mmmkk Letters to the Ethical Spectacle

Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

New York City is a strange dream. I'm working these days on West 38th street in the garment district of Manhattan. The day begins with a long walk down the platform of the 34th street subway station: the filthy concrete spotted with gobs of chewing gum; the steel drummer, with his Harlem Wizards T-shirt, slowly chiming the notes of Battle Hymn of the Republic. The faces, in repose, emanate light, reflect light, radiate darkness: Yeatsian vanity of sleep, hope, dream and endless desire. Above the stairs is a weird mosaic of a happy bear, friendly deer and cheerful birds; surrounded by a fresco of raised lizards. In the street above, eight roller bladers dressed as purple butterflies, a promotion for the Microsoft Network. Thirty-eighth street alternates dotcoms, sweatshops, and stores selling sewing machines. There is a window-full of devices manufactured in Asia: a hand-held cloth cutter proclaims on the box, in best Asian advertising-speak: "As if a jumped jaguar...." Then the vanity of day and dollar.

New York is a spectacle, but its not a community. I get that here, through your email. I can be reached, as always, at --Jonathan Wallace

Democracy and Illusion
Dear Mr. Wallace:

If you really think this "country has done very well by property", you need to look at As to democracy, I'll take the side of Patrick Henry, as in "give me liberty, or give me death."

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Your recent articles on our American democracy are insightful, even inspiring, insofar as they call upon us to recreate the ideal of the Athenian political community here in the United States. Unfortunately, your high-level positive thrust is offset by a lower level negative emphasis on "illusion" and "stupidity." The "offset" is similar to many other journalistic treatments on politics and government. These are frequently and primarily negative to the extent that they serve to reduce the likelihood of the 98% of Americans who are not big money contributors making the only contribution they can truly afford -- time -- by participating in the political process.

All that mainly counts in life, politics and livelihoods are values and resources. The main resources we need to honor our values are time and money. Democracy is the value you address but the only resource you point to is money. Isn't it ironic? -- that someone who deplores the influence of money in politics would seem so pre-occupied with money? The same mistake is made by the advocates of campaign finance reform. The only significant contributions that non-rich Americans can make don't count. The main antidote to money is time. If people don't volunteer time, money rules, and "our" political system is not ours, it's someone else's.

The antidote you suggest to the decline of Democracy is the value itself, as if it could somehow "spread like a virus" by itself. Values are meaningless or, at least, fail to "spread," without real commitments of time by real people acting to fulfill them. There are only two concrete propositions to come out of your "Illusion" in the way of recommendations for action by others: (1) "throw all the bastards out" and (2) "Net presence." (1) reminds me of my father, who never took any part in the political life of his community. He would say: "throw the bums out" or "take them all out and shoot them" -- clarion calls of political alienation.

Your (2) resonates with those who think that "digital democracy" will save our political hides. Given that the main political benefit of the Internet is to enable those who think alike to be in touch, there is more danger than promise in relying upon 'Net presence.' The 'Net may help to create a "mob" if people move from their desktops to the streets without any intermediate efforts to interact with those who don't agree with them in person-to-person settings like the local political committees and clubs that you apparently disdain.

See Heinlein's TAKE BACK YOUR GOVERNMENT: A Practical Handbook for the Private Citizen Who Wants Democracy to Work." You'll see that the "Chelsea Independent Democrats," like the Southeastern (MA) Republican Club and many other, similar local organizations populating the political landscape of America, are essential parts of the antidote to money in politics. Even more important, participation in such groups may be a major antidote to the most virulent "virus" damaging our Democracy -- cynicism.

As for other values featured in your articles, intelligence and truthfulness, you sell the former long and the latter short. What about "multiple intelligences"? What about the wisdom that comes only from experience? My own experience in public life suggests that there is a low correlation between intelligence and wisdom, or between cognitive intelligence and common sense.

Finally, as we approach the Presidential election, I can't help but wonder how you are going to vote. You denigrate Bush for "stupidity" but your prime example of both un-truthfulness and abuse of campaign finance is Gore. As Charles Handy has written, we live in an "Age of Paradox," so we all have to learn how to live with our contradictions. Good luck. After the election, you might try to find a local political club or committee where you can begin to act like an Athenian democrat (at least small "d" variety). Then make a New Year's resolution that you'll become a participant in the political process, helping to take back the system for all of us, not just another carping member of the so-called "commentariat." Or try to lead the way for others in this spirit through your editorship of THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE.

After all, that is probably how you can best "make a difference," which is all any of us concerned with the health of American democracy are trying to do. We need your help.

Thank you and best regards,

Member of the Gloucester City Republican Committee and sometime contributor to your fine 'Net periodical.

Dear Jonathan,

I'm responding to Peter Bearse's letter to the Ethical Spectacle [included below] prior to its publication because Peter was kind enough to forward it to me for comment. He and I have conducted an ongoing sporadic discussion of American politics for about a year, and his letter seems to be a fair summation of the major themes of his arguments. Peter and I have agreed to disagree on many of the details. As it turns out the devil is in the details, so here are my comments.

On his central thesis, that democracy survives or perishes depending on the level of personal involvement and commitment exerted by citizens, we agree. It seems almost a tautology. And so it might seem an unassailable argument that the best cure for what ails democracy is for each of us to become active in committees and boards and clubs of a political nature in our communities. I admire Peter's enthusiasm for "little 'd'" democracy in the Athenian spirit, but I will argue with the devils haunting his details. While it may be true that the mechanisms of democracy are rather simple and even formally accessible, the parasitic machinations of a certain class of "special interests" have evolved so dramatically as to infest the body politic to the end of institutionalizing advantages and power superceding that of the sovereign citizenry. It is because of the predatory nature of democracy's parasites that its survival is in doubt.

I will be specific. In the nascency of American democracy its goals and the practical mechanisms for its enactment were outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Although James Madison proposed a provision for the national chartering of corporations as temporary legal constructs to be granted limited privileges, the idea was rejected by the founding fathers, and the term "corporation" appears nowhere in the Constitution. It was, by omission, left to the states to charter and regulate corporations. Much has happened in the ensuing years.

When we look for American democracy today, we must remark that its infrastructure is defined by corporate priorities, and its sinews are flexed by corporate will to the near exclusion of the desires and needs of living, breathing citizens. From the local school board to the federal regulatory commission, corporate business representatives insinuate themselves into politics in order to serve the interests of corporations and not communities. Public discourse (the media) as well as elections (funding and promoting candidates) are mediated by corporations, as are medicine, culture, trade, foreign affairs and agriculture.

I understand how controversial it is to criticize the engines of capital in this super-corporatized chimera of politics and industry we call American democracy. But I think it is useless to discuss the cure for democracy's discontents without understanding their causes and the power those causes have over the mechanisms through which we are encouraged to effect a cure. And I reject the easy accusation of dementia or paranoia leveled against serious critics of the current arrangement. It is not an embrace of conspiracy theory to accept the evidence of observation and experience that flesh and blood citizens have fewer rights than corporations. And I here openly accept as wisdom what may seem the 'stupidity' and psychosis of alarmists, whose number include Thomas Jefferson. In 1816 he wrote to a friend:

"I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

And I embrace the "illusion" that terrorized Abraham Lincoln when he wrote in 1864: "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war."

In 1886 Supreme Court Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite unilaterally gave corporations constitutional rights as "persons" protected by the provisions of the 14th amendment. It is a Frankenstein story for which no happy ending has yet been composed, and the neighborhood of American democracy continues to be terrorized. So I ask: how do we bring to bear upon the political system what Peter says is the single resource available to un-monied citizens so that politics can become the mechanism through which their will is realized? How do we create Democracy out of the element of time, the only tool left to citizens, according to Peter Bearse?

He says it is a mistake for us to concentrate on limiting the power of money in the political process. But this is one of those bedeviling details that require an exorcism of our habitual stupidity in order for us to remove ourselves from the illusions and superstitions about money and society and politics. Peter suggests that the value of Democracy itself is not a real thing, and can not proliferate on its own. Only the time devoted by the citizen and the money expended by the opponents of democracy are real, apparently. Peter refers to these as "resources" with more efficacy in politics than ideals like Democracy. But if the will to self governance in the abstract is ineffectual, there really are compelling illusions and superstitions that drive and sustain the current arrangement that passes itself off as democracy.

As I see it, the money that is used by the powerful in opposition to the inclination toward liberty among un-monied citizens is pooled by a process of abstraction. Think of it as "wealth mining," if you will. Labor is converted into portable power by the semantic and symbolic creation of what is called "money." And money is pooled and centralized into the hands of a powerful few.

With due respect to Peter's good intentions, to ask those being bludgeoned by the club they painstakingly fashioned for their "betters" to beat them ask them to work a little harder and longer to gain their very own scrap of the left-overs is not the kind of political advice embraced warmly by defenders of people-run societies. I hope he understands what I am saying here.

The illusions about political reality are owned and groomed by those we think of as "in the know." The belief that stunning profits can be ethically neutral or even virtuous, and that fabulous wealth can be accumulated without exploitation are enpowering myths for the "entrepreneurial class" (as George W. Bush called them in the second GOP primary debate).

To believe that wealth can be "created" by strategic investment is the kind of "Voodoo Economics" that the elder Bush conjured when he applied the term to Ronald Reagan's "trickle down" theory and his policy of cutting taxes to decrease the deficit. It seems clear that any addition to the value of human material exchange is created through the labor and effort of human beings. Any scheme to siphon away and concentrate the value created by that effort into a smaller number of hands than the number that created the value is simply the upward redistribution of wealth and a scheme to defraud. And any voodoo economics that fails to subtract from so-called profits the costs created through pollution and production-side introduction of human illness and misery is guilty of malfeasance and double-ledger accounting.

A combination of stupidity and illusion has been nurtured to perpetuate the docility and disengagement of citizens who, if they awoke from their subsidized lethargy, might take charge and harness the corporate parasite in such a way that a symbiosis and not a pathology could exist where democracy and industry intersect.

I am skeptical that digital democracy has much to recommend itself to the revolution that must occur if we are to win back democracy. But it seems to hold some promise as a tool to sustain it, once democracy is re-established. In the meantime it will be used by those with common interests, perhaps to assemble what Peter refers to as "mobs" in the street, who will have eschewed face-to-face conflict resolution in favor of reactionary confrontation. But if by this Peter means to refer to the internet exchanges that assembled the Battle in Seattle, the IMF and World Bank protests in Washington, D.C., the Unity 2000 events in Philadelphia in tandem with the Republican Convention, and the continuing efforts of the world democracy movement (in Melbourne, Prague, and elsewhere), then I think he has misread and ill understood those events and this movement. At the same time, while democracy may not have been digitalized, populism has. And that's a start.

Not to say stupidly (for he is well-educated), but perhaps through some persistent illusion, Peter continues to pursue a simplistic solution to the disenfranchisement of people's sovereignty and the enthronement of corporate money power. His solution, in real terms, seems to boil down to this: accept it and become a part of it. Lend it your time, your energy, your commitment. And try not to notice its paradoxes and contradictions. They aren't going away any time soon.

I know Peter has done a lot of thinking about these things. I respectfully suggest that he follow his own advice regarding wisdom and common sense. Put away the books, skip a few international conferences, and talk to the people. Perhaps the cynicism he sees as the most virulent "virus" damaging our Democracy will be understood as the healthy grimace of a community being force-fed Solient Green, which is meant to induce citizens to lay golden eggs for their oppressors. Volunteer work in the slaughter house is not the answer to reclaiming democracy, no matter how you package the sausage.

Ben Price

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Once again, RIGHT ON BRO!

I think it is far past time for me too to warm up my soapbox again on, basically, this same issue. With apologies for the hyperbole ... all this instant, global communication presents an opportunity unprecedented in the history of the planet, to extend that Athenian forum to, quite literally, everyone. That was the general theme of those diatribes that I had been writing to my congressional delegation .. "Campaign finance reform is going after the wrong problem - you should be worrying about what they DO with the money (i.e. government by advertising) than where it comes from. ... free media of all kinds ..." ... ad nauseum.

Dr. Arthur Ross

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Mr. Wallace states that Mr. Bush is not qualified to be president. However, other than a "personal feeling," he states no reasons for this belief other than personal anecdotes about other people he has known and then stating that Mr. Bush reminds him of these people. Not a terribly well designed argument. Furthermore, considering the rather spotty educational record of Mr. Gore, Mr. Wallace's argument comes across as extremely partisan and therefore loses a lot of credibility. My personal "belief" is that Mr. Bush is quite intelligent. I have heard an argument on the net often that Harvard "gives away MBA's" to anyone who can pay for one. That is absolutely not true. I understand Mr. Gore's difficulty with law school. As a 3L at Georgia Law, I found the first year very difficult also and barely managed a 3.0 that first year. Nevertheless, I still feel that Mr. Gore is intellectual enough to be president. In fact, in my lifetime (1963), I can't think of a single major-party presidential candidate (or VP candidate for that matter...yes, Dan Quayle included) that wasn't very intelligent.

Mr. Wallace is correct is pointing to stupidity, but the stupidity is in the electorate. Asked whether they want lower taxes or more programs, most Americans would answer yes....and yes. Even the polls point this trend out. The recent flip-flopping of the "undecided" vote is a very good example. Mr. Bush with a large lead, Mr. Gore catches him and passes him, and finally they settle back to the middle. How can anything these men have recently said or done realistically change one's mind to that extent? I attribute it to the "bandwagon" effect. The 25 percent or so of the American electorate that vote like they root for an NFL team. They pull for the winner. They want to be able to say they voted for the winner, no matter who that may be.

As for "compassion," I am proud to say that I don't want a compassionate government, unless that means a government that is extremely less intrusive, both socially and fiscally. And if that makes me "greedy," so be it. To be honest, the proposals that Mr. Gore has recently trotted out would probably be very helpful to me personally at the moment. However, I find it morally and ethically reprehensible to take property from others just because I may "need" that property. In the private sector, that's called robbery/theft (or corporate welfare). The only reasonable argument that I can find for welfare is the "revolution insurance" argument; that we provide the poor with enough to insure that they don't revolt. And to be perfectly honest, this seems like a good investment to me. However, to turn to government to solve all of society's ills is both ridiculous and ineffective.

Do we need 100,000 more federally-funded teachers? No. We need to make sure that our teachers know what they're doing. The resistance to testing teachers is absolutely absurd. That they endeavor in an under-appreciated field is no excuse to insist that they are qualified to do their job. Furthermore, our insistence that we teach to the "lowest common denominator" is indefensible. At some point, students must be "tracked" in order to give those going to college or into a blue-collar profession or elsewhere the necessary tools to be effective. Additionally, our schools labor under a 50+ year old model that is no longer feasible. If we're going to insist that all schools be "wired," the best use of this technology appears to be the insistence that students receive and complete rudimentary assignments at home (or in the library) and complete these assignments outside the classroom so that the class time can be spent honing specialized skills that are necessary in today's workplace. Using the net in the class so that students can visit pretty little sites that lack any real substance is useless and counter-productive. Schools need help, but the help they need seems to be in organization and community involvement, not throwing good money after bad.

Do we need "universal healthcare?" No. The problems that many seem to feel plague the "HMO" system would be exacerbated by a government run HMO: restricted services, low-balling services, over-billing, etc. Americans need to be taught that healthcare is a service that they must plan for, rather than a "right" that can be exacted from society under the banner of "compassion." Healthcare is one of the areas that would most suffer under the "free-rider" problem. Healthcare is a limited resource that must be allocated in a way that compensates those providing it under a market system. If those that want a "universal healthcare" system desire a voluntary deduction from their paychecks in order to participate, fine, I'm all for it. But to force everyone to participate is another "lowest common denominator" problem. Again, if this sounds "uncompassionate," so be it.

Everyone will not get equal amounts of all the things people desire in life. This is a fact. Equality of opportunity? Sure, to a point. Many people will have to work considerably harder to get the same result. All men are NOT created equal. Some are inherently smarter, faster, have better personalities, or more "drive." Equality of outcome? Certainly NOT. But furthermore, we can't insist that everyone have to expend the same amount of resources to reach the same goal. It's highly unrealistic, and it ignores that hard, cold fact that some are born better prepared.

Thanks for the audience, had to get a few things off my chest.


Hi Jon,

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner.

Regards, Matt Gaylor

Dear Jonathan:

A good article and I agree with just about all of it. Especially insightful is the observation that independent judges, as a rule, will eventually disappear from the landscape.

I do, however, have to ask one question. You quote Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy: about participation.

Then you say: "I find that very beautiful. I would like to live somewhere like it, and in return would be willing to front all the necessary risks. What we have called democracy in this country never came anywhere near what Athens had."

I will ask you, How many of your local Town Council meetings have you attended? How often do you go now? How would you manage a meeting like you propose in, say, Manhattan?

I will suggest there is only one way to try to get back to democracy. And that's with Term Limits. Like you I once thought they would give too much control to an entrenched bureaucracy, and needed long tenured seasoned electeds to control the Bureaucrats and Corporations. But it turns out the B's & C's still have the control and what the pols do is "make peace" with them.

With a two consecutive terms limit, nothing would stop the pol from seeking a different office in between terms if he/we wanted him to stay in govt, nor seeking a third term as long as never served consecutively more than two terms in any particular elected office.

Along with term limits we need campaign finance reform that says "Contributions may only be made by INDIVIDUALS (no corporations or PACS or Parties or any other "legal" artifice) who legally reside in the affected district." There should be no limit on what any individual can contribute but he can only contribute to ONE candidate per election in a district. (To prevent buying a local or county election, for example, by contributing to all the candidates.) And of course there needs to be full public and timely (say within 3 days of receipt) disclosure of all contributors on the Internet and/or local newspapers. Anonymous contributions would be illegal to accept.

As always, I enjoy your site.

Gösta Lovgren

The Death Penalty
Dear Jonathan:

I am grateful that you have written about this extremely troubling case. I see, from search results, that The New York Times wrote about the execution of James Beathard in June, but I haven't retrieved that article yet.

A couple years ago, I helped an anti-death penalty group in Texas, and redesigned its Web site. Gene Hathorn is highly regarded by death penalty opponents, and has fans all over the world, including France and Ireland. I received a copy of his book, which was a good read full of anecdotes about many prisoners on death row, and the extreme abuse that many prisoners suffered as children. Later, Hathorn told me that all the stories of childhood abuse were not those of other prisoners; the stories were his alone.

Hathorn wrote to me a few times since I advertised his book on my own site, and I wrote a review on the Barnes & Noble site.

I could never learn the particulars of his case from DP opponents, but I had a hunch that there was more to the story. One night, I hunted in the Dallas Morning News archives, and paid to read an old, old article -- dated 1984, I think -- that told how Hathorn had lied, sending Beathard to death row. I seem to recall that Beathard was described as a simple, naive person.

I also found an old editorial in the News that recommended that Beathard get a new trial.

After reading all this, I was stunned. I too felt betrayed by those who glossed over Hathorn's crime and omitted his betrayal of Beathard, instead hailing him as an exemplary man, a writer, a fine father, and a person worthy of intense campaigns.

I am opposed to the death penalty but troubled that Hathorn became the darling of DP opponents while Beathard died, seemingly ignored.

I don't understand why some prisoners get a date for an execution sooner than others -- why Hathorn remains alive, with no date set for his execution, while Beathard was executed last December.

We just moved, and while unpacking, I found some of Gene's letters and articles that he sent me. I wish I could find one word about Beathard.

I enjoyed your piece, and was please also to discover the Web site for Spectacle, which looks like an interesting magazine.


Good Morning

My name is Tracy Carothers Demps and I simply wanted to write you a note of thanks for your effort prior and since the execution of my Husband Bennie Demps. It has taken me quite some time to see and realize the numbers of people who made an effort for saving his life and I found your site this morning. Once again, I'm very appreciative.

I am, T. Carothers Demps

An Auschwitz Alphabet
Dear Mr. Wallace:

Good morning. I'm writing in appreciation of your work, the Auschwitz Alphabet. It embodies a trio of virtues, being concise, scholary, and wise all at once.

My own family history is intermeshed with the Second World War, and often I reactively cringe at the smug odes to the honor and sanctity of what is marked the 'last good war'. In fact, I'm tempted to type a barrage of profanity now in response to the current view that WWII was worthy because it solidified the US's role as a true world power.

I have Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German, and Italian roots, most of which I know scant little of. My mother was born in a German camp for friendly 'displaced persons', my great-uncle died on the Russian front as a Lithuanian in Nazi armbands. Your site complements and enriches my own (admittedly less-thorough) research on the Holocaust, and my reason for rambling about my ancestry is only to say this:

Works like yours, balanced and honest, can sever ties of inhibition, resentment, and hatred. When I question my aged grandfather, dazed as he is, and ask, "What about Vilnius?" and he mashes his gums and says, "I had a Jew neighbor, such a good man," then looks away, end of conversation, I can approach some faint understanding, if not of him, then of his and my sick world. While forgiveness isn't mine to give, nor maybe even his to take, it is peace that is elusive -- and, maybe, a transient kind of peace can be earned through knowledge.

So, thank you for your efforts in the pursuit of knowledge (in this and any other, the clarity of your writing attests to a roving mind), and also thank you for humoring my early-morning musings.


Dear Mr. Wallace:

I'm not sure if your the person who wrote the review of Schindler's List that I found on your Website but if you are not I would like to know who did. Your opinion of this movie is incomprehensible to me. To suggest that the scene with the girl in the red-coat is either conciously or unconciously racist is unbelievably self righteous and race sensitive. Even if the purpose was only to highlight her so that we could notice her later among the dead it would nto be because "people can't tell the difference between one Jew and another", it would be because there are hundreds of people in the moive in very crowded and confusing scenes. Were you watching the moive looking for a reason to be offended?

There was a different prupose, to show Schindler first seeing the humanity of the Jews as and the horror of what was happening as he notices a little girl lost among the terror and confusion and later finds her dead.

And why critisize Speilberg because Schindler is portrayed at times as veiwing his Jews as his property or pets. He probably did feel this way at times, not a good attitude, but not Spielbergs fault. Again, were you looking for a reason to be offended?

The fact that Oscar Schindler was so rare and unique a person in the scope of the holocaust makes him all the more worthy to be examined. And telling his story does not make Spielbergs depiction of the holocaust any weaker or less true. The point of the moive was not to show how the holocaust affected one person or one family but to show the senslessness and severity of it as a whole and tell the story of a mysterious, confusing, and remarkable man.

What is dishonest about the powerful scenes where a Jewish worker recycling the luggage of Jews sent to death camps is given a bag full of human teeth to extract the gold from, as Ralph Fiennes character arbitrarily shoots Jews from his rooftop because they are faceless to him or his confusion and turmoil as he confronts his maid about his love for her as a woman and his hate for her as a Jew. We see the kind of attitude and beliefs that let the holocaust take place reflected in him.

You critisize the film for it's lack of realism and honesty but it is just these qualities that make it so superb. Speilberg does not sentimentalize or emotionalize the events of the holocaust as making it the story of one family or man would do. He depicts the events, nothing more.

Eric Page