Ask the man in the street what's lower than a journalist, and in most cases he'll say a congressman. The press and the political fraternity are America's evil twins. Democracy depend on them, and on a balance of power between them; they were entrusted with roles of leadership and responsible public service. They both wear masks of public virtue. But they both sold out cheap, and if they truly hate each other it's because each sees its corruption mirrored in the other.
The media and the politicians play the same game now, one for profit and the other for power. It's the same game of pandering to the public, exploiting its ignorance, prospering from darkness instead of trying to shed some light. In private, both camps probably curse the public, which bares its teeth and then sells its votes for candy that melts in its hand--for gimmicks as transparently insincere as a "Contract with America" that never mentions campaign reform. But it may not be possible to serve democracy honestly, without condescension, in a nation where 75 percent of the population believes in angels.
The most frustrating thing about covering politics is the idiot assumption that everything you write is connected to some partisan agenda. Anyone who attempts to be objective will be reviled and eventually ostracized by both camps, Left and Right. To me this exile is the last place of honor in a republic of partisans and panders. I was raised by liberal Republicans who believed government should be as compassionate as it could afford to be, with the emphasis on "afford." That still makes sense to me. Now there are no liberals left in the Republican Party and very few true conservatives -- just pseudo-intellectual bullies like this Gingrich who play carelessly with the fires of fascism and xenophobia.
The Middleton Place, a few miles up the Ashley River from Charleston, is a restored antebellum plantation that stands as a monument to the grandeur of the South Carolina rice aristocracy. Its formal gardens, the oldest landscaped gardens in North America, are impressive in any season and unforgettable when the azaleas are in bloom, as they were when I paid my visit.
Begun in 1741, the gardens reflect the exquisite taste of Henry Middleton (1717-1784), who owned more land than any other man in the 13 colonies at the time of the American Revolution. He also owned, at the peak of his prosperity, more than 800 slaves.
"An ardent Revolutionary patriot," Henry served briefly as president of the First Continental Congress. His son Arthur (1742-1787) was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Arthur's son Henry served as governor of South Carolina and Minister to the Court of the Czar under President Monroe, and his grandson Williams signed the Ordinance of Secession that precipitated the Civil War.
A distinguished dynasty that came to an end, at least on the fertile land that nurtured it, when Union troops arrived in February 1865 and burned the Big House to the ground. The ruins remain, to remind visitors of Yankee barbarism. You don't hear much about the Middletons anymore, but they were the American equivalents of European dukes or princes of the blood. From the Benjamin West portraits of old Henry and Arthur and the original furnishings and silver that have been collected in the old guest house--the only building that survived the Yankees--you know that these rice planters lived in a style that most colonists could never have imagined this side of Versailles.
The Middletons, prominent in both the Revolutionary and Confederate causes, qualify as prime American patriots for most of the visitors who take the tour here. The guide's tone when she speaks of them is generally one of reverence. These were gentlemen carrying the torch of civilization in an age of ignorance and savagery. But I found, to my delight, that the official spiel is not the only lecture available to visitors at the Middleton Place.
In several of the outbuildings--the blacksmith and potter's shops, the tanning and weaving sheds--the foundation that runs the place has established craftspersons to demonstrate 18th-century techniques. In the carpenter's shop I found a vigorous gray-haired man in his 50s who was simultaneously planing something that looked like a headboard and delivering a lecture on the Middletons and the history of the United States.
His was not a version of history that the dozen or so tourists in his audience had heard before. It was positively, deliciously subversive. Think about what you've seen and heard here, he was telling them. The Middletons, whom you've never heard of, were the absolute lords of the earth. They owned the land, they owned the labor, they owned the banks and mills and transportation. They owned the legislature and the government--hell, they were the legislature and the government. (I paraphrase as closely as I can--I didn't take notes.) Every one of these planters sent his sons to law school and then to the capital to make the laws he needed. Every legislator, every magistrate, every sheriff depended on the patronage of people like the Middletons.
"Their will was the law," the carpenter said. "They left nothing to chance."
When you read about the Revolution and the Civil War, you read about patriotism, loyalty, sacrifice, liberty, he explained to his listeners, who were getting restless but not from boredom. Then you learn that the Middletons were in the thick of it, both times. These were the champions of liberty, with 800 slaves? Or was it just business, after all? King George with his taxes and meddling was bad for the Middletons' business. Yankee abolitionists and protective tariffs on European trade goods were bad for business, too. History sanitizes our wars, to make everybody feel better about their motives. But consider the possibility that a lot of poor boys died to protect these Middletons' interests. Consider that not much has changed.
It was all I could do to hold my applause. This was the most concise, effective lesson in materialism and economic history I ever heard, delivered in a barn on a carpet of sawdust. Who was this guy? Somehow I doubted that he had spent his whole life planing headboards.
His class dispersed muttering or chuckling uncomfortably, for the most part. I walked out grinning and sat for a few minutes under the Middleton Oak--with a circumference of 37 feet and a limb spread of 145, the 500-year-old live oak is the second-most impressive presence at the Middleton Place. For me, the carpenter's speech had the irresistible appeal of anything that's obviously true and obviously over-simplified. But the carpenter had hit the nail on the head. He was pointing out the single greatest political blind spot that afflicts Americans and prevents us from establishing a democracy that lives up to our ideals.
FAILING TO UNDERSTAND
Most American voters not only fail to understand the connection between economics and politics, they fail to acknowledge that one exists. Taught for generations to despise Karl Marx and everything he stood for, they have refused to learn the simple Marxist precept that illuminates history better than anything else political science has devised: An unequal distribution of wealth divides a society into classes, and class interests determine everything else. Economics doesn't effect history, Marx would have said--it is history.
Epidemic class blindness is uniquely American. Great Britain has an odious class system, but it's thoroughly acknowledged and factored into the political equation. I have a Laborite friend in Lancastershire who told me he'd never vote for any bloke who'd had his teeth fixed. In the United States there's a pervasive class system, economically determined, that nearly everyone agrees to ignore.
Poor whites are somehow convinced, by appeals to racism and xenophobia, that they have something to gain by voting for their natural class enemies like George Bush and Dan Quayle. They embrace demagogues like Jesse Helms who pander exclusively to the rich and the big corporations. They never seem to ask, why is elective office for sale at prohibitive prices? Why is legislation controlled by industrial lobbies and PACs? Who actually benefits from wars? What happened to the progressive income tax? Why do we have to pay for the S&L bailout?
Sometimes this class blindness, this economic blindness, is simply staggering. At its worst, the American public acts like a quarter of a billion blind mice, mutant mice who circle around the purring candidates every election and deny that these are cats.
"Doesn't feel like a cat to me--maybe some kind of muskrat."
"No, those aren't claws. I think they're cufflinks."
It's pathetic. And the most pathetic development of all is this groundswell of enthusiasm for the presidential candidacy of one Ross Perot. The most shocking statistic to surface, after 12 years of Republican rule, is that the richest 1 percent of American families, who already owned 90 percent of everything, walked off with three-quarters of all the fresh cash the economy generated during the boom years.
For many Americans, the logical response to this rape is to elect a multi-billionaire--representing the richest 1 percent of the richest 1 percent--to set it right.
I honestly feel sorry for anyone who thinks this makes good sense. I can understand disgust with the two-party system and with both parties that operate it, but for Perot to represent himself as the lone wolf outsider is more than disingenuous. It's hilarious. This is one of the men who truly owns and operates our system, who has manipulated it ingeniously to enrich himself and further his purposes. Politicians are just pawns on a chessboard to men like Perot.
Mix Perot and President Bush with a group of America's most influential power brokers and you'd understand, in a flash, who's inside and who's outside. Perot's history as a Nixon courtier and campaign contributor is no secret. Neither is the story of the land he "donated" for an airport that was built, through his lobbying, at the government's expense. The value of Perot's land on every side of the airport was increased a hundredfold--a classic example of the way insiders become billionaires in the United States.
His supporters aren't deterred by any of these inconsistencies, or even by the fact that he has no policies and no positions. They simply like his style. Everyone loves a little bulldog.
The protocol, ever since the Middletons' time, is for major players like Perot to operate in the shadows, lest their egregious affluence offend the less fortunate. But every once in a while there's a Middleton so bursting with vanity that he needs to offer himself to the public in the flesh. He's the one we really have to watch out for.
Even Perot must have been surprised by his enthusiastic reception, though mini-groundswells greeted the presidential aspirations of Donald Trump and Lee Iacocca. There are a lot of mice in this country who love to play with cats. And the voice of the carpenter goes unheard.
Hal Crowther has spent his working life in journalism, including stints at Time, Newsweek, the Buffalo News, the Raleigh, N.C., Spectator and the Independent in Durham, N.C., where he won the H.L. Mencken Award for column writing in 1992. This column was excerpted from his collection of essays, Unarmed But Dangerous, recently published by the Longstreet Press, Atlanta. His column will be a regular feature of the Progressive Populist.
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