How does a snarling misanthrope like Dick Cheney or William Bennett manage to convince himself and others that he’s a man of virtue? It’s easier to understand with Cheney than it is with Bennett. After all, this was a man with genuine power over others. He could have had you drowned 83 times a month, or had death rained on you from the skies with nothing more than a word or two in the right ear. It’s one of the sadder truths of the human condition that power, which by definition can avoid any effective scrutiny of its own motives, has often been able to masquerade successfully as virtue. Cheney, in short, has had a lot of help.

Bennett is a different kettle of fish altogether. His persuasiveness seems to be rooted not so much in power as in an uncanny, and possibly unique ability to enlist gravitas into the service of hypocrisy. I’ve heard critics attribute this to the fact that his intellectual training began in a Jesuit high school, but I doubt that where he went to high school has that much to do with who he is at 65. Jesuits may have a certain reputation for confusing sophistry and pedagogy, but I can’t honestly see why Gonzaga should have to accept the blame every time one of its graduates falls victim to the sin of pride. Bennett, in my opinion, is nothing if not sui generis. The sublime contempt for human weakness which grants him license to indulge his own appetites at the same time he decries them so eloquently in others is almost certainly the expression of a natural talent, no matter what other influences have nurtured it along the way.

Be all of that as it may, if Cheney’s claim to virtue lies in power, and Bennett’s in eloquence, why have I lumped them together here? My answer is that doing so isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem. It’s not so much that they share an ideology, or an uneasy relationship with much of the rest of the human race. It’s that in America, the traditional homeland of irreverence, somehow they’ve both managed to make successful public careers out of imitating the Voice of God.

Here, for example, is Cheney, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on May 21st:

In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.

If you didn’t know any better, would you ever have guessed that he was talking about Torquemada’s water board, or having people beaten to death, or suffocating them by hanging them upside down by the ankles, or hanging them right side up by the wrists until their feet swelled to three times their normal size? No? Well, you weren’t meant to.

To paraphrase Mary McCarthy, every word out of Cheney’s mouth here is a lie, including and and the. To start with, it’s clear from recently released documents that enhanced interrogation is, by definitions in use for at least three hundred years in every major language, torture plain and simple — no ifs, ands or buts.

Ordering someone to be tortured or carrying out that order is illegal under American law, and has been for decades. It’s been moral anathema for a lot longer than that. Thus Cheney simply calls it something else. He performs the same feat of linguistic legerdemain with the phrase hardened terrorist. As we now know, his minions tortured everyone who fell into their grasp, male, female, old, young, even children…. One is tempted to observe that it isn’t patriotism, but euphemism which is the last refuge of scoundrels.

Except, of course, that when euphemism won’t do the trick, an outright lie is pressed into service. Cheney says of these enhanced interrogation methods that: they were legal, (clearly they were not) essential, (not according to FBI interrogators, retired CIA operatives, armed forces generals, and others with experience in human intelligence operations) justified, (only in the eyes of the torturers themselves) successful, (no credible evidence of such success has ever been publicly presented) and the right thing to do. (Who says so, apart from Cheney himself?)

A man who speaks, as Cheney does here, in calm, reasoned tones, grammatically correct and rhetorically rounded, in defense of deeds which are fundamentally indefensible, is a man unused to being contradicted. Fortunately for America, citizen Cheney may now have to accustom himself to being contradicted far more frequently than Vice-President Cheney ever was.

In William Bennett’s case, it isn’t so much that he defends the indefensible, it’s that he decides what to defend — and what to decry — according to a moral compass which is far less impartial, not to mention eternal, than the claims he makes for it. Here he is, writing in The Death of Outrage, published in 1998:

In the end this book rests on the venerable idea that moral good and moral harm are very real 
things, and moral good or moral harm can come to a society by what it esteems and by what it 
disdains. Many people have been persuaded to take a benign view of the Clinton presidency on the basis of arguments that have attained an almost talismanic stature but that in my judgment are deeply wrong and deeply pernicious. We need to say no to those arguments as loudly as we can — and yes to the American ideals they endanger.

This passage, in case its pieties obscure its meaning, is Bennett’s venerable idea of something which is a deeply pernicious threat to American ideals, namely President Clinton’s blowjob, and his subsequent lies about it.

By contrast, here is what Bennett said in an interview with Anderson Cooper on April 24th about President Obama’s release of the infamous torture memos from the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Council, and the possibility that the President might allow Attorney General Holder to proceed with investigations of alleged misconduct by government officials:

Well, I think so, but let put me down a marker here. I think Barack Obama’s going to regret that he did this.

He’s going to regret that he changed his mind, too, because it looks less, frankly, right now like the rule of law, or a — you know, saluting the rule of law, and more like bloodlust. The president said let bygones be bygones, we’re moving forward, let’s put this behind us, and then flipped.

And it looks, from all evidence, that he was pressured into this for political reasons.

Now, can there still be an inquiry that’s not politically based? Yes. But just bear this in mind. When you build the gallows, be sure you know who it is you plan to hang, because, when all of this comes out, some of the people who are, you know, yelling the loudest for Dick Cheney’s head or for these lawyers’ heads — and this is not going to happen — may find themselves in trouble as well.

So a society’s moral destiny is decided by what it esteems and what it disdains — is that the lesson we should take away from the wisdom of William Bennett here? God forbid that his own moral destiny should be determined by the same standard of judgment. I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I know of no moral universe, Judeo-Christian or otherwise, which finds adulterous sex, and blushing lies about it, more of a threat to the community of the virtuous than torture, and the refusal not only to prosecute those responsible for it, but even to discuss what it is that they’ve done in our name. Ah, but Mr. Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, thinks otherwise. We must move forward, let bygones be bygones — if we don’t, we’ll have allowed bloodlust to take the place of the rule of law.

What utter nonsense. To call a piece of sophistry like this disingenuous is to be kinder to Bennett than his own implacable God will be when the day comes, if it comes, that he’s called to eternal judgment. In the meantime, if I go looking for a Book of Virtues to read to my own grandchildren, it won’t be William Bennett’s.

Luxe, Calme, et Volupté

This blogging stuff is hard work, especially when you’re trying to force your way uphill against what Paul Rosenberg calls our hegemonic discourse. For myself, I’d just like to recover a little of the America that an earnest young teacher once told me about in a junior high civics class, and my parents still believed in after ten years of depression and five more of world war. I hate seeing it sneered at by morons and sadists like Rush Limbaugh, or turned into a right-wing Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by shrunken souls like John Yoo and Dick Cheney.

I need to go look at some art. Not Delacroix, I think…especially not La Liberté guidant le peuple. Not today, anyway. Maybe Manet — I always liked Un bar aux Folies Bergère. I actually got to see it once, when I was in New York some twenty or so years ago. An older couple, friends-of-friends who had tickets to the VIP opening of the retrospective at the Met, found themselves with a prior commitment, and so sent me instead.

The exhibition filled a very large hall. Every painting by Manet that I’d ever seen in a book was hanging there, along with many I hadn’t known about at all. And there I was, just me and twenty or so other art lovers, walking from station to station with our eyes bugged out. It was one of those rare occasions when you understand what privileges are actually available to the privileged.

Beautiful refractions of a very mundane world, made all the more beautiful when you can see the actual brushstrokes which composed them — that’s what I thought once I was standing in front of it. And that black, that radiant black…the color that Manet claimed wasn’t one. I felt sorry for the young woman behind the bar, though — trapped, distracted, unaware that the painter is making her less beautiful, and the world more, as though to prove that the dignity of labor is overrated.

Once upon a time, I might have asked her what time she got off work. Now, I think of myself as one of her less-favored customers — old, fat, loud, and overly fond of pastis. Still male, though, unfortunately. Maybe I should consider pastis the old man’s virtue rather than his vice. That would be acceptable, I think, especially if I could sit at the back of the room and see what Manet saw.

But no, not the bar after all. When all is said and done, it does the woman an injustice, perhaps because Manet went to such lengths to disguise his reverence for her.

Matisse, I think. You know the one. Women unencumbered. Women and light. I think I might have caught a glimpse of Digby there, out of the corner of my eye, but not a sign of Ann Coulter, or Michelle Malkin. They don’t show up anywhere unless they’re paid.

The American Leviathan

For the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.

Without the terror of some power. Hobbes didn’t trust us. He didn’t, in fact, trust anyone not cowed by the rule of an elite. What neither he nor any other authoritarian has ever adequately explained, however, is what mysterious process or agency it is which invests this elite with virtues none of the rest of us possess, and therefore makes them fit agents to supplement the laws of nature with whatever temporal power is necessary to ensure that the rest of us obey them.

This is the essence of politics, the idea that the rule of one group over another has to be legitimized by something other than superior power. If it isn’t, war — whether metaphorical or real — becomes our natural state, as groups rely on power alone to justify their claim to rule. History suggests that even when there’s temporarily a clear victor in such wars, the result tends to be an oppressive and ultimately unstable society, and that sooner or later, the cycle of contention will begin again.

Back in the day — the 1960’s, for those who don’t remember them — activists on the American left were fond of quoting Mao Zedong’s famous maxim, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as the final word on political realism. My own thought at the time, hearing this from leather-jacketed scions of the bourgeoisie, was that we could do with fewer romantics in the movement. Mao wasn’t an idiot, and there was a good deal of truth in many of his truisms, but Mao, whether or not he or anyone else realized it, owed as much to Hobbes as he did to Marx.

The American political experiment has very different roots, which are perhaps best summarized in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

This, particularly the bolded part, is the ultimate expression of faith that the problem of political legitimacy can be solved without resort to tyranny. Despite its contradiction of Hobbes’ idea of the social contract, and the misgivings of tyrants everywhere, it is also, I would argue, the cornerstone of any political realism worthy of the name.

The founders of the American state were men of faith, certainly, but they weren’t stupid or ignorant men. They knew as well as the Pharoahs of Egypt or the Ch’in Emperor did that governments are instituted among men for all sorts of reasons, few of which have anything at all to do with securing the inalienable rights of a majority. Nevertheless, they were standing on a new continent, a tabula rasa, as it seemed to them. (This would surely have been news to the Cherokee, the Seminole, or the Lakota, of course, or to the slaves in Jefferson’s own back yard, but as conservatives are fond of pointing out, new principles, being new, often embrace even less of reality than do ancient ones.) If the members of the Continental Congress didn’t want to repeat the moribund and oppressive politics which had driven them from their European homeland, they really had no alternative but to experiment, to assume the responsibility for turning the abstract into the concrete without relying on established custom, or even, in many cases, on their own instincts.

And what of their American experiment, 230+ years on? Despite our best efforts, not a great deal remains of it. The Right to Life has become the label for a religious prohibition which a minority demands be enacted into law. The Right to Liberty has no force in the workplace, because the workplace is owned by people who view the liberty of workers as an administrative inconvenience, and the courts recognize few limits on the rights of ownership. In recent years, even those limits which the law and the courts do recognize have rarely been enforced by the executive branch of the government. Finally, the Right to the pursuit of Happiness has in large part been reduced to the sanction of a misguided quest for things — bigger things, and more of them. Why this quest should require our government to bomb wedding parties in Afghanistan, or construct military airbases in Uzbekistan; why it should require our corporations to force subsistence farmers off land in Mexico or Guatemala coveted for industrialized crop monocultures, or export manufacturing jobs to countries which offer the lowest wage structures and weakest labor laws, are questions which don’t seem to concern most Americans.

They should be concerned. In the first place, both happiness and liberty are indivisible; you can’t acquire more of either for yourself by taking it from someone else. In the second place, the consent of the governed becomes a mockery when it amounts to little more than the indifference of the governed.

Here, of course, is where authoritarians — Hobbes most especially — believe that they hold the trump card. You see, they say, even you democrats are forced to admit it. When the people aren’t wolves, who must be subdued, they are sheep, who must be herded. Only an elite can lead them in any case. Being a democrat, I would reply along with Jefferson that what distinguishes leaders from the led is interest. Not heredity, not intelligence or virtue, and most especially not the sanction of God, nor the outcome of a struggle for wealth or power.

A decent society, a democratic society, which offers as few impediments as possible to a broadly-defined public interest, is always well served, precisely because it facilitates the development of a legitimate source of leadership that is both broadly and deeply rooted in the society as a whole. The authoritarian society, regardless of its pretensions to the contrary, serves only one real interest, the preservation of the status and privileges of the elites which govern it. It does so by blocking the interests of the majority, only to discover, as it devotes more and more of its energies to the task of protecting those elites, that its efforts inevitably end by serving no one, not even the elites themselves.

This is where the United States finds itself today. It may be a nation conceived in liberty, as Lincoln famously put it, but is no longer dedicated — even in theory — to the proposition that all men are created equal.

If it were otherwise, it would be hard to explain, given both the statistical and anecdotal evidence of the suffering caused by the present state of our health care industry, why everyone who matters in Washington continues to insist that single-payer is off the table. When asked for a reason why this is so, given its obvious advantages over the corrupt and prohibitively expensive insurance system which we have today, the closest we get to a meaningful answer, from President Obama, is that our present system of insurers and providers employs thousands of people, and that single payer would threaten their livelihood. Considering that a large percentage of these people are employed in processing redundant paperwork, or finding ways to deny coverage to those who need it, is this really a reason which anyone who understands what’s at stake should be obliged to take seriously?

If ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, why must schools, prisons, hospitals, and even libraries be outsourced and recast as profit centers? Why are we incessantly told that traditional civil institutions must now be run like businesses? What businesses should they be run like — Citigroup? General Motors? Wal*Mart? What happened to government-sponsored low interest college loans? Why are student loans, and the students who contract for them now in the hands of usurers? Why is it that no matter what question you ask, the answer from Washington is to cut taxes on the wealthy?

Can anyone who believes that the United States is still a representative democracy explain why the government finds it necessary to spy on citizens without a warrant, and why no ordinary citizen can find out what the information is being used for, or how long it’s being kept? Does anyone know why, when this illegal spying was discovered, the Congress passed laws to legalize it, and to retroactively immunize those who had taken taken part in it against prosecution for their illegal acts? Does this seem at all consistent with the Bill of Rights?

Given the present state of our country, questions like this could go on for many more paragraphs. Just in the realm of foreign affairs and the military, one might ask if there are any convincing reasons, as opposed to the reasons Fox News gives us, for bombing those wedding parties in Afghanistan, or torturing people to death, or building military bases in Uzbekistan, or Diego Garcia or over seven hundred other places, most of which few of us have ever heard of. One might even ask why the army now has a North American Command. If Thomas Jefferson were still around, you can be sure that he’d be interested in the answer to that.

The truth of the matter is that all these questions can be reduced to one single, very simple question: whose interests are being served by all of this? You don’t have to be Karl Marx, or even Noam Chomsky, to suspect that the answer isn’t the people’s interest. Hobbes’ answer is, in fact, more than sufficient. What we are witnessing is the terror of some power. Sadly, it isn’t being employed to enforce those benevolent laws of nature which were so dear to Hobbes in his own time of chaos. Far from it.

What are we to do about this? For myself, I prefer Jefferson’s answer, from the same passage of the Declaration of Independence which I’ve already quoted above:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Shall we begin?

We Can’t Get There From Here

If the government is going to give billions, even trillions of our tax dollars to the banks, we should own them. Nationalize the banks.

When progressive Democrats say this, what they usually mean is that the government should take over the large investment banks and bank holding companies which have been the recipients of tax-funded government bailouts — Citigroup and Bank of America, for example — restructure them, and then continue to operate them in the public interest, either through direct ownership of a majority stake in each company’s equity, or after repatriating them at a fair price to a new, and presumably more responsible group of capitalists, through stringent new regulations, and even government seats on their Boards of Directors. The presumption, of course, is that in recent years these banking conglomerates have been run, and in most cases continue to be run, solely in the interest of the bankers and their shareholders, with little or no regard for the public interest.

Such a plan sounds like a good idea; certainly Stiglitz and Krugman seem to think so, and they know far more about such things than most of us do. The difficulty I have with it is that as far as I can tell, there’s little practical difference these days between the government owning the banks and the banks owning the government.

Strictly speaking, I’m making a political observation here, not an economic one, but consider just one recent event, the defeat of the Durbin Amendment in the Senate last Thursday. This amendment to the Senate Housing Bill (S.891) would have brought the bill into conformity with a bill passed earlier by the House by allowing homeowners facing foreclosure on their homes to seek a court-administered adjustment of both the interest and the outstanding principal on their loans. Among the most significant of the groups lobbying against the amendment was the Mortage Bankers Association, which celebrated its victory in this widely linked video:

Consider also that one of the members of the board of the association is an executive of Chase Bank, a division of JP Morgan-Chase, and another is an executive of Wells Fargo Bank, each of which received a federal bailout package of $25 billion dollars. Finally, consider that one of the reasons given by the association for its opposition to the amendment was that it would create a moral hazard, meaning that it would encourage people in the future to buy houses that they couldn’t afford, and legally burden their mortgage bankers with the loss when they were unable to make their payments.

Frankly, when offered by an industry whose practices in the past decade came very close to destroying the entire global economy, this doesn’t even pass the smell test. Bankers who overindulged in risk, were salvaged by billions of dollars of tax-supported cash infusions, and then spent millions of those dollars lobbying senators to defeat a bill which would have afforded similar relief to ordinary homeowners have an amazing amount of gall, it seems to me, to even think of offering opinions on moral hazard.

Let me be perfectly clear. In talking about the series of events leading up to the defeat of Senator Durbin’s amendment, I’m not arguing guilt by association, take no particular pleasure in bashing what some have called greedy plutocrats, and have no need or desire to rely on some sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc explanation for why the vote went the way it did.

The relationship between bankers, federal bailout money and lobbying — which I’m by no means alone in pointing out — may in fact be purely coincidental. I’m even willing to accept the proposition that these folks genuinely believe that they’re acting in the public interest, despite the obvious appearances to the contrary.

The problem is that, from my perspective, there’s no public in their version of the public interest, there’s just them and the people they know and do business with — those who, in a more combative time, we might have called their class — and outside that familiar circle, they see only an undifferentiated and faceless mass which includes most of the rest of us. In other words, our needs, let alone our opinions, aren’t a part of the public interest which anyone in their position is obliged to take seriously.

More to the point, we have no way at present — absolutely no way — of making them do otherwise. The idea of democracy, that there’s some sort of virtuous path between the will of the people and the actions of its putative representatives, has no force in a society which treats money as the legal equivalent of speech. If anything has become obvious in the United States since the end of WWII, it’s the fact that money is now the only effective form of political speech.

We listen to candidates tell us what we want to hear, we vote for them, and then when they get to our state capitals, or to Washington, they do what people with money tell them to do. To be fair, if they refuse, if they take a broader view of the public interest, the people with money won’t provide them with the means to speak to us come the next election, and in our era, they literally have no other way to speak to us without it.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for this, but in the end, most of it is ours to shoulder. Fundamentally, this is, as I’ve already said, more a political burden than an economic one, one which we’ll eventually have to accept no matter what we make of the economic vices and virtues of global capitalism and the corporate state. Those vices and virtues are real enough, and will, I hope, provide an interesting subject for more than one future post.

The Judgment of History

Jack Kemp is dead. Full stop.

The media commentary on his passing is mixed. Some say he was a nice man, and some say he wasn’t, which is about what you’d expect for a public figure, particularly one who spent as much time as he did being controversial. Although I was around when he was making headlines both as a quarterback and later as a Congressman and Republican functionary, and was as aware as anyone at the time of his public persona, I have no opinion to offer about his personal qualities. The one thing I will say about him is that he mistook Arthur Laffer for an economist. The consequences of that simple bit of ignorance have cost the country dearly, and I believe that they ought to be taken into account when assessing his accomplishments.

Kemp wasn’t the only advocate of the Republican tax-cutting panacea to come to prominence in the Seventies and Eighties. Howard Jarvis, and his sidekick Paul Gann, the principal cheerleaders for Proposition 13, were also making headlines, and of course, Ronald Reagan, the Godfather of Voodoo Economics, made it all the way to the White House, and had Laffer’s Trojan horse dragged right into the Oval Office behind him, where it occupied the place of ideological honor for the entire eight years of his presidency.

It was Kemp, though, who was the true believer. He was the one who incorporated Jarvis and Gann’s dismay at seeing old folks taxed out of their homes, and Reagan’s instinctive aversion to seeing his wealthy patrons inconvenienced into a sweeping set of ideological generalizations about the benefits of free markets, and the evils of government intervention. It was he who found Arthur Laffer, and convinced him to provide the ribbon to tie this disparate collection of resentments, half-baked economic theory and boosterism into a coherent, if not intellectually respectable package. It was also Kemp who sold it, with a charm as misguided as it was relentless.

The bill for this folly has now come due, and Jack Kemp has escaped paying it. That’s a great pity, I think. If he’d been able to delay his exit for another five years or so, no doubt this week’s eulogies could have been more fair and balanced, if not more sincere.

Torture Me Elmo

The unbearable lightness of being. This is a case history of what happens when good people trade good will for a stunned complacency.

Garrison Keillor, of all people, thinks that prosecuting the miscreants who attempted to square the circle on torture would be victor’s justice, a pallid, sour mockery of the real thing. Let’s have the truth, he says, then forget about its implications and go back to chuckling with the stolid, unflappable Protestants of Lake Wobegon, who never hurt anyone, and can endure anything if it doesn’t interfere with the return of Spring.

I like Garrison Keillor, and I’ve never doubted that his folksy wisdom is, in fact, wisdom, but here we part company. If you let people get away with murder, then murder will come to seem unexceptional, routine even. And then what? Do we just sweep the bodies up off the streets every morning, along with the horseapples, and go about our business proud that we can handle anything?

I think not, not while I have anything to say about it anyway. Refuse to criminalize policy, and as sure as God made little green apples, you’ll get policies which make the Swensons and Ericsons of Keillor’s fictional home town rue the day they were born.

Yes, torture is as old as the human race is. Yes, we might any of us resort to it if sufficiently provoked. No, you can’t trust public piety to be an accurate reflection of what’s really going on. So what?

We’re trying to build a decent, humane civilization here. We’ve been at it for centuries — God knows with mixed success. Garrison, you’re not helping.

Class Notes — May Day, 2009

Note: this was supposed to have been up yesterday, but then so was I.

In a country which has already outsourced a substantial part of its manufacturing, and prides itself on the marvels of the service economy which replaced it, you have to wonder if there’s still any point in making a distinction between what we used to call the working class and the middle class. Maybe we should all just follow Ralph Nader’s lead and call ourselves consumers, or now that our home equities have blown up in our faces, maybe wage-slaves would, at least temporarily, be more appropriate.

Our politicians are aware of this not-so-new reality, but so far they haven’t had much success in coming to terms with it. Even in the midst of our present economic and cultural upheavals, realignments and redefinitions, neither the left nor the right — whoever and whatever they might actually represent in this homogenized age — can seem to give up referring to their great fondness for the middle class. You have to ask, what are they talking about? Who are they talking about? (Neither has talked much in recent years — fondly or otherwise — about the working class, presumably because working class, to those who can’t remember the precise historical origin of the phrase, sounds too uncomfortably like the taboo rhetoric of Communism.)

It’s always irritated me, this unspoken presumption that everyone is middle class, and its seeming indispensability to our political discourse. Our politicians insert it into every stump speech, whether it fits or not, as though they can’t stop themselves from pandering to everyone’s supposed aspirations as an American, nor bring themselves to omit reference to any piety which their savvy advisors tell them will advance their prospects of getting themselves elected.

If we’re all middle class, then what, exactly, are we to make of Larry Summers, or the Walton gang family? Are we really supposed to believe that they’re just good middle-class folks with a lot of money? I mean, it’s one thing to be a little confused about the way the world works, but if you’re tempted to believe this kind of nonsense, you’ll be lucky to get away with a mild case of befuddlement. Cognitive dissonance is a more likely outcome, maybe even a kind of full-blown functional schizophrenia. Seriously.

Whatever politicians say, the true intention of all this talk about the fortunes of the middle-class, the incessant blather about the American Dream, can only be to encourage political passivity on the part of the electorate. It sounds benevolent enough — that prosperity is the birthright of all Americans, that consumers are entitled to protection, and that taxes are for someone else to pay — but it masks a very different reality, one which despite their best efforts, is still not all that hard to find, especially when, as happens more and more often these days, it finds you first.

Like the well-fed bourgeoisie of the seventeenth century Netherlands, we’ve been content with a life focused on commerce and on keeping our wives pregnant. Just as they were happy to leave the contentions outside Holland’s free cities to the crazed aristocrats, princes of the church and condottieri who, no matter their greed or gluttony, inevitably prized glory above a nice bit of sausage, jug of cream, or bolt of silk from the Indies, so we’ve been happy to let all those folks in Washington who look and sound just like we do to take care of things for us. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s turned out that they are the crazed aristocrats, princes of the church and condottieri of our time.

As the circuses get louder and more strident, and the bread — jet skis, luxury cars and condos in Aspen — gets scarcer, we’d do well to think about this a little. Otherwise, the middle class might well go down in American history as the moral equivalent of a flock of sheep.

Ninety-nine Cents Worth

Compared to the gaseous diffusions of our political discourse these days, the offerings of our songwriters are often a marvel of directness.

If you want to know what I mean, do yourself a favor and go listen to John Mayer’s gem Gravity, from his album Continuum. I won’t quote the lyrics here — fair use and all that — but if you’re in need of a blues hymn to shelter you for a couple of minutes from the storms of bloviation whipped up by our on-all-the-time media, you can’t do any better.

Trust me.