American conservatism began as a movement dedicated to the preservation of individual freedom. It was founded on three fundamental pillars: the limitation of government involvement in private life, the containment of corporate power, and the prevention of military adventure abroad.
However, the current conservative movement has so perverted these goals that it cannot really be called conservative at all. The present administration has pioneered bills ranging from the Patriot Act to the proposed national identification system that invade privacy as never before. At a time when the means of destroying privacy are becoming terrifyingly powerful, a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has been nominated and approved without the least question who has stated that he does not believe that the Constitution even guarantees a right of privacy.
This has set the stage for an assault of privacy unlike anything we have ever seen or imagined, that will unfold over the next quarter century and will leave us, essentially, trapped in a web of revelation that will beggar the imagination.
The present conservative movement is far removed from the ideals that brought about the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890. That act was offered by Ohio Senator John Sherman, a Republican and a thoughtful conservative of a kind that, quite simply, has ceased to exist as a political animal. He understood that personal freedom could not survive the consolidation of corporate power, and that it was the mission of the conservative wing of the Republican party to curtail monopolistic practices in business, because they reduced the choices available to the individual, and therefore also freedom.
The present Republican party is, quite simply, the political action arm of the corporate world. It is there to facilitate consolidation, corporate power and profitability in every way possible. The rights of the individual, much less the importance of his freedom, are no longer considered of any importance at all. A mythical ?free market,? which is actually a careful and detailed perversion of everything Adam Smith ever said, is called upon to justify this process, which has led to companies routinely getting away with all sorts of abuses, and only getting caught when by chance the regulatory infrastructure that still remains from the past happens to notice, such as the recent Guidant case and, most spectacularly, Enron.
Another example of the party?s war against the individual is the recent bankruptcy bill, which languished in congressional committees for five years before anybody had the temerity to actually pass it–which only happened after Tom DeLay was given half a million dollars by the banking lobby.
The lie is that “too many people were using liberal bankruptcy laws to get out of just debts.” The truth is that the bankruptcy laws were intended to encourage enterpreneurship by, in effect, spreading the risk being taken by individual venturers to those they had borrowed from, who were generally better able to accept some of that risk.
Bankruptcy experts reported again and again that there was virtually no evidence that the old law was being abused by anybody. On the contrary, it was doing its essential job by encouraging people to take the risks that are crucial to our economic future. Now that it is gone, the leaden hand of corporate power has descended on the small entrepreneur. I can tell you a very specific story about this. I know a man who has been raising money to develop an ultra-thin battery. He?s an inventor and entrepreneur. He?s got a couple of inventions under his belt, but he?s not rich. However, he has stopped his fundraising efforts because as he put it, ?with this new law, if I make a mistake, I have to live with it for the rest of my life.? The result? His ultra-thin battery will never be developed.
Versions of that same story are being repeated in thousands of small workshops and little, innovative companies all over this country right now. No, the new bankruptcy law has essentially nothing to do with preventing consumers from abandoning debt they never should have undertaken in the first place. The statistics show that this simply is not a significant issue. So why change the law? It is because it will relieve the corporate world from the stress of uncontrolled innovation. The fact that, over time, it will harm our country immeasurably just does not matter, it seems.
We have seen again and again over the past ten years that Republican appointed judges have ignored Senator Sherman?s law, to the point that some of the most crucial areas of our economy and our culture are controlled by monopolies every bit as repressive as the trusts the act was meant to destroy. Microsoft is a monopoly, pure and simple. It is a great, bloated giant that has innovation in a literal chokehold, in one of the areas where innovation is most vital to our future. Another area where the monopolies function like a kind of cancerous tumor is the media. Radio is effectively controlled by three companies, one of which, Clear Channel Communications, utterly dominates the industry. What is worse, this company churns out thousands of hours of pro-corporate propaganda every week, disguised as ?conservative? talk programming.
The situation on the government side beggars description. An assault on our right of privacy is under way at a time when exotic new technologies of invasion are just around the corner. It will be possible, not very long from now, to introduce markers so small that it will be possible to breed them into food so that, once eaten, they will enter an individual?s bloodstream and be treated like iron molecules, which are not normally ejected by the body. These nanodevices will be able to transmit information about the individual, for example, to scanners that themselves can be concealed anywhere, even in a person?s home.
What is going to happen soon is that government will be free to identify anybody in any way that it wishes, meaning that the individual may be exposed to exotic identity technologies without his knowledge, much less his permission. This is why I am so very strongly opposed to the new Chief Justice. It seems to me that was chosen with exquisite care, because he would appear to be a fine conservative of the old school, and thus acceptable to the whole political constituency from the mid-left to the mid-right. However, he is, in reality, a poison pill, put there to pave the way for the destruction of our privacy at a time when technology is about to make that monstrously easy and complete.
I almost don?t want to write about military adventurism, beyond commenting that it is ironic indeed that the first time in this century that the United States started a war completely from scratch, it did so under a Republican administration, at the behest of a president who claimed during his pre-election debates that he sought to disengage from being an international policeman. Instead, he has trapped the United States in a war that it cannot win and that it cannot abandon without causing even more horrible loss of life than it has caused already. He entered the campaign on a lie, and worse, did not simply ignore the need for post-conflict support of the conquered country?s governmental infrastructure, his policies pro-actively insured that the remaining infrastructure would disintegrate and that even the elements of the population which were primed to support us?which represented, at the beginning, a significant majority?would become our enemies not just for this generation or for a few generations, but down the ages of human memory.
This was done out of greed, pure and simple. If, immediately after the war, we had enlisted Iraqis to rebuild their own infrastructure and paid them in dollars to do it, we would have won both the war and the peace. Instead, we threw the Iraqis out of work and brought in foreign workers. This was not done because the foreign workers were better. In most cases, they were far less capable than the Iraqi bureaucrats, administrators and engineers who knew how to run the country. It was done to enrich companies like Halliburton and other loyal Republican corporations. And, led by Rush Limbaugh, Clear Channel and Fox News, the American people have been fed the lie that this was in some way necessary, that the Iraqis?who had been doing it for generations, after all?had suddenly become incapable of running their own infrastructure.
Understand, I am not suggesting that Ba-athist bureaucrats, soldiers and policemen should have been left in place. I am only suggesting that the same system that was used to rehabilitate Germany after World War II, and which worked so brilliantly, should have been used here. But, of course, World War II is ancient history in this new world of ours where the past lasts only as long as fame?about fifteen minutes. Or is that seconds?
I would be very surprised to learn that anybody in the administration, or anybody who addressed the issue of post-conflict rehabilitation for Iraq, even knew what a hagenbogen was. You will not, I don?t think, find this on the internet, so lost it is to history. But it was a form of questionnaire that Germans after the war had to answer. These documents were painstakingly compared, and over time people who were likely to have remained pro-Nazi after the war ended were identified and removed from their positions. It was a slow, careful process, and it resulted in both the German government and the German economy being run by ?normal,? people, that is, people uncorrupted by ideology.
The Bush administration chose the simple, stupid way in Iraq. Throw the bums out?whether they actually were bums or not. This wasn?t because it couldn?t hope ever to identify the pro-Saddam bad apples, but because by doing so it guaranteed that billions of dollars in profits would flow into the hands of its supporters as reward for their help, and never mind the fact that those billions are coming right out of the pockets of the American people, not to mention the blood of the Iraqis.
It?s a pitiful situation, indeed. Our country is ending up being divided between two camps of extremists, neither of which are worth the time of day. On the one side are these ridiculous tin-pot fascists I have been ranting about. Conservatives, indeed. Greedy thugs is more like it, thugs and criminals.
But what does the other side have to offer? The left has on offer right now essentially the same program that it had on offer in 1932. In other words, a hoary old antique that is no more appropriate to the modern world than a celluloid collar?and, if they had their way, a very tight one indeed.
What the far right seeks is control of our moral life. That is not conservatism. What the far left seeks is control of our economic life. And that is not liberalism. Ironically, the true liberal and the true conservative converge at the one point that really matters: freedom. The conservative says that freedom comes to a man who is allowed room to find it on his own. The liberal says that it comes to him only if it is given to him by protective regulation and supportive social legislation.
All of the ideologues on both says say the hell with freedom, either do it our way or go straight to hell.
I very well remember the day I sat down to read the long, complex document that has become known as ?Hillary?s Health Care Plan.? It would have extended universal health care in the United States. But there was a price to pay: the individual had to give up essentially all choices, even with regard to which doctor would give him his health care.
I thought at the time that it was the worst single piece of legislation I had ever read, a fantastic, almost surrealistic assault on essentially every detail of our health care system that works. I wasn?t alone: the American people, be they Democrats, Republican or whatever else, stood with their collective jaw on the floor, staring at this lunatic suggestion that we trust the welfare of our bodies to a bureaucratic rat?s nest even more labyrinthine and encompassing than Britain?s notorious National Health system.
Subsequent to the backlash that followed it, which was the removal of the Democrats from power in the midterm elections that followed its introduction, I watched appalled as the rise of the HMO system placed most people in an even worse situation with regard to their health care than they would have been in under the Clinton plan! All I can say is this: at least, under the system we have now, you can, in some cases, change HMO.
What do we actually need? Well, we need to come to our collective senses and abandon the ideologues of both left and right. This country is moderate, fair and free. We don?t need people in public office who are extreme, who are bullies and who distrust the freedom of those who disagree with them. We certainly don?t need to throw out the current far right extremists in favor of equally unpleasant far left extremists.
Whether they be Republicans or Democrats, when we hear candidates and officeholders spouting ideology, it?s time to run like hell. The only hope of restoring this country to its former greatness is to find the political moderates who are willing to lead, and vote in such a way that they are able to do that.
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