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Tomgram: Bill Moyers, Covering Class War

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If you've heard the phrase "class war" in twenty-first-century America, the odds are that it's been a curse spat from the mouths of Republican warriors castigating Democrats for engaging in high crimes and misdemeanors like trying to tax the rich.  Back in 2011, for example, President Obama's modest proposal of a "millionaire tax" was typically labeled "class warfare" and he was accused by Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, of heading down the "class warfare path."  Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls blasted the president for encouraging "class warfare" by attacking entrepreneurial success. In the face of such charges, Democrats invariably go on the defensive, denying that they are in any way inciters of class warfare.  In the meantime, unions and the poor are blasted by the same right-wing crew for having the devastatingly bad taste to act in a manner that supposedly might lead to such conflict. 

In our own time, to adapt a classic line slightly, how the mighty have risen!  And that story could be told in terms of the fate of the phrase "class war," which deserves its Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart moment.  After all, for at least a century, it was a commonplace in an all-American lexicon in which "class struggle," "working class," and "plutocrat" were typical everyday words and it was used not to indict those on the bottom but the rich of whatever gilded age we were passing into or out of.  It was essentially purged from the national vocabulary in the economic good times (and rabidly anti-communist years) after World War II, only to resurface with the Republican resurgence of the 1980s as a way to dismiss anyone challenging those who controlled ever more of the wealth and power in America. 

It was a phrase, that is, impounded by Republicans in the name of, and in the defense of, those who were already impounding so much else in American life.  All you have to do is take a look at recent figures on income and wealth inequality, on where the money's really going in this society, to recognize the truth of Warren Buffet's famed comment: "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."

Recently, Bill Moyers (who needs no introduction) gave a speech at the Brennan Center in New York City in which he laid out what class warfare really means in this society.  The first appearance of the host of Moyers & Company at TomDispatch is a full-throated call to save what's left of American democracy from -- another of those banned words that should come back into use -- the plutocrats.  Tom

The Great American Class War
Plutocracy Versus Democracy
By Bill Moyers

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document.  By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and -- in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular -- the defense of a free press.

Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the country.  He claimed that he never took personally the resentment and anger directed at him.  He did, however, subsequently reveal that his own mother told him she had always liked his opinions when he was on the New Jersey court, but wondered now that he was on the Supreme Court, "Why can't you do it the same way?" His answer: "We have to discharge our responsibility to enforce the rights in favor of minorities, whatever the majority reaction may be."  

Although a liberal, he worried about the looming size of government. When he mentioned that modern science might be creating "a Frankenstein," I asked, "How so?"  He looked around his chambers and replied, "The very conversation we're now having can be overheard. Science has done things that, as I understand it, makes it possible through these drapes and those windows to get something in here that takes down what we're talking about." 

That was long before the era of cyberspace and the maximum surveillance state that grows topsy-turvy with every administration.  How I wish he were here now -- and still on the Court!

My interview with him was one of 12 episodes in that series on the Constitution.  Another concerned a case he had heard back in 1967.  It involved a teacher named Harry Keyishian who had been fired because he would not sign a New York State loyalty oath.  Justice Brennan ruled that the loyalty oath and other anti-subversive state statutes of that era violated First Amendment protections of academic freedom. 

I tracked Keyishian down and interviewed him.  Justice Brennan watched that program and was fascinated to see the actual person behind the name on his decision.  The journalist Nat Hentoff, who followed Brennan's work closely, wrote, "He may have seen hardly any of the litigants before him, but he searched for a sense of them in the cases that reached him."  Watching the interview with Keyishian, he said, "It was the first time I had seen him.  Until then, I had no idea that he and the other teachers would have lost everything if the case had gone the other way." 

Toward the end of his tenure, when he was writing an increasing number of dissents on the Rehnquist Court, Brennan was asked if he was getting discouraged. He smiled and said, "Look, pal, we've always known -- the Framers knew -- that liberty is a fragile thing.  You can't give up."  And he didn't.

The Donor Class and Streams of Dark Money

The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate.  "The abuse of buying and selling votes," he wrote of Rome, "crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections.  Later on, this process of corruption spread in the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors."

We don't have emperors yet, but we do have the Roberts Court that consistently privileges the donor class.  

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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