1960s. When Martin Luther King came to Memphis to join the strike of garbage workers in 1968, the cry from every striker's heart - "I am a man" - voiced the long-suppressed outrage of a people whose rights were still being trampled by an ownership class that had arranged the world for its own benefit. The plantation mentality was a phenomenon deeply insulated in the American experience early on, and has it permeated and corrupted our course as a nation. ...


Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow - not someone known for extreme political statements - characterizes what is happening as nothing less than elite plunder: "the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful." Indeed, nearly all of the wealth America created over the past 25 years has been captured by the top 20 percent of households, and most of the gains went to the wealthiest. The top one percent of households captured more than 50 percent of all gains in financial wealth. These households hold more than twice the share their predecessors held on the eve of the American Revolution. Of the early American democratic creeds, the anti-Federalist warning that government naturally works to "fortify the conspiracies of the rich" has proved especially prophetic. So it is this that we confront today.

America confronts a choice between two fundamentally different economic visions. As Norton Garfinkle writes in his new book The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth, the historic vision of the American Dream is that continuing economic growth and political stability can be achieved by supporting income growth and the economic security of middle-class families, without restricting the ability of successful businessmen to gain wealth. The counter-belief is that providing maximum financial rewards to the most successful is the way to maintain high economic growth. The choice cannot be avoided: What kind of economy do we seek, and what kind of nation do we wish to be? Do we want to be a country in which the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer?" Or do we want to be a country committed to an economy that provides for the common good, offers upward mobility, supports a middle-class standard of living, and provides generous opportunity for all? In Garfinkle's words, "When the richest nation in the world has to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to pay its bill, when its middle-class citizens sit on a mountain of debt to maintain their living standards, when the nation's economy has difficulty producing secure jobs or enough jobs of any kind, something is amiss."


...For years the media marketplace for "opinions about public policy" has been dominated by a highly disciplined, thoroughly networked ideological "noise machine," to use David Brock's term. Permeated with slogans concocted by big corporations, their lobbyists, and their think-tank subsidiaries, public discourse has effectively changed how American values are perceived. Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people's lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers who speak of the "death tax," the "ownership society," the "culture of life," the "liberal assault" on God and family, "compassionate conservatism," "weak on terrorism," the "end of history," the "clash of civilizations," "no child left behind." They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a "surge" - as if it were a current of electricity charging through a wire, instead of blood spurting from a soldier's ruptured veins. We have all the Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth.

So it is that "limited government" has little to do with the Constitution or local autonomy any more; now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. "Family values" now means imposing a sectarian definition on everyone else. "Religious freedom" now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And "patriotism" now means blind support for failed leaders. It's what happens when an interlocking media system filters, through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints that people consume in their daily lives. ...


I think what's happened is not indifference or laziness or incompetence but the fact that most journalists on the plantation have so internalized conventional wisdom that they simply accept that the system is working as it should. I'm working on a documentary about the role of the press in the run-up to the war, and over and again reporters have told me it just never occurred to them that high officials would manipulate intelligence in order to go to war. [Moyers has a generous spirit at times and I wouldn't underestimate its value, but clearly we have seen indifference, laziness and incompetence in the media. Still, he's largely right: those who internalize 'conventional wisdom' invariably go far in the media.]


...The greatest challenge to the plantation mentality of the media giants is the innovation and expression made possible by the digital revolution. I may still prefer the newspaper for its investigative journalism and in-depth analysis, but we now have in our hands the means to tell a different story than big media tells. Our story. The other story of America that says free speech is not just corporate speech, that news is not just chattel in the field, living the bossman's story. This is the real gift of the digital revolution. The Internet, cell phones and digital cameras that can transmit images over the Internet, make possible a nation of story tellers ... ...


Meanwhile, be vigilant about what happens in Congress. Track it day by day and post what you learn far and wide. Because the decisions made in this session of Congress will affect the future of all media - corporate and non commercial - and if we lose the future now, we'll never get it back.

So you have your work cut out for you. I'm glad you're all younger than me, and up to it. ...

When Moyers talks about the plantation mentality, broaden the definition. Keep in mind the way Irish immigrants were jammed into early New York tenements in the 1840s, or how California ranchers in the late 19th century used cheap labor provided by the Chinese, the Japanese and Mexican migrant workers who were treated by law as second-class citizens. Keep in mind the way union workers in Chicago were once shot down in cold blood or the way globalization has been distorted into another kind of plantation mentality where major corporations are resisting rising labor issues in the third world.

Time and time again, Americans have eventually come around to doing the right thing but it takes work and it takes time and it means, above everything else, having your eyes open. We are currently living in a Gilded Age, an age of greed and me-ism and it is not America at its best. Our country needs major reforms and we have seen a little of that reform in just the last few months—but there is so much more that has to be done.

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Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

There's so much that's so good and so important in this post, I am awed and humbled.

With all the people jumping into the '08 presidential race, why doesn't Moyers give it a go?

I will add one thing, adding to the points about the co-opting, control and subversion of the media, and about this being a gilded age.

Our is an age of distractions. Yes, it's good we have this broad, freewheeling medium of the Web, with all the associated media it's spawning. But make no mistake, for every concerned, reasonably savvy person tuning in to important truths being told at this Web site or that blog, there are tens or hundreds of thousands passively, uncritically vegetating in front of a TV for hours on end, evening after evening. There are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of commuters and those who drive as part of their job getting their daily dose of Rush Limbaugh, Neal Boortz, Sean Hannity or others of their ilk.

Kids in school, where too often lessons about the likes of Paine and Common Sense are so abbreviated and neutralized as to become trivialities, have their minds on moving up from a 1 Gig iPod Nano to something more powerful. They're thinking about texting on their junior-model cell phones.

Oh yes, and shopping, whether online, on the tube or at the big-box retailer, is another major distraction.

Maybe all these people running for president at some level understand it's one of the few legal and morally acceptable ways to get the attention of a large segment of the population, whether one wins or not.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

S.W., sorry I missed your thoughtful comment. Thanks for your thoughts.

I think it would be great if Bill Moyers ran! Molly Ivins joked about it a few months back but I think a part of her was serious.

Bill Moyers is a major American voice with a conscience.

12:35 AM  
Anonymous rightsaidfred said...

I'm not so thrilled about Moyer's point of view. He complains about big business and big media, but his solutions seem to involve big government, which has equally bad consequences.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

rightsaidfred takes a little understanding. Fretting about big government is sort of his security blanket.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous rightsaidfred said...

And big government is S.W.'s security blanket.

11:07 AM  

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