PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager

Traditional Radicals

Washington, D.C.

The essence of modern political radicalism is an insistence on the human scale. Radicals demand that both government and business activities be measured by -- and, if necessary, altered in relation to -- their impact on individuals.

In this way radicals differ from liberals and conservatives. Conservatives only want to evaluate government's influence on individuals insofar as it interferes with business, and they do not want to moderate, or even know about, business' impact on individuals at all. Meanwhile the liberals are, as usual, wandering around getting the worst of both worlds. They mostly protect the corporations from the people and hardly ever protect the people from the corporations, and wonder why they lose elections.

Buried deep in the American heartland is a strain of political radicalism that is profoundly traditional in its origins. It requires that the constitution be taken seriously. It objects to the rich owning both property and the government. And it never ceases to trust the populace in the face of whatever elite belittles them -- corporate, media, or political.

Despite the unpopularity of this strain of thought, it can at no time wholly be repressed. Even economic influence of the propertied classes can never quite obliterate so vital a portion of the American heritage. But as Bertolt Brecht said, "It is very hard not to cringe before the powerful, and it is highly advantageous to betray the weak. To displease the possessors means to become one of the dispossessed. This takes courage."

As this column's contribution to The Progressive Populist's summer beach-and-mountain reading list, permit me to introduce two useful books. They will not entirely remove the taste of the official media from your mind, but they will keep you in touch with the original radicalism of the founders.

Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, whose influence has been felt in the Senate and in the White House, is both a fellow-columnist in The Progressive Populist and a former employer of mine. As such I have had an opportunity to observe his thinking close up, and am happy to report that its appearance in his twenty-one books is accurate, refreshing, and incisive. His latest foray into public improvement is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, the Press and Reformers, edited and with an introduction by Keith C. Burris (Times Books, 320 pages, $25). In it, McCarthy carefully spells out the line between the radicalism that arises from tradition, and the reformism that so often disfigures the face of liberalism.

Central to McCarthy's critique is the observation that those who mean well often end up doing the most harm. He derides the metaphor of "problem" and "solution" as having disastrous political consequences. "Fixing" the ills of the political process by entrenching two competing political parties in law and finance is his chief example of destruction caused by reform, and it is a doozy. He uses his humor to make serious points, as when he says that having Nixon influenced by contributors such as Clement Stone was likely an improvement over an uninfluenced Nixon. But in general, it is "do-good" institutions such as Common Cause and 60 Minutes to which he traces most of the overkill generated by past reforms.

Neither Congress, presidents, nor the media fare much better than the reformers at McCarthy's hands. A failure to appreciate consequences is his recurring charge. Whether in foreign or domestic policy, presidents observed by McCarthy have tended to personalize the office and consequently to weaken the institutional barriers erected by the founders against the erratic use of power. Congressional attempts at reforming the legislative process, whether Democratic or Republican, seem always to trivialize the individual legislator as well as the legislature itself, while exalting the momentary holders of leadership positions.

In his introduction, Keith Burris remarks that "The McCarthy wit is an integral part of him -- like his values, his skepticism, his sense of the possible." Few reviewers, certainly not this one, can do justice to how McCarthy's way of viewing the world leads him toward humor and away from despair. I can only record, with wonder, that it does, and commend those who would take the journey with him across these pages.

Fellow Progressive Populist columnists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman have come out with Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Mega-Profits and the Attack on Democracy, with an introduction by Ralph Nader, (Common Courage Press, 214 pages, $14.95.) Their relentless focus is on the weekly presentation of corporate greed and its assistance by government folly. This collection of columns covers issues from 1997 to 1999 and is clearly written, well thought-out, and seriously challenging to the status quo.

They, like McCarthy, are radicals within the meaning of the act because they too are not interested in minor, or even fundamental, reforms. By taking corporate actions as seriously in a political sense as the Republican Street Journal takes them financially, Mokhiber and Weissman document the skewing of the political process by business interests to the detriment of ordinary citizens.

The columns are a series of case studies of insidious excess by corporations and their servants among the media, the bureaucracy, and elected officials. From Big Tobacco to irradiated food, their targets are fixed with the cold glare of disbelief. They document the sadly lengthening tale of corporate mal-, mis- and nonfeasance. It is clear that a political system elevating paper-based realities such as corporate business structures into beings that have as much existence as real people is in real trouble. And so we are.

Mokhiber and Weissman offer a form of business reporting, independent of corporate press releases, in which what corporations do is more important than the justifications they offer. That this form is not more widespread than it is indicts the mainstream media for complicity in economic crime, but that too is no surprise to radicalized readers. This book will probably create a few more of them.

James McCarty Yeager, who served as press secretary in Eugene J. McCarthy's 1976 presidential campaign, reads as many books as possible in his small corner of the Maryland forest alongside the Little Falls of the Potomac.

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