The War at Home
One of the more charming misconceptions we entertain about our political system is that our elected officials are working for us, the voting public. Because it is kept out of the spotlight, we forget where the money they needed to get elected comes from and what the reasons are for that money being there. Though we know we didn’t give it to them, we overlook those hundreds of thousands of dollars that show up in their campaign accounts. Yet everyone is aware of this money and the “yuk-up” message that goes with it, something like “Hey folks, we gotta take this to get the job, it’s for the good of the cause, etc. When we get sworn in, we’ll be working for you all the way.” Or maybe our wants and needs are the same as the corporations making the big donations; in that case this is working out pretty well.
But the fact remains that it’s a lot of money. Even way up here in Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski “needed” over a million dollars from energy companies alone to fund her reelection, and they keep right on giving. You don’t get much for a million dollars these days so the outfits that bought Lisa for that amount must feel pretty good when they see her energy proposals written on their behalf, decrying federal regulation of fracking, promoting drilling in ANWR, and overturning the Interior Department’s plan to set aside half of the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska for wildlife, to mention only a few.
I suppose any rational person might have trouble understanding how this kind of money could allow for a level playing field between these big donors and average constituent. Imagine you have a concern, say for instance a foreign energy company wants to open a strip mine in your ancestral home, right in the middle of the river your people have always depended on for water and fish, and you wanted the senator’s help in your fight to protect these things. Then imagine you are given an opportunity to present your case to her. In real life, of course, it is highly improbable you will ever get such an audience, but we’re imagining. Consider the differences presented by your mere single vote and the energy company’s contributions to her campaign fund. I think it would take a bit of incredible acting on the senator’s part to even pretend to listen to your concerns. To be fair, you might imagine yourself in her position; on the one hand is someone who may not even have voted for you, and on the other, the people who bought you the job. What would you do?
The writer Wendell Barry tells us that the great enemy of freedom today is the alignment of political power with wealth. This is happening because the alignment of wealth and power permits economic value to overturn value of any other kind. The value of everything is reduced to its market value. A thing not marketable has no value, even the argument against coal mines in salmon streams has been degraded to presenting conflicting ideas of what is more valuable, the salmon in the stream, or the coal. Little consideration is given to the needs and common good of the community living there. We have come to a time we cannot value things except by selling them, and that we think it acceptable, and indeed respectable, to sell anything and everything. This is understandable, money and financial interests are the only voice that makes it to the politician, and they are already beholding to these voices because of that money the energy companies “contributed” to them as candidates. This reduction of everything to financial considerations is something we were not taught, and never thought possible, back in our high school civics class.
We now have to accept that every other value we once took for granted is second to the dollar value. This includes people’s ancestral homes and landscapes, their history, drinking water, where their food comes from, their spiritual connections to place, and also the future of these things. Every pond, tundra lake, salmon stream, or anything else in the natural world exists only at the mercy of what may lie beneath it. They exist only until someone with more power than the people who live there comes to take it for their own purposes. The government that we created to protect these things and stand between our homes and those who would take them is now joined with the takers.
Let’s get back to your meeting with the senator, of course you can’t give her a million dollars, but you’re in a discussion where money is going to do the talking so what do you do? How many of you and your kind do you think you will need to equal that money? Does the idea of your ancestor’s home and burial grounds or your village’s clean water have a dollar value that can be converted into cash so you can give the senator some reason to hear you? Maybe the best you can ask for is a little honesty. At least tell the truth about how it’s done. Don’t say we’re going to take 300 feet of coal from under this stream and put it back in twenty five years and then put salmon back in it, that’s a lie. Just say we’re taking this part of your home because you don’t have the power to stop us. Someone has purchased that power ahead of you.
Mr. Barry thinks the answer to the present alignment of political power with wealth is the restoration of the identity of community and its economy. We should put our values into an order that gives our lives a quality that is balanced with the place we live. Government could help if it wanted to, it could end its collusion with the wealthy and the corporations and “special interests.” It could stand, as it’s supposed to, between wealth and power. It could assure the possibility that a poor person could hold office. It could understand that economic justice does not consist in giving the most power to the most money. He thinks we could restore our communities; a proper community is a commonwealth, a place, a resource, and an economy. A true community does not exclude or mistreat its members. This would help us restore our power and ability to involve ourselves in the decisions of our government, but Wendell is unbelievably optimistic sometimes. I think these are just dreams, for now, we’re still going backwards.
Here’s my thought, what if the communists and the jihadists aren’t the real threat to our democracy, what if the real threat to our way of life is politicians selling the power we give them to the highest bidder? If this is true, then all of the wars in Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan we can ever dream up won’t keep us safe. It’s not that we should ignore outside threats, but we kill more of each other with our own cars and guns than any terrorists could ever hope to, and yet we’re still here. We’re just a little distracted about where we stand in the fight.