Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bill Moyers on Recovering Democracy

Most Americans still have little idea how much our democracy is under threat by right wing Republicans and a class of wealthy people who have little interest in the rest of us.

The current era began with Ronald Reagan. Now Reagan was not a deep man, though one can loosely argue that there was a decent core to him even if his policies were not particularly compassionate. He was at one time a Democrat but became a Republican later in life.

It seems Reagan's political perspective began to change during World War Two when taxes went sky high as our nation fought all out war on two fronts with two very aggressive and capable nations, Nazi Germany and a militarized, fascist Japan. It was a tall order and the consequences of failure were grim. Sacrifices were required of everyone, even those on the home front.

At the time, Ronald Reagan was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood for a series of largely forgettable pictures. His income put him in the highest income bracket and he didn't like the tax rate. Keep in mind that he was of military age and Americans older than him were dying in the Pacific, North Africa and Europe. But he didn't like the tax rate and was offended. There have been worse right wingers than Ronald Reagan but he shares with many of them the tendency they have of putting themselves at the center of the universe at the exclusion of others, except perhaps those who are like-minded. Reagan's tax rate was very high during the 1940s, but he was still living very comfortably. Apparently, not comfortably enough.

There are any number of images from recent years that carry the clear message that there is trouble in the Republican Party and that it has lost its way. But two stick in my mind. The first image is of Ronald Reagan trying to look like an aristocrat with his long black boots, tails, and riding crop while sitting on a horse like a 19th century gentleman. When I saw that image, I went uh-oh....we have a powerful man trying to resurrect the aristocracy. Keep in mind that Ronald Reagan is now something of a political moderate compared to some of the right wingers now in our government.

The second powerful image of what's wrong with the Republican Party is George W. Bush strutting on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in his flight suit; here I thought was a man who loves illusions, one-upmanship and the trappings of power. In other words, an authoritarian and a fraud. Our nation indeed has a problem.

Bill Moyers has been writing a series of brilliants speeches about the state of our nation and our democracy for some time now. Here's his latest by way of Truthout:
I've been spending time with Woodrow Wilson and others of his era because my colleagues and I are producing a documentary series on the momentous struggles that gripped America a century or so years ago at the birth of modern politics. Woodrow Wilson clearly understood the nature of power. In his now-forgotten political testament called The New Freedom, Wilson described his reformism in plain English no one could fail to understand: "The laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the week." He wrote: "Don't deceive yourselves for a moment as to the power of great interests which now dominate our development... There are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States. They are going to own it if they can." And he warned: "There is no salvation in the pitiful condescensions of industrial masters... prosperity guaranteed by trustees has no prospect of endurance."

Now Wilson took his stand at the center of power - the presidency itself - and from his stand came progressive income taxation, the federal estate tax, tariff reform, the challenge to great monopolies and trusts, and, most important, a resolute spirit "to deal with the new and subtle tyrannies according to their deserts."

How we need that spirit today! When Woodrow Wilson spoke of democracy releasing the energies of every human being, he was declaring that we cannot leave our destiny to politicians, elites, and experts; either we take democracy into our own hands, or others will take democracy from us.


In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether "We, the People" is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality - one nation, indivisible - or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

We seem to be holding our breath today, trying to decide what kind of country we want to be. But in this state of suspension, powerful interests are making off with the booty. They remind me of the card shark in Texas who said to his competitor in the poker game: "Now play the cards fairly Reuben. I know what I dealt you."


"Things have reached such a state of affairs," the journalist George Orwell once wrote, "that the first duty of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious." The editors of The Economist have done just that. The pro-business magazine considered by many to be the most influential defender of capitalism on the newsstand, produced a sobering analysis of what is happening to the old notion that any American child can get to the top. A growing body of evidence - some of it I have already cited - led the editors to conclude that with "income inequality growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age and social mobility falling behind, the United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society." The editors point to an "education system increasingly stratified by social class" in which poor children "attend schools with fewer resources than those of their richer contemporaries" and great universities that are "increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing these educational inequalities." They conclude that America's great companies have made it harder than ever "for people to start at the bottom and rise up the company hierarchies by dint of hard work and self-improvement."


...let me say: I have been a journalist too long to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. I believe the only way to be in the world is to see it as it really is and then to take it on despite the frightening things you see. The Italian philosopher Gramschi spoke of the "the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will." With this philosophy your generation can bring about the Third American Revolution. The first won independence from the Crown. The second won equal rights for women and for the sons and daughters of slavery. This third - the revolution of the 21st Century - will bring about a democracy that leaves no one out....

It's a long speech and my excerpts hardly do it justice. Give it a read. I don't know if an age of reform is coming or not, but there is a powerful need for reform. The winds are shifting and we'll soon know whether Americans can take back their democracy....or not.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 'pessimism of reason / optimism of will' quote from Antonio Gramsci, invoked by Bill Moyers, is sadly mis-understood, first by him, and, likely, in the present blog context. Above all if one returns to the times when Gramsci said that, in 1924. It appears he was actually referring, and not, one imagines, wholly with enthusiasm, to the developing political desert of fascism. Which proceeded to envelop Europe, Japan, and, with WWII, the United States and Great Britain, as well as Russia.

Like many a catchy line it cuts more than one way. I sadly can't take it as an escape hatch to something redeeming (nor as anthem for today's young generation) without also seeing it as a trap-door to ruin.

My reason does leave me deeply pessimistic, regarding what is, in our national and international politics. Will? Perhaps. But un-reasonable will leads to unbridled force.

We have too much of that at play as it is. I wish I could offer more.

4:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Parenthetical clarification to comment above.)

I read Gramsci as seeing all too clearly that it was Fascism itself that embodied the negative, destructive duality of the 'pessism of reason, the optimism of will' -- and that the outcomes, across the rise of fascist governments, would reflect the triumph of unreasoned will over any shred of reason, whether or not leavened, and lifted, through the energy of will.

4:47 AM  
Blogger verity said...

I yearn for a Moyers presidency — eight years of housecleaning, healing and healthy political mentality.

I'll offer a side note on Reagan and the liberation of his inner conservative Republican.

Reagan seemed heavily and negatively influenced by having been president of the Screen Actors Guild, a de facto union.

Reagan also seemed to have been influenced by anticommunism run amok in the era of McCarthy and charges the U.S. "lost" China because the Army and State Department were rotten with commies.

So, he went forward from that time proactively anti-union and evidently unimpressed and unmoved by the fact all the witch hunts produced little in the way of actual spies and moles, or even genuine communist sympathizers, in the U.S. government.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comments. Since you write from Italy and I don't pretend to know that much about Gramsci, I yield to you the benefit of the doubt on the quote.

But I would go to what Moyers said just before the quote: "I believe the only way to be in the world is to see it as it really is and then to take it on despite the frightening things you see." Even that can be parsed any number of ways. Since Moyers is largely talking about an inclusive sense of democracy and economic fairness, I don't think his own statement is difficult to put into context.

You're touching on things that are more ironic than they might appear at first. In our era, politics and philosophy are tricky things to deal with, partly because language has become so pliable, partly because nearly all ideas immediately collapse under close analysis. So, for me, it's always been important to look toward extreme situations that might offer clues. For me, nothing has been a better teacher than a close reading of World War Two. That includes the things that went so terribly wrong such as fascism, nazism and particularly the Holocaust.

This is too complicated an issue and requires too full a response for a simple comment on another person's thoughtful comment (which I appreciate) and I'll just leave it at that except for this last thought: there are reasons to be more pessimistic than I'm usually willing to talk about and, if we value human life and value at least some of the things humans have created, there are absolutely essential reasons why it's important to take on these things. This is no ad hoc comment on a blog that's only been around for fifteen months. I have been actively thinking about these things for over thirty years. Bill Moyers has been thinking along different lines but we overlap considerably.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Marcia, Your Confidence Coach said...

from a political point i have a couple of friends that were die hard republicans. they no longer consider themselves republicans. they are disgusted with the republican party.
as for working hard and using self improvement to better yourself that used to be a very popular belief among americans. i think this is passe now. maybe even considered naive.
i think that the self improvement arena is now in personal issues only for interpersonal relationships. that is good but sad at the same time because without optimisim in society we do have a rather bleak apathetic society. just what we have now.

5:33 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

I think I'm starting to encounter echoes of the disillusionment of the post World War I era — not a good thing.

FWIW, while reason might seem pessimistic in comparison to manifestations of will, in absolute terms, logically, reason is neutral. Meaning, what is is what is, with the chips of perceived optimism or pessimism falling where they may.

12:36 PM  

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