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Day: April 11, 2014

Slowly chipping at democracy

By DON VOWELL

We are witnessing the slow but steady suffocation of American democracy. The five Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices relentlessly shift our economic might toward those with extreme wealth and to giant corporations.  First they decided that corporations are people and now have ruled that money is speech.

The Constitution they claim to revere nowhere says a corporation is a person. Michael Walzer in his book Spheres of Justice says it clearly, “Freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly: none of these required money payments; none of these are available at auction; they are simply guaranteed to every citizen… Quick access to large audiences is expensive, but that is another matter, not of freedom itself but of influence and power.”  All of us know this except the Supreme Court majority, accountable to none.

This zealous defense of our rights would be admirable if it extended to every American.  This court has limited the speech of demonstrators, whistle-blowers, and students.  This court has even allowed restrictions on the fundamental right to vote, as passed in Republican-led states, who have finally given up claiming they are protecting against the phantom problem of voter fraud—they now claim to seek “uniformity.”  This court is attentive mostly to the rights of the top one percent.

This is more than just the appearance of impropriety.  In 2006 about $70 million was spent on mid-term elections for federal candidates.  After the Citizens United decision, that amount more than tripled to $328 million in the 2010 mid-term elections.  Sheldon Adelson contributed $36.3 million in one election cycle.  As a percentage of income it would take 321,000 average American families to donate that amount.  Also in 2010, the top one quarter of one percent of all donors accounted for 90 percent of all campaign funds.  Giant corporations and the extremely wealthy are underwriting our elections. The passage of laws favoring them is not coincidental.

Until now, I have taken comfort in knowing that in spite of all that money it is still one man, one vote.  But now we are left to choose mainly from candidates able to attract large contributions from far distant benefactors.  A legislator, or even an aspiring legislator, must hesitate before taking a position that might jeopardize their source of funds, or worse, provoke the monied interests into funding their opponents. Between 30 and 70 percent of any legislator’s time in office is spent fundraising.  Money rules.

In the most recent decision Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so, too, does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag-burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”  At least he understands there is popular opposition, though unclear on the definition of speech.

The court majority apparently believes that a corporation’s right to say whatever it wants is indistinguishable from its right to spend whatever it wants on an election.  From the beginnings of modern corporations about a century ago, there have been laws and prohibitions against their contributing money to elections. No more.

The corrosive effect of all this is further degradation of how we see government. We begin to believe that our votes make no difference.  Appearance of impropriety does the same damage as documented impropriety.

Speech is ideas, opinions, debates,  cwhat we say and write.  Money just makes it all louder.  Most of us understand that if money is speech, we are mute.

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer.  He gets on his soapbox regularly in the Keizertimes.)

Good writing can be long or short

Whether by electronic or traditional means, a lot of Americans still read books.  It caught my fancy recently, since I like to read, when the editors of The American Scholar magazine selected their 10 best sentences, some short, some in the long sentences’ style of the prolific American writer, James Fenimore Cooper.  Here are the seven editors’ choices:

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“The private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees-partly they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly(according to some who were there) because of an irresistible atavistic urge to hide under leaves.”

—John Hersey, Hiroshima

“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

-—Toni Morrison, Sula

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn.”

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.”

—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“Anger was washed away in the river along with obligation.”

—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

“There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.”

—Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

“In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.”

—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.”

—Truman Capote, In Cold Blood 

“There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.”

—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Summer 2014 is a mere 10 weeks away.  The vacationer can always relax with a good book.  A choice or two among this selection will serve you well and, as always, you are free to make a list of your own best sentences.

(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)