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Reality Not Celebrity: Keynote Given by George Pyle

By Christopher Renner
News | February 7, 2010

SALINA, Kan. - The following is the written speech George Pyle delivered at Reality Not Celebrity, the "counter event" to Sarah Palin's speech in Salina on February 5th.

Pyle's keynote was broadcasted on Community Bridge on February 25, 2010. To listen, click the start button on the player panel to hear the keynote in a streaming format, or click the MP3 button to download the file to your computer. Run time: 46:31.

MP3 File

Good evening, fellow outcasts.

Down in the valley, the respectable and the Republican of the community have gathered in a sports arena to hear from a self-professed maverick woman of the people. Up on the hill, we rabble of liberals and lefties are assembled in the local country club to hear a speech from a bald man who works for Warren Buffett. [though I must hasten to add that I do not speak for Mr. Buffett in any way, shape or form. He is perfectly capable of speaking for himself.]

So. What's wrong with this picture?

It's nothing more here than what is happening everywhere else in this upside down land.

The best hope might be that each of us would actually bite the hands that are feeding us tonight, or at least nibble at them a little. That rather than provide in each venue a live-and-in-person version of the Internet and cable television, where people focus in on the ideas, or at least the outbursts, of people with whom they are already sure to agree, we might tonight see, in two places at once, speakers who present their audiences with new or dissonant ideas. Speakers who challenge assumptions, undermine prejudices, question dogma.

Naaaaah. ...

David Norlin and George Pyle

I don't know exactly what Governor Palin is saying downtown right about now. But, to paraphrase that icon of the patriotic right, General George Patton, and what he supposedly was heard to say as he was setting an ambush for the approaching Afrika corps of Field Marshal Irwin Rommel, I might explain how I might have the advantage in any comparison between us:

Palin! You magnificent so-and-so! I read your Facebook!!!

There is where you will find her many comments about the greatness of America and its people - its real people - and many disparaging remarks about the government that those good and decent people are forced to put up with.

One posting is from January 19, the day that the Republican candidate for the senate from Massachusetts took the seat that had belonged to so many years to Senator Edward Kennedy. Governor Palin explained why the Democrats were suddenly in retreat:

Fat cat bailouts, closed-door meetings with lobbyists, sweetheart deals for corporate cronies and midnight votes on weekends for major legislation that wasn't even read.

Well, certainly legislation that she hadn't read.

I would presume she was talking about the health care reform bills that had been pushed through the House and then the Senate, at great difficulty, with the narrowest of margins, in a cut-and-paste frenzy that quite frankly does not show representative democracy in its best light. Though the former governor's description of the process was also accurate for the way the House of Representatives operated when newt Gingrich bestrode the land.

I have not read the health care legislation either, and now there seems little point in doing so, not even to attempt once again to refute the Palinism that will not die.

It is the kind of rumor that can easily arise from the sausage factory of the legislative process, where there are indeed deals being made every minute, behind closed doors, much of it with an eye toward political gain, the currying of favor with powerful special interests and only a vague memory in the minds of some that it is all supposed to come out, somehow, in the best interests of the American people.

That inaccuracy, of course, is the specter of the death panel. That is the horse she and her new best friends on Fox Television -- you will not hear me in possession of my wits referring to it as Fox News - won't stop flogging -- and blogging -- in order to frighten people into thinking that a process that began as an effort to extend the benefits of our modern health care system to all of the people has somehow turned into a monster that will sit in judgment on the old and infirm, deciding with bureaucratic efficiency who will live and who will die based on a cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis.

The reason it should be clear to everyone that no version of health care reform contained any such provision is that there is no point in spilling all of this political blood to create in government a mechanism that is already fully up and running in the private sector.

Of course, if there were death panels in the Federal bill, the right would be fully consistent in its opposition to them, not out of humanitarian concerns so much as from the sincere belief that functions already efficiently carried out by the private sector should not be replicated at taxpayer expense.

The rationing of health care, which the new right claims to fear so much, has existed since Hippocrates [not to be confused with hypocrisy - which has also been around a very long time]. The rich receive the full advantage of whatever level of medical expertise, science and technology exists at that time and place, the poor do not. The rich live longer, the poor die sooner.

The rich receive the full advantage of whatever level of medical expertise, science and technology exists at that time and place, the poor do not. The rich live longer, the poor die sooner.

There are, of course, exceptions. One is Medicare. That's the program that provides access to modern medical care for people over age sixty-five. It is supported by payroll taxes, drawn every payday from the checks of working people rich and poor, who do not now use the system and cannot be sure that they will ever use it, should either the taxpayer or the system die before they become eligible.

Medicare is the single biggest reason why, in the last half-century, the face of the poor in America has changed from being old to being young. We thought it was important to pay for such a service, and we do.

The other success of the American medical system is the function that is quite often, and quite mistakenly, referred to as health care when people such as, oh, president George W. Bush said that health care was available to all in America, even the poor, as all they had to do was to go to the nearest emergency room.


The former president's mistake, commonly heard, was in referring to what happens in an emergency room as health care. It isn't. What happens in an emergency room -- or at least what the modern emergency room is designed to provide -- is trauma care. Broken legs. Ruptured spleens. Crushed skulls. Gunshot wounds. Acute illnesses that can be treated - and cured in relatively short order -- with emergency surgery or by administering antibiotics or other medications.

The suggestion that such care is freely available to all is, on paper and, often, in fact, accurate. It is a federal law that anyone in need of such care cannot be turned away from a licensed medical facility for any reason, especially for lack of funds.

As a result, the United States does, indeed, boast a trauma care system that is the best one can find this side of an Israeli mash unit. And people who need that service can avail themselves of it for free - or at least at no immediate cost to themselves.

The cost is first absorbed by the hospital, to the degree that it wishes to or can stand to do so, then passed through to the government, as it pays for Medicare and Medicaid patients, to insurance companies, which in turn choose between taking a hit and passing the cost along to their customers, then more directly to those few patients who have the wherewithal and the sense of responsibility to pay their own damn doctor bills.

In other words, the two parts of our health care system that work the best for the patients - not necessarily for the health care or insurance industries or for the taxpayer, but for the patients - are the parts that are the most socialized.

But health care, real health care, is not delivered by rapidly running nurses and order-barking doctors in the E-R, the kind of medicine that makes good TV, whether it is provided by Alan Alda or George Clooney. Health care is provided, over agonizingly long and expensive periods of time, by family doctors and nurse parishioners, specialists and technicians, who must treat diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis, aids and diabetes or, better, who manage to somehow prevent same.

That kind of health care is expensive, and no law requires that it be given to anyone. The Federal government and the states try to buy it for those who cannot afford it, though Medicaid.

But its reach is limited with many families too rich to be covered and many doctors too cash-strapped to accept Medicaid patients.

That situation -- not something that was being cooked up by Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid -- is the death panel that the American people face. And, apparently, will continue to face, in large part because people like governor Palin told us to fear the government that works for us and instead trust the health care industry that works for its stockholders.

Palin told us to fear the government that works for us and instead trust the health care industry that works for its stockholders.

This is the key point, when it comes to seeking health care reform, campaign finance reform, environmental protection, food safety or any of the other things that democrats, generally, propose and republicans, generally, dispute.

Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, is key to understanding this. In order to have life, liberty and the freedom to pursue happiness, Thomas Jefferson told us, governments are established among men. Governments. Not banks. Not insurance companies. Not corporations. Not credit default swaps or subprime mortgage investment bonds. Governments.

What was radical about this idea, what a great many good people still do not grasp, was the blunt expectation that government, instead of being something that sat on the people's shoulders and sucked the lifeblood out of them, was something that served the people, something we stood on, in the way we stand on roads and bridges and the foundations of public buildings and in the way we build foundations for our lives as a free people in public schools and city council chambers.

People such as former Vice President Dick Cheney accuse those who are not as frightened as he is of Islamic terrorists of having a pre-nine-eleven state of mind. But those who think that government is in every case to be shunned and feared and in no instance to be utilized and supported have a pre-1776 mentality.

Democrats are not immune from criticism on this score. Not only are most democratic office holders, especially at the Federal level, dependent on big business contributions for their jobs, they have also proven, from time to time, far too trusting of the private sector to produce public good.

The mortgage meltdown can be largely laid at the feet of good Democrats such as Senator Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank. They -- either happy to find some issue on which they agreed with President Bush or eager to steal the credit from him -- made noises about how it would be a good idea if a lot more American families owned their own homes - what president bush called "the ownership society." they sought to make that idea reality by making speeches and then encouraging the existing for-profit mortgage system to go away and work it out.

The way they worked it out was to sell high-risk mortgages to families, mostly families of color, a great many of whom could have qualified for less-risky conventional loans had they been offered, roll thousands of those subprime loans into investment bundles to sell on wall street, then create exotic financial instruments that were basically big-time bets that the housing market would crash.

Which it did, and damn near took the world economy into the dumpster with it.

What Republicans don't like to talk about and Democrats don't seem to grasp is that a properly run business, especially a company that is owned by stockholders rather than by a family or proprietor who actually deals with his customers every day, exists for one purpose and one purpose only - to make money. To take your money away from you and give it to its stockholders.

A publicly held company, a misnomer for a business owned by stockholders rather than the people, has a legal and, though I use the term loosely, moral responsibility to provide investors with a return on that investment. If it does anything - anything - that is destructive of those ends, it is the right of the stockholders to alter or abolish it.

If the managers of a business who have to answer to their stockholders, and not just to the one or two or seven people who own it, put decency, morality, the environment, the [non-stockholding] workers or even the interests of the customer ahead of the interests of the stockholders - which by definition is often a short-term, profit-taking interest - they have broken a promise, failed to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities, opened themselves up not only to being fired, but to being sued by their own stockholders.

What's wrong with that? Nothing. Not one thing. As long as we understand what we are dealing with.

This system of business, much of it big and getting bigger, does manage to provide us with damn near everything we own, live in, wear, communicate through, drive, play with and eat.

We accept this deal because it works for us, or at least for those of us who have enough money to buy the spoils of the system. And, because of a combination of industrial efficiency, government policy and basic human decency, most of us do.

But we cannot forget that all this wonderful stuff we have -- necessities, luxuries and luxuries that become necessities -- are not the point of those who labor in the innards of the industrial economy. All those things we need and want and have are by-products, the pearl in the oyster, the slime left by the snail, the ambergris barfed up by the whale.

As long as we know that, as long as we realize that it is up to the rest of us to put a finger on the scales, as stockholders, customers or regulators, then there is a better than average chance that the people running the businesses will rationally decide that it is in their own short- and long-term interest as wealth-creation machines to act decently and more or less in the public interest along the way.

Certainly, there are managers at all levels and in all sizes of businesses who do not want to destroy the environment, short-change customers, cheat workers, evade taxes or otherwise break laws and ignore social norms.

But without public pressure -- the most effective kind of pressure being government pressure -- being a decent human being can be a distinct disadvantage in business.

But without public pressure -- the most effective kind of pressure being government pressure -- being a decent human being can be a distinct disadvantage in business.

If you, as a business owner, sleep better at night knowing that your workers perform in safe and healthy surroundings, that your factories don't destroy the environment, that your products aren't likely to sicken or kill your customers, you may yet lose sleep over the realization that you are at a serious competitive disadvantage if you indulge the better angels of your nature while the rival business down the street or across the country does not.

There are more than a few of those good-hearted, or at least image conscious, businessmen down in the bicentennial center right now. They are the kind of businessmen Adam Smith had in mind when he spoke of an unseen hand that pushes and pulls individual enlightened self-interests into alignment with the public interest.

The smaller, main street business people are immensely more likely to see that the interests of their businesses and the interests of the community are one and the same. That their personal fortunes and the community in which they hope to earn those fortunes both benefit from the same public infrastructure, the same system of public education, public safety and public health.

They are not, downtown, the kind of business operations that the founder, or the explainer, of free market capitalism openly feared, what he called the joint-stock company. What we call the publicly traded corporation. That's the kind of operation that moves the money too far from the enterprise, that pushes the business too far in the direction of pleasing investors who never see either the shop or the customer, distorting if not destroying the forces that make personal wealth and public good collaborators rather than enemies.

A properly run government, on the other hand, is all about serving its people, its constituents, its customers, if you will. It really does work for us, not just metaphorically or by accident, but really and truly and on purpose. It collects money and directs our behavior only in furtherance of those goals.

If government gets bigger -- far bigger than anyone present at the creation would recognize or be immediately comfortable with - it should do so -- and, I would argue, has done so -- only as the challenges of life compel, to protect we the people from, oh, say, a great depression, a world-threatening fascism, a global communist conspiracy or an outburst of stateless terrorism.

But our government has also gotten bigger as our nation has gotten bigger, stretching our postal service, our army, our highways, our parks and playing a large part in seeing to it that our farms, our railroads and our cities followed the westward expansion of manifest destiny that created the enormous wealth that propelled us to the post of the world's only hyperpower.

Some people, I think, don't notice. They don't think of things that actually support people as even qualifying as government, even when it clearly is, even when it opens the land, chases away the Indians and subsidizes the railroads. Some people, I think, view government only as something that serves to be mean to people - arrest them, imprison them, fine them, shoot them, drop atomic bombs on them - and thus citizenship consists mostly of a constant vigilance designed to make sure that the targets of the government's meanness are only those who deserve it.

Vigilance is, indeed, necessary. No government, even one based on the idea that government serves the people and not the other way around, can be trusted to be a machine that will go of itself. Good government constantly demands good citizenship, sorting through the conflicting claims, not just of the political parties for positions of authority, but for the definition of public good.

Many people who agree with me on what should be done about health care - namely that the government needs to step in with both feet to be sure that the system serves the people first and serves the providers only enough that they can afford to keep providing - sort of like the role of government itself - have taken to referring to health care as a right.

I can't quite go there. I don't put health care on the level of a right. Those are squishier things, like the right to worship, speak, publish, assemble and petition, trial by jury, due process, and equal protection of the laws. Those are rights.

Health care, I contend, is a public good, and America, like all civilized and a few not-so-civilized nations, has long accepted the idea that government goes beyond ensuring rights to also providing public goods. Things like roads and bridges, police and fire, schools and parks, more corporeal things that we really need to maintain what has been a growing and changing concept of minimal standards for a decent human life - that undergird the pursuit of happiness.

Health care, I contend, is a public good, and America, like all civilized and a few not-so-civilized nations, has long accepted the idea that government goes beyond ensuring rights to also providing public goods.

Americans have been nutty for more and more public goods from the beginning, because they make it easier to live and, no doubt about it, to start and build businesses. Everything from roads and railroads to the patent office and the regulatory system has supported the business community since before the revolution.

The old idea of a corporation, inherited from the British system, was of an association founded by a few people to provide a public good with private money, often under license or with the promise of at least a temporary monopoly, so that people would build things the rest of us could use, make a fair profit, then move on to the next thing, often founding a separate corporation for the new purpose.

Corporations existed to serve the public good, with the private boodle a totally acceptable, indeed necessary, side benefit - and, and I described earlier, the opposite of the corporate system of today.

I do not know for sure but, given her supposed ideology and the polite attention of her audience, it would very much surprise me if governor Palin was not at this moment explaining to the pillars of the local business community how much happier they would be if the government would just leave them alone, fade into the background, cut their taxes, ease their regulatory burdens, darn near cease to exist, and thus unleash the power of their own individual creativity.

She may actually believe all that tommyrot, and so, perhaps, do some in her audience. It may be the kind of philosophy that moves the chamber to annually spend such large sums of its members' money to hear from the mouths of important and/or famous people.

But the fact is that, without a well-run and active government, most of those businessmen wouldn't have two dimes to rub together - and not just because the government makes the dimes.

Self-made business men and women - not the government - invent, develop, manufacture, sell, ship, insure and improve all the things we eat, drink, assemble, sit on, watch, wear, play with, drive and otherwise make use of or consume.

But without government functions that range from the Registrar of Deeds to U.S. Patent Office, from the highway department to the National Institutes of Health, the Agriculture Department, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, there would be no successful business. Without the infrastructure -- physical, financial and legal -- that allows businesses to reach their customers and their own potential, our entire civilization would not exist. We'd be living the law of the jungle, where smarts wouldn't count as much a brute strength and those who created would be at the mercy of those who were bold enough to steal their creations.

Public education has long been considered part of that basic infrastructure and, bit-by-bit, health care is coming to be recognized as another part.

It already has been in every civilized country on this planet, and it is mostly provided in ways that take nothing away from the creative and the inventive except a little bit more of their money in taxes, providing a better return on investment than a great many of the schemes offered by the free market.

I have to be careful talking about return on investment. I have always been enraged by people who apply the phrase to such things as Social Security, complaining that the money they stood to get out of it when they retired wasn't a very good value for what they put in. And they'd be right, if the point of Social Security was as an individual investment.

It's not.

The much more appropriate term, the best business-world analogy, is that it is insurance - funded by premiums, paid out to those whose circumstances meet the defined requirements for a reward.

In fact, that's what your Social Security payments are called on your paystub every week - that line that says F-I-C-A - Federal Insurance Contribution Act - or maybe O-A-S-D-I, which means Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance. Insurance. Not investment. You pay regularly. You recover only as you meet the standards.

The insufferable problem with these lines on your paycheck is that they hit the working poor and middle class much harder than they do the rich.

For one thing, Social Security taxes only apply to the first 106,800 dollars of taxable income. Every dollar earned after that is not taxed. So the person who earned 106,800 dollars last year pays exactly the same amount of that tax as the person who earned 1.06 million dollars, or 10.6 million dollars, or any number of zeros you want to add. There is no limit on the wage income that the smaller Medicare tax applies to, but it doesn't apply at all to investment income. That means that people with large investment incomes don't pay their share for Medicare, but are still entitled to benefit from it.

Certainly, one way to pay for health care for everyone would be to remove those caps and those exemptions, have the same rate applied to every dollar of income, salary, wages, investments, interest, dividends, gambling winnings or gold found at the end of rainbows. Do that, lower the age to be covered by Medicare until it covers everyone, and reduce the cost burden on the system by gradually raising the age at which our ever-more healthy population will be allowed to retire with full Social Security benefits.

The idea that applying those taxes to higher salaries or to investment earnings is somehow unfair to those who will pay more is like saying it is unfair to make me pay premiums for homeowners insurance unless my house burns down. And the fact remains, and has been made apparent by recent happenings, that people who are rich today may not always be so.

A robustly healthy Social Security and Medicare fund bolstered by rich people's taxes today is much more likely to be there for them when, whether through their own errors or the misbehavior of those they trusted, they are no longer so rich. The federal programs will be there to save them from destitution, if not from a decline in their standard of living, by the very fund they paid into all those years, probably without noticing.

Of course, raising more money for health care is one - necessary - thing. Another is coming up with a system that costs us all less money.

Our system, after all, costs us much more per person than any other system of health care in the civilized world, and we get less for it. But try to suggest that we should be paying less, and it is the normally tight-fisted conservatives who start to sound like money-will-solve-everything liberals in insisting that cutting one-penny from the profits of United Health or the Hospital Corporation of America will result in sickness and death across the land.

The system we have now, for health care as well as for such things as assistance for the poor to pay their heating bills, is amazing. It is as if you called the police to report that your wife had been kidnapped, you had a note demanding one million dollars in ransom and the police, instead of hunting down the criminals, proceeded to cut you a check for the million dollars.

If that were the case with kidnappings, as it is with health care, we could do with fewer police officers, perhaps, but we'd shortly be up to our neck in kidnappers, until such time as the number of ransom demands became so large that we might change our attitude and start arresting bad guys again instead of paying them to go away.

Health care providers are not, for the most part, the bad guys. But we simply can no longer tolerate them in our midst unless they learn to charge us less money and provide better service.

Some places, such as the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic and elements of the Kaiser Permanent system in California, show great promise in doing that. But there is only one way to affect the price of any good or service. You have to be either the seller or the buyer.

We are the patients, but we are not the buyer of health care. Our insurance companies, our employers and the government are. Even if we pay our own medical bills, we are as individuals too small to bend the curve, and too much at the mercy of the people who have the know-how and the equipment to heal us when we are sick.

We can only bend this cost curve acting together, through our elected government, to become a powerful buyer that will have some say over what all this is going to cost. We must also realize that there are, in the galaxy, two entities that care about the quality of health care you will receive over the course of your life - your family and the federal government.

It is only those two groups that stand to lose if your health goes south or you die sooner than you otherwise would have. Everyone else, particularly the health insurance companies, stands little to gain from investing in your health now for a payoff that won't be realized until long after the next quarterly earnings statement, even for many years after you or your employer have abandoned that insurance provider for one that was, at least for a while, cheaper.

The fact that President Obama was not able to reform health care in his first year as he so firmly promised and, I believe, so genuinely hoped is a reflection of the fact that any change - any real change - was going to cost some very rich and powerful people an awful lot of money. Either that, or we were simply going to have to pay that ransom that I was on about a moment ago, bankrupting the country in the process.

Despite what his opponents have cried, Obama's health care proposals were much less socialist than the existing regimes of Social Security or Medicare.

The president signaled that failure to us all along, promising that people who already had health insurance that they could keep it, while trying to cook up a way to buy off the health insurance and, particularly, pharmaceutical giants with a basic promise that they'd still receive most of their obscene boodle if the wouldn't fight him.

Despite what his opponents have cried, Obama's health care proposals were much less socialist than the existing regimes of Social Security or Medicare. And they did, clearly in my view, so strive to retain so much free market participation that they were doomed from the start.

Obama could not keep his promises on health care because he promised to do right by us without taking any real power away from the corporations that now do us wrong. It won't work that way. And the fact that he never really tried to upend the status quo so much as to buy it off shows that he knew how little power even the president of the United States has in domestic politics. He may be able to send our troops to invade a far away land or even break out the nuclear launch codes, but he cannot just order changes in real policies that affect our daily lives.

Such changes must go through congress, through the senate, where a small minority or even a single member can stand athwart progress and yell halt! If it suits him or his moneybag friends to do so.

Unless, of course, the people stand up and demand, mostly through the ballot box, that members of congress, and of state legislatures, put their needs first and force the corporate world to do what good business leaders are supposed to do - adapt to the world as it is and provide goods and services that the market - which sometimes must be defined by government - demands.

The contention that corporations cannot so respond shows a disturbing lack of faith in free enterprise that no republican should be caught admitting to. But, if they can't, we'll find someone who can.

The argument of the Sarah Palins of the world, and her new best friends in the Tea Party Movement, is that government is our enemy. Well, it can be, certainly, especially when it is bent to serve corporate ends more that public needs.

The original tea partiers knew that, angered as they were by the outright and overt collusion between the British crown and the East India Company, whose ship they sacked and whose tea they tossed overboard, because government policy favored the interests of the global corporation over those of the people of Boston.

And today's tea partiers seem to feel it, too, upset as they understandably are by the huge bailouts of the banks, insurance companies, auto makers and more, at great public expense, and great public debt, sometimes with little obvious public benefit.

The fact that the bailouts quite likely, even the most liberal of economists argues, prevented a global depression that would make 1920 look like, well, a tea party, isn't so visceral for the very fact that the bailouts succeeded and we haven't been suffering what the action was intended to prevent.

But Wall Street still doesn't get it. Their salaries and bonuses are still too high. Their efforts to lubricate the economy and, most important, refinance a few million mortgages to restabilize the housing market, have been mediocre at best, either because the banks are too stupid to act in their own long-term best interest or because the Obama administration and congress haven't been firm enough in their demands that wall street wise up real fast.

But the Palin/Tea Party response, that the government is evil, that it should stand down and get out of the way, is no solution.

Weak, hapless government will only further empower the banks and the insurance companies to play with vast sums of money that can vaporize in an instant, taking your pensions, your savings, your insurance coverage, your futures and your nation's security, down the pipe with them.

Lenin said that the capitalists would sell him the rope he would use to hang them. The communists are long gone. But there are still plenty of rope salesmen out there.

For all the money they supposedly made the other day at their Opryland convention, the tea partiers are also reminiscent of the characterization that Harry Truman had for the Ku Klux Klan. Not that the tea partiers are racists or violent at all. But it is hard to think of the tea party movement without remembering Harry calling out Klan members for being dumb enough to pay ten dollars for a fifty-cent bed sheet.

Maybe what we need is a Coffee Party - as in wake up and smell the ------.

Wake up to the idea that the markets are not so rational after all, that they cannot be trusted to do the right thing with little or no government oversight. That's a belief that should have been thoroughly disproved in the last two years, just as conscious people had realized that it was disproved in 1929, and many times before and since.

And now, thanks to the United States Supreme Court, those all same irrational, short-sighted, public-be-damned corporations are to be allowed to flood the marketplace of ideas with unlimited propaganda in support of the political candidates and initiatives they like and in opposition to those they do not. The court's bare majority argues that free speech means free speech, even for corporations, and cite the wisdom of the founders in that proclamation.

Well, for all my admiration for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and that lot, I think it behooves us occasionally to remember that these great and holy founders of ours wore short silk pants, long fake hair, bought and sold human beings, forbade their wives and daughters to vote or hold property and thought tobacco was good for you. Sometimes, perhaps, their wisdom should be questioned, just a bit.

...it behooves us occasionally to remember that these great and holy founders of ours wore short silk pants, long fake hair, bought and sold human beings, forbade their wives and daughters to vote or hold property and thought tobacco was good for you. Sometimes, perhaps, their wisdom should be questioned, just a bit.

Still, the idea that speech is to be free for all or it is truly free for none makes a great deal of sense. We avoid censorship in a free culture, not because there is not speech that is harmful, but because no human being is fit to be the censor, to decide what may be said, by whom and under what circumstance.

Even in the unlikely event that we abandon the legal fiction that a corporation is legally a person and thus has the same constitutional rights to speech, press and petition that real persons have, the right of unlimited propagandizing will simply fall from paper persons to actual wealthy people.

Those wealthy people will not be able to buy elections, though that will always be possible, so much as to cow elected officials into behaving in ways that suit the powerful, for fear of having a constitutionally protected public smear campaign launched against them.

The situation we have long had in trying to keep the corrupting influence of money out of politics has been thus. It is like a police officer who takes a bribe from a drug dealer to look the other way while the dealer goes about his business. The police officer then takes the money he has been given by the criminal and buys his wife a diamond ring. The mayor, suitably miffed by the turn of events, seeks to prevent future incidents of the kind ------ by passing a law that makes it illegal for police to buy presents for their wives.

The problem is not the speech - whether it's a campaign commercial or a pledge of troth - the problem is the money that changed hands in a way designed to alter public behavior in a secret way. The court ruling still allows limits on the money corporations, or individuals, can give to political campaigns, with the understanding that such payments are little more than bribes. But the court does insist that speech, like a gift to loved ones, is not a bribe, even if it is intended to influence the behavior of others and of government itself.

What we all need to be, then, are wives who can't be bought by diamond rings, who are offended rather than romanced when their policemen husbands think we won't care where the money came from or what level of debasement brought it about.

Such is always the case with free speech and attempts to limit it for a supposed public good. The problem is not that we now face a barrage of TV commercials from corporations, labor unions, even organizations that most of us would accept as do-gooders deluxe. The problem is that we may well be a nation of people who will swallow such swill and think and vote as those messages tell us to. If we are indeed so feeble-minded, then we are not free people, not fit to govern ourselves, despite the hopes of our short-pansed, long-haired forefathers.

The cure for bad speech, of course, is good speech. And lots of it. The hope of the founders was that a robustly free press would, over the long-run at least, help people sort through the competing claims and the outright lies and determine for themselves the truth or, most likely failing that, the best course to take for the common and public good. It could happen, still.

Of course, guess what, the same financial meltdown, the same credit freeze, that has upset so many and turned some of them, irrationally but not unexpectedly, into anti-government crusaders, has just about brought down the institution of the American newspaper.

It isn't that different from the housing market. When credit was cheap, people who, like Charles Foster Kane, thought it would be fun to run a newspaper bought one, or two, or twelve, racking up substantial debt in the process. Then came the perfect storm of the internet, where newspapers are expected to give away their news for free, its offspring Craig's List, which gave away the classified ads that we sold to pay for the paper on which we printed the news, and the credit crisis, that made debt a real problem rather than just a line of type on a financial statement.

The final irony, or maybe the latest hope, is that if corporations and unions and interest groups are free to spend all they want influencing elections, they will spend a lot of it on newspaper advertising, as that remains the most cost-effective way to reach people who are most likely to actually go out and vote.

With that money, we can only hope, many newly refreshed news organizations will go out and aggressively bite the new hands that are now feeding them, putting the truth of the matter before the people in a way that neither corporations nor politicians can either evade or belittle.

And then their may be fewer people who fill sports arenas with talk of how the government is your enemy, how power taken from the government will magically distribute itself among each and every one of us rather than do what power has done for many thousands of years, and that is glom itself on to the already powerful.

Then there may be more people who realize that our government is not them, it is us, it is what Lincoln meant when he called ours government of the people, by the people and for the people.

I fear that what the tea partiers hope for is to beat government, particularly the federal government, down once and for all, leaving it dead and mangled in an alley somewhere, then dust themselves off and walk away, happy in the knowledge that the danger has passed and they can spend the rest of their lives tending to their own, private concerns. If they think that, they are being played for suckers, playing into the hands of their real - well, not enemies, exactly - but into the hands of those who do not serve them, do not work for them, are not elected by them and owe them no more than they can get away with.

Citizenship is constant. No rebellion or party or election or convention or t-shirt will take that burden from us. Nor should it.

If we can become and always remain the active, thinking, participating citizens that real democracy, even diluted representative democracy, demands, then, and only then will we be a free people, people served by their government rather than the other way around.

People acting in concert through the elected government, which has been established to act in their name, in their interests, and with their money, is not big government.

It is not socialism.

It is civilization.

We've built a fine one. We will need to work hard to keep it.

Thank you.

1 Comment

Christopher, thank you for taking the time to write up this event for those of us that couldn't be there!

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