Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Short Route to Chaos

In Act One Scene 2 of Robert Bolt’s celebrated play A Man for All Seasons (1960), Cardinal Wolsey tries to enlist Thomas More’s aid in securing a Tudor heir. King Henry VIII wants a son to ensure his dynasty, but his wife of 20 years, Queen Catherine, is as “barren as a brick.” As Lord Chancellor, Wolsey plans to secure a papal divorce for the King by applying pressure to church property. Then Henry can marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas, an idealistic scholar and a deeply religious man, is horrified.

WOLSEY:  I think we might influence His Holiness’ answer…

MORE:  I’ve already expressed my opinion on this.

WOLSEY:  Oh, your conscience is your own affair; but you’re a statesman! Do you remember the Yorkist Wars?…Let him die without an heir and we’ll have them back again. …England needs an heir; certain measures, perhaps regrettable, perhaps not… All right, regrettable! But necessary, to get us an heir! Now explain how you as Councilor of England can obstruct those measures for the sake of your own, private, conscience.

MORE: Well . . . I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . . they lead their country by a short route to chaos.

Since last week’s mass homicide in Aurora, there’s been much talk about the need for appropriate gun control. Every year this country must endure heartrending and macabre acts of mass murder. Among the cacophony of voices are those who blame the failures of our mental health system or the entertainment industry, and still others who claim the real problem is that there just aren’t enough people carrying guns (as if more guns would actually make society safer). And of course, these are followed by the annual cries for sane gun legislation. They all might as well be spitting on a forest fire. Coupled with the climate change crisis, extra-judicial killings, American drones terrorizing populations abroad, campaign spending out of control, and the undue influence of corporations in our government and media, we get the clear picture that our system is terribly broken, that we are all held hostage by special interests running amok.

America is and always has been a violent nation. Yet over the past decade that culture of violence has received a huge shot in the arm from the rampaging violence of American might overseas and the ever expanding War on Terror, from executive power without checks and balances, from the growing militarization of local law enforcement and the shooting of unarmed citizens, and from the economic violence committed daily by a financial sector without accountability. In short, everything seems out of balance because everything is out of balance. Without justice, without the rule of law in the highest places, there can be no peace elsewhere.

It may seem simplistic, but nonetheless accurate, to say that the entire world would be amazingly better off if the US would simply reform its campaign finance system. Think of it. There would be fewer wars. Real action on climate change and a switch to a greener economy might be possible. Appropriate gun control would not be just a pipe dream. More justice at home and abroad. One system of justice for rich and poor. Fairer diplomatic policies that reflect our actual values as a nation, instead of the fiats of a handful of multinational corporations, would mean fewer acts of terrorism. The list is really endless and should serve to demonstrate what our priorities need to be in the years ahead.

Speaking of the breakdown of the rule of law, later in the play, Thomas More confronts his would-be son-in-law, Will Roper, whose religious zeal almost makes the scholar’s flesh crawl.

ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down–and you’re just the man to do it–d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

More’s words paint a frighteningly accurate portrait of the kind of chaos that is unleashed when the rule of law breaks down, or rather, is sacrificed for reasons of security or even simple greed. The current administration’s mainstreaming of injustices and acts of violence that in former years were practiced in back rooms are, as history may judge, the most dangerous crimes ever committed by a sitting president. I am of course referring to the policies of indefinite detention, the assassination of US citizens and foreign nationals, the use of drone warfare, not to mention the most egregious trade bill ever concocted by man, which may render national and local legislation completely powerless in the face of multinational corporations.

No one yet knows what was going through the tortured mind of a young man who entered that theater through an exit door last week. Most probably, none of the above issues ever passed through his head. Yet injustice has a way of breeding more injustice, and violence more violence. Both breed rage, hopelessness, and despair. As our government grows increasingly unrestrained, the people will follow. And violence and mayhem have a way of coming home to roost, even when they are practiced ten thousand miles away.

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Groucho a Commie? Or, There’s Nothing like a Hoover When You’re Dealing with Dirt.

(During summer vacation, I thought I’d repost some of my favorite blog entries. Here’s one from 2006.)

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if Groucho Marx had appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in the 1950s? Sound like a bad episode of Star Trek Voyager? Perhaps not.

It seems that Groucho (not to be confused with Karl) Marx was the subject of much FBI monitoring from the late 40s to early 60s. While hardly a Communist, the legendary comedian was know to be a member of Hollywood’s left and to be outspoken on a variety of political issues. A lifelong Democrat, in 1947 he joined the Committee for the First Amendment, an organization of Hollywood’s elite who opposed HUAC’s investigations. In addition, his FBI file was replete with correspondence from clearly unbalanced but “loyal Americans” who hated his wisecracking and suspected him of being a Red-sympathizer.

By 1953 Groucho’s long-running quiz show You Bet Your Life was #3 in the ratings, and his name had become a household word. It would have been a feather in Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover’s trim little bonnet if he could bring down such a well-known celebrity as Marx (the fact that Groucho was not a Communist had little to do with it). The comedian had built a career on off-color remarks, some of which, if stretched beyond the limits of English semantics, could possibly expose him as a Communist propagandist. But even Hoover knew it was a longshot.

Amazingly, however, it seemed the FBI chief was beginning to move in for the kill when HUAC called in Jerry Fielding, Groucho’s musical director on the show. “I think they wanted me to name Groucho,” Fielding later admitted. Fielding was a member of about 60 of the 240 groups on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. He wouldn’t have stood a chance. So he ended up pleading the Fifth. You Bet Your Life’s sponsors, those good folks at the DeSoto-Plymouth Dealers of America (a division of Chrysler), responded by demanding Fielding’s immediate removal. (Exactly how much Commie propaganda one could spread by playing “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” twice a week is a matter of conjecture.)  Under enormous pressure, Groucho complied. “That I bowed to sponsor’s demands is one of the greatest regrets of my life,” the comedian confessed in a 1976 autobiography, published a year before his death.

In taking the fall, Fielding spared Groucho, and DeSoto, an embarrassing battle, but one wonders what would have happened if the comedian, known for his rapier wit and trademark effrontery, had been called before the Committee. It is perhaps one of the great losses to history.

HUAC:  Mr. Marx, are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Groucho: Gentlemen, I make it a point never to join any organization that would accept me as a member.

HUAC:  Mr. Marx, we’ll get a lot further if you’ll answer my question.

Groucho: Mr. Chairman, we’ll get even further if you won’t question my answer.

HUAC:  May I remind you, sir, you are standing under oath?

Groucho: Well, my shoulders are tired. Tell Oath he can stand under me for a while.

HUAC:  Mr. Marx, this sort of testimony is most irregular.

Groucho: I don’t know why. I was up all night after taking that magnesia.

HUAC:  Sir, you strike me as a fool.

Groucho: Well, I’d rather strike you as I am, but it’ll do.

HUAC:  These remarks are highly insulting.

Groucho:  Yes, and in Ethiopia they’d be Highly Selassie.

HUAC:  Sir, you should have a little respect for this Committee.

Groucho:  Oh I do. I have very little respect for this Committee.

HUAC:  I believe I detect contempt of Congress.

Groucho: Can you notice it from over there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.

HUAC:  Mr. Marx, let’s get to the point. Have you had relationship with any known Hollywood Reds?

Groucho:  Of course. Red Skelton, Red Buttons, and then there’s Red Robin.

HUAC:  What about Red Robin?

Groucho:  He just keeps bob-bob-bobbin’ along.

For more about Groucho’s FBI file 

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By the Rivers of Babylon

Whether we turn to the declarations of the past or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.  –Frederick Douglass

On July 5, 1852 the great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass made a speech to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. In this, one of his most famous addresses (known to history as “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”), he gives a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and brutality of a supposedly Christian nation. Even the Abolitionist ladies must have dropped their thimbles when he confronted them with an ex-slave’s perspective on their holiday. Let’s listen in:

This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn that it is dangerous to copy the example of nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.’

…What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

While taking hope in the long term from the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass nevertheless saw clearly that America had always been a nation divided against itself: not just politically between North and South, or slave-owner and Abolitionist, but divided in soul between the divine ideals to which it aspired and the cruel tyrannies of property and greed, between what it wanted to see or believe about itself and the stark and ugly truth. And, he states, this national schizophrenia would continue so long as that vaunted liberty and equality were not enjoyed by all its inhabitants.

We can truly thank heaven for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, paid for with the blood of millions, both slave and free. We can also thank God for the potent words of the Declaration of Independence, whose principles sowed the seeds of destruction for slavery (the very institution its author Jefferson so scandalously defended during his lifetime), and whose words like yeast, continue to work into the national dough.

Yet, Douglass would agree, that process is far from complete. As a nation we remain deeply in denial about our past, and tragically at odds with what Lincoln termed the “primary cause” of America’s success.

That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”–the principle that clears the path for all–gives hope to all–and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.

Slavery has been eradicated in name but not in practice. It endures in the tomato fields of Florida and the brothels of our biggest cities. It changed its name to Jim Crow, and then to the War on Drugs and more recently Voter Reform, but the result is still the disenfranchisement and impoverishment of people of color.

Slavery also exists among the people overseas who pick our coffee and cocoa and who manufacture our computer parts and bargain clothing.  Like the rest of our economy, we may have outsourced it to countries far away, out of sight and out of mind, but it still exists. It persists wherever human nature values wealth over the bodies and souls of its fellow creatures, and wherever consumers are willing to cultivate ignorance in the maintenance of comfort and prosperity.  “Cheap merchandise means cheap men,” said  William McKinley. As long as these people remain unknown to us, as long as we continue to turn a deaf ear to their cries while enjoying the fruit of their sweat, we remain a nation of slaveholders, blinded by the myth of our own goodness.

Read more of Douglass’ speech.

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