History is on our side: the 99% writes back

by Frances A. Chiu

#Occupyhistory 2012: a few reflections on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street

It was only a year ago when Occupy Wall Street gathered at Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011. What an exciting prospect it seemed, a timely intervention to the malaise instilled by years, if not decades of neoliberal stagnancy. For a born-again 18th-century radical, it truly was Wordsworthian bliss to be alive in that dawn. And for those who were young and in the thick of the activities, it must have been “very heaven” indeed.

Flash forward to 2012. It’s hard for some not to feel discouraged by the subsequent diminution of the OWS presence after a year of repeated police crackdowns. To mourn that what began with a bang ended with a whimper–or at least, according to newspapers across the globe. Has all been lost?

Hardly.

Let’s start by crediting OWS for waking up the nation with a clarion call. This is not to say that concerns about our widening social inequity, income disparity, or the disproportionate burden of taxes on the vast majority of Americans were entirely new in 2011. But it was OWS that articulated these injustices so cannily, reminding us that “We are the 99%.” The same goes for their indictment of the big banks, casino capitalism, corporate corruption, and Citizens United. Again, although none of those topics were particularly fresh or novel, thanks to the financial crisis of 2008 and the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens in early 2010, it was OWS that brought them to front and center stage in their Declaration of the Occupation of New York City:

we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.

OWS’ central messages have resonated powerfully–despite the popular media’s strenuous efforts to sideline, if not deride them outright. We’re all familiar with the allegations repeated ad nauseam— “Their message is vague and scattered,” some claimed. “Long on words, short on action.” “Those nasty, filthy protesters need to bathe and get a job!” Etc. In short, the same, tired insults which have been levied at reformers and progressives throughout history (e.g., “Tom Paine is a leveller!”). Nonetheless, we knew something was right when even Wall Street pundits and politicians began to agree with some of the key ideals voiced by OWS, albeit reluctantly–and when the 1% embarked on the building of personal safety shelters in their mistaken fears of OWS violence. Even jocular references to OWS–for instance, as seen in that distinctively tongue-in-cheek Interactive Brokers ad, “Join the 1%”–demonstrate just how much the movement has entered into public consciousness.

But that’s not all. More crucially, OWS has proven to be not only a conduit for meaningful discussion and analysis of our crisis today, but also for genuine activism.

Consider the offshoot venture, Occupy our Homes. Launched back in December 2011, OOH has cooperated with local Occupy groups in helping victims of foreclosure retain their homes or modify their loans. In Atlanta, for instance, OOH prevented foreclosure auctions in the courthouses of DeKalb, Gwinett, and Fulton counties. 24 OOH protesters were also able to halt the eviction of a family by encamping on their lawn. And in Detroit, OOH, Occupy Detroit, Moratorium Now, and Homes Before banks also prevented the eviction of a Detroit couple from a house they had owned for over 22 years. Similar victories have been scored in Cleveland, Nashville, Rochester, and St. Paul.

More recently, members of Occupy Sunset Park are currently lending a hand to local immigrant communities in their rent strike against a landlord who refused to remedy faulty wiring, rodent infestation, and a mile-high pile of rubbish in the basement: there are already plans to have tenants form their own association or an affordable housing cooperation.

And only a few short weeks ago, OWS helped Manhattan restaurant workers unionize a Hot and Crusty restaurant after defeating the former boss and resolving a worker lock-out.

Occupiers have also extended their efforts to the environment, particularly the gas industries and the industrial agricultural system. Many have been involved in protesting tar sands oil, fracking (along with other means of extraction), and genetically modified foods (GMOs). Indeed, over the last few days, Occupy Monsanto managed to shut down receiving and shipping access points at Monsanto’s Oxnard, CA seed distribution center as a prelude to a week-long protest beginning today in order to draw attention to the lack of labelling on GMOs (“monstraception” as some call it): a protest that begins in earnest today and will be spread over at least a week.

Of course, it remains difficult to chart the future trajectory of OWS. The course of history, after all, reveals a long trail of struggles between the 1% and the 99%, a shared sense of grievance that the kings, nobles, mill owners, CEOs have always sought to bend legislation and justice to their own ends while the 99% remained largely subject to their abuses. History has shown how some populist, revolutionary movements have proven more successful than others in their immediate contexts, regardless of initial prognostications. We know that the seemingly unstoppable English peasants’ riot of 1381–a rebellion against the excesses of serfdom led by Wat Tyler–ended in defeat, as did the German Peasants’ war of 1524-6. And we know that despite the victory of the Roundheads in the English Civil War, the communal Diggers, the very first “occupiers” of unclaimed grounds and commons, eventually came to be routed. Similarly, we know all too well just as the French proceeded through no less than three revolutions more than a century and a half later, many British Chartists would not live to witness the fulfillment of any of the aims from their 1838 Charter (e.g., the secret ballot, universal male suffrage). Finally, even in America, it’s hard to forget that the separate struggles for our rights were long, wavering, and unpredictable, beginning with our own revolution. Who could foretell back in 1764 that the outrage over the Stamp Act would lead to the eventual overthrow of the world’s most powerful empire then by an odd assortment of ragtag colonists lacking any formal military training? Yet, however we view these struggles, it is a true testament to the people’s collected will over the centuries that whatever the initial setbacks encountered by the many reformers, much of the West did eventually grant universal suffrage to its citizens, to acknowledge the injustice of slavery, to enact labor and safety laws, and more importantly, retain some awareness of the need to redress extreme socioeconomic inequity.

OWS is very much a part of this process–along with the English peasants of 1381, the German peasants of 1524, the Diggers, American colonists, French Jacobins, Chartists, suffragettes, and so many others. Maybe OWS won’t be able to eradicate inequality and poverty entirely, but it might just revive our hopes and dreams for a more equitable government and a livable planet that have thus far been oppressed by our Tweedledees and TweedleDUMBs, our 1% neoliberals and neoconservatives. The fact is, our movement is no longer Occupy Wall Street but Occupy Everywhere. If it’s shrunk in terms of actual physical presence–fewer tents, fewer parades–it is also bigger, badder, and bolder than ever as it battles big banks and multinational corporations. The fact of the matter is that the movement is proving to be unstoppable. Another world is indeed possible–because we know we have it in our power to begin the world again.

History IS on our side.

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)

#Occupyhistory 1789: Sieyes on the 2nd estate

In my last post, I addressed Sieyes’ game-changing pamphlet on the 3rd Estate. Let’s turn now to his discussion of the nobility–the second estate–and their political privileges:

As for its political rights, it also exercises these separately from the nation. It has its own representatives who are charged with no mandate from the People. Its deputies sit separately, and even if they sat in the same chamber as the deputies of ordinary citizens they would still constitute a different and separate representation. They are foreign to the nation first because of their origin, since they do not owe their powers to the People; and secondly because of their aim, since this consists in defending not the general interest, but the private one.

In other words, the 1% legislated for the 1%–just like in James Murray’s England. Sieyes goes on to observe:

If you consult history in order to verify whether the facts agree or disagree with my description, you will discover, as I did, that it is a great mistake to believe that France is a monarchy, with the exception of a few years under Louis XI and under Richelieu and a few moments under Louis XIV when it was plain despotism, you will believe you are reading the history of a Palace aristocracy. It is not the King who reigns; it is the Court. The Court has made and the Court has unmade; the Court has appointed ministers and the Court has dismissed them; the Court has created posts and the Court has filled them … And what is the Court but the head of this vast aristocracy which overruns every part of France, which seizes on everything through its members, which exercises everywhere every essential function in the whole administration?

Much the same applies to our democracy, which–as more and more are rightly claiming–has become a government of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%. How else do we explain our government’s no-strings-attached bailout of Wall Street, a bailout eerily reminiscent of GW Bush’s personal bailout from his father when he and his buddies were sent to jail during college? Or the continuing reluctance on the part of our DOJ to investigate and prosecute those who caused the financial crisis of 2008–as well as Jon “Where did the money go?” Corzine of MF Global? This lackadaisical treatment conveys all too clearly that our politicians have not learned their lesson, perhaps because it does not affect the 1%–a class that many of them long to join themselves if they are not already in it. They are no less clueless than head JP Morgan bankster Jamie Dimon who remains ambivalent about Frank-Dodd regulations even after the “London whale” trading debacle last spring. (Such would go some ways to explaining the House’s limp questioning of Dimon on June 19.) Perhaps that’s why there’s been such reluctance, if not hostility, to reinstate the uptick rule–and more importantly, the Glass-Steagall Act (1933).

Let us sum up: to this very day, the Third Estate has never had genuine representatives in the Estates-General. Thus its political rights are null.

Say it again, Sieyes. This is the plight of our 99% in 2012.

So what can be done? We need to examine the words and deeds of those running for office–and call them out on it. Let’s take the current Chicago school strike, where former investment banker and Obama’s right-hand man, Rahm Emanuel, is trying his damnedest to keep teacher salaries down and demand “performance testing.” (Funny how “performance testing” never applies to Wall Street…) Where did Emanuel and his union-bashing billionaire “philanthropist” backers on “education reform” attend school–and more importantly, where are they sending their own children to school? Because if they’re enrolling their sons and daughters at either private schools–most notably, Rahmbo sending his to the expensive Chicago Lab schools–or the best public schools while calling out for “cuts,” they’re arrant hypocrites. And the same goes for those decrying higher education as “elitist” when they’ve not only attended college and graduate school but are also sending their own children to college (e.g, Rick Santorum). Methinks that these attempts to reduce funding to schools and deter students from entering college are intended to keep the children 99% from receiving an education on par with that of the 1%.

It’s worth drawing some attention to other instances of doublespeak and double standards on the part of the 1%. These are the very folks who call for “austerity” for everyone else yet proceed to argue for retaining the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest without missing a beat. I’m referring here to the complaints to Larry Kudlow from bankers’ wives. It never ceases to amaze me how (supposedly) educated, TARP recipients who live in 15,000 sq foot houses, own multiple residences, send their children to $40,000+-a-year prep schools, and drive one or more several hundred thousand dollar vehicles, etc. have the gall to tell others “live within their means” and to quit squandering “public money.” They always manage to tell the same, tired apocryphal story or two about the man they saw buying filet mignon and porterhouse steaks with his EBT card. Or the welfare cheat driving a Mercedes. (A variation, of course, on Reagan’s infamous Cadillac-driving welfare queen.) They lash out at the bottom 50% not paying taxes while they themselves tolerate, if not practice outright tax evasion. Then they roll their eyes at the supposed feckless unemployed woman sitting at home, venturing out only to collect their unemployment checks: as if these 1% bankster whores, oops, wives did anything more taxing (pun intended) than lunch and shop in preparation for that big “charity event” where 80% of the donations are squandered away on food, drink, entertainment, and renting of a hotel or symPHONEY hall.

These are also the same folks who openly deplore “special interests”–particularly when they pertain to minorities and women–but have no problems about their own special interests as they lobby politicians for lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations, fewer environmental and safety regulations, etc. No doubt they also instruct them to opine that the 1% creates jobs and that tax cuts spur growth. And the politician all too willingly obliges. A bit more subtle and covert than 18th-century aristocrats lobbying their government for favors, we might concede, but no less crooked or self-serving.

Here’s what more of us need to tell the 1% and their sympathizers not just on Bastille Day and the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, but every day–

1%ers, if YOU lived within YOUR means, maybe, just maybe you could afford to pay higher taxes just like your wealthy forebears from 1932 to 1982, when tax rates on the highest earners ranged well over 80%: something to think about when you are lunching with the ladies, or shopping for that new, hot pair of $1200 Louboutins like the shoe-obsessed wife of Syrian dictator Assad. Let’s not forget, after all, that some of the best economic growth in the U.S. took place during the 1950s and 60s when tax rates were at the highest.

Or perhaps, you could learn to be a bit like Marie Antoinette that so many of you sympathize with? Although many of you are aware that she never said “Let them eat cake,” you have probably conveniently forgotten that Marie was able to build cottages for peasants at her Petit Trianon farm and bring up a few of their children along with her own. And that she and Louis also sold flatware to provide for them while distributing food on a daily basis to the poor at Versailles. So, here’s a modest proposal–one that doesn’t involve eating freshly baked, broiled or fricasseed babies. If you have ever outsourced, lobbied for lower corporate taxes, caused and abetted the financial and foreclosure crisis, you might think about helping the poor rebuild their communities. After all, according to your patron saint, George H.W. Bush, “compassionate conservatism” and “a thousand points of light,” are great virtues, correct? Perhaps house the victims of eviction in your multiple abodes: I’m sure there’s plenty of room for innocent victims of foreclosure in your multiple 15,000 sq. ft manses. Or perhaps you can raise funds for their local schools–and allow them to attend the best public schools of their choice. It would be far less a slap in the face than those showy “philanthropy” events designed for nothing more than tax evasion and a caption in The New York Times, Town and Country, or whatever glossy rag.

But given 1%’s endemic selfishness and fervent desire to prosper at the expense of others–to have their cake and eat it, so to speak–we somehow doubt they will heed any of this. They “need” that extra $5 million brownstone on the Gold Coast, that $30,000 Hermes Birkin, that $40,000 yearly tuition for an overrated finishing, oops, prep school like an aristocratic Count Dracula needs fresh blood from a virgin. That is why we still need Occupy Wall Street and/or a viable third party to redress the ills of a Tweedledee (Democrats) and TweedleDUMB (Republicans) government by and for the 1%.

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)

#Occupyhistory 1789: What is the Third Estate, aka 99%?

For far too long, the French revolution has had more than its undeserved share of detractors in Britain and the US–even amongst so-called liberals. We are reminded time and time again, ad nauseam, that the revolutionaries were losers in the end, that the Jacobin government was exceedingly brutal, that it culminated in a vertically challenged dictator assuming leadership of the nation, two other revolutions, and most damningly, a century governed by either members of the Bourbon or Bonaparte families (So much for the Jacobin discrediting of hereditary peerage, right?)

But focusing on the mere facts, Gradgrind-style, doesn’t make for particularly insightful analysis–so I wrote this little piece, “Who’s afraid of the French Revolution?”

Here in this blogpost (after an inexcusably long hiatus–I know, I know), I’d like to throw out a few additional reflections by musing on a provocative pamphlet by Emmanuel Sieyès that was published only shortly before the fall of the Bastille, What is the Third Estate?. And as I’ve been doing ever since the inception of this blog, I’ll apply 18th-century commentary to our situation today particularly as we approach a fiscal cliff–one not entirely unlike the crisis that beset Louis XVI in 1786 after the Seven Years’ War, the war for American independence and a protracted period of minimal taxes for the 1%. A period, to tweak Dickens, that was the best of times for the 1%, the worst of times for the 99%.

Let’s start with Sieyès’ remarks on the 3rd estate itself. Even though it fills up 95% of all positions in the army, law, church, and general bureaucracy, he tells us, the best positions are reserved for the nobility, the Second Estate. (The Church was the First Estate–and many of the top positions were filled by those from aristocratic families.)

It needs no detailed analysis to show that the Third Estate everywhere constitutes nineteen-twentieths of them, except that it is loaded with all the really arduous work, all the tasks which the privileged order refuses to perform. Only the well paid and honorific posts are filled by members of the privileged order. Are we to give them credit for this? We could do so only if the Third Estate was unable or unwilling to fill these posts. We know the answer. Nevertheless, the privileged have dared to preclude the Third Estate. “No matter how useful you are,” they said, “no matter how able you are, you can go so far and no further. Honors are not for the like of you.” The rare exceptions, noticeable as they are bound to be, are, mere mockery, and the sort of language allowed on such occasions is an additional insult.

Again, plus ça change–despite the fact that we don’t have a titled peerage in America. The nobles of yore are now our corporate CEOs, upper management, financiers of Wall Street, and their academic counterparts: all obsessed with maintaining the good ol’ boy (and girl) network and their “bottom line.” You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You join my board of directors–and grant me my megabucks bonus. And no more than the nobles were noble in the best sense of the word, our 1% is hardly “the best and brightest” as they purport: as if an advantaged, upper-middle class upbringing and education at so-called “elite” universities notorious for legacy admissions and rampant grade inflation were enough to confer “honor” and commensurate salaries. The fact is, we’ve been witnessing far too many instances of corporate incompetence and dishonesty before–and after– the financial crisis of 2008: from Ken Lay of Enron, Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard, Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers, Tony Hayward of BP, to Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan–just to name a few. And much the same goes for academe–for instance, the retention of tenured faculty and administration who plagiarize or engage in other fraudulent activity. Just as the king can do no wrong, the poobahs can do no wrong either.

“Best and brightest” indeed. How could so many not have caught what was going wrong in the first place–especially when it’s clear in the cases of Enron and BP that management was already alerted to misdoings and criminal error? Even in less wanton cases, we wonder. Take the asinine decision of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings when he doubled fees for streaming films and renting DVD’s last year–before making the equally ill advised decision of splitting the enterprise. Did he not think that subscribers would notice a substantial increase? Or take management that chooses to blame anyone but themselves for a failing business–for instance, Avon, when it blamed a direct sales model even though companies as different as Tupperware and Herbalife were doing quite well with it.

Let’s face it, isn’t the reason why CEOs and their immediate henchmen and women are paid so lavishly precisely because they are expected to be accountable for their companies from A to Z? One can only surmise that they were too busy schmoozing with members of Congress and other bigwigs, attending lavish fundraisers, cocktails and opening night events that they simply “overlooked” a few important matters.

As such, it’s hard not to roll our eyes at the dozens of excuses for bloated CEO pay–not to mention low taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. “They’ll move away,” the GOP and their partners-in- crime, Bluedog Dems, opine. So they just might. But c’mon, who are we really kidding? Which other nation awards its CEO’s 300 to 500x as much the average employee? Japan pays them 11x, Germany 12x, France 15x, and the UK 22x as much. Not to mention, which Western nation–especially those most resembling the US culturally–has lower taxes for the wealthy? Again, none of these countries, and not Sweden, Norway, or Denmark.

Yes, maybe, just maybe, that CEO might pick up and relocate his family and his corporation to a remote island–right? Highly unlikely. For starters, it’s doubtful that the families of these ostentatious folks would be willing to be uprooted to a remote island where no one knows them. After all, we know, à la Hume, that the pleasure of riches lies at least as much in the prospect of showing it off to one’s peers and society. That’s why folks who gripe about high state taxes in such enclaves as Darien, Greenwich, Westport, New Canaan, Westchester, Hamptons, Dutchess County NY mostly stay put.

Then there’s the most ludicrous argument of all, the crowning glory: that the 1% are used to their lifestyles and changing them drastically could be “psychologically damaging.” Tell that to the worker who got laid off. Tell that to the family that got foreclosed out of no fault of its own. And tell that to the employee with no health benefits and ends up bankrupting his or her family.

Riding the 99% to the hounds!

(From http://frrevolution.tripod.com/)

So let’s put it as clearly as possible, just in case these “best and brightest” don’t get it. If you don’t want to pay taxes to a country that has allowed you–and your company–to prosper both directly and indirectly, good riddance. We don’t need “patriots” of your stripe: because there are many potential stars out there who are willing to do it for much less. Maybe it’s time for you to take up Newt’s proposal for moon colonies and find a place out there. And since the moon has always been associated with lunacy, perhaps that might well be the most appropriate place for delusional megalomaniacs.

But it gets better. On top of all of this is the accompanying argument against any sort of change. American exceptionalism, if you will. We have it all, so the “logic” goes: freedom, democracy and the ability to move on up Horatio-Alger style! Without actually recalling that compared to Denmark, France, and the UK, we have less mobility, i.e., we are less able to move out from our parents’ class. That’s good news if you’re the 1% or even lowly 10%, but not so hot if you’re anywhere below. This is what Sieyès had to say:

Has nobody noticed that while on the one hand, we basely and I dare say stupidly accept this situation of ours, on the other hand, when we read the, history of Egypt or stories of travels in India, we describe the same kind of conditions as despicable, monstrous, destructive of all industry, as inimical to social progress, and above all, as debasing to the human race in general and intolerable to Europeans in particular?

Plus c’est la même chose–as if we lived in a Panglossian “best of all worlds!” Again, our inequalities make us little better than any developing nation banana republic, especially when half of our population are either low income or destitute while the top 1% of the 1% are reaping the largest portion of financial gains over the last 20 years. Gross inequalities suck, whether in the “third world” or “first.” If anything, it’s more deplorable in the latter.

So how does our Third Estate, aka 99%, stand today?

Who is bold enough to maintain that the Third Estate does not contain within itself everything needful to constitute a complete nation? It is like a strong and robust man with one arm still in chains. If the privileged order were removed, the nation would not be something less but something more. What then is the Third Estate? All; but an wall” that is fettered and oppressed. What would it be without the privileged order? It would be all; but free and flourishing. Nothing will go well without the Third Estate; everything would go considerably better without the two others.

Mais oui! Oppressed then, oppressed now–even if we are better fed and have newer and better toys. Imagine a world where overpaid CEOs and their minions in government are not busy busting unions, laying off, outsourcing jobs abroad (where conditions for their workers are inexcusable), and polluting the environment. Imagine a world where 1%ers are not preoccupied with lobbying the government and funding politicians friendly to their cause–or creating faux grassroots platforms like the Tea Party. Imagine too a world where the 99% enjoyed job stability and security, adequate healthcare and benefits just like in the 1950s, 60s and yes, even the darker’70s. Is the 99% better off today than it was 40 years ago? I think most of us who haven’t bought into right-wing propaganda know the answer to that question.

So CEO’s, instead of paying yourself 400x or trying to please your shareholders in the short run, why not think about hiring more workers, compensating them fairly, and/or training your employees so they can find other work? Especially when it has been proven time and time again that a workforce with higher morale also works more efficiently. Utilities CEOs, why not hire more lineworkers so that power outages don’t have require as much time and out-of-state assistance? (Perhaps this way we could have avoided the deaths during the freak New England October blizzard and the 30 deaths in the recent mid-Atlantic storm!)

(To be continued)

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)

Happy 4th of July!

Hope everyone has enjoyed a wonderful 4th of July!

I’ve just published a piece on the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Declaring Independence,

The Thomas Paine Friends, Inc website has also added a talk which I presented at the Left Forum, Nobility and Noability: Writing the 1%. And speaking of the forum itself, the website now has videos of the plenary talks: speakers include Nnimmo Bassey, Rose Ann De Moro, Chris Hedges, Marina Sitrin, and Michael Moore.

 And for those of you interested in something with a bit of bite, here’s a piece on political vampires:

http://www.occupy.com/article/vampires-past-and-present

As for this blog, I know I have been away for an inexcusably long time–lost in more busy work than I had anticipated. But I do have some posts coming up now that I’m finally getting a chance to rest a bit.

 

Announcement: Citizen Paine at Romita Auditorium (Ryan Library), Iona College, March 29th, 2012

This week, I will be taking part in a panel discussion of William Hollenbach’s Citizen Paine, presented by the Fine and Performing Arts Department of Iona College, the Iona Council for the Arts, and the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies. Judging from some of the clips I’ve seen on Youtube, this looks to be an exciting and insightful production. Here are a few details from http://www.iona.edu/academic/artsscience/departments/FAR/events.cfm:

Citizen Paine by William Hollenbach
Directed by John Doyle
Performed by the Iron Age Theatre
Thursday, March 29 at 7:00 pm
Romita Auditorium in Ryan Library
Free Admission
Sponsored by the Fine and Performing Arts Department Theatre Program
Produced by Thomas Donnarumma
Funded through the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies

Adam Altman takes the stage as Thomas Paine and shares Paine’s life and ideas. A voice of rebellion and human decency, Paine gave a vision of what American can be and the way humans can live. Our forgotten Founding Father, a Citizen of the World, may offer some Common Sense to the world today and reinvigorate the promise of America. Iron Age Theatre brings Thomas Paine to the stage in this dynamic one man show illuminating Paine’s vision for freedom, citizenship and social equality through the lens of his amazing life.

Post-performance panel discussion with:

Adam Altman, Citizen Paine, Performer
Gary Berton, President, Paine National Historical Association
Dr. Frances Chiu, Humanities and Social Science Departments, New School University
Professor Alexander Delfini, Philosophy Department, Iona College
John Doyle, Co-Artistic Director of The Iron Age Theatre
Bill Hollenbach, Citizen Paine, Playwright
Karen Thorsen, Award-winning Writer / Filmmaker and Producer / Director of Thomas Paine: Voice of Revolution

Announcement: live at the Left Forum at Pace University, NYC

This weekend, the Left Forum 2012 will be taking place at Pace University, NYC,  March 16-8.   I will be speaking on a panel that includes Michael De Dora and J. Ward Regan: Thomas Paine: Contemporary Debates, Controversies and Political Relevance (W520 at 10am, Sunday.)

Overall, this conference should be exciting as the main theme is Occupy the System: Confronting Global Capitalism. Plenary speakers include Nnimmo Bassey, Rose Ann De Moro, Marina Sitrin, William Strickland, William Tabb, Elaine Bernard, Arun Gupta, Chris Hedges, John Holloway. And not least, Michael Moore will be speaking on Saturday evening.

For more details,  see Leftforum.org.

 

#Occupyhistory 1785: “Profounder ignorance and more inveterate prejudice”

“The more has been learnt from such education, the more it becomes necessary to unlearn. The more has been taught in this way, of so much the more must the mind be emptied before true wisdom can enter.”

One wonders if these problems in the K-12 history curriculum are not unrelated to those in math and science: America’s sore spots according to the results of the 2009 PISA test. (See previous post.)  Interestingly, Price argued that the habits of assessing “both sides of every question” was best fostered by “the study of mathematics” because

In these sciences no one ever thinks of giving his assent to a proposition till he can clearly understand it and see it proved by a fair deduction from propositions previously understood and proved. In these sciences the mind is inured to close and patient attention, shewn the nature of just reasoning, and taught to form distinct ideas and to expect clear evidence in all cases before belief. They furnish, therefore, the best exercise for the intellectual powers and the best defence against that credulity and precipitation and confusion of ideas which are the common sources of error.”

Are students getting this in class? For now, let’s put aside the issue of the most mathematically and scientifically gifted undergraduates and graduate students eschewing K-12 teaching for engineering, finance and the university tenure track. Could it be that parents, ever prone to criticize teachers who give “absurdly difficult assignments,” are partly to blame for lax coverage of materials?

Or could it also be that teachers, intimidated by “controversy,” fail to exercise their rights as instructors—especially when addressing such topics as evolution and climate change? (Note that these are concepts that have been accepted by the vast majority of the civilized world.)  According to a poll of 60,000 teachers from the National Science Teachers Association, 82% faced skepticism about global warming from their students and 54% from parents. That probably helps explain why Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Oklahoma have variously introduced more instructional materials that either question climate change or deny it altogether. This skepticism towards climate change has–not surprisingly–also been accompanied by skepticism on evolution.  In fact, the Texas Board of Education has recently mandated that instructors cover “all sides” of the debate on evolution and climate change: no doubt much cause of pride for the president of the TBOE, who boasted that “Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution.” You betcha!

By now, it’s painfully clear that education, from history through science,  is turning into a useful tool for conservatives. Slice a bit here, add a bit there. Perhaps that’s why so many—like Rick Santorum last week—have eagerly projected their own illicit desires on those oh-so-terrible college professors,  with their proclivity for “liberal indoctrination.”  (Takes one indoctrinator to know another, right?) As Chris Mooney has astutely pointed out in his recent article, The Ugly Delusions of the Educated Conservative, “educated” Republicans and Tea Partiers are actually more resistant to empirical data than their less educated counterparts; their familiarity and ease with a range of talking points, absorbed through television, internet, and other literature, provides them with ready tools for argument. Indeed, one might hazard to guess that those who have been schooled at the very institutions associated with “liberal elites” (e.,g Ann Coulter, Cornell U; Bill O’Reilly, Harvard; Pat Robertson, Yale U) have proven particularly adept at fooling their masses. That’s why they can dazzle unsuspecting audiences with such choice zingers as “the fact is, global warming has not been proven. There is a wide range of factors that have not been taken into account.” (Without noting, of course, that three decades of data overwhelmingly supports this phenomenon.)

As such, conservatives know that it’s inconvenient for students to learn about the founding fathers, slavery or no slavery—lest they discover that this nation was really and truly founded on liberalism. They know it’s even less convenient for them to learn critical thinking skills—lest they begin dissecting and dismantling the gospel according to the GOP:

(1) The Government can’t create jobs.  (Tell that to FDR, who created four million jobs in three months.)

(2) Tax cuts reduce the deficit.  (Doesn’t it bother them that a man named “Laffer” came up with this one?)

(3) A fetus is a baby.

(4) The poor have too much money.

(5) Cutting the federal deficit will end the recession.

(6) The rich are incentivized by tax cuts, while the poor are incentivized by lower wages, no benefits, an end to the minimum wage, and unemployment.

(7) An unwanted child is God’s will.

(8) Everyone who wants health insurance has it.

(9) The problem with education is the teachers.

(10) The “free market” satisfies every human need.

(11) There is no discrimination in America anymore.

(12) The distribution of wealth and income are irrelevant.

(Credit for #1-12 on this list goes to Alan Grayson.)

(13) That Rick Santorum is not a snob. (Because seriously folks, who else but a snob actively discourages others from attaining/obtaining what he has? Santorum has a B.A., M.B.A., and J.D.)

Finally, they know it’s inconvenient to learn about global warming (to quote Al Gore), lest that get in the way of the lucrative gas and oil industries which funds the GOP. Education, let’s face it, bears far too many inconvenient truths: life must not be made any more taxing (pun intended) for those hard-working 1%ers.

Let’s return to item #9 on Grayson’s list of myths: “The problem with education is the teachers.” This is arguably at the crux of our present issues. At first glance, blame for this type of thinking would seem to fall squarely on the shoulders of Price himself, as gleaned from the following passage in Observations:

An unoccupied and simple mind is infinitely preferable to a mind warped by systems, and the entire want of learning better than a learning such as most of that is which hitherto has been sought and admired. A learning which puffs up, while in reality it is nothing but profounder ignorance and more inveterate prejudice.”

Was Price dissing education a la Coulter, Limbaugh, or O’Reilly? Not really. It’s important to remember that he was writing during a period when quackery abounded and English universities were notorious for lax standards (particularly when compared to Dissenting academies or Dutch and German universities); this was a time when Oxford and Cambridge had not yet embarked on a rigorous revamping of their set examinations. (Incidentally, those who proposed such measures in Price’s time were viewed as dangerous radicals–including Price’s Cambridge friend and colleague, John Jebb.)  Ironically enough, however, his skepticism towards academe and its “isms”  would soon be turned on Price himself and increasingly aimed at liberals.

It is indeed jarring to find conservatives borrowing the very skepticism and rhetoric of their dreaded 18th-century enlightenment: one best exemplified by the parents and boards of education who have no qualms about dictating school curricula despite their overall lack of advanced education in the subjects being taught and even less classroom  experience.  After all, as Price wisely opined,  “The more has been learnt from such education, the more it becomes necessary to unlearn. The more has been taught in this way, of so much the more must the mind be emptied before true wisdom can enter.”  Our task, then, is to rid ourselves of conservative misinformation and misrepresentation, or to unlearn, in Price’s words, “profounder ignorance and more inveterate prejudice.”

So what can we do?

Perhaps it’s time for teachers to put their collective foot down and demand respect from all quarters, beginning with parents.  “No, we are not going to water down our standards so Suzy can get an A. We are not going to dilute our assignments so Johnny will have more time to participate in Little League. And we are most certainly not going to forgo evolution simply because you don’t happen believe in it.” It’s also time for the rest of us to respect and compensate our teachers far more than we used to. We can agonize all we want about the poor state of K-12 instruction, but so long as teachers do not enjoy a respect commensurate with their endeavors, the best and brightest will not feel encouraged to pursue this highly (if not most) important of professions: unlike, say, in South Korea, China, and Japan where teachers are accorded far more respect and salaries comparable to those of scientists and engineers. Rather than heaping obscene compensation in the hundreds of thousands on those who don’t actually teach or have experience doing so—i.e., M.B.A. principals or superintendents-—it’s time we offered higher pay to teachers themselves.

Then–and only then–can our students can catch up again with their peers abroad and–gasp–even outperform them.

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)

#Occupyhistory 1785: “A wise and liberal education?”

“But hitherto education has been conducted on a contrary plan. It has been a contraction, not an enlargement, of the intellectual faculties, an injection of false principles hardening them in error, not a discipline enlightening and improving them.”

I was initially going to write on Paine’s Rights of Man for President’s Day, but got waylaid with other work before deciding that a discussion of RM would be much more effective with a discussion of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  No sooner did I begin to write on this than I decided to backtrack not just once, but twice more to Richard Price (1723-1791), who’s actually a significant intermediary figure between James Murray and Paine. Like Murray, Price has mostly been forgotten–and would probably remain as equally unknown were it not for his sermon, Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789), that effectively launched the French Revolution debate and the Left-Right debate on both sides of the Atlantic.  Here, I’d like to focus on his Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution (1785),  an essay published nearly two years after the victory won by the American colonies and two years prior to the writing of the Constitution. It was a work much admired by Thomas Jefferson himself, who “read it with very great pleasure,” claiming that “The spirit which it breathes is as affectionate as the observations themselves are wise and just.” Nearly 230 years later, Price’s observations remain as “wise and just” as ever—particularly his eerily prescient remarks on education.

Let’s take a cursory glance at this little nugget.  No standing armies, please, because “Free states ought to be bodies of armed citizens, well regulated and well disciplined, and always ready….to execute the laws, to quell riots, and to keep the peace.” There should be “liberty of conduct in all civil matters, liberty of discussion in all speculative matters, and liberty of conscience in all religious matters”; for too long,  man has been “more or less cramped by the interference of civil authority in matters of speculation, by tyrannical laws against heresy and schism, and by slavish hierarchies and religious establishments.” Evidently, our founding fathers who proposed and enacted the 1st amendment agreed with Price: even if some on the Right today might not. Price would also caution the new republic against “too great an inequality in the distribution of property.”  If relative equality amongst men proved favorable to forming “new constitutions of governments,” it was not less true that “The happiest state of man is the middle state between the savage and the refined, or between the wild and the luxurious state.” He feared, however, that this ideal state of equity would not be “of long duration” and that the 1% would eventually begin to oppress the 99%. How terrible it would be for “simplicity and virtue” to degenerate into “depravity” so that “equality will in time be lost, the cursed lust of domineering shew itself, liberty languish, and civil government gradually degenerate into an instrument in the hands of the few to oppress and plunder the many.”  Indeed.

A strong nation, however, cannot be built without sound education—because “nothing is more necessary than a wise and liberal plan of education.”  Whatever we make of Niall Ferguson’s “6 killer apps” that distinguished the West from the rest—competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism, and the Protestant work ethic—few can argue that at least 4 of these “killer apps” have been seriously compromised over the last 30 years. Consider the mediocre performance of American teens on the reading, math, and science tests administered in 2009 by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) amongst a pool of teens from other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)- and OECD-partnered nations  where the likes of China, South Korea, and Singapore dominated the top 5 places. The US not only failed to rank amongst the 10 or 15 in any of the tests but also managed to dip a few notches below average in math while barely squeaking in by just one point above average in science.  Even if east Asian students are conceded to be more exam-oriented than their Western peers, such a distinction fails to explain why the US also lags behind Finland, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Poland.  Our downward trajectory is especially tragic in light of our halcyon days when American primary and secondary schools were viewed by our competitors as a model worthy of emulation. What happened?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve chosen to ignore the wisdom of Price and other voices from the Enlightenment.  The business of education, according to Price, was to prepare students “how to think, rather than what to think, or to lead into the best way of searching for truth, rather than to instruct in truth itself.” For too long, education has been

conducted on a contrary plan. It has been a contraction, not an enlargement, of the intellectual faculties, an injection of false principles hardening them in error, not a discipline enlightening and improving them. Instead of opening and strengthening them, and teaching to think freely, it hath cramped and enslaved them, and qualified for thinking only in one track. Instead of instilling humility, charity, and liberality, and thus preparing for an easier discovery and a readier admission of truth, it has inflated with conceit, and stuffed the human mind with wretched prejudices.”

Citing Oxford University’s reprobation of Newton’s Principia as an example of backwardness, Price lamented that “Even now, the principal object of education (especially in divinity) is to teach established systems as certain truths, and to qualify for successfully defending them against opponents and thus to arm the mind against conviction and render it impenetrable to farther light.” The academic powers-that-be back then were doing their damnedest to stall progress.

Hmmm. Does this sound a bit familiar? Consider some of the changes made to the curriculum by the Texas State Board of Education in 2010 involving none other than Price’s very own Thomas Jefferson–soon to be replaced by John Calvin.

” And then there were none…”

But that’s not all. Uncomfortable with the idea of an “enlightenment”–the very principle that inspired all of our founding fathers–one board member decided to nix the concept of the Enlightenment altogether: “enlightenment ideas of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire…” will be replaced by “the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes…” Similarly, teachers will be expected “to address the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers, but not highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state.” As one board member proudly declared, “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.” (Um, 1st amendment?) Not surprisingly, the Board also ditched a requirement for students to be taught that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government “from promoting one religion over all others.”

Not long afterwards, Tea Party activists in Tennessee would also attempt—literally and figuratively speaking—to whitewash their history curriculum. As one attorney put it, there’s  “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.” Huh?  What about George Washington’s granting of manumission to his family slaves then? Was he a “hypocrite”? Too bad the good attorney never bothered to consider the pedagogical benefits of discussing the founding fathers’ range of attitudes towards slavery, from some genuinely believing in liberty for all to others hedging.

Indeed,  if misinformation and omissions are bad enough, our methods are even worse. As Price usefully observes, any system of thought should be

attended with a fair exhibition of the evidence on both sides of every question, and care should be taken to induce, as far as possible, a habit of believing only on an overbalance of evidence, and of proportioning assent in every case to the degree of that overbalance, without regarding authority, antiquity, singularity, novelty, or any of the prejudices which too commonly influence assent.

Pupils, in short, should be taught to think critically: that is, to seek and weigh evidence before arriving at a conclusion.  Again,  the Texas curriculum and Tea Party proposals fail on this measure.  As Keith A. Erekson rightly suggests in his report, Bridging the Gap between K-12 and College Readiness Standards in Texas, the new curriculum does little to provide critical thinking skills:  an essay topic that requires a student to “evaluate the strength and weakness of different economic systems” is superior to one that merely expects the student to “describe the characteristics and benefits of the U.S. free enterprise system”–leaving aside for now the glaring issue of bias.  (Incidentally, if you’re wondering why “capitalism” is not used in the question, that’s because the Board deemed it a “negative term.”)  As such, it’s not surprising either that the Board’s patent inability to reason results in other less intellectually stimulating essay topics: for instance, the changing of a relatively thought-provoking question such as “examine how and why historians divide the past into eras” to a more pedestrian “Identify the major eras in U.S. history from 1877 to the present and describe their defining characteristics.” It does not take a Ph.D. in history to discern that the first question expects students not only to know their events and dates, but also to reflect on similarities and differences across periods–in other words, to think analytically rather than descriptively.

The question is why is this nonsense being pedaled? Could it be so that future voters will not be able to catch such howlers as Newt Gingrich’s claim that the “secular left” is undermining the principles of the founding fathers? Or that “George Washington would not have approved of Obama’s apology for the burning of the Quran?” Maybe–gasp–he would have done the same: because anyone with some cursory knowledge of Washington will recall that in 1775 he famously refused to allow his army to burn an effigy of the Pope on Guy Fawkes day. And that he hoped in 1790 “ever to see America amongst the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.” (There it is again–that pesky enlightenment concept, liberality.)

Stay tuned for more shenanigans in the science curriculum…

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)

#Occupyhistory 1768: “Now is the time to exert yourselves!”

“When government is not established upon moral principles but managed by the arbitrary power or one, or a few, at the expence of the liberty of the rest of a community, their acknowledgement of that power is an obedience like that of the prophet’s ass.”

So what can be done about the exorbitant influence of overgrown dukes, knights–and super-PACs ? And what can be done to protect the welfare of the 99%? Although Murray did not propose a simple 4-step plan, he nonetheless offered a few, shrewd  ideas that are still useful to us in 2012.

First of all, quit kowtowing to Lord Bigwig or Mr. Fancypants. I’ve always marveled at the following passage with its defiant gutsiness, one so far removed from the customary 18th-century deference to the well-born and well-heeled. Go stuff it, he tells them.  Perhaps this is why Sermons to Asses thrilled so many of the 99% before Tom Paine came along:

When any duke or lord, knight or ‘squire come with their drunken rabble of attendants, to solicit your votes by treats and entertainments, put them in mind what they are about, and what they ought to be. Tell them that none who make attempts upon men’s virtue can be faithful to their liberties and interest.

Similarly, if someone plumes himself on being “qualified with so many hundreds of thousands of yearly income” and “approved of by so many of the principal freeholders in the country, or the members of a city,” don’t mince words;  “tell him you judge for themselves, and do not walk by the light of other men.”

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly,  research the candidate in question:  “consider what measures he fell in with; was he the dupe of the ministry or a tool of the court?”  Maybe we don’t expect either the Donald or the Koch brothers to come a’knocking on our doors to help support their candidates of choice, especially since the 1% are even less likely today to reside in the vicinity of the  99%, but it bears observing that we have even less of an excuse to be ill-informed in the age of the “internets.” Don’t read or watch just one news source. Check out the various candidates and their voting record. Find out if they were “dupes” or “tools” of any particular lobbyists, special interest groups, or other politicians from a range of sources.  Because if you reelect the same representative, senator, governor or president who voted against your interests in the past, you have only yourself to blame:

Instead of fruitless complaints against the government, when it is not in your power to help the evil, let it be your study Britons, now when it is in your power, to apply an effectual remedy. Choose none of those for your representatives at the general election who concurred in laying burdens upon you before. Suffer to them to stand as beacons, for posterity to take warning from. Shall the freeholders of Britain again choose such unworthy members of society to manage their public affairs, they may expect to have their burdens continued and fixed more firmly upon their shoulders.

That’s exactly what happened when vast swathes of the working classes–the so-called “angry white male” or “Reagan Democrat”–continued to vote predominantly for outsourcing-, free-trade-happy Republicans. (Certainly, 2010 was no exception when GOP senators broadly voted against a bill from the Democrats ending tax breaks for outsourcing companies and providing incentives for those restoring jobs back home. )  Instead,  these “Reagan Democrats” have generally preferred to blame the “greedy Chinese” or any other nation rather than the many fine, upstanding Republicans who gifted those “greedy Chinese” with their very own jobs (hmmm, wonder what those Chinese workers think of conditions at Foxconn?) . Only now are some beginning to wake up to the fact hat some of their worst enemies are right (pun intended) at home.  It is no less striking that the same voters have unquestioningly accepted the climate change denialists, lapping up the message disseminated by the likes of the Heartland and Cato Institutes (both, of course, generously funded by the Koch brothers) and failing to discern the relationship between warmer temperatures and storm severity. Too bad few of these denialists realize the consequences for those who do not have the fortune to live in large, well-built mansions with the best insurance and public amenities.

Moving on to point #3: continue to keep an eye on your candidate when s/he takes office:

One cause of our present complaints, both as to civil and religious oppression, is; that we look not to ourselves, but think as soon as we have elected civil or religious governors, we may fall asleep in pleasure, indolence, and inattention…when they do their duty, they are a public blessing: but when they degenerate into tyrants, there is as much of the blame lies upon them; for had those who employed them watched over them as they ought.

Again, there’s even less of an excuse not to be completely informed in this day and age.

Finally, and most importantly: speak up and protest. Murray reminds his readers that when a 4-shilling tax on cider was proposed in 1763, the southwestern, cider-producing region of England rioted. Not less worthy of emulation were the Americans, whose cause he warmly endorsed throughout his works: these great people, he explains, were able to repeal the Stamp Act by a “vigorous resistance of oppression.” So c’mon, “Have  the rest of Britain no burdens they want to have removed? Are there none of the necessaries of life taxed, which much affect the poor mechanic, and the mercantile part of the nation? Now is the time to exert yourselves.”

                                                  A REAL Tea Party

Yes, your parents, priests, ministers, teachers, and all other authority figures were all likely to have preached the virtues of obedience. But sometimes obedience is simply neither wise nor virtuous.  In fact, “When mankind are once instructed in their natural rights and privileges, they will not only complain, but struggle to get clear of oppression” because “Wise men know what it is to obey just laws, but will never tamely submit to slavery and bondage.” Submitting to “arbitrary government, without resistance” not only betrays “the want of sense of the rights of human nature,” but also subverts God’s will for complacent “slavery” is nothing less than “finding fault with the conduct of the Almighty to give up his prerogative to his creatures.”

It’s not hard to imagine what Murray would tell us, his “American brethren,” in 2012. Stand up for yourself. Research the facts. And quit tolerating ANY representative who panders to the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Because if you do, you are an ass indeed: “When government is not established upon moral principles but managed by the arbitrary power or one, or a few, at the expence of the liberty of the rest of a community, their acknowledgement of that power is an obedience like that of the prophet’s ass.”

Amen, Reverend Murray–no truer words were ever written.

Copyright ©  2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)

***

Just a few remarks here: I distinctly recall pissing off the guy sitting next to me in the Bodleian when I laughed out loud at some of the comments prepared by Murray for an 1780 (or so) edition of Asses–like: “why is it that banks, brothels, and bawdy-houses are never taxed?” One of my regrets at graduating was assuming that I would rarely ever get to revisit old Murray again. Well, thankfully, the good people of Google have digitized some of his works and the rest of you can enjoy him too: http://books.google.com/books/about/Sermons_to_asses_to_doctors_in_divinity.html?id=XWAUAAAAYAAJ

#Occupy History 1768: Of Overgrown Dukes, Knights, and Super-PACs

“The power of choosing a man to represent a town or country in parliament is lodged in the hands of a few monopolizers of privileges, who, by the weight of their purses, and the power of their interest, can turn the rest as they have a mind.”

If James Murray was concerned with the burdens shouldered by the 99% of his day, he was no less so by the electioneering process—particularly since it was heavily rigged by the 1%. Back in the eighteenth century, the local presiding aristo would make his rounds during election season, urging eligible voters in his county to support his candidate. Indeed, it was standard practice for him and his candidate of choice to go the whole hog, figuratively and literally, throwing great feasts with plenty of booze. If the attendee was lucky, he might put on his wig–before discovering that it had been  “truly oiled with the juice of the grape, and bedaubed with the surcharge of some overloaded appetite.”  And if not, he might suffer a few broken bones or worse. In fact, these affairs could rival any modern day frat house hazing for it was hardly unusual for the local militia to be called in: which is partly why the reformist call for annual elections simply never took off. Take a look at this rendering of an “Election Entertainment” (1755)  from Hogarth:

(original site: http://www.giantratofsumatra.com/2011/04/)

Although Murray was by no means the first to criticize this phenomenon, he was probably the first to address it before a sizeable audience. Civil disorder was only part of a larger problem: namely, the disproportionate influence enjoyed by monied bigwigs, whether they be “dull dukes” or “heavy-headed knights.” It should be plain to see that  “When a man, to whom Providence hath given a liberal share of worldly possessions, and who is able, by the weight of his interest, to weigh down the fourth part of a country, employs that interest contrary to the principles of honesty and virtue,” he is nothing less than “a curse to the nation.” (These are Murray’s italics.)

Now granted, the electorate back then comprised a meager 3-5% of the nation (e.g., those with at least 40 shillings worth of land residing in a town that actually sent MP’s to Parliament), but what good is an election when voters face potential repercussions from their local aristo during a period when ballots were still openly cast? (Hence, the call for secret ballots in the 19th century.) As Murray argues, the entire purpose of an election is defeated when dependents feel “overawed in their voting” by their social superiors, self-important men accustomed to “treat[ing] their dependents like asses, and threaten[ing] them out of their liberty and virtue at once, by the weight of their interest.” It is a sheer travesty when “there is no man free….but men of large and extensive fortunes” and “the power of choosing a man to represent a town or country in parliament is lodged in the hands of a few monopolizers of privileges, who, by the weight of their purses, and the power of their interest, can turn the rest as they have a mind.”

But even as Murray excoriates these elites, he doesn’t let ordinary Britons off the hook. Too many of them are easily enticed by prospects of free food,  announcing  unwittingly to the world that they “are asses, ready and willing to take on any burden.”  Indeed, It is easy capitulation that allows the rich and powerful to manipulate them further, for

what opinion must these gentlemen have of such drunken societies who will do so much for a few days of riot and gluttony, as to sell their liberties, but that they are asses that want to be watered? Can that nation be accounted free, that can be so easily enslaved by drunkenness and bribery? Liberty is but a name, when it can be so easily subdued by such mean gratifications. When men are slaves to their lusts, they will never be free. Men that do so easily sell their souls will not value their country.

At the same time, if some are suckered in by free refreshments,  others are far too prone to obey their social betters  in the misguided belief that, well, they must know better:

The meanness of the greatest number of freeholders in Britain is conspicuous in their stooping down to take on every burden that any overgrown duke or knight pleases to impose upon them. When once it is known what side of the question “his Grace” is on, the inferior freeholders ask no more, but generally say, Amen. They do not consider the qualifications and merit of the candidate, whether he is a wise man or fool, or a tool of the state: if he is such a great man’s friend, that is sufficient.

In the end, of course, this servility could only backfire on poor, unthinking John Bull, dazzled by the jewels and fancy gold-laced duds donned by Lord So-and-so. Little does John guess that “A gentleman may safely sink his estate by procuring an election” enroute to buying “another ten times better than that which he had before.” Such candidates resemble those “other traders, who, when they fail, very often make a profitable composition at other people’s expense, and grow richer than ever they were before.” They are men “who have laid out so much money upon an election, will endeavour to make you pay for it, by joining with some venal ministry in taxing you, for the benefit of a rich preferment.” Yes, that’s correct: you’ve screwed yourself by voting for a man—like so many others before him–who will again vote against your best interests in Parliament when he sides with his rich patrons and buddies.  As Tom Paine would observe a few decades later, the landed elites in the legislature were pretty sly at shifting the burden of taxes to commoners–and even onto the poor.

It’s hard not to smile condescendingly today as if anyone would be blind enough not to see through Lord 1%’s ploy. We pride ourselves on living in a real, honest-to-goodness democracy where each citizen has one vote. Not to mention that our 21st Jill and Joe Blows are smarter and much better informed in the age of the internet….right?

Hmmmm.  The fact is, little has changed since then. For the better part of our own history, the rich have long enjoyed disproportionate influence by making large contributions to their candidates of choice, under certain limits, of course. But with the 2010 rulings on Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow.org v. FEC , these limits have been eradicated, allowing the wealthy to exercise even more influence by means of the super-PAC, a supersized pac, if you will; as Rick Hasen notes in his blog (Jan 18, 2012), what was once of illegality or dubious legality in regard to independent contributions is now “of fully blessed legality.”  This brings us back to 18th century Britain, where there were no limits either.

So who are some of our “overgrown dukes and knights?” On one hand, we have the bewigged (or betoupe-d?) “You’re-fired” Donald openly endorsing Mitt “I-like-being-able-to-fire-people Romney. But there are some slightly less visible, hovering dimly in the background. Of course, by now, we’ve heard of the Koch brothers:  founders of the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, organizers of the various Tea Party outfits (Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, etc.), and supporters of union-bashing Scott Walker.  We may also have heard of Foster Friess, backer of Santorum (i.e., “Red, White, and Blue” super-PAC);  union-busting Sheldon Adelson, backer of Gingrich (“Winning our Future”). Then there’s the super-PAC, “Restore our Future,” organized by a few of Romney’s aides,  whose donors include former Bain colleagues and John Paulson, the hedge-funder who famously earned billions betting against the housing market. Even Obama, who criticized the Supreme Court for their decision in 2010, is now (reluctantly?) relying on Priorities USA Action super-PAC. (See also http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/superpacs.php?ql3)

Of particular danger to our 99% are the wealthy donors behind the GOP leaning super-PACs. As Blaire Bowie and Adam Lioz have recently observed, they  hold significantly different ideas on the economy. More are concerned about the deficit than unemployment. What is striking, however, is the divergence between their own social ideas and that of their conservative base.  David Koch, for instance, supports gay rights, stem-cell research, and along with his brother, the ACLU.  It is worth pointing out that Friess had no qualms about supporting Alfonse D’Amato even though the latter had only rejected the GOP position on gays.  As such, what squarely unites many if not the vast majority of wealthy donors behind the Republican agenda is opposition to reforms on Wall Street and unions–which in turn helps explain why they also contribute to a hostile media that panders to the views of the Tea Party and their ilk even if they don’t necessarily share their social prejudices.

What were Murray’s solutions to these “monopolizers of privilege” and what key do they hold for us?  Stay tuned.