Sam Smith – One good way to judge the state of a culture is to check out its leadership. Absent a strong, continuing rebellion from the bottom or a conscious devolution of power, this leadership leaves its mark on every aspect of society.
For us, this is not a new problem. Shortly before 9/11 I wrote:
Over lunch one day, I asked journalist Stephen Goode how he would describe our era. Without hesitation, he said it was a time of epigons.
An epigon, he explained to my perplexed frown, is one who is a poor imitation of those who have preceded. The word comes from the epigoni — the afterborn — specifically the sons of the seven Greek chieftans killed in their attempt to take Thebes. The kids avenged the deaths by capturing Thebes – but they also destroyed it. They were generally not considered as admirable and competent as their fathers.
Being around epigons is like being trapped at a bad craft fair where everything you see seems to have been made before, only better.
Of course, you can not expect your leaders in politics, academia, business or the media to tell you this. People have to figure it out for themselves and that can take a long time.
In politics, for example, our conservative leaders are devoting themselves to the revival of segregation, even attacking unfettered voting that civil rights activists early targeted as essential for a decent society. These conservatives do not use slur words and other crudities of the old south but in some ways are even more dangerous since they seek to discriminate formally not only against blacks, but against every ethnic minority, women, gays and anyone not making enough money to contribute to their campaign. Because the mass media has so thoroughly embedded itself in the culture of our leadership, there is little hint of this on the evening news. Stealing the voting rights of citizens is treated as just another political issue to ponder soberly and not – as it should be – a crime.
In a collapsing society, one of the best clues is to look at the supposed good guys. What we find in politics is a Democratic Party that has not only betrayed its present supporters, but is actively undoing the progress it made over 80 years in economic equity and civil liberties, just to name two examples.
We are presented as heroes people like Bill Clinton, a politician with an exceptionally seedy past who cut social welfare and helped create the fiscal disaster from which we have yet to recover. And Barack Obama, who has shown unprecedented contempt towards civil liberties for a White House Democrat, is also the first to favor cutting Social Security, and generally supports reactionary solutions to our economic crisis.
We like to think that changing parties alters far more than it often does. There may be a cultural trend that affects, for better or worse, whoever is in power. Thus, we have the irony of Richard Nixon being the last president whose domestic politics could be fairly described as liberal, while people like Clinton and Obama have moved the country to the right.
Driving this now is a culture of impunity, which, some years back, I described this way:
In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity differs from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a new culture does not announce itself.
In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.
The major political struggle has become not between conservative and liberal but between ourselves and our political, economic, social and media elites. Between the toxic and the natural, the corporate and the communal, the technocratic and the human, the competitive and the cooperative, the efficient and the just, meaningless data and meaningful understanding, the destructive and the decent.
Today almost every principle upon which this country was founded is being turned on its head. Instead of liberty we are being taught to prefer order, instead of democracy we are taught to be follow directions, instead of debate we are inundated with propaganda. Most profoundly, American citizens are no longer considered by their elites to be members or even worker drones of society, but rather as targets – targets of opportunity by corporations and of suspicion and control by government.
One of the major shifting moments in our politics was the arrival of television. Up to that time, there was no media powerful enough to put the whole country on the same wavelength, using the same clichés, and assuming the same myths. Over time, television would transform politics from a community based activity to one in which you could simply buy your status.
This affected not only normal government but the nature of political corruption. Until television, political corruption in America was a feudal system: politicians gained power but in return were expected to provide distinct services to the voters. Now, with the size of campaign contributors being the major factor and advertising the major voice of politics, voters no longer matter the way they once did.
As one example of what has happened, let’s take another look at a politician widely regarded as corrupt: former DC mayor Marion Barry. In fact, the story is far more complicated.
I sometimes even describe Barryas the last of the great white mayors.
Barry was raised in Memphis TN at the end of almost a half century of political dominance in that town and Tennessee by the Crump machine. EH Crump was only mayor twice during that period but he controlled the politics for decades. Crump, like Earl Long of Louisiana, was rare among white southern politicians in that he actively organized and sought the support of black voters. One of Crump’s lieutenants, for example, was a black funeral director named Harold Ford, whose grandson of the same name served in the House as recently as 2007. And the blues godfather, WC Handy, even wrote a song, the “EH Crump Blues”, that would be sung on street corners to garner crowds for rallies.
I handled press for Barry in the 1960s when he was head of Washington’s SNCC. Our relations would sour over the years (“Where’s that son of a bitch?” he once asked my wife at a party), but even with his drug conviction and corrupt activities, you still had to admit that he was an exceptional politician. And as time went on, his politics seemed from out of another era, from that of Crump, Daley, and Curley – white mayors who defined urban politics at a time when the underclasses were struggling for equity against city elites. It was not that they weren’t corrupt, but that they gave something back to ordinary citizens in return.
For example, Barry started an important summer youth jobs program in the city when he became mayor. With instructive irony, a leading DC councilmember got sentenced to prison last year for embezzling over $350,000 – from a youth program.
Similarly, now councilmember Barry just held hearings on finding ways to help seniors get more food and other essentials while the nation’s designated black role model, Barack Obama, is cutting services to the poor and Social Security for seniors.
Not bad metaphors for the collapse of our political leadership.
Meanwhile, in academia, theoretically a source of national wisdom, a strange silence prevails. Could it be the effect, as reported by the Congressional Research Service, of the approximately 60% of federal research and development funds that go to academic institutions?
And what about a media controlled by fewer and fewer large corporations with journalists who have an increasingly hard time separating their jobs from the social and economic benefits of being nice to those in power? Just one small example:
“Project Censored researched the board members of 10 major media organizations from newspaper to television to radio. Of these ten organizations, we found there are 118 people who sit on 288 different American and international corporate boards proving a close on-going interlock between big media and corporate America. We found media directors who also were former Senators or Representatives in the House.”
And how can one brag of business leadership in an era when our economy is in such terrible shape?
Finally, we have from the arts little leadership as well, including not one major protest subculture since the punk rebellion.
It is not just the people who are the problem. It is the ideas and values that they spread with their power.
Consider how business school clichés have infected even non-profit organizations and how the media just accepts them as truths.
Or how our government is driven by data drones, process obsessives, legal lemmings, and test tyrants.
Or how our public school system is being wrecked by grotesquely erroneous concepts of education.
Or how our freedoms are being slashed in the name of a security that is drifting ever further away.
Or how truth, reality, decency, integrity, fairness and cooperation have become, in the eyes of our elite and its subservient media, just toys of the left and the naïve.
In such an environment, it is hard for anything good and valuable to survive, including a democratic republic.
This is the fourth in a series of essays on the end of the First American Republic. The earlier essays are posted herealong with some alternative approaches we might take.