In America today, personal gain and economic advantage often trump social responsibility and concern for the commonwealth. In America, it depends on who you are. And who you are, very much depends on where you stand socioeconomically. As Edward Burmila put it recently,you are only as free as you are wealthy. For proof, look at what has happened during the pandemic:the economic elite has gotten richer, andpeople of limited financial means have died disproportionately.
Yes, ‘life is worth living’ (per Fulton J. Sheen), but ‘life is worth losing,’ too (per George Carlin). Sheen’sLife is Worth Living was a popular, 1950s television program.Life is Worth Losing is Carlin’s 2005 comedy album. Seemingly disconnected public expressions tell a tale about America. It’s a tale about how a minority group has gained control of American society. It’s a tale of subversion, strategy, and persistence. Regaining the edge—vital for democracy—certainly won’t be easy and probably won’t happen soon … even if Trump exits The White House.
Life is Worth Living featured a Roman Catholic priest, theReverend Fulton J. Sheen. ‘Featuring’ isn’t the right word: Sheen was the show. Televised nationally from 1952-57, LWL drew as many as 30 million weekly viewers. With hypnotic gaze, riveting presence, and resplendent dress, Sheen used a chalkboard to etch his arguments.In the episode shown here, Sheen launches into a lecture about the right to own property and rails against excessive wealth, calling it ‘Monopolistic Capitalism.’ Sheen asserts that those who enable the accumulation of wealth (that is, employees) should share equitably in owners’ profits. To make that happen, Sheen supports participatory management and co-ownership of industry. Speaking professorially through most of the program, Sheen becomes emotional at the end.
Sheen’s program aired during theMcCarthy Years—a time whenfear-mongering and conspiracy theories were the coin of the realm, and critiques of American capitalism weren’t taken lightly. But Sheen,who was staunchly anti-communist, stood above the fray.
I’ll bet that Sheen was a Democratic Socialist long before that term came into public use. At issue is what America might have become had it pursued Sheen’s line of thinking. It didn’t.
As we reflect on what Sheen said nearly seven decades ago, we know his thoughtsaren’t unfamiliar. I’ll bet that Sheen was a Democratic Socialist long before that term came into public use. At issue is what America might have become had it pursued Sheen’s line of thinking. It didn’t.
Enter Life is Worth Losing, a George Carlin comedy album recorded in late 2005 and co-presented as an HBO special. In one routine,Dumb Americans, Sheen explains why ‘dumbness’ serves an important political purpose. He calls it ‘The Reason’ (listen, 6:40ff). “The owners of America—the wealthy—own you,” Carlin proclaims. “They don’t want people capable of critical thinking. They don’t want educated people. Why? It’s against their interests. They don’t want people sitting around the kitchen table talking about how badly they’re getting (F-bomb) by the system. They want people who are just smart enough to do their jobs, but not smart enough to question what’s happening to them.” (Dumb Americans had 11,682,000 views on YouTube as of August 8, 2020.)
Carlin believed America’s wealthy minority (and their compatriots) had taken control by subverting systems in their favor—things like pouring money into elections to support candidates who’ll do their bidding, engaging in electoral subterfuge (e.g., gerrymandering, voter suppression), getting ‘their people’ in executive posts across sectors, and dominating organizational boards, locally and nationally. They’re also adept at taking advantage of Americans’ ‘soft spots’—good at ‘throwing bones’ (e.g., tax cuts), using scare tactics (e.g., others’ ideas are ‘radical’), blowing dog whistles (e.g., ‘White America’ is in jeopardy), and diverting attention from matters they don’t want in the spotlight (e.g., Trump’s tweets).
Yes, it’s about money and the influence that comes with it, but it’s about much more than that. These folks have a game plan, an associated set of strategies and tactics, and momentum, too—50-years’ worth.
A half-century ago, a man by the name ofLewis F. Powell (soon to be U.S. Supreme Court justice) was flummoxed by successes achieved by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. He was also perturbed that “one of his own,’ namely Richard Nixon, had the audacity to establish the Environmental Protection Agency.
Powell believed firmly that social causes were dominating public and political attention, and he wanted to change that predilection. As counterstrategy, Powell proposed that the Conservative and business community embark on an organizing effort to serve commercial interests. In 1971, he wrote a 34-page treatise entitled,Attack on the Free Enterprise System (referred to generally as “The Powell Report”). In it, Powell wrote expressively and persuasively about how forces were conspiring against free enterprise. He submitted the report to the leadership of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ending the missive with these words: “The business and enterprise system are in deep trouble and the hour is late.”(italics added)
Greenpeace has called the Memo “a corporate blueprint to dominate democracy.”It is that and more. Three things are apparent if you takethe time to read Powell’s memo. First, Powell wrote in detail and across sectors about specific things that needed to be done. Second, if you reverse the timeframe—starting with today and looking back—you’ll be amazed at how many of the things Powell referenced in general terms have become a reality (e.g., tax cuts, smaller government, Fox News, Citizens United, painting higher education as ‘liberal’). Third, Powell had clear sailing. While the Left has had episodic successes over the past half-century, it didn’t (and doesn’t) have a coherent, strategic, and sustained approach to achieving preferred objectives.
Without counterforce, the circumstances referenced by Sheen and Carlin have become deeply ingrained in America’s culture. Understanding just how deep is like peeling an onion: just when you think you’ve uncovered the revealing layer, another layer awaits. One example is systemic racism, a topic that is getting plenty of attention these days and for good reasons. But in her new book,Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson contends there’s much more to the story. Sunil Khilnanidescribes it this way: “Racism is only the visible manifestation of something deeper. Underlying and predating racism, and holding white supremacy in place, is a hidden system of social domination: a caste structure(italics added) that uses neutral human differences, skin color among them, as the basis for ranking human value.”
Maintaining social divisions, then, becomes le passe-temps de choix (the pastime of choice). Too many Americans seek rewards that, by design, flow to the few. In an exchange transaction, affluent Americans ‘give back to society.’ But as Anand Giridharadas writes inWinners Take All, a good share of that philanthropy isn’t about changing the system so that more people can live ‘The American Dream.’ It’s about helping people cope with the system that exists (a ‘caste system’ in Wilkerson’s parlance).
Long before Wilkerson and Giridharadas were writing, two other messengers—one sacred (Sheen), the other profane (Carlin)—delivered similar messages. Fulton J. Sheen framed it discerningly, “Monopolistic Capitalism.” George Carlin called it out. ”The system is rigged, and the tables are tilted.”
The zeitgeist then is the zeitgeist today. Americans have tons of skin in the game. We rely on others’ wealth for jobs and promotions, in politics, at nonprofits, at universities, and more. When it comes to power, influence, and (in many ways) control, America as plutocracy trumps America as democracy.
What are the odds of that changing? Without a Progressive coup, there’s no chance at all. Yes, there have been and will be episodic wins, but America’s moneyed interests don’t worry about losing a battle here and there. What matters is winning the war. And they are.
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