The Disconnected Republicans on Student Debt and Tuition

Disconnected

 

Saying that Republicans are disconnected regarding the problematic issue of student debt and high tuition costs might be too kind, or maybe it could be considered as painting with a broad brush stroke.  I’ve watched most of the Republican presidential debates and haven’t heard any discussion about the problem.  And once in awhile I hear comments from Republicans who claim the problem of high tuition costs is the result of bloated administration costs, or because student aid and federal loans are increasing tuition costs.

So do most Republicans believe that student debt and high tuition costs are really not that big of a problem?

I decided to write this blog for a few reasons.  The first is because, well, I’m a graduate student – and soon to be dropping out because of high tuition costs and student loan debt.  Thus I’d like to share my personal experience of the problem, and many of my classmate’s experiences.

The second reason is because I’ve had enough of listening to an older generation of Republicans who think the students who are talking about the problems of high tuition costs and student debt are “would-be socialists” who are simply “whining” about their situation.  I give you exhibit A, just in case you think I am making this up.

Exhibit A:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.26.18 AM

In a crude way, the above comment would likely get a big “fuck you, asshole” from a few students.  However, that would only mimic the childish comment above.  So instead I’ll calmly and rationally explain why people like Mr. Turnquist are wrong-headed for saying these types of ridiculous things.

Calling anybody who raises the issue of student debt and high tuition costs as “would-be socialists” is, well, red-baiting, and is a pathetic attempt to undermine people who are raising a very legitimate problem.  But, more importantly, this kind of comment from the older generations of “libertarians” and Republicans show how incredibly disconnected they are from the issue.  Let me explain why.

I remember sitting in the Colorado state capitol last year listening to Republican Senator Tim Neville explain why capping interest on student loans “wasn’t the job of government,” and how when he was a kid he paid his way through college.  I had researched the problems of higher tuition costs for a project of mine, so I would have loved to counter his rather simplistic explanation for why he was against helping students.  But, that really wouldn’t have mattered because every single bill that Democrats bring to the floor regarding helping students this past few years has been blocked by the Republicans – even the bills that get an overwhelming majority of citizen and expert support during committee hearings.

For starters, Senator Neville and anybody who went to college in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, went to school during a time when the state and federal governments heavily funded public education, thus making it cheap.  Republican arguments, like the one above from Paul Campos, will tell you that government actually funds public education at a higher rate than before.  This is somewhat correct; however, what the argument doesn’t mention is that the amount of funding per pupil has actually decreased.

A great example of this decrease in government funding can be seen in this report by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.  This report clearly shows how when the state of Colorado decreased its funding by 32% over a five-year period that tuition rose nearly the same amount at public universities.  In other words, the five years of cuts to higher education funding by the state legislature translated to higher tuition costs for students.  Thus students needed to take out larger loans to help pay for higher tuition costs.

The other interesting thing that the report shows is how capital construction costs used to be funded by the state as well.  However, this funding was replaced by “student fees.”  These student fees are costs incurred by the students that are above and beyond the cost of tuition.  So not only are today’s students having to pay much more of their share of tuition costs than did the older generations, but they also have to help pay for capital construction costs. (**note how this funding for capital construction costs increased in 2014. This was because the Democrats were able to get SB14-001 passed.)

Thus, it is a terrible irony that Senator Neville and other Republicans suggest that government should not be involved in public higher education when, in fact, the very reason many of the older generations were able to pay their way through college was because, well, government was involved.

Furthermore, this “I paid my way through college when I was a kid” also overlooks the problem of the cost of housing and the minimum wage during these times.  The minimum wage in 1970 was $1.60 per hour, and today it is $7.25 per hour.  Thus minimum wage has increased about 353%.  This seems like a healthy increase.

However, you start to see the Republican disconnect when you look at the overall increase in the price of higher education and the cost of housing.  In other words, the math just doesn’t add up.

In 1970, the average tuition cost for a year was $1,287.  In 2007, the average tuition costs for one year had risen to $11,034.  This equates to a 994% increase in the cost of tuition for a four year degree!  In Colorado, this excludes the 32% rise in tuition over the eight years, so it is now over 1000% more expensive than in 1970.  On top of this, the median cost of a house in 1970 was $23,600.  And in 2011 (after the housing downturn) the median cost of a house is $240,100.  This is an increase of 917%.

One of my professors told me how he rented a studio across the street from DU campus when he was getting his PhD in the late 1990s for only $250.  A student today would be lucky to rent a studio for less than $900 in the same area.

The math is pretty easy to figure out that it is now impossible for today’s students to do as the older generation was able to do.  Today’s students can no longer work a minimum wage summer job, nor even a full time low wage job, to pay for tuition and housing costs.  Thus the only way for most of today’s students to pay for a very expensive higher education is through student loans.

Furthermore, the generations who are shackled with student loan debt are struggling to buy new homes, cars, and whatnot.  I have two close friends (one who makes $60,000 per year, and the other who makes $53,000 per year) and neither of them can afford to buy a home because, well, their monthly student loan payments are about the size of a mortgage.  Thus, economic growth in this country is being stifled by student debt.  This really isn’t rocket science.  It’s Economics 101 – which Republicans ironically claim that only they understand.

Suggesting that students are just “whining” about their situation and only want “free candy” shows how utterly disconnected Republicans are from the problems of student debt and higher tuition costs.  Worse, students are working their butts off to better their lives.  I can attest to this because I worked nearly full time to put my self through school.  Thus the last thing they, and I, need to hear as we accomplish this task is the insulting comments rumbling out of the Republican ranks.

What is the solution?  Well, for starters, society certainly needs to start an honest discussion about higher education.  And suggesting that students are just “whiny,” or “wanna-be socialists,” or “lazy kids looking for free candy” is not the way to start that discussion.  It actually stifles discussion.

These kinds of disconnected and insulting comments also show why the younger generations are flocking to support Senator Bernie Sanders.  Now maybe you don’t believe Bernie’s plans for a tuition free public education is feasible at this time, but at least Bernie has the courage to speak honestly about a very serious problem.

So maybe it is time for Republicans to head on down to college campus’ and get connected to students and actually listen to their real life experiences, rather than throwing out childish insults, and simplistic “government is the problem” arguments.

 

Yours truly,

Mark Olson

PS, I have no copy editor, nor do I swim in the donor pools who will give me money to shill for their interests.  Thus my perspective and any grammatical errors above are all mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Luncheon with Justice Scalia

I originally wrote this essay when Justice Scalia visited Colorado last fall.  It was originally published here.

 

I received a last minute email invitation from my constitutional law professor asking me if I wanted to see Justice Antonin Scalia speak at Colorado Christian University. Constitutional law I and II have been my favorite classes at UCD. But I hesitated to accept, at first, because I have come to dislike many of Scalia’s decisions. But an offer to see a great mind speak, even one that I disagree with on many, but not all, issues was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

Colorado Christian University put on a great event, and they were gracious hosts. Though I was a bit surprised when one of the school directors opened the luncheon by saying, “If you are here to show your support for Obamacare… you are in the wrong place!” This received a warm round of applause and laughs. This scene quickly reminded me that I was sitting in a room full of people with differing perspectives than me. But that is why I love political science because it allows me to sit among people of differing interests, and learn from them.

Justice Scalia’s speech was a very fitting topic: the separation of church and state. He noted that it was the religious who seemed to struggle the most regarding this core principle. He said that this was mainly because some of the secular laws in existence are contrary to their religious beliefs (i.e., gay rights, abortion rights, etc.). However, to the non-religious person, the separation of the church and state rarely causes conflict, and is as simple as 2 plus 2 for them.

Now, maybe I missed it, but I never really felt like Justice Scalia ended the talk with any kind of reconciliation for the predominantly Christian crowd. He seemed to dance around the notion that Christians could still implement laws that were in line with their beliefs. He even used the example that we have “moral laws” that prohibit people from walking around naked in the public. Regardless of my personal take on his speech, Justice Scalia did impart with a salient point about the nature of the state, and the nature of the church.

 

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

– Mark 12:17

 

Justice Scalia pointed out how the nature of the state has to deal with issues in society that cannot be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus, or many of the other religions. And this is why Jesus told his followers to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” However, Scalia stressed that it is not that the state is inherently evil, but that it has to deal with issues where “turning the other cheek” and “forgiveness” might not work. In other words, how well would a state function if it told a victim of violence to turn the other cheek, rather than wanting the state to have the perpetrator arrested? Thus, Justice Scalia seemed to be suggesting that the religious may need to come to grips with the fact that the state will never be able to act as a Christian should act.

All in all, I am happy that I accepted the invitation to attend this talk. It confirmed for me why it is important to listen, not just to the people that agree with you, but also with the people who don’t always agree with you. The struggle over religion and tradition, and the nature of the secular state, will continue to be a prominent theme in our world. And I don’t know if this issue will ever resolve itself. But I do know that by sitting down and listening to opposing viewpoints was an experience that helped, not hindered, my personal understanding of the issues that surround the separation of church and state.

The Slime in Politics

“All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”     -George Orwell

I guess some things never change.   Though one wonders if Orwell’s candid point above can vary in intensity throughout the ages.  It could certainly be argued that politics in America today is a gross display of  immense corruption that is being played out on a dumbed-down reality TV show with Donald Trump as its rising star.  Those who have any semblance of a conscience are in the minority and are now trying to weather the endless battering from the mindless hyper-partisans who seem to lack a conscience – the slime in politics.


So what does this endless battering from the mindless hyper-partisans look like?


I give you the action’s of America Rising – a hyper-partisan PAC that is supposedly designed “to expose the truth about Democrats” and hold them “accountable for their words and actions.”  Their goal is to “influence elections” by getting attention grabbing story lines printed throughout the media.  Seems like a noble cause, huh?  Holding politicians, of whatever stripe, accountable certainly is a good thing.  However, who is going to hold this PAC group accountable when they spread lies?  


In reality, this PAC resembles a B-grade political version of MTV’s Jackass.  Who can say the stupidest shit and then hope it sticks so the media will print it.  And, yes, America Rising does lie.  Allow me to show you an example.


Many people working in the Colorado state capitol were fired up about the Denver Broncos upcoming AFC Championship game against the Patriots.  Wearing orange at work on Fridays during the football season is a tradition for many football fans in Colorado.  So it went for the football fans in the state legislature this past Friday.  


Now, here is where America Rising decided to chime in and create a lie about a politician they want to smear… I mean, hold accountable.   America Rising has been on the beat and waiting to pounce on state Senator Morgan Carroll who has announced she will be running against Rep Mike Coffman.  Unfortunately for the staff at America Rising, Senator Carroll hasn’t coughed up any damning words for them to print.  So I guess desperation drove them to throw out this little hit piece: 

Is this what holding politicians is supposed to look like?  No, this is a smear tactic that belongs in the National Enquirer.  It’s not politics; it’s ad hominem.    


Senator Carroll was born and raised in Colorado.  Thus questioning her loyalty to Colorado by trying to falsely suggest she is a “secret Patriots fan” is nothing short of pathetic.  Do we even know if Senator Carroll is a football fan?  If she is not, do we expect politicians to fake their love for a game to soothe people’s nativist urges?

Next, the hit piece turns into the blatant lie when America Rising’s staff starts re-tweeting the lie that Senator Carroll is a Patriots fan.

And here…

The lie then gets spread by the “grassroots” right-wing sheriffs of #copolitics.

More… 

Yes, George, it is going to be a long year of listening to you and your hyper-partisan friends throw out a barrage of logical fallacies and lies.  People will then even get the pleasure of having to listen to them whine and demand that people address their smear campaigns in a serious manner.  

Do these people have a conscience?  Do they think spreading a lie about a person is a respectable thing to do?  Do they even know how to address the issues?  Or is logical fallacy their crutch to electoral victory?


Sadly, many of these same people delude themselves into believing that they are the honest people in politics.  They are far from it.  They are liars.


Do they want to talk issues?  Well, then maybe they should start engaging in honest discussions, rather than attacking the person.  Until then, it is perfectly appropriate to call them what they are: the slime in politics.

Response to an Islamophobic Rant

A response to this ===>  fear mongering article.


What’s so bonk, the fundamental flaw, about Richard’s argument is that it starts with an attack of one religion for using private arbitration courts, but entirely ignores all of the other religions who use it as well. If he is really concerned about the possibility of religious laws usurping the US secular system, then he should be arguing against private religious arbitration as a whole. That would be the principled and objective argument, which many legal scholars are making. But that is not what Richard is doing. Rather, he is attacking an entire group of people who want to peacefully live within the guidelines of their religious faith and traditions. Where were Richard’s cries of foul when the Jewish community originally laid the groundwork for the practice of faith-based private arbitration?


These private religious arbitration courts can’t usurp the US secular legal system. In other words, these courts do not give the religious people free reign to avoid state and federal laws. (i.e., a religious court could not say, ’Since you dishonored your husband, he can rape your sister.’ and then have this horrible decision hold up in our secular legal order.) This important point is not in dispute amongst law scholars, and was also made crystal clear in this case. Furthermore, these private religious arbitration courts are only used for people who consent to a private contract, and have zero authority to apply any of the religious laws on anybody but the consenting people to the contract. In other words, there is ZERO threat that the 95+% of non-Muslim Americans will have Islamic law applied anywhere in their American daily lives, not now or in the foreseeable future. And any talk of this “creeping Sharia in the US” at this current juncture is fear mongering, despite the attempts of those who desperately want to turn a non-issue into an issue to score partisan points for the GOP.


Next: to believe that a tiny tiny minority could (miraculously) start imposing Sharia law on the greater populace of America is just… nutty paranoia and irrational fear, and is not worthy of serious discussion. It is a non-issue. But Richard wants to make this into an issue because he’s a supposed volunteer based Republican party operative who needs to drum up fear to rally the GOP base. 


Notice how Richard also conveniently accuses the Left (“The Left has some splaining to do!”) of this supposed “creeping Sharia in the US.” How is faith-based private arbitration the fault of the Left, when many of the Jewish and Christian right were the ones who laid the groundwork for this arbitration? Sloppy and prejudicial work, Richard.




The point that the supposed creeping “Sharia law take-over of Europe” is “proof” that it could happen in the US is nonsense too, and quickly falls apart upon scrutiny. First, the European political systems are designed differently than the Madisonian system we have in America. The Madisonian system was specifically designed to keep a tiny minority in check and from imposing its will on the entire society. It is arguably what helped the US avoid Communists and Fascists in the early 20th century from gaining power; and, God willing, it will keep Trump the Demagogue and his white fascist TrumpTroopers from gaining power.


Second, the European political systems have been horrible in helping to integrate and assimilate the Muslim immigrants. Also, the ratio of Muslim immigrants in Europe versus America is not even comparable. Third, the argument completely fails to take notice of the fact that Muslim Americans are actually integrating and assimilating very well here in America. In other words, their religious faith is compatible with the values of the US secular system.


Finally, believing that American Muslims want to impose Sharia law on Americans also reveals how deeply disconnected Richard is from the American Muslim community. Hint: the vast majority of them are perfectly happy living in a secular system that allows them to peacefully practice their faith; and in no way do they want to impose their religious beliefs on non-Muslim Americans. My personal relationships with Muslims from Egypt, UAE, Qatar, Libya, Chechnya, and Iraq show this as true. Polls also show it is true.


Are there orthodox American Muslims who want to implement Sharia law in America, as the heavily biased right-wing Christian think tank suggests? Sure. There is also orthodox Christians who want to implement a Christian theocracy. Even so, how would this tiny minority of people usurp the US secular political system? The European example doesn’t hold water, and suggesting only the future will reveal the merits of Richard’s nutty argument is a convenient way to release the argument from the control of the present ( a present which currently shows that private religious arbitration is NOT imposing its will on the US public legal order.)


And there is nothing more arrogant and pathetic than a white non-Muslim telling American Muslims what their faith is all about, and that they are unable to live within the values of the US secular legal order. This arrogance was on full display last night when Richard wildly suggested that an American Muslim woman who was educated at Harvard Law does not somehow stack up to his “superior” non-Muslim, non-legally trained mind on Muslims and the law. This, folks, is a perfect example of the extreme prejudice that grips the minds of fearful white men in the GOP. 




So go meet your American Muslim neighbors, Richard! Though this will require him to leave his gated white community. But they won’t bite you, nor will they try to enforce Sharia on you. Who knows? you might actually learn something. 


In a later Twitter conversation Richard mockingly asked me, “What do they teach in schools these days?” Well, one of the things they teach these days is to listen to all people’s perspectives, rather than preach to them. They teach us to sit in a classroom with people of various differing perspectives and have very difficult conversations about politics. 


These experiences showed me the value of listening to American Muslims, and Arab Muslim students, on what they think of their religion and the current political issues in their countries. I sat in awe as a Saudi student talked about why they are afraid to speak up for change in their country. I was thankful as I sat and listened to the American Muslim woman from Libya explain why she wears the hijab and how nobody forces her to do so. I was blown away by the gentleman from Qatar who explained that Muslim women in his country are actually paid more than men. I was speechless as I listened to the Egyptian share his experience living through the Arab spring. 


I could go on about the very fruitful discussions we have in college classes on how to deal with very difficult and complex political situations. But, I’ll stop and simply suggest that maybe it is not “what they are teaching at school these days” that is the problem… rather maybe the problem is the narrow minds of people like Richard.


Now as to Richard’s “challenge to Progressives.” His challenge is a non-sequitur, at least in my eyes because I never put forth a statement that claimed I “passionately defend” Sharia law, or the Islamic faith. My defense throughout this entire argument is premised on the belief that ALL religious communities should be able to practice their faith and traditions, as long as it doesn’t harm another or infringe on US secular laws.


I’m a secular agnostic, a small (d)emocrat, who is comfortable living within a pluralist society. I will NOT tolerate ANY religion that seeks to impose its beliefs on me or on all of society. In other words, if private religious arbitration starts to somehow impose its religious laws on all of society, I will be the first to fight for our secular system. 


So I ask Richard to please refrain from ever again suggesting that I am not fighting for the values of the US secular system.

A World Where Everything Can Be Called Anything Else

All words like Peace and Love,

All sane affirmative speech,

Had been soiled, profaned, debased

To a horrid mechanical screech. (1)

-W.H. Auden

It seems to go without saying that our ability to use language to communicate with people is a human faculty of the utmost importance. Speech is, after all, what distinguishes us from other species, and was a key reason for human development. However, if one impartially observes everyday mainstream political discourse, or the speeches of politicians, it becomes apparent that something is amiss. The marketplace of ideas seems to be functioning as the theory suggests; ideas are being freely exchanged at a dizzying speed on the relatively unrestricted Internet and elsewhere. But a cursory glance at the various political ideas being exchanged reveals that certain political words have various meanings, depending on who is using them, and these various meanings often “cannot be reconciled with one another.”(2) How does this happen? And would it be appropriate to say that some people are abusing, or misusing, political words? Or is using political words however one pleases just the “natural” result of a democratic society that cherishes freedom of speech?

The issue of words having irreconcilable meanings does not seem to be a problem, for example, in the physical sciences. It would be strange for a physicist to adopt a new meaning for the word gravity without any kind of coherent reasoning; this would go against the standards that are put in place in the physical sciences. Thus controversy surrounding the meanings of the words in the physical sciences rarely happens, and attention is mainly focused on the competing theories within the given field of science. However, this issue is not always the case in the political world. For example, the socialist literature of the 19th and 20th century expressed socialism to mean a system in which the workers own and control the means of production, consumption, and distribution. Yet it is common to hear people in right- wing circles say that President Obama and the Democrats are implementing socialism in America. Has the meaning of socialism changed? It would be difficult to justify a claim that President Obama is creating policies that hand over ownership and control of America’s businesses to the workers. What makes it even stranger is that those who consider themselves socialist are saying that President Obama and the Democrats are implementing policies that are anything but socialism.(3) How can there be such a stark difference between the two points of view on the meaning of one word?

The partial answer is that many political ideas are still contested within the political world and have not reached a consensus that is shared by all, unlike how the concept of gravity, or other aspects in the physical sciences, eventually reached a consensus and became scientific law. And because of the contested nature of these political ideas they remain in competition in the marketplace of ideas; that is, a person or an institution can argue that socialism is X, Y and Z, while another set of people can argue that socialism is actually A, B and C. The theory of the marketplace of ideas suggests that the truth will emerge from a free and fair competition. But what kinds of standards exist within this marketplace of ideas? And would it be fair if a group of people with greater resources and access to mass communications could attempt to undermine the meaning of a political idea so that their idea will gain an advantage in the marketplace of ideas?

What begins to become apparent is that the standards in the political world are much looser than the standards used in the physical sciences. In other words, there is no permanent committee that regulates and approves of the meanings of important words used in mainstream political discourse.(4) But neither is there in the physical sciences. This seems to suggest that the contested nature of political ideas might be more of an issue because politics mainly deals with the unsettled, and often turbulent, question of Who rules Whom?

The important question of who rules whom thus may reveal why political, economic, and religious ideas seem to be in a continuous competition. The proponents of various political, economic, and religious ideas seek to offer their adherents the best explanation of a complex, diverse, and continuously changing world, and also believe their ideas offer the best strategy for the future. But why do the meanings of certain political words also have to fall prey to the continuously changing world? Why can’t we just create new political words to represent the new ideas, or evolving ideas? It would be one thing if the contested meaning of a political word were a new concept, but many political words have been around for over a century, some much longer. Thus one of the consequences of the contested nature of political ideas is that the meaning of the words used to describe them, like socialism, are abused and become victims, so to speak, in the struggle over how the world should be ruled. This problem then creates a situation in which words become ambiguous and indeterminate.

How do political words become indeterminate? Was this a problem in pre- modern times, or is it just a problem that arose during modernity? In this essay I will explore these questions and argue that the abuse and misuse of political words by various political actors are creating indeterminate political words, which leads to the degradation of political discourse. An example of the abuse of political words would be people’s using them more as pejoratives to attack political opponents. The use of pejoratives in speech is often used to conceal facts and divert attention away from much needed arguments, rather than to explain and understand the various issues. And an example of the misuse of political words would be ordinary people’s inappropriately using words through lack of understanding and/or mimicking the talking points of their trusted sources for understanding politics. This is a problem because it causes confusion throughout society and hinders our ability to find common ground. I am not going to suggest that I have the solutions to the problem; rather this essay will explore the various causes of the misuse and abuse of political language by highlighting the insights of four prominent political thinkers on language: Plato, Alexis de Tocqueville, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt. My hope is that this exploration will help contribute to, and deepen, the discussion regarding the degradation of political discourse.

 

In the first part of this paper I will be using the insights found in Hannah Arendt’s work to discuss the importance of speech for political life, and how words are something that we use to appropriate nature and the various things we produce in this world. Arendt argued that not only was language common to us all, but that nature and the innumerable amount of things in this world were common to us all as well – even though our relations towards these things varies from person to person. Arendt also believed that speech and action are the single most important conditions of human life, so much so that life without them would not be life at all.(5)

The second part of the essay will then explore how the degradation of language happens in the political world. To do this I will again use the insights of Arendt on what she saw as people failing to make important distinctions when engaging in political discourse, and a phenomenon that she called “the functionalization of all concepts and ideas.” The functionalization of concepts is when a person starts labeling a distinct concept by using another distinct concept’s name because they believe the two different concepts serves the same function in society. For example, people sometimes call communism a religion because the adherents of communism supposedly worship the idea of communism like religious adherents worship their respective religious dogmas. Arendt believed that this leads to confusing the issues because people no longer make the important distinctions between the concepts and ideas.

The second part of looking at the degradation of language will then use the insights of George Orwell and his observations on the abuse and misuse of language in society. Orwell observed that society appeared to be moving away from the use of concrete language and toward the use of abstract language. He also saw how the use of indeterminate political words and vague language had a special ramification for the political world by highlighting how partisans used these words.

And the third part of the essay will then explore possible reasons for the degradation of language by looking at the insights of Plato, and also of Alexis de Tocqueville. Both of their observations seem to complement Arendt and Orwell’s observation on language, and might even suggest that the degradation of political discourse may be a permanent, and unfortunate, feature found in democratic countries. And the final part of the essay will be a case study that uses the insights of the four political thinkers to show how today’s media play a prominent role in the debasement of political discourse. The case study will focus on how the word socialism has come to have two starkly different meanings throughout society. Also, throughout the paper I hope to show how the degenerative state of political discourse is not the result of a handful of actors, but is a problem to which we all contribute.

 

Political Life and the Importance of Language

It can safely be argued that the whole process of creating words and using them in speech is what distinguishes us from other species. Language is what allows us to understand and make sense of our world. Hannah Arendt saw words as “carriers of meaning” and believed that “the creation of words” is how the human world appropriates and identifies nature and the things of this world.(6) It is important to point out that what Arendt meant by the things of this world is related “to the human artifact” and the “affairs which go on among” the people who inhabit this planet.(7) An example of the human artifact would be books and buildings, and an example of human affairs would be the ideas we share through human discourse and historical events that happen between people.

The creation of words to designate and identify objects (both of nature and the things of this world) helps dis-alienate each new generation from the world and each other.(8) What Arendt meant by being dis-alienated from the world is that the words we use to give meaning to the things of this world help us create a common understanding of them. We are all unique beings with differing perspectives, but through socialization and education each of us comes to know, for example, what a book, or a tree, or water is when we see them. And even complete strangers will at least have the accepted meanings of the things of this world in common. This point may seem trivial to even bring up because it would be almost unfathomable for a person, or a group of people, to decide to start calling books, trees, or water by other names. And one could image how difficult it would be to go to a foreign country without knowing a single word of the foreign language; it would no doubt leave you feeling alienated from them. This example also shows us how the appropriation of words, and people’s adherence to the most basic meanings of these words, create a commonality between all those who understand the given language.

Language and the overwhelming majority of the things of this world were given names a long time ago. The process of how each of us acquired our language as children is a complex study that linguists are still debating, and is not something that needs to be examined in depth for our purposes. But we do know that every person is socialized through a language that came into existence long before we were born. Children usually learn the basics of language and can communicate even before they enter school. The beginning process of learning what the things of this world are for children is often done through a simple method, like pointing to a dog in amazement the first time they see one. The parent will then say, “Yes, that is a dog. Can you say, dog?”

Language socialization does not stop after children learn to talk, and continues on as they learn to use language in new ways through their education and other various social interactions. During primary education children begin to learn about math, science, and English composition, and later will get exposed to some sort of basic civics lesson on government and politics. All of this helps children expand their understanding of the things of this world.

Arendt would go one step further than just the idea of people sharing a language with common meanings. She argued that the things of this world, in themselves, are common to us all. We may each have differing perspectives and relations toward the things of this world, but they will always be something each of us has in common. For example: the beautiful state capitol I pass by everyday in my city is something that is common to every person who passes by it as well. But my relation to it, or my perspective about it, is likely different from, say, those of the politician who works in the building, or somebody who might hold different political views about the government. Arendt noted that the world is like “a table [that] is located between those who sit around it.” The table gathers us together and creates a commonality among strangers, but it also separates and “prevents our falling over each other, so to speak.” Thus the things of this world are located between us and create a two-fold nature because they both relate and separate us.(9)

The two-fold nature of the things of this world partially reveals why humans organize and create states, laws, contracts, and other institutions. This two-fold nature is also why Arendt believed “politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships.”(10) In other words, the innumerable number of things in this world and the almost infinite ways in which they relate and separate us create the necessity to establish rules, or laws, and institutions to help humans come together in an orderly way. In private life, or family life, the things of this world often do not separate us from family members as much as they might between complete strangers. But the fact of life is that we all must venture out beyond our four private walls and engage with the social realm, or the political realm, in one way or another.(11) This is because we are not self-sufficient and must enter into the world to survive. Thus we can see the importance of using speech as we eventually journey out from our four private walls and into the world to engage in relationships with others.

With language we then use our ability to communicate with others through speech. And communicating with others is how we come to understand the world, including our own lives and experiences. As Arendt noted, “[M]en in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.”(12) What Arendt meant by “act in this world” can best be understood as human agency; or rather, the fact that we all have the ability “to take the initiative, to begin… [or] to set something into motion” through our actions.(13) Each person that enters into this world is a unique being, and it is only through the process of speech and action that we can actively reveal who we are to the human world.(14)

In The Human Condition, Arendt expounded on the concept known as the Vita Activa – which contains the three fundamental human activities: labor, work and action. She argued that “labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process” that is necessary for the survival of the human species. Work is the human activity that creates the things of this world. And, “action is the only activity that goes on directly between men… and corresponds to the human condition of plurality.” For Arendt, the condition of human plurality – “the fact that men, not Man, live on this earth” – is the essential ingredient for “all political life” because if we were all identical beings there would be no need for political life.(15)

A person’s actions can be understood without the use of verbal explanations. Arendt argued, however, it is mostly through speech that a person’s actions become clear to others.(16) In other words, speech is what allows people to explain their actions. For example, people would be left in confusion if disempowered citizens decided to take action against a policy they disliked by chaining themselves to the front door of the state capitol without using the spoken word to explain their actions. Politicians, and any news that might cover this protest, would understand that people were chained to the front door of the capitol, but without the spoken word they would not know why the protesters decided to do so. However, only through speech would these people be able to reveal the reason why they chained themselves to the door. Thus with this simple example of speech and action we can see why language is so important in politics because with “word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world.”(17)

However, if the protesters used speech that contained political words that did not accurately express their reason why they disliked the politician, and his or her policy, it would create misunderstanding and possible confusion as to why they were protesting. So, for example, if the protesters were holding signs that stated, “Stop the Marxist politicians from implementing communism in America,” but the politicians were consistent liberals, or progressives, simply implementing a policy that had nothing to do with communism, those who understand the distinctions between liberalism and communism would simply write the protesters off as people who are confused about the issues, or may have been misled into believing that the politicians were Marxists by other sources. This hypothetical shows us a simple way in which people can misuse political words (a point we will discuss more below).

The misuse of words is much less of a problem when we speak to others about the everyday actions, such as in “I walked the dog this morning.” But everyday life is not always simple, and we are often confronted by a diverse and complex world that requires explanation and understanding. Furthermore, we are faced with the fact that we are all born into a world that has “an already existing web of human relationships.”(18) This web consists of the various social, economic, familial, cultural, legal, linguistic and political institutions into which we are born. Thus a person’s actions will always have to confront an “innumerable [number of] conflicting wills and intentions” that exist within the web of human relationships.(19) In other words, the disempowered citizens who chained themselves to the front door of the capitol might seriously dislike the policy they are protesting, but there are likely many people who support the intentions and reasons for the policy.

But not only do we confront an innumerable number of conflicting wills and intentions in this world when we attempt to take action against, or for, something, but we also confront the overwhelming enormity of the web of relationships, and the massive diversity and variety of things (objects, ideas, institutions, etc.) in the world. This increases the likelihood that we might struggle to find the right words to describe something that is unfamiliar to us, or fall prey to and believe a so-called expert who feeds us inaccurate information.

The enormity and complexity of the things of this world are one of “the reason[s] why all our definitions are distinctions [and] why we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else.”(20) In other words, if I were to explain to a person who had only a basic understanding of the American political system about a foreign political system that was unknown to him or her, I would have to distinguish the known from the unknown political systems. Making distinctions is such an important aspect of speech because without it we would not be able to explain the things of this world to others.

Arendt believed that speech in the modern world was losing its power.(21)  She argued that this loss was partially the result of politicians and political writers misusing political words because they were failing to make distinctions when discussing complex political concepts. A modern example of this loss of distinction is how many right-wing political writers in America often use the word socialism to denote something undesirable, or to castigate their opponents. However, when they do so they fail to make any kind of distinctions between the various types of socialist regimes that existed in the world. Is the socialism they denounce Norway’s democratic-socialism, or Russian socialism, or Chinese socialism? These three examples of socialist regimes have very distinct differences. Thus we can see an example of how speech can lose its power to accurately explain political concepts when people fail to make important distinctions.

Arendt believed that the lack of making distinctions was also connected to what she saw as the “functionalization of all concepts and ideas.”(22)  This occurs when people concern themselves only with the functions of certain concepts and ideas, rather than understanding the intricate details of the ideas. Arendt used an example that showed how some people often called communism a “new religion, despite its avowed atheism, because it [supposedly] fulfills socially, psychologically, and emotionally the same function traditional religion fulfilled.”(23)  However, she believed that this functionalizing leads people to confusing the political issues because people who suggest that communism is a religion will then not concern themselves with what bolshevism actually is as an “ideology or as [a] form of government, nor in what its spokesmen have to say for themselves”, but only concern themselves with the function of communism (i.e., that it provides the same function of worshiping some higher deity). As she said, “it is as though I had the right to call the heel of my shoe a hammer because, I, like most women, use it to drive nails into the wall.”(24)  Another problem with the functionalization of ideas is that people can then use their analysis to “draw quite different conclusions from such equations.”(25)  For example, Arendt argued that a conservative could then draw the conclusion that because “communism can fulfill the same function as religion” that this analysis is “the best proof that religion is necessary.”(26)  Or, on the contrary, liberals could draw the conclusion that this analysis proves why only “true secularism [could] cure us” of the influence of religion on politics.(27)

The issue of functionalization that Arendt wrote about in the late 1960s is still very much alive and well today. In some circles of leftist political writings we can see examples of people suggesting that sports, or war, are the “new religion” in America. A leftist social critic, Chris Hedges, makes exactly this claim in an article called “Kneeling in Fenway Park to the Gods of War.”(28)  The thesis of his article suggests that the U.S. military and sports are the “new religion” in America, and that they are as “unassailable as Jesus.” However, in order to make his point he provides a perfect example of blurring the distinctions between religion, militarism, and sports when he suggests that the military is fulfilling the same function as not only religion, but also sports.

Hedges establishes the idea that the military and sports are America’s new religion with his very first sentence “On Saturday I went to one of the massive temples across the country where we celebrate our state religion.” The temples are sports stadiums, and the religion is war and sports. And while visiting these stadiums we see “religious reverie… used to justify our bloated war budget and endless wars.” There can be no doubt that over the past few decades there has been a steady increase in the display of militarism at sporting events; however, as a long- time fan of sports I can remember the days when this linkage was not the case. But, Hedges doesn’t make this distinction; on the contrary, he actually suggests that “the heroes of war and the heroes of sports are indistinguishable in militarized societies.”

And to show Arendt’s point about how people will then “draw quite different conclusions from [the] equations” that are put forth by those who functionalize concepts and ideas we can simply look at the public comment sections of websites that published Hedges’ article. The examples I read through are from people on a progressive website, commondreams.org, and in them we see people draw various conclusions (and I paraphrase): “sports are competitive and are part of the essential human urge to dominate all others and therefore they should all eventually be abolished” and “sports trump everything else in society, and it is the reason why the uphill battle for societal change is so difficult.”

At any rate, Hedges’ article clearly shows how the functionalization process produces confusion by “blurring the distinctive lines.”(29)  A person who understands this process is left with: what exactly is the political problem here? Is it the Pentagon that uses sporting events to promote militarism? Are sports the problem? Are both of them the problem? Do war and sports really provide the same function as religion? Hedges, no doubt, is bringing up an important point about the rise of U.S. militarism, but in his functionalizing of key concepts we see him ignoring the intricacies of these three distinct institutions for the purpose of charging the secular two of serving the same “worshipping” function as religion. As Orwell once stated, “people who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning – they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another – but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.”(30)  Thus in the process people who functionalize key concepts and ideas unfortunately fail to bring any clarity to the issues.

Arendt was not the only political thinker to recognize the degradation of political discourse during her time. George Orwell was another political thinker who recognized the role that the abuse and misuse of political words, and the decay of language as a whole, would play during 1930s and 40s. Orwell’s experience of this temporal phenomenon was quite different from Arendt’s experience, and he offers us unique insights into the abuse and misuse of language.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language” Orwell argued that the “political chaos” [of the thirties was] connected with the decay of language.”(31)  It is also likely that his observation of the decay of language prompted his now famous formulation in 1984: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” Orwell observed the overall debasement of language in all areas of modern prose. But he argued that the problem was not “due simply to the bad influence of this or that writer,” but rather was the result of the overall decline of language in society.(32)  He argued that one aspect of this decline was related to a trend in “modern prose [that was moving] away from concreteness” and towards the use of abstract and vague phraseology.(33)

Orwell used a verse from Ecclesiastes as an example of concrete language versus abstract language. The verse states, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” He stated that the words race and battle are examples of “concrete illustrations” because they produce concrete-like images in our minds when we read them. Orwell wrote that a modern writer would be more likely to write these same lines as: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity.”(34)  He suggests that this phrasing is abstract and vague because it fails to usher in a concrete image in the reader’s mind of what the author is really trying to describe.

Orwell also saw how the use of abstract and vague language is worsened by the use of indeterminate political words, and that this misuse was especially problematic in the political world. He argued that many important political words have become indeterminate because people cannot agree on a given meaning, and that they use words to bring emotive responses out in people. The capitalist propaganda says, “Communism is godless and evil!” And the communist propaganda says, “Capitalism is slavery and exploitation!” Orwell showed how words like democracy, socialism, and freedom have “several different meanings.” He then went on to give an example when he wrote, “it is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.”(35) The endless praise by American politicians and media pundits claiming America as the greatest democracy in the world certainly comes to mind here – especially given the recent studies by political scientists that show America does not actually resemble a democracy.(36)

Orwell argued that the other major issue of political writings and speeches, which contributes to the degradation of political discourse, is that they often promote the “defense of the indefensible.” Such issues that often involve extremely difficult choices. For example, the life or death choices that states often have to make in times of war. As Orwell noted, “the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face.” Therefore, political writers, journalists and politicians will instead use language that “consist[s] largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”(37)  This ploy is used to conceal the brutal aspects of politics, rather than to bring the argument fully into the light of public discourse. The Bush administration’s use of torture and calling it “enhanced interrogation” would be a perfect modern example.

Orwell argued that the abuse of political words, or the use of vague language, then gets amplified through the use of propaganda and imitation. Political writers and politicians are mostly attached to a particular political party, or political ideology. Orwell stated that their manifestos and speeches are all highly similar in that one never finds “a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.”(38)  In other words, politicians use hackneyed words and vague language in their writings and speeches. This tendency, Orwell believed, recurs because partisanship “seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style”(39) leading faithful followers of parties, or ideologies, to repeat the same lifeless talking points throughout society. Orwell’s point can certainly be observed in today’s world. For example, if one influential partisan starts claiming that President Obama is a Marxist, faithful partisan followers are likely to repeat the claim.

Both Orwell’s and Arendt’s insights into some of the causes of the degradation of political language can still be observed in today’s political discourse. However, before we move forward to look at the degradation in today’s political discourse we need to see if the abuse and misuse of language were a problem during any other time periods. In other words, were the abuse and misuse of political language something that started to appear only during the early 20th Century, and have they continued up to today? Or does this problem have much deeper origins? To understand these questions we will explore the use of political language in Ancient Greece, and then examine the use of political language during early 19th century America.

 

Plato and Tocqueville: Language in Democracy

The most obvious place to start researching whether or not political language was ever debased during earlier time periods, similar to what Arendt and Orwell observed, would be to read the ancient works of the Greek political philosophers. And by doing so one would eventually discover Plato’s views on the debasement of language during his time. In the Republic, Plato envisioned his ideal utopian state, and throughout the book he went into great detail about the problems that arise in the various types of political systems.

The ideal state that Plato wanted to build was a republic that would be ruled by the elder philosophers. It would be similar to an aristocracy, though it is important to note that Plato’s aristocrats, or the philosopher rulers, would be people who were selfless and without property. His viewpoints on why the ideal state would be a republic ruled by a selfless aristocracy was likely influenced by the fact that it was the Athenian democracy that had put his friend, Socrates, to death based on trumped up charges. Thus in the Republic we see Plato’s criticism of democracy come to the fore.

Plato wrote that democracies have some of the “most beautiful constitutions,” and that the “free men” living within the city would be “full of freedom and liberty of speech” allowing men to do whatever pleases them.(40)  Freedom and liberty of speech is quite the familiar concept to the American, and would seem like the only way to live. But to Plato such was not the case. He argued that whenever there is too much regard for the “liberty of action” that man would then “arrange his own private life [in this democracy] just as it pleased him” and that this mentality amongst all its citizens would eventually destroy the city.(41)  Plato argued that this “do whatever one pleases” mentality would result in people’s mainly pursuing the unnecessary desires and pleasures in life, rather than pursuing the four cardinal virtues that lead people to truth and reason, to right living and the good life, which he believed was necessary for an ideal state.

Plato argued that the young children growing up in a democratic state of affairs would become socialized in “parsimony and ignorance” through their parents’ “lack of knowledge of right upbringing.”(42)  As he stated, many of the people would be “empty of learning and beautiful practices and without words of truth, which are indeed the best sentinels and guardians in the minds of men.”(43)  And this lack of a proper education and of adherence to the four virtues for right living would leave people susceptible to being manipulated by “liars and imposters” who use “false words and opinions” to propagate their interests throughout society.(44)  Plato argued that many of these liars and imposters would eventually win over the people as they pushed their false words and opinions, and by doing so they would begin to debase all truthful speech. Plato wrote, “Shame they dub Silliness… Temperance they dub Cowardice” and they would then glorify their “licentiousness and immodesty” and “call them by soft names – Violence is now Good Breeding, Anarchy is Liberty, Licentiousness is Magnificence, Immodesty is Courage.”(45)

One cannot help but see that what Plato is describing could plausibly be what led Orwell to write “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.” But the important point is the effect that he saw democracy had on language during his time. Plato was living during a time that saw the demise of Athenian democracy. There were certainly many factors that led to this demise; however, through Plato’s insights we can see how language was misused and abused during the ancient struggles of who should rule whom. Thus we also see why Plato would argue against democracy, and for a republic that had aristocratic rulers who would implement a strict censorship of ideas and education throughout society. In other words, Plato’s work shows us an example of a person living during a time that was experiencing the ill effects and disintegration of democratic rule, prompting him to argue for the necessity of aristocratic rule.

So the next question to ask is: did any other political thinker write about the effect that democracy had on language? The answer to this question will now take us to the work of Tocqueville and to America during the early 19th Century. However, it is important that I first point out the obvious difference between Plato’s observations on language in democracies compared to Tocqueville’s; namely, Tocqueville was living during a time when aristocratic rule was disintegrating, and democratic rule was re-emerging from its long slumber. Plato, on the contrary, was experiencing the disintegration of democratic rule and arguing for aristocratic rule. Thus the difference between these two thinkers gives us an interesting opportunity to look at the issue of language in democracies from two different angles.

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study its prisons and penitentiaries. But he would end up observing and studying all of America’s institutions as well as its customs and manners, and later turned his two-year study into his famous book Democracy in America. His study would also briefly focus on the use of language in democracies compared to aristocracies. Tocqueville explained that “few new words are coined” in aristocratic countries because things rarely changed, and even when new things came into existence the words given to them would “be designated by known words whose meaning has been determined by tradition.”(46)

In democratic countries new ideas and things are constantly coming into existence. Tocqueville argued that the constant change in democratic countries ends up “changing the character of the language.” He thought that this change happens because the new words that come into existence to explain new ideas, or things, are generally created by a “majority [that] is more engaged in… political and commercial interests,”(47) rather than by the people who are engaged in the study of languages, philosophy, etc., and who understand the etymological roots of language (i.e., the dead languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew). And since the people who generally create new words often do not understand the etymological roots of their language, they will borrow words from the living languages and give new meaning to a word or expression that is already in use. This act creates words with double meanings and begins to render them ambiguous and indeterminate. I will now skip forward in time to show a modern example of what Tocqueville was explaining.

A representative modern example of the process of how words end up with double meanings is the word libertarian. In the mid-twentieth century Murray Rothbard “coined” the term libertarian to describe his anarcho-capitalist economic theories. However, the term libertarian had been in use since around the 1870s in Europe by the French anarchists who began to call themselves libertarians to get around the harsh anti-anarchist French laws. To this day libertarianism in most of Europe is understood as anarchism, an anti-capitalist and anti-socialist ideology.(48)  However, in America, and thanks to Rothbard borrowing a word and adopting a new meaning, libertarianism is understood as an ideology that is staunchly pro-capitalist.

With this example we can see how two very different ideologies are now in a sort of competition against each other over the meaning of libertarianism. We can also see how the words in democratic countries that are “coined and adopted for” political and commercial uses will mainly “serve to express the wants of business [and] the passions of party.”(49)  In other words, the word libertarian in America is now often used to express the wants of business (getting rid of burdensome government regulation) and has also turned into the rallying cry of the Tea Party. Thus the word, with its new double meaning, has a tendency to cause confusion.(50)

Tocqueville thought that this outcome was one of the more “deplorable consequence[s] of democracy”(51) because it creates just as “much confusion in language as there is in society.”(52)  He believed that “harmony and uniformity” in language were an important aspect of clear communication. However, what was happening with language in democratic countries was beginning to create prose usages that “obscure[d] the thoughts they [were] intended to convey”(53) because the thoughts were surrounded by ambiguous and indeterminate words.

Tocqueville would also study the press and observed how journalists greatly affected public opinion. He argued that the problem of the abuse and misuse of language in America were amplified through the freedom of the press. When writing about journalists he noted that they had a tendency “to assail the characters of [political] individuals” rather than engaging in any kind of reasoned political argument. Tocqueville thought that this choice was “deplorable” because of the media’s immense influence on public opinion.

He also wrote that individuals who were held in “high esteem of their fellow- citizens [were] afraid to write in the newspapers.” Though he doesn’t specify, Tocqueville is most likely describing American intellectuals, academics, and highly regarded politicians. He does not address the exact reasons why they are afraid, but he does write that the highly esteemed people in society would generally “only write in the papers when they choose to address the people in their own name; as, for instance, when they are called upon to repel calumnious imputations, and to correct a misstatement of facts.”(54)  The absence of intellectuals and academics writing in the press created an intellectual vacuum and allowed journalists and editors to fill the vacuum by publishing “knowledge of certain facts,” but often doing so in a way that “alter[ed] and distort[ed] those facts [so] that a journalist [could] contribute to the support of his own views,” rather than writing an objective analysis.(55)  Furthermore, the vacuum was filled with a large variety of newspapers and publications that circulated throughout America. Thus the harmony and uniformity of language that Tocqueville believed were so important for clear communication was basically non- existent in America.

To make matters worse, Tocqueville observed an American public that had a propensity to adopt the media’s “propositions without inquiry” and that the public would then “cling to their opinions from pride” and also “because they exercise their own free-will in choosing them.”(56)  In other words, the press had a tendency to push personal views in order to appease the populace or sell subscriptions; and the populace had a tendency to cling to these opinions, rather than investigate the media’s claims. The people’s repeating what they hear without inquiry certainly complements the point Plato was making in regard to some people’s being won over by the “liars and imposters” who spread their “false words and opinions” throughout society. Furthermore, it complements Orwell’s insights into how the faithful followers of political parties and ideologies will repeat the same lifeless talking points of their respective parties or ideologies. Thus we can see an example of how the press and political propaganda amplify the degradation of political discourse.

Tocqueville doubted that there was anything that could be done to reverse what was happening to language in democratic countries, but he still felt it was necessary to highlight the effects of democracy on language. So it would seem appropriate to ask: was Tocqueville against democracy, like Plato? Or were there any redeeming qualities to be found in democracy? And how do Arendt’s and Orwell’s insights into the degradation of political language relate to Plato and Tocqueville’s views on the issues of language in democracy?

The answer to Tocqueville’s position on democracy is probably similar to Plato’s position: they both observed that democracy had positive and negative aspects. However, the purpose of Tocqueville’s work was not to praise democracy in America, nor to build an ideal utopian state, like Plato, but was to observe and study democracy in action. In her work on Tocqueville, Arendt pointed out that his studies in America, and his experience during the turbulent times of the French revolution, might have ended in his despair for the new emerging world. Arendt wrote, “For what else but despair could have inspired Tocqueville’s assertion that ‘since the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future the mind of man wanders in obscurity?’”(57)  Arendt argued that this despair is likely why Tocqueville went on to suggest that “a new science of politics is needed for a new world.”(58)  In other words, the emerging new world of democracy was severing the hold that the aristocratic and monarchical traditions – the very traditions that had guided humanity through so many centuries – had previously enjoyed, and a new science of politics was needed to understand the new and rapidly changing world.

Arendt’s work would also suggest that she might have been in agreement with Tocqueville about the loss of tradition and the need to find a new science of politics that anchored us into something more stable. Arendt wrote that “with the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to the predetermined aspect of the past.”(59)  This insight by Arendt seems to create a paradox, and one that Tocqueville may have been struggling with too when he argued for the need of a new science for politics.

However, for Arendt, the paradox lessens if we understand that she was mainly concerned about the loss of tradition because she felt that it endangered “the whole dimension of the past.”(60)  The reason that Arendt was concerned about saving the past, rather than tradition per se, was that she believed that “[f]or human beings thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur.”(61)  This point complements Plato’s argument on how people in democracies can become ignorant and easily manipulated by the liars and imposters, who push false words and opinions in society, because the people had failed to properly learn how to reason and understand the greater truths – an understanding that requires thinking of past matters. Arendt’s point also complements Orwell’s main reasoning for writing about the decay of language: to raise awareness about the degradation of language in the hopes that people would free themselves “from the worst follies of orthodoxy”(62) that spread by imitation, and would thus begin the “necessary first step towards political regeneration.”(63)

Arendt also recognized that tradition often passed down the lessons of the past to each successive generation. However she was not suggesting that democracy did not work, or that we should go back to aristocratic rule, or that saving tradition would inform us how we should live; rather, she meant that understanding the past would offer insights and ways for us to think through the modern political questions that continually seem to perplex us. Furthermore, Arendt argued that one of the most important things that we can do when we gather around the political table to discuss these complex issues is to remember to make distinctions. If there was one tradition that Arendt likely wished to save, it was probably traditional political thought because, in her opinion, it still offered many insights useful for understanding today’s political problems. Are Plato’s and Tocqueville’s views of what happened to language in democracies not parallel?

Case Study: Modern Media and the Parroting Effect

Now that we understand a little more about the importance of language for political life, and the effect that democracy has on language, I would like to move to the final part of the essay to show the role that the modern media play in amplifying the debasement of political discourse. There are plenty of current examples to show how political language is abused and becomes degraded on a large scale through the amplification by the press in America. On a daily basis media pundits can be seen habitually distorting and altering facts to support their ideological views, and in some cases attempting to give new meaning to political words already in use, rather than giving any sort of reasoned and balanced analysis. A great source to observe the parroting effect this distortion has on average people can easily be observed in the public-comment sections of online news sources and other social media sites.

A specific example will bring us back to the original question of how the word socialism has come to have starkly different definitions throughout society. In the past few years, right-wing media pundits frequently have called the Democrats socialists, or claim that President Obama is a Marxist. In fact, if we take a quick glance at the websites of people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, we see article after article that instructs their audience that President Obama and the Democrats are socialists. And if we look at the comment sections of online news sources there is example after example of people parroting the talking points of Beck and Limbaugh.(64)  The assertions that President Obama is a Marxist are clearly not coming from academia because this claim would not be considered as serious. So where else could people possibly be getting these assertions?

Glenn Beck has dedicated numerous shows to attempting to prove why President Obama is a Marxist. In one, he gives us an excellent example of Tocqueville’s point about the press. Within the first minutes of his show Beck starts to “track [President Obama] into private life [in an attempt to] disclose all [his] weaknesses and errors.”(65)  Beck believes that in order to understand the “political structure” of President Obama we need to take a look at his “foundation” (i.e., his family and his upbringing). Beck suggests that if we do so we will be left wondering how President Obama did “not become anything but a Marxist with [his] childhood.”(66)  In other words, there are so many early life connections to supposed Marxists that one should believe it would be strange for President Obama not to be a Marxist.

Immediately after Beck tracks President Obama into his private life, he proceeds to give us another example of Tocqueville’s insight by “altering and distorting” facts to “contribute to the support of his own views.”(67)  One of the facts that Beck attempts to distort is the sound bite of President Obama telling Joe the plumber that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Beck then tells his audience, “Marx said that. Madison never said that. Our founders all warned against that.”(68)

It is a fact that President Obama has suggested on numerous occasions that spreading the wealth around is good for society. However, Beck distorts this fact by simply removing the context. The context is that President Obama is speaking of spreading the wealth around by reintroducing a progressive taxation system. And, yes, as Beck and other critics have mentioned elsewhere, it is also a fact that Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto that one of the “generally applicable” measures for a communist revolution would include implementing “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”(69) However, is the progressive taxation system found only in Marxism and communist ideology? Or can it be found in other political ideologies and political systems, indeed in capitalist ones such as in Europe?

The short answer to the last question is yes. In fact, the progressive taxation system was first introduced in America by the United States Congress in 1862, and signed into law by President Lincoln, in order to raise money for the Union. Over a half a century later President Roosevelt implemented a steep progressive taxation system as part of the New Deal measures. Thus the logic of Beck would also mean that he would have to denounce President Lincoln and President Roosevelt as Marxists. Of course, that claim would reveal the absurdity of Beck’s argument, which is simply the result of his failing to make relevant distinctions and falsely portraying that the progressive taxation system provides the same function as communism.

Furthermore, through Tocqueville’s perceptiveness we can see a clear example of how a popular media pundit abuses political words and degrades political discourse by trying to give new meaning to the word socialism (i.e., socialism is what President Obama and the Democrats are doing). And because the populace has a propensity to cling to a favored journalist’s opinion, rather than investigate the claims, we see how political discourse gets degraded on a large scale; possibly millions of people now believe that the policies of President Obama and the Democrats are “socialist.”(70)  And, sadly, we can also see how this false claim diverts people from having honest conversations about why things like the progressive taxation system were introduced in America by the New Deal Liberals, and not Marxists, during the Great Depression. So why do Beck and other pundits make false claims?

The answer to the last question is not something that we can concretely answer. But we can safely assume that Beck plays a role in the competing nature of the various narratives found in party agendas and the antagonistic ideologies found throughout society. Beck openly speaks of his “free market” position and his support for the Republican Party. Thus Beck’s interest is to denounce the Democrats and any ideologies that are in a sort of competition with his ideology and party agenda. In other words, Beck is part of the same phenomenon that Arendt and Orwell observed that led to speech becoming degraded during their time. Thus the next question would be: does he know the depiction to be false but uses it anyway?

When Orwell made his point about euphemisms as well as words used as pejoratives, he suggested that these were “often used in a consciously dishonest way” by politicians and political pundits. He wrote that “the person who uses [euphemisms and vague language] has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”(71)  Orwell’s view also complements the point Plato made about the “liars and imposters” who pushed their “false words and opinions” in society in order to win people to their side. In other words, does Beck use the term Marxist and socialist in a consciously dishonest way to demonize his opponents? Or is he unconsciously helping to degrade political discourse through the bad habits and imitative style of political partisans?

At this point the only way to answer the first question would be to speculate because there is no hard evidence to prove that Beck is being consciously dishonest. Suggesting that Beck is a liar, or an imposter, might not be an appropriate accusation to make without the proper evidence. However, there is no need to understand Beck’s personal motives, or to make accusations about his character, to show how he abuses political language and helps degrade political discourse. The fact is that he is spreading false words and opinions throughout society in order to win people over to his side. It is no coincidence that Marxists and socialists uniformly disown and harshly criticize President Obama, calling him such things as “a toady of capitalism” and “political front man for the imperialist war machine.”(72) These caricatures are arguably equally misleading. Most political scientists reject the ideology-inspired depictions of both sides. In other words, the people who have spent years objectively reading and studying Marx, Marxism and other socialist literature, and who understand the world that Marx wanted to create through his work, reject the ideological motives of Beck. It really is as simple as reading and understanding Marx’s work to see why Beck is spreading false words and opinions.

Conclusion

So can anything be done to stop media pundits and politicians from abusing political words and degrading political discourse? Plato would likely respond that only censorship and a world ruled by the philosopher rulers provide the answer to this problem. And, unfortunately, as Tocqueville wrote, “in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits which the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils which it engenders.”(73)  In other words, the freedom of the press is too beneficial to alter because of the abuses by a relative, though influential, few. The main reason Orwell wrote his essay was that he believed the problem was reversible and that people could rid themselves of the “bad habits [that] spread by imitation.”(74)  If people took care to correct these bad habits it would be possible for a person to “think more clearly.”(75)  And if people could think more clearly, they would likely put people like Beck out of business because they would stop listening to his false words and opinions.

Arendt argued that one possible way to correct these bad habits would be to remember the importance of spoken words, and the meanings that we have given them. When encountering the variety and complexities of the things of this world we can at least remember to make distinctions while trying to understand the various political concepts and political systems in the world. It is only through making these distinctions that we will be begin to understand the world in a clearer and more accurate way. Political words should be common to us all, like how the word water, or tree, is common to us all. Words do not care about our personal bias, ideologies, or the political parties that we support; they are simply the tools we use to understand each other and the things of this world.

It certainly is possible for us to reach agreements on the meanings of words we use to understand the political world without giving up our partisanship. This practice, in fact, is common in academia. And I’d argue that we would all be the better for it because we could finally have meaningful conversations about our diverse and complex world. The diversity of our world can be a wonderful thing. But believing that a world where everything can be called anything else will only lead to confusion and the prolongation of the debasement of political language.

Footnotes

1 W.H. Auden, “We Too Had Known Golden Hours.” Quoted from Hannah Arendt’s speech that was delivered upon receiving Denmark’s Sonning Prize in 1975, and published in Responsibility and Judgment. Page 10.
2 Orwell, George. George Orwell Essays. “Politics and the English Language.” page 959
3 The “World Socialist Website” is a place where today’s socialists publish their perspectives. A quick glance at the various articles quickly reveals a starkly different picture of President Obama and the Democrats. http://www.wsws.org
4 Point of clarification: when I speak of the standards in mainstream political discourse I am excluding the standards that exist in academia.
5 Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Page 176.
6 Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind, page 99.
7 Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition, page 52. 8 Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind, page 100.
9 Arendt. The Human Condition, page 52.
10 Arendt, Hannah. The Promise of Politics. “Introduction into Politics.” Page 95.
11 Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. “Reflections on Little Rock.” Paraphrased from Arendt’s point on making the distinction between “the three realms of human life – the political, the social and the private.”
12 Arendt, The Human Condition, page 4.
13 Ibid., page 177.
14 Ibid., page 179.
15 Arendt, The Human Condition. Page 7.
16 Ibid., page 179.
17 Ibid., page 176.
18 Ibid., page 184.
19 Ibid.
20 Idid., page 176.
21 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, page 4.
22 Hannah Arendt. Between Past and Future. “What is Authority?” page 101.
23 Ibid., page 102.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Hedges, Chris. “Kneeling in Fenway Park to the Gods of War.” http://www.commondreams.org/view/2014/07/08-1
29 Arendt. “What is Authority.” Page 103.
30 Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” George Orwell Essays. Page 962.
31 Ibid., Page 966.
32 Ibid., Page 954.
33 Ibid., page 960.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid., Page 959.
36 Gilens, Martin. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens.”
37 Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” Page 963.
38 Ibid., page 962.
39 Ibid.
40 Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato: “Republic.” Page 419.
41 Ibid.
42 Ibid., page 422-23.
43 Ibid., page 423.
44 Ibid.
45 Ibid., page 423-24.
46 Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Volume II, Chapter XVI. Page 582.
47 Ibid., page 583.
48 Noam Chomsky’s interview on libertarian-socialism, and ways the meaning of libertarianism in America is an anomaly. http://www.alternet.org/civil- liberties/noam-chomsky-kind-anarchism-i-believe-and-whats-wrong-libertarians
49 Tocqueville, page 583.
50 A good example of the confusion can be seen when a person calls themselves a “libertarian-socialist.” This is a strand of anarchism. However, a person who understands libertarianism to be a staunchly pro-capitalist ideology will believe that libertarian-socialism is an oxymoron. How could a hard-core capitalist also be a socialist, they ask? However, the reason that people call themselves libertarian- socialists is because they adhere to the much longer held tradition that understands libertarianism as a form of anarchism. There is a variety of anarchist literature that writes of this problem.
51 Tocqueville, page 584.
52 Ibid., page 586.
53 Ibid., page 587.
54 Ibid.
55 Ibid.
56 Ibid.
57 Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. “The Concept of History.” Page 77.
58 Tocqueville, quoted by Arendt in “The Concept of History.” Page 77.
59 Arendt, “What is Authority?” page 94.
60 Ibid.
61 Arendt, as quoted in Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth, “Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World.”
62 Orwell. Page 967.
63 Ibid., page 955.
64 To prove this point about people parroting the idea that the Democrats are socialist one only needs to visit websites like http://www.foxnews.com, or http://www.breitbart.com, and read through the comments sections of the various news columns that are critical of President Obama, and the Democrats.
65 Tocqueville quote from above.
66 Ibid. Glen Beck, transcript printed on Foxnews.com: The first part is Beck showing “Obama’s Foundation” http://www.foxnews.com/story/2010/04/06/barack-obama-foundation/.
67 Tocqueville, same quote from above.
68 Glenn Beck, http://www.foxnews.com/story/2010/04/07/glenn-beck-barack- obama-socialist/
69 Marx and Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” found in The Marx-Engels Reader. page 490. It is important to note that the ten steps that are frequently cited by people like Beck were steps that would “be different for different countries” and that they were temporary measures that would be used to bring about the end goal: the dissolution of classes and class antagonisms, and a utopian communist world “where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
70 Again, the proof of this can easily be observed by checking out the comment sections of right-wing online news sources.

71 Orwell. “Politics and the English Language.” Page 959.
72 World Socialist Web Site. “Obama’s Drone Warfare: Assassination Made Routine.” https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/04/25/pers-a25.html

73 Tocqueville, page 211.

74 Ibid., page 955.
75 Ibid.

Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. “The Concept of History.” New York: The Viking Press. 1961.

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. “What is Authority?” New York: The Viking Press. 1961.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1958.

Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1971. Arendt, Hannah. The Promise of Politics. “Introduction into Politics.” New York:

Schocken Books. 2005.

Arendt, Hanah. Responsibility and Judgement. “Prologue: Arendt’s speech at Denmark’s Sonning Prize in 1975.” New York: Schocken Books. 2003.

Beck, Glenn. “Obama’s Foundation.” http://www.foxnews.com
Chomsky, Noam. “Interview on Libertarian-Socialism.” http://www.alternet.org

Gilens, Martin. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics, Volume 12, Issue 3, 2014.

Hedges, Chris. “Kneeling at Fenway Park to the Gods of War.”

http://www.commondreams.org

Marx and Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1978.

Orwell, George. George Orwell Essays. “Politics and the English Language.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2002.

Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato. “The Republic.” New York: New American Library. 2008.

39

40 Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York: A Bantam Classic. 2000.

Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth. Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World. Yale University Press. 2004.

World Socialist Website. http://www.wsws.org

 

SB15-039: The Ploy by Colorado Senate Republicans to Privatize Public Lands

The Senate Republican talking points on SB15-039 are beginning to become unravelled.  I guess that was bound to happen, considering the size of the con that they are trying to pull on the Colorado people.  For those who don’t know: SB 15-039 is a bill that is sponsored by Republican Senator’s Cadman and Lambert.  This bill is copied, nearly word for word, from ALEC, a think-tank funded by free market ideologues, billionaires and major U.S. corporations.  In fact, this kind of copy and paste job would quickly get any student immediately kicked out of school for plagiarism.  Read for yourself and compare the bills: Here is SB39  and Here is the identical ALEC bill 


The original Republican talking points concealed their true intentions under the words of “sharing jurisdiction” with the federal government and “managing” the lands in a supposedly better fashion than the federal government.  Senator Lambert stated that this bill would give the state more control in dealing with wildfires.  And, yet, as an article by Democrat Senator, Kerry Donvan stated, Colorado Professional Fire Fighters are opposed to this bill because it would be harmful.  They stated, “Don’t mess with a working system.”


However, the Colorado Senate Republican’s don’t care what the experts in Colorado have to say about public lands; they’ve got a bill to push through from an east coast think tank that has corporate interests in mind, and not the Colorado public.  Furthermore, the Senate Republican’s press secretary, Sean Paige, is beginning to reveal the true nature of the bill as Colorado constituents and the Colorado Senate Democrats started pushing back against their privatization ploy.  In the past few days, Sean has been recycling his past far-fetched tweets.  


Here is a tweet from Sean Paige in February (before he was hired by Senate Republicans)


And here is yesterday’s tweet from the Senate GOP twitter handle 

First off, the nature of these kind of tweets is surreal.  They are essentially blaming the powerful forces of nature (pine beetle and forest fires) on the federal government for not having God-like powers to stop these acts of nature.  Ironically, these acts of nature are nature’s way of managing itself.  These Senate Republican tweets are nothing more than fear propaganda to sell a bill that seeks to privatize public lands under the guise of “we can manage it better.”

We know for a fact that this bill was written by ALEC.  This is indisputable.  So why exactly would a think tank that is funded by large extractive corporations, who are openly hostile to federal regulations and protected lands, spend large amounts of money to craft bills like SB15- 039?  Are we really to believe that these large extractive companies simply want the state to take control of these lands so that citizens can continue to enjoy Colorado’s public lands and wilderness areas?  Wilderness areas and protected lands that will somehow be better managed by a state with far less resources?  

No, these companies fund ALEC (and the campaigns of Senate Republicans) to write these kinds of bills so that states will eventually lease, or privatize, the protected public lands and wilderness areas to them.  That is the ultimate end goal here; the free market is the solution to them.  And their public relations ploy is to fleece the public with tales of “we can manage it better.”  Manage, of course, means selling and leasing protected public lands to the extractive industry because, you know, they believe that free market is the solution for every single problem in this world.

Just last night the Senate Republicans inadvertently revealed this to be true with a reply to my tweet.  My original tweet stated: “Sad that @ColoSenGOP is pushing free market #ALEC legislation under the guise of “managing” #publiclands.  Here is their reply:

  

First, notice how they have to twist the usage of my meaning of free market by suggesting that I am using it as a pejorative.  However, this is not the case; I simply don’t agree that the free market is the solution for every single problem in the world, especially keeping public lands public.  Second, notice how they inadvertently reveal that SB15-039 is, in fact, a free market based “solution.” 

The private market economy is a wonderful mechanism for organizing productive activities.  And, as the Colorado Senate Republicans pointed out, the market economy is, without a doubt, one of the reasons for the creation of the greatest economies in the world.  Few people would actually dispute that.  However, can anyone honestly say that the private market economy is a wonderful mechanism for keeping public lands and protected wilderness areas… public?  

I’m guessing the Senate Republicans who are trying to con the Colorado people right now with this bill are delusional enough to suggest such a thing.  Ideologues have a tendency to emancipate themselves from reality when reality intrudes on their ideological theories.  But in reality… keeping public and wilderness lands public and protected for the citizens’ recreational enjoyment, is the antithesis of a private market economy.  If anybody wants to argue otherwise, feel free…

The saddest part about this Senate Republican con job is that it removes any kind of honest public debate.  As they hide behind their facade, we miss the opportunity to have honest discussions about the limits of the market economy.  As political theorist Michael Sandel wrote, “One of the most striking tendencies of our time is the expansion of markets and market-oriented reasoning into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms.”  Sandel is not arguing that markets are a bad thing, he actually recognizes the greatness of market economies.  But he simply believes that “unless we want to let the market rewrite the norms that govern social institutions, we need a public debate about the moral limits of markets.”  

In other words, do we want our public lands and protected wilderness areas (the commons) to be governed by market norms?  You are likely nodding your head in approval if you are part of an industry that stands to make extraordinary profits from the resources found in these areas.  And you are probably weeping at the thought of oil and gas rigs in these protected areas if you are the millions and millions of people who go to these wonderful national treasures to enjoy your respective leisures.

But, I guess, therein may lie the good part.  Colorado citizens are overwhelmingly in support of protecting Colorado’s public lands for their enjoyment.  Thus, the Senate Republican ideologues who are trying to con the Colorado public by pushing ALEC legislation may just turn out to be their own worst enemy.  

Sincerely yours,

Mark Olson 


P.S. – I have no copy editor, nor do I swim in the donor pools who will give me money to shill for their interests.  Thus my perspective and any grammatical errors above are all mine.

A Democratic-Republic or the American Empire?

Statue-of-Liberty-Face-Covered-288x260

 

When the word empire is used in the United States it is generally used to describe things like the Roman Empire, or the 19th Century European empires, or the Galactic Empire in the movie Star Wars.  The idea that the U.S. might be an empire is a foreign concept.  Empire is a term that is derived from the Latin, Imperium.  And that is why we hear political scientists using the term imperialist, or imperialism when speaking about empires.  Imperialism is what empires do.  The most basic examples of imperialism that are currently taught in U.S. history and political science classes is what has become known as the “Age of Imperialism” in which nineteenth century empires would dominate and exploit weaker states, generally in the underdeveloped world, and would set up colonies in them to maintain control of their resources.

One thing that is clear is that the old way of empires engaging in colonial imperialism is no longer in existence.  But does that mean that imperialism simply ended after World War II?  Some experts who have studied and written about imperialism argue that the amassing of colonies by the stronger state is the only way the term imperialism can be applied.  Therefore, the U.S. cannot be considered as a genuine empire that engages in imperialism.  Chalmers Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of California, argued persuasively that those who suggest imperialism is no longer in existence are using an “historically circumscribed view” and that “today imperialism manifests itself in several different and evolving forms and no particular institution – except for militarism – defines the larger phenomenon.” Professor Johnson defines imperialism when he wrote, “The simplest definition of imperialism is the domination and exploitation of weaker states by stronger ones” (Johnson 2)

So what exactly is the United States?  What definition should we give to a country that has more than one thousand military bases (or lily pads), located in over one hundred fifty countries, spends more money per year on military expenditures than the top twenty-five other countries combined, and is actively dropping bombs in at least five different countries?  Sheldon Wolin, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, writes:

While all empires aim at exploitation of the peoples and territories they control, the United States is an Empire of a novel kind.  Unlike other empires it rarely rules directly or occupies foreign territory for long, although it may retain bases or “lily pads.”  Its power is “projected” at irregular intervals over other societies rather than institutionalized in them.  Its rule tends to be indirect, to take the form of “influence,” bribes, or “pressure.”  Its principal concerns are military and economic (i.e., access to bases, markets, and oil) (191).

Think about that.  One of the most brilliant political theorists in this country, supported by one of the more prestigious universities in this world, is openly writing about the U.S. as being an “empire of a novel kind.”  So why isn’t President Obama and Mitt Romney, or the Democrats and Republicans, or any of the mainstream media sources, talking about the American Empire?  The word empire is rarely ever mentioned by politicians or media pundits even though they do speak about it.  However, the language they use to describe the American Empire consists of euphemisms like, “the lone superpower,” or “indispensable nation,” or “reluctant sheriff.”  And the euphemisms used to describe imperialism are “spreading democracy and freedom,” or “humanitarian intervention,” or “globalization.”  Regardless of these euphemisms, the U.S. has become an empire that engages in imperialism, and the creation of terrorism, the erosion of our Constitutional rights, and the country’s bankruptcy issues are all consequences of empire.

Before September 11th the idea that the U.S. was an empire was only spoken about in far-left intellectual circles.  The global garrison of military bases that was built up during the Cold War was justified as necessary to stop the spread of Russian communism.  But after the fall of the Soviet Union the U.S. did not dismantle most of these bases and actually continued to increase military spending even though the communist threat was no longer in existence.   After September 11th we begin to see even right-wing intellectuals come out and openly admit that the U.S. is imperialist.  Charles Krauthammer of the Weekly Standard writes“We are not just any hegemon.  We run a uniquely benign imperialism…it is a fact manifest in the way that others welcome our power” (Wolin).  This statement begs the question:  Do others really welcome American power?  Surely the oligarchic families that use authoritarian dictatorships to rule their countries, and are supported by American power, welcome it.  But do the common people of third world countries love American power?  Overwhelmingly, American power is being rejected by mass social movements throughout the globe.  All throughout Latin America populist movements have sprouted up and toppled U.S. supported dictatorships in favor of forming democratic governments.  In the Middle East we are seeing “Arab springs” looking to free themselves from dictatorships – the same dictators who received billions of dollars per year in military aid from the U.S. government.  So clearly Krauthammer was only speaking of a certain sector of people who welcome U.S. power.

This last part about U.S. power leads to one of the first serious and unfortunate consequences of imperialism: when the fury of the dispossessed strike back against the empire, and the people living within the empire don’t understand why.  The Central Intelligence Agency invented the term “blowback” to describe this phenomenon that “refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people” (Johnson 1).  The most extreme case of blowback is the September 11th terrorist attacks.  “Terrorism is both a response to empire and the provocation that allows for empire to cease to be ashamed of its identity” (Wolin).  The people who supposedly perpetrated the attacks of September 11th were violently reacting to U.S. imperialism and military occupation of their nation.  This attack then provoked U.S. leaders to retaliate, instead of honestly dealing with the consequences of empire, and by doing so they chose “to repress their involvement in the vast expanse of power of empire and globalization” and propelled our country into the realm of mythology.  This mythology is wrapped up in a good verses evil theme that is predominantly religious in nature.  It has made “terrorism appear [to be just] irrational violence, without apparent cause or reasonable justification” and “[at] the same time, the character of absolute evil assigned to terrorism… works toward the same end by allowing the state to cloak its power in innocence” (Wolin).  Professor Wolin had this to say about U.S. leaders and mythology:

When myth begins to govern decision-makers in a world where ambiguity and stubborn facts abound, the result is a disconnect between the actors and reality. They convince themselves that the forces of darkness possess weapons of mass destruction and nuclear capabilities; that their own nation is privileged by a god who inspired the Founding Fathers and the writing of the nation’s constitution. (14)

This type of mythical thinking can clearly be seen in how the Bush administration tried to convince the public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was going to use them against us here in the U.S.  However, there were U.N. weapons inspectors who intimately knew that this was not true.  Scott Ritter was one such man when he publicly stated, “I bear personal witness through seven years as chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations to both the scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and the effectiveness of U.N. weapons inspectors in ultimately eliminating them”  (Ritter).  Stubborn facts abound, indeed.

The mythical response to the September 11th attacks by the American Empire also works to increase terrorist threats, rather than eliminating them.  There are conflicting reports as to how many innocent men, women and children living in the Middle East have been killed or seriously injured by U.S. attacks in their homeland.  Here in the U.S., apologists for Empire simply write these deaths off as “collateral damage.”  However, to Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis these “collateral damage” deaths are their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers and friends.  And their deaths can only work to increase the hatred of those who are so horribly affected by these U.S. imperialist policies.  It seems like this would be such an obvious concept, but U.S. leaders ignore such simple concepts.  They also have ignored reports from the National Intelligence Agency that have reported that the Iraq war has made the U.S. less safe, and “has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.”

Terrorism and the government’s mythical response to it have also allowed the U.S. government to “quickly expand its intrusive power abroad and here at home.”  Some political scientists are now engaged in asking key questions about whether or not a constitution designed for a republic, and intended to limit power, can co-exist with a totalizing power that reaches across the entire globe.  Professor Wolin writes, “Imperial power is not about restraint” (192).  Therefore, the simplest answer to these questions is that empire and a constitutional democracy cannot co-exist.  A simple example of the Constitution being violated was when George W. Bush unilaterally declared that the nation was “at war” more or less forever against terrorism.  This declaration was a clear violation of Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution which explicitly says, “The Congress shall have the power to declare war.”  The Constitution was set up to strictly prohibit the executive branch from unilaterally declaring war.  James Madison, one of the main framers of the Constitution, wrote of the dangers of continual warfare and the executive branch:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other… In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. . . . [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and . . . degeneracy of manners and of morals. . . .No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare (Madison).

It’s ironic, if not just sad, that most U.S. leaders will praise the Founding Fathers in one breath, and then ignore the hard-learned lessons that they have left for us.  Madison’s warning about continual warfare is hauntingly coming to fruition as U.S. leaders continue to pursue “their involvement in the vast expanse of power of empire and globalization.”

Another example of the American Empire violating our constitutional rights can be seen when the Obama administration recently declared it reserved the right to assassinate any person in the world, including U.S. citizens, without due process of law.  This is by far one of the most extreme violations of the Constitution that any U.S. president has ever engaged in.  Other such violations can be see with the passage of the Patriot Act, the FISA Act and the recent signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allows the government to detain and imprison anybody in the world, including U.S. citizens, without due process of law.  A recent federal court case ruled in favor of seven plaintiffs who sued the U.S. government for violating their First and Fifth Amendment rights by signing the NDAA into law (Greenwald).  All of these bills clearly show that the totalizing power of the American Empire cannot co-exist with a constitutional democracy that is designed to keep power in check.

The last consequence of the American Empire is the bankruptcy issue.  Maintaining a military empire is an expensive business.  Nearly a trillion dollars was needed in 2011 to feed the military-industrial-complex.  This figure is scheduled to increase in 2012, and also excludes the costs of two unfunded wars and Homeland security operations.  Nobel-prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, has estimated that Iraq alone will end up costing the American taxpayer three trillion dollars.  So how will this affect the majority of U.S. citizens?

I say the majority of U.S. citizens because if you are somehow tied into the profit mechanisms of the American Empire then business is booming for you, but you are in the minority.  Professor Johnson wrote, “Our militarized empire is a physical reality with a distinct way of life but it is also a network of economic and political interests tied in a thousand different ways to American corporations, universities, and communities” (Johnson 2).  An example of how this “distinct way of life” and the “network of economic and political interests” tie together can be seen when Professor Wolin writes:

Halliburton’s power begins in Texas, extends to Washington, and then connects with projects (often without competitive bidding) in Afghanistan and Iraq; it returns to the “homeland” enriched and eager to invest its profits in politicians.  Politicians, in turn, become responsive to the new sources of pressure, contributions, and lavish favors.  The district or constituent back “home” shrinks in significance (193).

The thing to keep in mind here is that it was your tax money that enriched Halliburton.  And now they are eager to invest your tax money into politicians who will give them more favors.  Tax breaks for them, and not for you; more bid free taxpayer money for further projects.  This one Halliburton example is amplified in hundreds of other ways.  A quick look at the top one hundred recipients of federal contracts shows that the top twenty are all defense contractors.  So what does this all mean?  It means the people who are not tied into this “network of economic and political interests” are being impoverished because an overwhelming percentage of their federal tax money is being funneled into funding the American Empire and all of its imperialist operations across the globe.  The majority is paying for the American Empire, while a few run away with the profits.  Any person who is tied into any of the social welfare programs that are being threatened in this country with more cuts has a serious stake in this debt-ridden game.  This includes teachers, social workers, police, fire-fighters, nurses, environmentalists, small-business owners, and students.  Countless teachers and social workers are having to accept pay cuts, or are losing their jobs because federal funding is drying up to fund the empire instead of these social programs.  Students are being driven further into debt from the rising costs of tuition at state universities because Federal subsidies and grants to states are drying up to fund imperial operations instead.

The chain of people negatively affected by empire could go on and on, but the point should be clear by now: The American Empire is bankrupting the people of this country.  Since the politicians and the mainstream media never even mentions that the U.S. is an empire, let alone honestly discusses with the public about the consequences of empire, is it any wonder why these “networks of economic and political interests” only seem to suggest that this country is going broke because of social programs at home?

So the real question that “We the People” need to start asking is: a Democratic-Republic or the American Empire?  Which one do you want?  Because you can’t have both.  And it would seem obvious that since Empire is creating more terrorism, eviscerating constitutional law, and bankrupting the people of this country that choosing the Republic and a return to the rule of law would be the intelligent thing to do.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Edemariam, Aida.  “The True Cost of War.”  The Guardian.  27 Feb. 2008

FedSpending.  “Top 100 Recipients of Federal Contract Awards for FY 2011” fedspending.org

Greenwald, Glenn.  “Federal court enjoins NDAA” Salon.com 16 May 2012

Harrison, Todd.  “Analysis of the FY 2011 Defense Budget.”  csbaonline.org

29 June 2010.

Johnson, Chalmers. Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire.

First Owl Books, 2001.

Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic New York. First Owl Books, 2005.

Madison, James.  “The Most Dreaded Enemy of Liberty.”  <www.fff.org/freedom/0893e.asp>

Mazetti, Mark.  “Spying Agencies Say Iraw War Worsens Terrorism.” The New York Times.  24 Sept. 2006.

Ritter, Scott.  “Is Iraq a True Threat to the U.S.”  The Boston Globe.  20 July 2002

Vine, David.   “The Lily-Pad Strategy: How the Pentagon Is Quietly Transforming Its Overseas Base Empire and Creating a Dangerous New Way of War.” Tomdispatch.com. 15 July 2012.

Wolin, Sheldon. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton University Press, 2008

Ideology Verses Objective Solutions in Healthcare – Part II (update)

Part II – A brief update on ACA.

The ACA has now been up and running for over a year, and I still stand by what I wrote over 2 years ago in Part I.  I left that essay with a… we’ll see how it all plays out.

So let’s take a brief look at how it is playing out.

Democrats are pointing out that costs are coming down for the first time in a long time.  They are also pointing out that millions and millions of people now have coverage for the first time.  It is a fact that the ACA is helping millions and millions of people. I can attest to this because it is helping me.  And I can imagine that anybody who was formerly denied insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition is incredibly happy today.

However, the part that the Democrats seem to ignore is that there are people who have been negatively affected.  There are reports of small business owners and middle-class folks who have seen large increases in their monthly premiums.  I have a few friends who are furious how much more they are now paying for their monthly premiums.  One of them may have to opt to go without insurance and pay the IRS fine, leaving his family worse off than before.  To make matters worse, the Democrats don’t seem to be addressing their voices, rather when this issue is brought up the Democrats deflect to all the stories of those it is helping.  It would behoove the Democrats to honestly address these voices because not all of the unhappy people are solidly Republican voters.

As for the Republicans, they don’t seem to want to admit that the ACA has, in fact, helped millions of people.  They have been continuously trying to undermine the ACA through congressional acts, and also through challenges to it through the judicial system, with zero regard for the people it has helped.  But, as is obvious, they do not have any solutions to replace it with something better.  Why?  Because their typical “market will solve everything” mentality does not work for the health care industry (for reasons already stated in Part I.)  But their opposition to the ACA is allowing them to win over the dissatisfied people to their side.  

Thus we can see that the Republicans and Democrats are still clinging to their ideology, or respective partisan loyalty positions, rather than seeking objective solutions for the health care issues in America.  So who will have the courage to say what is necessary: 1) the private insurance industry offers ZERO value to our society.  In fact, their business model creates a negative value to society by sucking money out of actual health care spending.  2) A medicare-for-all Part D plan is the solution.  We would save hundreds of billions of dollars per year and ensure that every single person has a basic Part D coverage.  And if you are doing well in life, then buy a private supplemental insurance plan.  A medicare-for-all system would not kill the private insurance companies, but it would certainly cut them down to size.  

But who cares!  We need a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt to bust up these “too big to fail” corporations down to size anyway.  And if you think Washington DC’s Revolving door, and the billions of dollars insurance companies have spent to rig the political system in their favor is a good thing… well, as the saying goes: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”


Yours truly,


Mark Olson

Ideology Verses Objective Solutions in Health Care

As the recent Supreme Court ruling came out partially in favor of the majority of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) an outbreak of debates and speculation spread across the media and into people’s everyday conversations.  There appear to be two main arguments being put forth.  The first comes from the Republicans who don’t want the government to interfere with the private sector and believe that only a market-based solution is the answer.  The second comes from the Democrats who believe that the private sector has failed to address the problems of health care access and that government needs to step in to regulate insurance companies.  However, is it possible that both parties are not honestly addressing the health care crisis because of their own ideological cant?

A basic understanding of economics shows us that a market-based approach to solving the health care crisis is not possible.  And a basic understanding of how the insurance companies operate shows us that banning bad insurance practices and forcing all U.S. citizens to buy their product may also not solve the health care crisis.  The unfortunate casualty of this ideological short-sightedness is all U.S. citizens because the best solution to the health care crisis, a medicare-for-all system, has been ignored in a rush to push ideology ahead of objective solutions.

The conservatives are upset about this bill because they would rather have the government stay out of health care and let the market solve everything.  But have they ever stopped to ask if the market is even capable of such a thing?  Empirical evidence has shown us that it is not a good way to deliver health care because that is not the market’s primary purpose – which is to maximize profits.  A research paper written by two leading public health policy experts, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein, has also provided evidence to show how the private health industry is increasing costs, and not decreasing costs like the theory suggests it should.

There are a few basic elements that are required for an efficient market to work properly.  In order for the producers to operate under conditions of perfect competition requires a rigorous set of conditions – perfect information, a uniform product, many sellers and buyers, and freedom of entry and exit.  All of these things support the basic idea that sellers are price takers, producing at the lowest possible cost in the long run and earning profits.  In the health care industry the number of sellers is limited and restricted, while the number of buyers is uncontrolled and could be considered almost infinite. Add to this fact is that buyers have no freedom of exit from the health care industry. For example: The buyer says, “Well, I disagree with how much you are charging for a heart bypass, so I’ll just skip on down the street to the next guy who is doing them for cheaper.”

The above elements, along with the massive lopsidedness of information, the monopoly power of hospitals, and the atypical nature of health care are all clear violations of the perfect competition requirements for the market to function as the theory suggests.  Furthermore, in a market the price is supposed to be established not by the buyers or sellers, but through a thing called market forces – supply and demand.  In the health care industry the market forces fail to institute either price or quantity because demand is price-inelastic.  So the market has failed to establish price and quantity and the health care providers have become price-makers.  This phenomenon in economic speak is called, market failure.  So why do Republicans continue to promote privatization of health care if the private market is failing?  Market reform is a nothing short of a joke because of the inherent non-market nature of this industry. And this is all before the insurance companies even step into the picture.

The inherent function of insurance companies is to maximize shareholder value and profits, and not provide health care, as their number one objective.  This basic understanding of the health insurance industry is why the Democrats believed it was necessary to curtail some of their worst abuses.  The New England Journal of Medicine published a research article by three public health policy experts that explains how thirty-one percent of health care spending in the United States is wasted on administrative costs.  To compare, the overhead cost of running the non-profit Medicare system is three percent.  Take a moment to think about that.  Thirty-one cents of every dollar is wasted on profits for insurance executives and shareholders, advertising and the bureaucratic mess of running a patchwork system of for-profit payers.  So why do the Democrats believe it is a good solution to force all U.S. citizens to buy insurance from a system that siphons so much money out of actual health care?

The Democrat’s argument claims the ACA bill is a step in the right direction because it regulates the insurance companies from engaging in bad practices.  Ending rescission policies, ending denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions, ending of lifetime caps, and expansion of Medicaid are all good things.  But what of price controls?   According to experts there are no price controls in the bill.  The idea that an insurance company can no longer deny customers insurance coverage because of pre-existing conditions is a great concept, but how great of a concept can it really be if there are no mechanisms in the bill to stop insurance companies from charging whatever they want for monthly premiums and co-pays?   To make matters worse, the ACA bill forces all of us to buy into this situation.

The curious fact about the ACA bill is that so few seem to know who actually wrote the bill.  It turns out the majority of the bill was written by Liz Fowler, a former Wellpoint insurance executive.  How comfortable should we all feel that the “solution” to our health care crisis was written by a person with an obvious conflict of interest?  Liz Fowler may be a credible expert in maximizing profits for insurance corporations, but she is definitely not an objective public health policy expert like those who run Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP).

The objective solution to our health care crisis is a basic medicare-for-all system, or a single-payer system as some call it.  A single-payer system is not socialized medicine; it is a non-profit financial mechanism run by the government.  After all, why is a middle-man corporate entity allowed to make billions in profits from the sick and dying?  The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) agrees that implementing this type of system would help solve spending problems and ensure universal coverage. The GAO stated: “If the universal coverage and single-payer features of the Canadian system were applied in the United States, the savings in administrative costs alone would be more than enough to finance insurance coverage for the millions of Americans who are currently uninsured.”  So why is the objective solutions coming from the GAO and PNHP ignored in favor of the solutions of an insurance policy expert?  This question and many more will definitely be things to think about as we watch how the ACA bill unfolds in our everyday lives.

Yours Truly,

Bloomberg, ALEC and Oligarchical Ponies

pony

 

George Orwell once wrote, “[T]he more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.” [1]  I keep thinking of Orwell’s wisdom when I read people accusing the Colorado Democrats of taking billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s campaign donations and then implementing “his” gun legislation in the Colorado legislature.
Now, I wouldn’t doubt if this claim were true.  I even think I saw some possible evidence of it back in the maelstrom of Colorado’s 2013 legislative session.  Plus, those who pay attention know full well that Bloomberg pushes for gun control legislation.  However, one of the interesting things about this claim is the misguided outrage that is placed on the issue here.  “Oh my God, the Democrats took an already drafted bill from an east coast billionaire and implemented it here in Colorado, word for word!  Stupid socialist, statist, communist, liberal, progressives can’t even think for themselves.”  As if the Democrats are the only ones who implement already drafted legislative bills from billionaires in other states.
Well, in fact, the Colorado Republicans do this too.  In the current legislative session there are four legislative bills that are near mirror image bills that originated from the ALEC organization, a think-tank funded by right-wing billionaires and major U.S. corporations.  For those who don’t know about ALEC read here and here.
For example: SB 15-039 is a bill that is sponsored by Republican Senator’s Cadman and Lambert.  This bill is copied, nearly word for word, from the ALEC’s long list of copy and paste bills.  In fact, this kind of copy and paste job would quickly get any student immediately kicked out of school for plagiarism.  Read for yourself and compare the bills: SB15-039 and ALEC’s Resolution on State and Political Subdivision Jurisdiction Act
A few days ago the Senate Republicans were debating the merits and reasons for Senator Balmer’s SB 15-101 – a bill about employee pay cards.  Here is the ALEC Electronic Pay Choice Act.  This bill is not copied word for word, but it is the exact idea that has been implemented in other states.  And this bill has even created problems in New York, so much so that the NY Attorney General launched an investigation into the pay card option.  
Now, I could go on about the other ALEC bills being pushed by the Colorado Republicans, like Senator Neville’s “Parental Bill of Rights” SB15-077, or Senator Cook and Sonneberg’s SB 15-092 on Carbon Emissions, but this would miss the point that I would actually like to make here.
Both the Bloomberg gun bills and ALEC bills are examples that clearly show why the latest study from Princeton political scientists is exactly right: the U.S. more closely resembles an Oligarchy rather than the often proclaimed “greatest democracy in the world.”  What the in-depth study by Professor Gilens and Professor Page discovered is that the vast majority of policy being implemented in the U.S. are what billionaires and influential corporations want, and not what the average citizen wants.  Thus, today’s heated debates surrounding policy issues such as environmental issues, economic issues, worker’s rights issues, etc, are being driven by the interests of oligarchs.
This is it, folks.  This is current state of our country.  Can it change?  Of course, and the hard task of reforming our campaign finance system comes to mind.  But if you are angered by Colorado Republican, who are simply implementing state legislation that is drafted by billionaires and corporations, or by Colorado Democrats who are implementing bills from billionaire Bloomberg, or taking money from Tom Steyer, make sure to appropriately direct your anger at the oligarchical political system that threw the average citizens overboard a long time ago.  Because, in all honesty, you just look like a silly partisan if you think that “the other” party is the only one doing these things.  Or in light of the Orwell quote above, you have no intellectual integrity.  Partisan hackery has a way of doing that to a person…
So go ahead and pick your oligarchical pony and buy into their proposed solutions for a better future.  Here is the list of the today’s most influential billionaires.  Some of them have the entire ‘we know what’s best for all of society’ package, and others are just pushing a few agendas; like Tom Steyer’s climate change agenda, or Bloomberg’s gun control, or Nick Hanauer’s $15 dollar minimum wage agenda.  And I hear even a few of these ponies have their own personalized re-written versions of history to make their image look squeaky clean (the Jeffco School Board knows a little bit about this.)  So get up on that pony!  Maybe even see if they will give you some extra cash for shilling for them, and ride off into the sunset believing it will pay off.  I’m sure your children will thank you for giving up on the idea of “We the People” and deciding to put your faith in the Oligarchs instead.

Sincerely yours,

Mark Olson
P.S. – I have no copy editor, nor do I swim in the donor pools who will give me money to shill for their interests.  Thus my perspective and any grammatical errors above are all mine.

[1] Orwell, George.  Why I Write, page 1084.