Bread and Circus 29

One of my favorite quotes from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense involves the notion of societal blessings weighed against the necessary evil of government to deliver those ends.  Yet what happens when government becomes antithetical, or in our case inimical, to the common good and common prosperity?  Paine suggests our situation is made that much worse because we are responsible for the means by which we suffer.

Irony continues to be lost on most Americans.

As we near the end Obama’s first year, very little appears to have changed.  America’s incidental vendetta against its own people and the rest of the world proceeds at break-neck pace.  The same special interests wave the same magic wands and whatever “solution” that emerges from Congress leaves us more in debt while our tax dollars continue to fill corporate coffers with no strings attached and no long-term results for the public’s largesse.

Are we chronically stupid or is it something even more dangerous?

We have resigned ourselves to working more hours for less money to maintain a fragile status quo that is far from minimally adequate.  Resources disappear faster than ever before into metastasizing corporate and government budgets that deliver very little value to We The People who pay the bills.  America consistently fails to deliver on its glossy ads and slick promises for most of its citizens, yet we absolve this political party or that private company for deprivations we wouldn’t put up with from anyone else.

What happened to personal accountability, let alone responsible stewardship of the lives and resources entrusted to your care?

While we remain neck-deep in partisan politics at the grassroots, our personal dysfunction continues to be reflected in the actions of both our public institutions and private corporations.  We are the chubby, red-faced clowns of our national circus who perform on demand for Styrofoam peanuts in place of our daily bread.  We respond with jiggling giggles of maniacal glee to the sycophantic prods of our corporate media ringmasters in support of the self-serving goals of our political elite.

Orwell had the right idea but was constrained by his times.  He imagined nothing less than total domination would lead to the subjugation of a free society.  Little did he know that all it would take was cable television, SUVs and Big Macs.

I also doubt he could have foreseen our own Two Minutes of Hate would stretch into forty years of political trench warfare with barely a twitch of effort by The Powers That Be, whoever they are at any given moment, to sustain the burn.  Pavlov would have registered very little surprise, I suspect, at our vicious lizard brains still running things ten years into a new century, replacing one that was remarkable in many ways but mostly for its terrible brutality and utter disregard for human life.

I expected better of our new president, to tell the truth, and continue to be disappointed in innumerable ways by both him and his administration.  I also expected better from my fellow citizens, but we have long abdicated our responsibility under our Constitutional compact.  The men and women we send to elected office, either through the power of our vote or the fait accompli of our apathy, have been running this shell-game on us for years.

This is not a new refrain but the long soliloquy of the Republic.  Thomas Paine said it best in January of 1776 as our nascent revolution was on the verge of collapse before it ever fired a single shot:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

We The People created a government over the last 230 years – at the local, state and federal level – that operates at great expense with very little benefit to the obvious detriment of all.  Not the end goal imagined by our founding documents, but a potential reality that was quite familiar to the men who penned the words.

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29 thoughts on “Bread and Circus

  • bluebell

    Power corrupts. Every few decades we need to shake things up.. We need at least two new political parties. The existing parties can’t reform themselves primarily because reform is the very last thing they want.

    That isn’t to say that other institutions aren’t in the same mess. We need broad based institutional reform – in churches, in corporate board rooms, in the press, in education.

    So where will the reform start? Reform in one institution might well lead to reform in the others.

    • JEP07

      ….the work of our critics is of altogether secondary importance. In the end, progress is accomplished by the citizen who DOES things.

      Join a Progressive Campaign Crew, TODAY!

    • Jason Everett Miller

      As long as we continue to have zero turn-out for primary elections, I don’t know how new parties are going to make a difference, though I agree the ones we have are pure window-dressing to democracy.

      What we really need are new citizens or at the very least citizens who are willing to do the bare minimum required to keep a country like ours truly representative. We are the change we have been waiting for, though apparently Obama isn’t.

      And the wheel keeps on turning……

    • Jason Everett Miller

      As long as we continue to have zero turn-out for primary elections, I don’t know how new parties are going to make a difference, though I agree the ones we have are pure window-dressing to democracy.

      What we really need are new citizens or at the very least citizens who are willing to do the bare minimum required to keep a country like ours truly representative. We are the change we have been waiting for, though apparently Obama isn’t.

      And the wheel keeps on turning……

  • Libertine

    I expected better of our new president, to tell the truth, and continue to be disappointed in innumerable ways by both him and his administration. I also expected better from my fellow citizens, but we have long abdicated our responsibility under our Constitutional compact.

    Truer words I have not read or heard for a long time Jason. I am very disappointed with our president and even more disappointed with the lack of involvement by the American people in how their government works. Too many have given up hope feeling the game of politics is a rigged one. And with SCOTUS rulings like Buckley v. Valeo and Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company they might be right. And Thomas Jefferson saw the problem long before it came to fruition. Here is what he felt about Marbury v. Madison;

    “To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men and not more so. They have with others the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps. Their maxim is boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionem [good justice is broad jurisdiction], and their power the more dangerous as they are in office for life and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves.”

    So we have rulings like Santa Clara and Buckley in place and there is nothing we can do about it. Any ideas? Because the SCOTUS has rigged the rules of the game and the monied class has won and the rest of us are the losers…

    • PseudoCyAnts

      here’s a more complete citation along with a Google Books hot link direct to the letter (i love my TJ…):

      Thomas Jefferson letter to William C. Jarvis, September 28, 1820; The Writings of Thomas Jefferson; Memorial Edition (Lipscomb and Bergh, editors); Volume XV, pg 276

      • Libertine

        Hey PCA howya doin’?

        Yeah for all of his personal faults, and he had his share as probably we all do, Jefferson was still a great, and wise, man. Thanks for the link.


    • Jason Everett Miller

      Thanks for the kind words. I don’t think this sort of trend can last.

      At some point, the people will either wake up or this country will be truly lost, all pretense of representative democracy thrown away like an old suit that no longer fits quite right, no matter how many times it goes to the cleaners.

      Jefferson was a smart cookie, for all his various and sundry flaws. I think We The People are ultimately responsible for what is or isn’t Constitutional. We just forgot (or never learned) our place in the grand scheme of things.

      Here is another quote from Jefferson that I especially like:

      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.

      I suspect that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson would have been very good friends had they traveled in different circles.

  • Tankard2

    We have had bitter differences, but I compliment you on this fine essay. It takes perception and humility to recognize that your icon has feet of clay, and it takes courage to publish that recognition in the very blog where you so passionately defended him.

    I hope you will look at and comment on my offering here which expands a bit on some of these same themes and mentions at least two of your heroes.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Hey, Tank, thanks for the kind words about this blog. With more time to think inbetween posts, I hope the quality of commentary will increase accordingly.

      We have indeed disagreed at length on a great many subjects, though I will offer that many times it starts with the notion that I consider anyone an icon who should be above criticism even as I passionately defend a specific action or effort.

      This isn’t the first time I have taken Obama to task in these pages and won’t be the last if the performance to date is to be any indication of the future. I would love to be surprised but am pretty sure I won’t be given how this presidency has unfolded.

      I really think the only thing that can truly turn things around is a civic renaissance at the grassroots that leads us to change some fairly fundamental assumptions in the American psyche, the least of which is the idea that voting is a wasted effort.

      I’ll stop by your blog and contribute my two cents for the half-penny its worth these days.

      • Tankard2

        I really think the only thing that can truly turn things around is a civic renaissance

        I’m afraid our system — as it exists, not as it was designed — makes this impossible. This is the case I make in the essay I linked above. Hope we can discuss my arguments.

        • Jason Everett Miller

          I left a reply on your blog, which I mostly agree with in fact if not in conclusion.

          I think the system is already changing in many places around the country by necessity. Greed appears to be loosening its hold on our individual realities if only because so many can no longer afford to think that way.

          Will societal evolution happen quick enough to avoid disaster? That remains the huge unknown for me, though of course I prefer to be optimistic.

  • dickday

    How about this:

    Rewrite every single law concerning the formation of corporations; and make it clear in the legislation that corporations are not human beings, are not persons.

    Make it clear that corporations do not have the right to withhold documents from investigative arms of government.

    Clarify when an officer of a corporation is subject to criminal charges.

    Clarify when an officer of a corporation is personally liable for losses to shareholders and others.

    Clarify when stockholders can seek redress against the corporation WHICH THEY OWN IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    Clarify the ceiling for pay to officers of a corporation in relation to profits and losses of that corporation.

    Unionize all workers in every corporation employing more than one hundred workers.

    I feel that we have to rethink what a corporation is in this country and what liabilities are on the books for corporations that are not domestic.

    • bluebell

      Great example! Also, a great example of the need for what would be considered radical change. Is either corporate friendly party going to even bring up the idea? What you write will not be spoken out loud. That’s why we need new parties or new movements to start the conversation on ideas like this.

      I’m listening to MTP in the background. (I can’t get too near the TV or I might do it great damage) and the whole frame of reference is far right corporate board room. For example, one of today’s great evils are the salaries of federal workers. Workers make too much money! How do we solve our economic problems? Give workers less money! For corporations to be healthy they must pay you less money! Government should set the example by paying workers less money!

    • Jason Everett Miller

      There are a couple of quibbles I have with this list, mostly around the notion that everyone needs to be unionized. I have worked under both union and non-union paradigms and much prefer the latter to the former.

      We have periods of corporate responsiblity in our past, both union and non, that could be used as a model. This country is not really prone to the kind of radical restructuring you propose short of armed internal conflict, which I assume you prefer to avoid.

      That being the case, both our corporate and government institutions will only change in response to us changing and not the other way around. Pulling our asses out of the fire won’t be a top-down revolution this time but rather a bottom-up evolution of the American character.

      • bluebell

        Jason, I think you underestimate the global scale of the battle we’re engaged in. The global corporations aren’t taking any prisoners. The scale of the economic forces we’re facing may rival that of the industrial revolution. While I share your belief that change must flow from a bottom-up awareness of our predicament and the need to address it, incremental change is not going to be sufficient to address the issues.

        My epiphany on this came during a spell of unemployment after 9/11. Now, I could come to grips with the personal factors that made reemployment difficult for someone of my advancing years and aging skills, but what fully hit home to me was how hugely the entire employment picture had changed for all Americans. I began to fear not just for me but for the future of the American middle class. I do not in any way see either party coming to grips with this at all.

        20th century style unions may not be the answer but some kind of solidarity needs to be there for us to try to grab hold of these forces and have some input on shaping them. I’m hearing the ranting right this morning blaming the US government for not giving business the stability they can find in China. Yeah, right. You have totalitarian government and stability is a lot easier. Capitalism has reinvented itself as a very authoritarian system suitable to nations like the USSR, China, Vietnam among others.

        How do we assemble forces strong enough to counter this trend towards globalized corporate imposed serfdom?

        • cmaukonen

          I began to fear not just for me but for the future of the American middle class. I do not in any way see either party coming to grips with this at all.

          That is because no one in Washington today has ever really had to work or fight for anything in their entire lives. They are not part of the “old money” or super rich but most wish they were. They are part of the upper class Nouveau riche. And as such do not have a clue.

          The current agenda is to keep others of the class from becoming part of the Nouveau poor as it were.

          The middle and lower classes the do not car about because the have no history with them. They cannot relate to not having health care or housing
          or enough to eat. Because they have never been even close to this.

          They are ALL closer to Marie Antoinette. And if not careful may suffer the same fate.


          • bluebell

            True, and what you say also very much extends to the press. The pundit class didn’t come up through the ranks working the police beat like in days of old. They went to the Ivies and don’t have a life experience that extends past coastal suburbia. Churches have the same problem. Catholics replaced nuns teaching urban kids with suburban prep schools for the upper middle class.

            We’re not going to have many with survival skills as these institutions of affluence implode.

          • cmaukonen

            This so true Bluebell. And rather scary in and of itself. Frightened, clueless, desperate people are very difficult to get along with.


        • Jason Everett Miller

          Strangely enough, I think that capitalism is mostly vulnerable to the very beats it created – consumerism. The way change can take root at the bottom is by our modifying how we purchase our goods and service. Since we won’t vote at the polls in large enough numbers to make a difference, perhaps we can vote with our dollars instead.

          That is where the “green” revolution is coming from, as crazy as it is to see WalMart supporting sustainable agriculture because their customers demand it. It also gives us a certain amount of solidarity as well, because part of the equation of a purchase involves how that company treats their employees, whether they have come together as a bargaining unit or not.

          This is one way I can see evolutionary changes happening independent of any changes at the top, since they always seem to finally come when enough people are making better individual choices. I think making better decisions as an individual of necessity incorporates a fundamental consideration for community into the equation.

          Overall I suspect we agree on many of the potential solutions if not the specific time-line in which those projects will take place. I think what we are doing here at TPM and elsewhere online will become an integral part of the reemergence of critical thinking.

  • cube3u

    It’s a thoughtful essay, Jason Everett Miller. Unlike what you may expect, I agree that our society and our culture are simply toxic right now. All of us created it (either by action or by inaction) and we all bear responsibility for it.

    Unlike what you present here, I hear a cacophony from the Founding Fathers. It wasn’t easy for them to reach their consensus–from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. It was a lengthy process. I have little patience right now for the impatient. This is a lengthy process we face.

    As you suggest, Jason, our country balances between government and no government, between central authority and state authority. Modern culture at times seems to favor a more central approach–but time will tell on that one.

    Another balance is between individualism and community. And I think modern society has veered too much toward individualism and community is being lost. We’ve allowed the members of various organizations–corporations, churches, lobbying groups, etc–to speak for their wee numbers instead of us collectively. We lose consumer protections and job protections.

    One election. One President. You think this is enough, Jason. It simply will not be enough. This turnaround started with the 2006 midterms and the process continues. Our representatives must begin again to represent us and to start thinking community instead of “leave everything alone”. That simply is not an option right now.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      I never thought (and never said) it would only take one election to turn this country around, but I did hope that this was the election that actually moved us toward a more sane balance between all the competing priorities you highlight.

      So far, I have been mostly disappointed as I wrote.

      As far as 2006 and the shift of Congress from republican to democrat, I find that to be much less of a turning point than you apparently do, mostly due to the fact that all the same shit emerged from Congress these last three years as did the previous ten or twenty.

      Why wouldn’t it as the same people are in charge and have been for decades. We don’t vote in primaries and politicians won’t leave anymore of their own accord. Just because the parties switch control every ten years or so doesn’t mean we get new governance.

      We are no less a corporate-controlled and myopic country today than we were in 1976 when Sidney Lumet directed Network.

      • cube3u

        No cigar, Jason. In the very first sentence of your response, you say one election isn’t going to turn things and then say you’re disappointed in this one election. Make up your mind which it is.

        I view the 2006 midterms as important because of what they stopped. For example, privatization of Social Security was Bush’s mantra in 2005. All discussion of that particular “issue” was completely stopped in 2006. Another example? Rumsfeld resigned the day after those elections–and that should have happened years before.

        The apathy of voters is nothing new in our country. The Federalists ranted on about it after the Revolutionary War. And I’ve certainly ranted about it. Ranting doesn’t solve it. If one wants to work within our current system of government (and I do), then active political involvement is the only legitimate way to change things. Ranting has its place–but it only identifies the problem, it does nothing to solve it.

        • Jason Everett Miller

          I said I was disappointed in the ACTIONS that Obama has taken. Has nothing to do with the election. You are once again projecting your own prejudices on to things I never said.

          As to our supposed historical apathy, no cigar, as after the Revolutionary War most people in the country didn’t have the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1965, nearly two hundred years after we won that war, that everyone had the right.

          Yet such a pathetic minority exercises it, that we get what we have now – an unaccountable plutocracy that “we” keep sending back to office year after year, decade after decade.

  • clearthinker

    Nice essay, Jason.

    It’s all about fear, really.

    Unionization isn’t the answer because if you could unionize, you wouldn’t have the problems that you need to unionize against. The majority of Americans still apparently believe that they have it “good enough” in the present system that they are fearful to screw with it.

    I only remind you of the “quality” turn out to the health care rally this summer. Pathetic.

    When was the last time anyone here has visited their Senators’ local field office, or their Representative’s? Couldn’t make it to DC? How about organizing a protest right at your local field office?

    Politicians respond to one thing. Just like the rest of us it’s fear. Fear of losing their jobs.

    If you can’t get 50 people to loudly protest at your local elected leader’s office (and tip off the press), then you simply don’t have a good handle on the political situation. Your world view, no matter how much it makes sense to you, isn’t reality. If you can’t organize 50 people, then forget it. And 50 people in a small office makes some really good press — because it looks huge.

    It didn’t even take 50 people at the various town hall meetings this summer to make national news.

    Primaries would be an excellent first step. It’s nonviolent, non-confrontational, and totally within the system. And yet no one votes in them, much less run in them.

    Here’s the Democrat platform: vote for us because we aren’t Republican.

    Hardly a compelling message. Therefore it should be easy to thrash. Once you have the people.

    People will tend to suffer too much before deciding that the status quo isn’t cutting it. And then they react too much in the other direction. When people finally decide they’ve had enough, they will react — but it won’t be within the system.

    The Italian Prime Minister’s attack today is probably a clue of the direction that things will go. If the rich aren’t smart enough to throw some bones back to the vast majority of the people, their greed will cause their entire undoing.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Hey, CT, thanks for dropping by to contribute. I totally agree with these points, both the lack of political rigor in American citizens as well as the coming backlash of populist anger if the plutocracy doesn’t pull their heads out.

      We are fortunate that throughout history very few of the ruling elite have been able to strike a balance between subjugation and sublimation. They always go that extra step that snaps the lemmings out of their headlong dash to the sea and sends us off in a new direction.

      Should be interesting to see where the American Empire’s Superball bounces next.