Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
I confess. I'm a Nero Wolfe junkie, and have been for over 30 years. And, like Nero Wolfe's creator, Rex Stout (1886-1975), I have an extensive FBI file, having been considered a "troublemaker" back in my late-1960s SDS days in East Lansing, Michigan and San Francisco, California, just as he was when he agitated against the Republican establishment in the early 1940s in favor of stopping fascism in Europe. Both of us faced the Executive Branch of government before it was restrained in the post-Watergate era.
Rex Stout - who'd had a varied enough career to qualify for the label of ADD (from being an officer on Teddy Roosevelt's boat to starting a school banking system that made him rich) - created, in 1939, the character Nero Wolfe, one of history's most famous private detectives. Wolfe weighs "a seventh of a ton"; lives in a brownstone in Manhattan populated by himself, his number-two Archie Goodwin, his private chef Fritz Brenner, and Theodore Horstmann, who takes care of the 10,000 orchids in the greenhouse on the top floor; and never leaves his house on business (and rarely for any other reason). He's brilliant, eccentric, and a character that only American pop literature could produce.
One of the most widely published authors of the era from 1940 to 1990 (and still in print in who knows how many languages), Rex Stout finally reached a breaking point in his private war with J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s. Every year literally millions of Americans awaited the publication of the next Nero Wolfe novel, and in 1965 he didn't disappoint, with "The Doorbell Rang," my recommended book this month. In this novel, Stout did the unthinkable in 1965 - he tweaked J. Edgar Hoover's nose and made fools of the FBI. He also shows us today what life was like in America before Executive Branch power was restrained by the post-Watergate Church Committee investigations and the legislation that followed to reign it in.
When Dick Cheney said, a week or so ago, that all Bush was trying to do by ignoring the law requiring a warrant for wiretaps, was to recover some of the rightful power that the Executive Branch lost during the post-Nixon era, he was talking about the exact behaviors examined in this novel. What Rex Stout does in "The Doorbell Rang" is show what life was like when such unrestrained executive and police power was the rule, not the illegal exception.
It also gives us a glimpse into the United States when the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent for millionaires, a category that Nero Wolfe usually hit, being the world's most famous and expensive private detective. Thus, when a client shows up at his door asking for his help in stopping the FBI from harassing her - a job Wolfe finds intriguing but also "impossible" - and puts a check for $100,000 on his desk as a non-refundable down-payment (over $600,000 in today's money), Wolfe was faced with a dilemma. He hated to work, but had to pay for the house and the other three men who lived in it. And it was January, so the income wouldn't be heavily taxed - and could keep the household afloat well into the summer.
And then there was the job. When Wolfe asked the prospective client - a very wealthy middle-aged widow - if Hoover was actually hurting her, she replied:
"No. He's merely annoying me. Some of my associates and personal friends are being questioned - discreetly, of course, careful excuses, of course. It started about two weeks ago. I think my phones were tapped about ten days ago. My lawyers say there is probably no way to stop it, but they are considering it. They are one of the biggest and best firms in New York, and even they are afraid of the FBI! They disapprove; they say it was 'ill-advised' and 'quixotic,' my sending the books [that were critical of J. Edgar Hoover, to over 10,000 politicians and newspapers from coast to coast]." She curled her fingers over the chair arms. "Now he's annoying me and I want him stopped. I want you to stop him."
Wolfe shook his head. "Preposterous."
She reached to the stand at her elbow for her brown leather bag, opened it, took out a checkfold and a pen, opened the fold on the stand, no hurry, and wrote, the stub first, with care. Methodical. She tore the check out, got up and put it on Wolfe's desk, and returned to the chair. "That fifty thousand dollars," she said, "is only a retainer. I said there would be no limit."
Wolfe didn't even give the check a glance. "Madam," he said, "I am neither a thaumaturge nor a dunce. If you are being followed, you were followed here, and it will be assumed that you came to hire me. Probably another has already arrived to start surveillance of this house; if not it will be started the instant there is any indication that I have been ass enough to take the job." His head turned. "Archie. How many agents have they in New York?"
"Oh." I pursed my lips. "I don't know, maybe two hundred. They come and go."
He went back to her. "I have one. Mr. Goodwin. I never leave my house on business. It would --"
"You have Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather."
Ordinarily it would have touched him, her rattling off their names like that, but not then. "I wouldn't ask them to take the risk," he said. "I wouldn't expect Mr. Goodwin to take it. Anyway, it would be futile and fatuous. You say 'stop him.' You mean, I take it, compel the FBI to stop annoying you?"
"I don't know."
"Nor do I." He shook his head. "No, madam. You invited it, and you have it. I don't say that I disapprove of your sending the books, but I agree with the lawyers that it was quixotic. The don endured afflictions; so must you. They won't keep it up forever, and, as you say, you're not a congressman or a drudge with a job to lose. But don't send any more books."
She was biting her lip. "I thought you were afraid of nobody and nothing."
"Afraid? I can dodge folly without backing into fear."
"I said no other man alive could do it."
"Then you're in a box."
She got her bag and opened it, took out the checkfold and pen, wrote again, the stub first as before, stepped to his desk and picked up the first check and replaced it with the new one, and returned to the chair.
"That hundred thousand dollars," she said, "is merely a retainer. I will pay all expenses. If you succeed, your fee, determined by you, will be in addition to the retainer. If you fail, you will have the hundred thousand."
He leaned forward to reach for the check, gave it a good look, put it down, leaned back, and closed his eyes. Knowing him, I knew what he was considering. Not the job; as he had said, it was preposterous; he was looking at the beautiful fact that with a hundred grand in the till on January fifth he would need, and would accept, no jobs at all for the rest of the winter, and the spring, and even into the summer. He could read a hundred books and propagate a thousand orchids. Paradise. A corner of his mouth twisted up; for him it was a broad grin. He was wallowing. That was okay for half a minute, a man has a right to dream, but when it got to a full minute I coughed, loud.
Thus begins part of the first chapter of "The Doorbell Rang."
Rex Stout was an early advocate for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and for an early entry into WWII to stop fascism in Europe. In 1941, he started a radio program, "Speaking of Liberty," in which he promoted the idea of world peace - after Hitler was stopped.
In 1942, Stout even published a collection of mostly-Republican speeches by members of the House and Senate, each arguing that we should "leave Hitler alone" and "stay out of the problems of Europe." This book, titled "The Illustrious Dunderheads" because it so clearly showed the idiocy (and, often, the fascistic and/or anti-Semitic leanings) of that day's mostly Republican legislators, is now a collectors item and out of print. Combined with Stout's later support for the United Nations, it earned him the harassment of the FBI and the hatred of its boss, J. Edgar Hoover, who went so far as to put Stout on his "private enemies list."
Stout assumed the presidency of "The Society of the Prevention of World War II" and was chairman - for over 20 years - of the "Writer's Board For World Government," which convinced Hoover that he must be an enemy of capitalism and all things American.
But with the singular exception of this one 1965 novel, Stout never carried his politics into his fiction - instead he relentlessly entertained millions of readers who enjoy a good murder mystery.
Sometimes we all need to take a break and just be entertained. To be entertained and informed is doubly fun.
If you hate fiction, pick up a copy of Kevin Phillips nonfiction masterpiece "Wealth and Democracy" and have at it.
But if you're looking for a few hours of escape, and want to discover a character who will illuminate for you life in New York from the late 1930s through the mid-1970s (the books paint brilliant portraits of their respective times - the city ages, but the characters never do), start your Nero Wolfe odyssey with "The Doorbell Rang" today. If you like it, there are over 50 other Nero Wolfe stories to keep you going.
PS. When you're done reading the Wolfe books, pick up John D. MacDonald's "Travis McGee" series. He carries on the vision - in a very different way - of an America where you can still be eccentric and nonconformist without being considered an enemy of the state. When you finish those, go for James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series. Stout and MacDonald are both dead, but Burke is probably the finest fiction writer alive in America today, and his politics are every bit as progressive as were Stout's and MacDonald's.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
The story we're told about the human race is that our population was relatively stable for over a hundred thousand years, then slowly grew to around a quarter-billion about the time of Christ. A thousand years later, deep in the "dark ages," it hit around a half-billion. And, finally, in 1800, we hit our first one billion humans.
From there, our population exploded like cockroaches in a dirty New York apartment. Two billion by 1930. Three billion in 1960. Four billion in 1974. Five billion in 1987. Six billion around 2000. The human race has run amok on the planet, we're told, and nobody's sure why.
But there's a fundamental flaw in this story -- it's not the story of the human race. There are many cultures -- indeed, thousands -- around the world whose populations have been relatively stable for the past 50,000 years. (Most are now in decline, in fact, because of pressure from the rest of us.) The story of the population explosion isn't the story of the human race, it's the story of a single culture -- our "modern" culture of written language, agriculture, mechanism, and written law.
So what do those other cultures know that we've missed? How did they manage to live on the earth -- and included among "them" are all of our ancestors -- for over 100,000 years without nearly destroying the planet? How are their stories of what it means to be human different from ours? And why, for those of us of European ancestry, can't we find or remember the stories of our own ancestors from as recently as 4000 years ago in Europe?
A frequent comment made by people on message boards that deal with questions like this -- the problems of our society and the world we live in -- is that there are "pre-Ishmael" and "post-Ishmael" people: those who haven't yet read the book and those who have. While it sounds a bit hyperbolic, most "post-Ishmael" people will agree with the sentiment.
In the nearly-two-decades since his groundbreaking novel "Ishmael" first appeared, Daniel Quinn has added an impressive body of works, building on the themes he first articulates in "Ishmael." Each is a stand-alone read. But if you really want to "get" the most ancient of world-views that Quinn lays out throughout all of his works, begin with "Ishmael."
Although generally not well known, there are many books that give a glimpse into the world as "pre-civilization" people saw it. One of my favorites, the true story "Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing" by Robert Wolff was reviewed last year on these pages on Buzzflash. Others include Peter Farb's seminal "Man's Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State," Marshall Sahlin's "Stone Age Economics," and parts of my book about the end of the era of oil, "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight." None, however, have the power of "Ishmael" when it comes to illuminating how billions of humans for over a hundred thousand years have viewed the world and their role in it -- and what that can mean to us today.
As I write this review, we're approaching the 2005 holiday season, and Fox News has once again dragged out their annual meme of the "liberal war on Christmas." They say that liberals want to take not just Christ(mas) out of public discourse, but God as well.
In response, progressives, like Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rev. Bill Press, and Rev. Barry Lynn, rebut with their own professions of faith in God and their concern that the Republicans are trying to convert holy-days into orgy-of-consumption holi-days.
But even in the debate of whether "In God We Trust" should be on our coins, or "One nation, under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, everybody is talking about "God." Even atheists dive into the "is He or isn't He real, and what should we do about that?" debate, nearly always assuming monotheism, or at the very least a politically acceptable form of polytheism.
Quinn takes us into quite different territory. What if, instead of talking about "God," we were talking about everything being sacred, even the rocks being infused with the "fire of life"?
Animism is the most ancient of world-views, and holds every bit as much a sense of the sacred -- arguably even more -- as does theism (be it monotheism or polytheism), and Daniel Quinn is its most eloquent spokesman.
While some scientists argue that our warlike tendencies and aggression may be hard-wired at childhood as a result of learning an abstract alphabet at an early age ("The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image" by Leonard Shlain), Quinn goes even deeper, illuminating the origins of warfare and murder first defined in the two conflicting stories of creation told in Genesis -- and the explicit warnings of that ancient story directed explicitly and intentionally at us today. He even suggests the first writers of that text were animists, warning us of the coming theists.
The vehicle for all this is a novel in which Quinn's first-person protagonist answers an odd sort of help-wanted ad that says: "TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person."
Responding to the ad, the novel's viewpoint character then meets Ishmael -- a gorilla -- who, in a series of riveting conversations that last throughout the book, pulls him back and forth through a metaphorical rabbit-hole from time-ancient to time-modern and vice-versa.
All this may sound abstract, dry, or didactic but it's not: It's compelling. It's the kind of book you start to read for a bit of distraction from a busy day and end up with half the night because you can't put it down. It'll ruin your weekend. You'll turn off the TV and cancel that date for the movie, because you won't want to stop reading.
In "Ishmael," Quinn introduces the concept of two basic ways humans have historically organized ourselves -- what he calls "Takers" and "Leavers." Takers fundamentally believe that "the world is here for humans." Leavers understand that we're one species amongst millions who are part of the extraordinary and sacred web of life. We -- the culture that has grown to six billion -- are the Takers, and we began "taking" when we broke the first and most fundamental law of all life on earth, a law I'll leave it to you to discover when you read Quinn's book.
The book's viewpoint character comes upon his revelations slowly, as Ishmael feeds him the pieces necessary to both deconstruct his "modern man" worldview and help him reconstruct -- virtually from scratch -- the worldview of ancient humans. A worldview that, by the way, Quinn suggests is the key to saving humanity:
"Yesterday's part of the story," Ishmael said, "revealed the meaning of the world as it's understood among the Takers: The world is a human life-support system, a machine designed to produce and sustain human life."
"Today's part of the story seems to be about the destiny of man. Obviously it was not man's destiny to live like a lion or a wombat."
"What is man's destiny, then?"
"Hm," I said. ""Well. Man's destiny is to achieve, to accomplish great things."
"As it's known among the Takers, man's destiny is more specific than that."
"Well, I suppose you could say that his destiny is to build civilization."
"I'm afraid I don't know how that's done."
"I'll demonstrate. Listen."
And so have millions of people all around the world. This book has been a bestseller ever since 1991 -- fourteen years ago -- when it first appeared, after winning a half-million-dollar prize in a competition sponsored by Ted Turner. It's still selling well, and has developed a strong cult following, as you can find on Quinn's website at www.Ishmael.org.
Enlightenment thinkers of the 1600s and 1700s like Rousseau and Locke quite literally transformed civilization and the world, leading directly to the creation of modern democracy. A major part of the world-view of Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin had to do with trying to understand the foundational concepts from which Native American society emerged -- those concepts at the core of Quinn's teaching.
Jefferson and Franklin, in particular, were obsessed with trying to determine if Rousseau's "Noble Savages" and our Native Americans were one in the same, and what lessons they may have for us. They came very close to some very important insights, but never could quite break through their Taker upbringing to penetrate below the floor on which their/our civilization stands, to understand the world of Leavers.
What Quinn calls "The Great Forgetting" -- the wall between the world as seen by historic humans and that seen by "modern" humans -- was just too solid, too powerful, too unquestionable, leaving the totality of the Native American's worldview out of their grasp. If Quinn had been around to give just the slightest nudge to these Deists among our Founders, the enlightenment of the 17th century may well have led to something even more extraordinary than it did.
As it is, that work is now for us to do, and Quinn offers an important starting place.
There are few books that actually have the effect of changing your world-view as you read them. Even fewer are the type of fiction that drags you in, entertains you, and leaves you stunned. "Ishmael" accomplishes all of this elegantly, and is a perfect introduction to the further writings of Daniel Quinn, one of the wisest of our wise elders.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
"They Thought They Were Free" is an intensely personal book for me. Although I was born after Hitler was five years dead, the horrible dance between fascism and democracy has fascinated me since childhood. And, through a series of odd coincidences, my adult life has been heavily intertwined with those of both Nazis and the victims of Hitler's Nazis.
Throughout my life, I've had several close friends who lost family members in the Holocaust. I've spent a lot of time in Israel, sobbed at Yad Vashem, and my wife Louise and I played a role in two of our closest friends, Hal and Shelley Cohen, starting Orr Shalom, which is now one of the largest Jewish programs for abused children in Israel. Before I learned English as a baby I was speaking Yiddish, learned from our Holocaust-survivor neighbors in Detroit who cared for me when my parents worked, and so can today recite both Hebrew prayers and speak German with accents and inflections more characteristic of a first than a second language.
On the other side of the coin, this Sunday morning I'm having breakfast with an old and dear friend, Armin Lehmann. At the age of sixteen, Armin was the Hitler Youth courier who handed to Adolf Hitler the papers that caused Hitler to commit suicide two days later. Armin was there when the suicide happened. He was there when Josef and Magda Goebbels poisoned their six children and then committed suicide. He watched it all. If you see the movie "Downfall," you'll see a teenage actor depicting my friend Armin.
Armin and I first met in 1984 when we were paired up by a marketing/training company to lecture in Amsterdam (and, later, many other cities) to teach advertising, marketing, and communications for American Express and KLM. I had no idea he had been Hitler's last courier, or that he would later write a book about it titled In Hitler's Bunker: A Boy Soldier's Eyewitness Account of the Fuhrer's Last Days. We were friends for 15 years before he told me of his experiences. Armin is now a tireless campaigner for world peace.
Armin's revelation to me about his past came when an old friend of mine and I set out to write a book about the religion -- the cult -- of the Nazis. Scott and I traveled all across Europe, interviewing people from Dr. Wilfried Daim, the author of the ground-breaking book "Der Mann der Hitler die Ideen gab" ("The Man Who Gave Hitler The Idea") about Georg Lanz von Liebenfels, to the hereditary ruler of one of Europe's smaller constitutional monarchies who shared shocking but background-only stories with us. We snuck into and photographed the altar in an old castle where Hitler initiated his inner circle, still kept pristine but largely unknown in Germany, near an SS cemetery where every week fresh-cut flowers appear and the tombstones are regularly polished to a high gloss. We infiltrated a meeting of aging SS members, complete with black candles and wreaths hung from the ceiling, near Wewelsburg, a city in Germany that Hitler intended to turn into his Vatican for his Thousand Years of Peace. On our way into the meeting, we passed a house decorated with ancient runes and human skulls. When discovered, we fled fearing for our lives. (Scott and I ended up not finishing the book after several unsettling and threatening experiences. I decided it would be less dangerous and more productive to investigate and write a book about the Kennedy assassination.)
Years before that (1978), I'd met a former Nazi who so impressed me with his commitment to peace and his deep spirituality (much learned from his Hasidic mentor, a Polish Jew who
survived the Holocaust) that I wrote a book about him titled "The Prophet's Way." (It's also available in German.) In the years I lived in Germany (1986/87), I met and got to know at least two-dozen elderly Germans who hated Hitler, who loved Hitler, and every shade in between.
I preface this review of Milton Mayer's book with all this personal and historical/reference information by way of hopefully establishing enough credibility in your mind to make a simple statement:
It could happen here, too.
This was also Milton Mayer's great fear and great fascination, after he got to know real Nazis. An American Jew of German ancestry, and a brilliant reporter, Mayer went to Germany 7 years after Hitler's fall and befriended 10 Nazis. This book is, in large part, his story of that experience. Intertwined through it -- written in 1955 -- are repeated overt and subtle warnings to future generations of Americans -- us, today.
Mayer opens the book by noting that he was prepared to hate the Nazis he would meet. But, he wrote, he discovered they were just as human as the rest of us:
I liked them. I couldn't help it. Again and again, as I sat or walked with one or another of my ten [Nazi] friends, I was overcome by the same sensation that had got in the way of my newspaper reporting in Chicago years before [in the 1930s]. I liked Al Capone. I liked the way he treated his mother. He treated her better than I treated mine.
He writes about how if he were to die tonight, at least he could look back on some good he had done. But his Nazi friends would never be able to die in peace, knowing the evil they had participated in, if even by acts of omission, could never be wiped clean. And he dreaded that Americans would ever feel the same for the acts we may one day commit as a nation.
Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany - not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted - or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.
I came home a little bit afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under combined pressure of reality and illusion. I felt - and feel - that it was not German Man that I met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.
If I - and my countrymen - ever succumbed to that concatenation of conditions, no Constitution, no laws, no police, and certainly no army would be able to protect us from harm.
One of his closing chapters, "Peoria Uber Alles," is so poignant and prescient that were Mayer still alive today I doubt he could read it out loud without his voice breaking. It's the story of how what happened in Germany could just as easily happen in Peoria, Illinois, particularly if the city were to become isolationistic and suffered some sort of natural or man-made disaster or attack that threw its people into the warm but deadly embrace of authoritarianism.
The [Peorian] individual surrenders his individuality without a murmur, without, indeed, a second thought - and not just his individual hobbies and tastes, but his individual occupation, his individual family concerns, his individual needs. The primordial community, the tribe, re-emerges, it's first function the preservation of all its members. Every normal personality of the day becomes an 'authoritarian personality.' A few recalcitrants have to be disciplined (vigorously, under the circumstances) for neglect or betrayal of their duty. A few groups have to be watched or, if necessary, taken in hand - the antisocial elements, the liberty-howlers, the agitators among the poor, and the criminal gangs. For the rest of the citizens - 95 percent or so of the population - duty is now the central fact of life. They obey, at first awkwardly, but, surprisingly soon, spontaneously.
Among Mayer's stories are some of the most telling aspects of how the Nazis came to take over Germany (and much of Europe). I first quoted them a year ago in a Common Dreams article linked from BuzzFlash titled The Myth of National Victimhood. I noted that Mayer told how one of his friends said:
What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security....
As a friend of Mayer's noted, and Mayer recorded in his book:
This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. ...
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it - please try to believe me - unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.
In this conversation, Mayer's friend suggests that he wasn't making an excuse for not resisting the rise of the fascists, but simply pointing out an undisputable reality. This, he suggests, is how fascism will always take over a nation.
"Pastor Niemoller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing: and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something - but then it was too late."
"Yes," I said.
"You see," my colleague went on, "one doesn't see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
"Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, 'It's not so bad' or 'You're seeing things' or 'You're an alarmist.'
"And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. ...
"But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked - if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in '43 had come immediately after the 'German Firm' stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in '33. But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
"And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying 'Jew swine,' collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God." ...
Mayer's friend pointed out the terrible challenge faced then by average Germans, and today by peoples across the world, as governments are taken over by authoritarian, corporatist -- fascist -- regimes.
"How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men?" Mayer's friend asked rhetorically. And, without the benefit of a previous and recent and well-remembered fascistic regime to refer to, he had to candidly answer: "Frankly, I do not know."
This was the great problem that Mayer's Nazis and so many in their day faced.
As Mayer's Nazi friend noted, "I do not see, even now [how we could have stopped it]. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice - 'Resist the beginnings' and 'consider the end.' But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?"
And here we are.
Sinclair Broadcast Group runs right-wing editorials on its stations over public airways with no pretense of balance.
Former MSNBC producer Jeff Cohen tells me that he was ordered to always have at least two conservatives on the Donahue show whenever one liberal appeared, "and three conservatives to Michael Moore."
Hundreds of hours a day of right-wing programming pour out of radio stations nationwide, and conservative extremists are the most common "guests" and "experts" on network news and weekend political TV shows.
The 2004 election may have been stolen with massive nationwide fraud -- the statistics in New Mexico, Ohio, and Florida are truly startling -- and Alliance for Democracy lawyer Cliff Arnebeck has filed a lawsuit against Bush, Cheney, Rove, et al, suggesting that Kerry actually won Ohio. The story was only covered in any depth by C-SPAN.
The possibility that the election of 2002 was also stolen -- particularly in Georgia, where Max Cleland losing his seat to Saxby Chambliss gave Republicans control of the Senate -- has never been seriously investigated. There is no paper trail from that election, as it was entirely done on paperless voting machines.
And when a consortium of news organizations recounted the Florida 2000 vote and it was found that Al Gore actually won the entire state -- and thus the presidency -- no matter what standard was used to count the ballots, the corporate news organizations of America buried the story (although the New York Times andWashington Post at least did report it).
Our Attorney General calls the Geneva Conventions "quaint"; our Secretary of Defense stands accused of ordering torture; our President and Vice President knowingly lie to us and the world in order to lead an election-year preemptive war; and Congress passes the PATRIOT Act without reading it -- eerily like the German Parliament passed the Enabling Acts after the Reichstag was burned.
So how to counter it?
As Mayer so movingly narrates, the experience of 20th century Europe demonstrates that those abusing power must be confronted with equally vigorous power.
In the 1930s, Germans who believed in republican democracy were overwhelmed before they realized how completely their civil liberties and national institutions had been seized.
We must not allow it to happen in our nation. Read "They Thought They Were Free" and awaken as many as you can.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
Walking through a park on a sunny summer day in Portland, Oregon last week, I got a glimpse of the world Barbara Ehrenreich so brilliantly chronicles in her new book "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."
Thirty or more people were sitting on lawn chairs and blankets under a big oak tree, in a semicircle around a middle-aged woman with a flip chart, an executive-business-style suit, and the air of a teacher. Those in the circle mostly wore casual clothes, and the average age seemed mid-forties, although there were a few as young as mid-twenties and a few who looked to be in their sixties. Two men in the group -- both in their fifties, from their appearance -- had gone to the trouble of dressing in business suits, although they looked painfully uncomfortable sitting on their lawn chairs in the open park.
As I walked by and caught wisps of the lecture, the woman was extolling the virtues of "cheerfulness" and rhetorically asking her students, "Would you want to hire you?"
Welcome to the world of those who have fallen out of America's white-collar middle class, and are tapping into their IRAs, 401-Ks, and overextended credit cards to pay for seminars and workshops to learn how to get a replacement job.
Multimillionaires like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Snow, and Alan Greenspan are exulting in their massive tax breaks over the past four years, saying the economy is just fine. George W's last tax break even reduced the maximum income tax to 15 percent on people who "earn" their livings by sitting around the swimming pool waiting for the dividend check to arrive in the mail.
But for those who need a paycheck every month and are willing to work for it, the reality of finding and keeping employment in America is growing increasingly desperate. Out of this reality has grown an entire new industry -- perhaps one source of those mysterious new jobs the Bushies keep telling us are being "created" -- of selling hope to the white-collar unemployed.
In "Nickel and Dimed," Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled why and how America's blue-collar working class would feel despair when conservative trade and economic policies such as those espoused by Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush reign. In "Bait and Switch" she expands her view to America's under-siege middle-class white-collar workers.
As with "Nickel," Ehrenreich's new book is a compelling and vivid first-person chronicle of her own undercover adventures in the "new" American workplace. But, while she had been able to obtain work in "Bait," she is unable to find a single real job in her newest efforts.
It's not, though, for lack of trying. From middle-aged lechers, to evangelists who want to sell her salvation on a CD (to help her pray to get a job, of course), to self-help courses that wrap pseudo-physics around pseudo-psychology, Ehrenreich discovers an amazing underbelly to the white-collar job-seeking world. And while exhaustion and by-your-fingernails survival was the theme of "Nickel," in this sequel she finds terror and despair.
All of this grew out of the abandonment of traditional "FDR liberal" economics and trade policies by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, followed on by Ronald Reagan in 1981. Bill Clinton continued many of these policies by pushing through NAFTA and GATT/WTO. These seemingly academic policies, and sloganeering like Clinton's "the end of welfare as we know it," have had a real impact on real people.
For example, in 2002, the BBC reported that in both Australia and the United Kingdom, "the suicide rate increases under conservative governments."
The BBC added:
"Conversely, the lowest rates occurred when state and federal governments were both [run by the liberal] Labour [Party]. "Middle aged and older people were most at risk. "When the Conservatives ruled both state and federal governments, men were 17% more likely to commit suicide than when Labour was in power. Women were 40% more likely to kill themselves."
While the researchers confined themselves to those two countries, they did quantify their data:
"Overall, they say, the figures suggest that 35,000 people would not have died [in the UK] had the Conservatives not been in power, equivalent to one suicide for every day of the 20th century or two for every day that the Conservatives ruled."
While Barbara Ehrenreich stays away from the "cause of the problem" through most of the book (other than frequent, and often humorous, aside comments), she brings to life in a chilling, vivid, and deeply felt way the reality of white collar unemployment and underemployment.
Ehrenreich's book is both compelling "good reading" and powerfully insightful. Once you start reading, you'll be mesmerized. When you finish, you'll be an activist!
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
When Sir James Goldsmith died in 1997, one of the more prominent obituaries of him appeared in the conservative National Review. On the other hand, a right-winger wrote a negative blast of Goldsmith's book "The Trap" on Amazon. That he could be hated and loved by conservatives -- and embraced by progressives -- is a testament to the breadth and brilliance of this man.
Goldsmith went from high-school dropout to multi-billionaire in about 20 years. One of the richest men in the world at the time "The Trap" was written, he unabashedly bit the hand of international capitalism that played a large role in feeding him. The book opens, for example, with this observation:
"We have convinced ourselves that there exists only one valid economic and social model: our own. By attempting to impose it universally, we have exported to almost every corner of the world our diseases: crime, drugs, alcoholism, family breakdown, civil disorder in urban slums, accelerated abuse of the environment and all the other problems that we experience daily."
Perhaps the most important statement in the entire book follows two paragraphs later (which so impressed me that I used it as a chapter epigraph in my book "Unequal Protection"):
"The economy is a tool to serve us. It is not a demi-god to be served by society."
From there, in this short and simple book, written in Q &A format (questions by Yves Messarovitch), Goldsmith explores how we were hyped and oversold on the idea of "free trade," then challenges the oh-so-hip idea that nation-states are obsolete, takes on the welfare state and educational systems, and blows holes in the myths of "clean" and "safe" nuclear power.
Perhaps the most vital and thought-provoking chapters of the book, however, are titled "Modern Agriculture and the Destruction of Society" and "Why?" That over a decade ago (this book was composed in 1992) one of the world's richest men would be talking like the gorilla Ishmael in Daniel Quinn's novel of the same title is both fascinating and thought-provoking. That he would be entirely serious -- and willing to fund a political movement based in part on it -- is sobering.
Goldsmith notes, in his final chapter:
"Those of us who believe in free enterprise must understand that although in many nations and in many ways our beliefs remain eminently valid, on their own they are not sufficient. They must be integrated into the overriding imperatives of the biosphere as well as of human societies. Market forces must be harnessed to the needs of stable communities. Otherwise, like Marxists, we will be rejected as mechanistic relics of the past."
"The Trap" came into print in 1993, and went out of print, as far as I can tell, after Goldsmith died in 1997. Yet it's a brilliant read for reasons well beyond its historical significance as a glimpse into the Reagan/Bush/Clinton "conservative economics" era. Goldsmith was a deep thinker and a passionate lover of life and humanity. Although there are a few parts of his book with which I'd argue, or at least want to fine-tune, the overall arc of his logic is striking and consistent. It's neither conservative nor liberal, but deeply human. Or, perhaps best said, it transcends political labels -- which makes it all the more vital and important.
And, perhaps best of all, "The Trap" is a remarkably easy read. This is a book you can get all the way through on a single lazy Sunday afternoon.
I first discovered "The Trap" in the early 90s and it colors my thinking -- particularly on economic issues -- to this day. As it is out of print, Buzzflash has gone to the trouble of tracking down a number of used copies for this special offering so you can enjoy it, too.
This book is a special, rare, and delightful treat. Regardless of your opinion of Goldsmith or his positions in the book, you will be moved to think deeply about the most vital issues of the past -- and the next -- decade as we continue the transition from the 20th to the 21st centuries.
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
What do you do when you want to screw only the working people of your nation with the largest tax increase in history and hand those trillions of dollars to your wealthy campaign contributors, yet not have anybody realize you've done it? If you're Ronald Reagan, you call in Alan Greenspan.
Through the "golden years of the American middle class" - the 1940s through 1982 - the top income tax rate for the hyper-rich had been between 90 and 70 percent. Ronald Reagan wanted to cut that rate dramatically, to help out his political patrons. He did this with a massive tax cut in the summer of 1981.
The only problem was that when Reagan took his meat axe to our tax code, he produced mind-boggling budget deficits. Voodoo economics didn't work out as planned, and even after borrowing so much money that this year we'll pay over $100 billion just in interest on the money Reagan borrowed to make the economy look good in the 1980s, Reagan couldn't come up with the revenues he needed to run the government.
Coincidentally, the actuaries at the Social Security Administration were beginning to get worried about the Baby Boomer generation, who would begin retiring in big numbers in fifty years or so. They were a "rabbit going through the python" bulge that would require a few trillion more dollars than Social Security could easily collect during the same 20 year or so period of their retirement. We needed, the actuaries said, to tax more heavily those very persons who would eventually retire, so instead of using current workers' money to pay for the Boomer's Social Security payments in 2020, the Boomers themselves would have pre-paid for their own retirement.
Reagan got Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alan Greenspan together to form a commission on Social Security reform, along with a few other politicians and economists, and they recommend a near-doubling of the Social Security tax on the then-working Boomers. That tax created - for the first time in history - a giant savings account that Social Security could use to pay for the Boomers' retirement.
This was a huge change. Prior to this, Social Security had always paid for today's retirees with income from today's workers (it still is today). The Boomers were the first generation that would pay Social Security taxes both to fund current retirees and save up enough money to pay for their own retirement. And, after the Boomers were all retired and the savings account - called the "Social Security Trust Fund" - was all spent, the rabbit would have finished its journey through the python and Social Security could go back to a "pay as you go" taxing system.
Thus, within the period of a few short years, Reagan dramatically dropped the income tax on America's most wealthy by more than half, and roughly doubled the Social Security tax on people earning $30,000 or less. It was, simultaneously, the largest income tax cut in America's history (almost entirely for the very wealthy), and the most massive tax increase in the history of the nation (which entirely hit working-class people).
But Reagan still had a problem. His tax cuts for the wealthy - even when moderated by subsequent tax increases - weren't generating enough money to invest properly in America's infrastructure, schools, police and fire departments, and military. The country was facing bankruptcy.
No problem, suggested Greenspan. Just borrow the Boomer's savings account - the money in the Social Security Trust Fund - and, because you're borrowing "government money" to fund "government expenditures," you don't have to list it as part of the deficit. Much of the deficit will magically seem to disappear, and nobody will know what you did for another 50 years when the Boomers begin to retire 2015.
Reagan jumped at the opportunity. As did George H. W. Bush. As did Bill Clinton (although Al Gore argued strongly that Social Security funds should not be raided, but, instead, put in a "lock box"). And so did George W. Bush.
The result is that all that money - trillions of dollars - that has been taxed out of working Boomers (the ceiling has risen from the tax being on your first $30,000 of income to the first $90,000 today) has been borrowed and spent. What are left behind are a special form of IOUs - an unique form of Treasury debt instruments similar (but not identical) to those the government issues to borrow money from China today to fund George W. Bush's most recent tax cuts for billionaires (George Junior is still also "borrowing" from the Social Security Trust Fund).
Former Bush Junior Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill recounts how Dick Cheney famously said, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." Cheney was either ignorant or being disingenuous - it would be more accurate to say, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter if you rip off the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for them, and don't report that borrowing from the Boomers as part of the deficit."
As the Associated Press reported on April 6, 2005:
"PARKERSBURG, West Virginia. (AP) -- President Bush on Tuesday used a four-drawer filing cabinet stuffed with paper representing government IOUs the president said symbolized the Social Security trust fund's bleak outlook for meeting Americans' future retirement needs. ...
"'A lot of people in America think there is a trust -- that we take your money in payroll taxes and then we hold it for you and then when you retire, we give it back to you,' Bush said in a speech at the University of West Virginia at Parkersburg.
"'But that's not the way it works,' Bush said. 'There is no trust "fund" -- just IOUs that I saw firsthand,' Bush said...
"[Susan] Chapman [of the Office of Public Debt] opened the second drawer and pulled out a white notebook filled with pseudo Treasury securities -- pieces of paper that offer physical evidence of $1.7 trillion in treasury bonds that make up the trust fund."
Later, Senator Rick Santorum made an odd admission for a Republican: ""You can't pay benefits with IOUs," he said on the Senate floor. "You have to pay it with cash."
And where will that cash - now nearly two trillion dollars - come from over the next decades as Boomers begin to retire?
Technically (and legally) it's simple - the Social Security Trust Fund will give back its IOUs to the Treasury Department and in exchange for them get cash to pay the Boomers' retirement checks. Practically, though, it'll be a crisis of biblical proportions. In order for the Treasury to come up with that kind of cash will require either massive tax increases or increased massive borrowing - at a time when we're already borrowing so heavily that China is propping up our economy with weekly loans.
Thus, Bush talks about a "crisis" in Social Security with some accuracy. But he doesn't dare tell us what the real "crisis" is, or how Reagan and Greenspan set it up, because when it becomes widely known that the real crisis is that Reagan set the course to steal Boomers' Social Security savings, it will destroy the reputation of both supply-side economics and the Republican Party for generations to come.
That Republicans and "conservative" Democrats have been able to perpetrate this fraud on America for the past 25 years tracks back to the initial and ongoing efforts of one man, Alan Greenspan, says Ravi Batra in his new book "Greenspan's Fraud: How Two Decades of His Polices Have Undermined the Global Economy."
And the Social Security fraud just outlined is only the beginning. Batra shows - in extraordinary (and easily understood) detail - how Greenspan has steadily worked for over two decades to sell out America's sovereignty and economic interests to those of the multinational corporations he so loves, and to sell out the working people of America (and their Social Security Trust Fund) to the super-rich who Greenspan has always represented.
Greenspan manipulated the stock market so his buddies could get rich, then warned them just in time to get out before it blew up. He's kept together tax cuts and pay increases for the CEO class by pumping cheap money into the economy so the Middle Class will go ever deeper into debt, setting up a housing bubble that could crash in a way that would make 1929 look like a mild bump in the economic road. And he's helped engineer and support international "free" trade policies that have disemboweled America's manufacturing and information technology sectors, with the happy result for Republicans that the once-politically-active and heavily unionized middle class is being replaced by a politically impotent mass of the working poor, too busy to worry about politics or challenge corporate news.
Most people, coming across this massive indictment of Greenspan, would probably react with skepticism. Why wasn't any of this in the paper? Why haven't I heard Democrats and liberals attacking Greenspan from the floors of Congress and in the progressive media?
As Batra points out, the truest testament to the power Alan Greenspan holds is that he's been able to do so much of this behind the scenes. He gently encourages and nudges, argues and lectures, leaks and pontificates. He suggests, rather than orders. And, of course, he holds the levers of the nation's money supply in his hands - making him a more fearsome threat to a sitting president or political party than J. Edgar Hoover ever was.
And, Batra documents, Greenspan has not been at all reluctant to use his considerable power to the benefit of those in office.
One example: During the Reagan and Bush presidencies, he was in favor of tax cuts. During Clinton's he was against them. During Bush Junior's he was again in favor of them.
Ravi Batra's book "Greenspan's Fraud" is not only required reading for all Americans because it so clearly lays out the crimes this man - and the Republican Party - have committed against the United States of America, but also because it's such a brilliant primer in macroeconomics overall. If you never were able to figure out, for example, what interest rates had to do with unemployment, or how the rich get richer in America while the poor get poorer, or why when the minimum wage is increased the economy gets better, Batra explains it all with elegance, wit, and comfortable clarity.
"Greenspan's Fraud" is one of the most important books you can read this year. Get two copies, because you're sure to have at least one friend you'll want to read this book, but your own copy will be so marked up and beloved that you'll not want to let go of it.
Review by Thom Hartmann
Two weeks before the presidential election of 2004, The Washington Post ran an article titled"Some Fear Ohio Will Be Florida." "Florida" has become shorthand for the illegal purging of tens of thousands of largely Democratic African American voters by Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris, and that state's Republican machine just before the election of 2000.
"We cannot forget what happened in Florida," thePost quoted Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), as saying about the stories in the news that were already emerging about massive Republican voter disenfranchisement efforts in Ohio. "And," Lewis added, "it will not happen here."
Lewis was wrong. It did happen in Ohio. George Bush Junior stole another election.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee refused to participate in any sort of investigation of voting irregularities in Ohio, so the Committee's ranking Democrat, John Conyers, went to Ohio with 11 other Democratic members to convene a hearing and take testimony under oath. What he found was startling.
"We have found numerous serious election irregularities in the Ohio presidential election," the Committee wrote in their official report, "which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters. Cumulatively, these irregularities, which affected hundreds of thousands of voters and votes in Ohio, raise grave doubts about whether it can be said that the Ohio electors selected on December 13, 2004, were chosen in a manner conforming to Ohio law, let alone Federal election commission and constitutional standards."
The number of voters who were disenfranchised, and the number of votes that were spoiled, uncounted, and outright stolen (the committee diplomatically referred to it as "Kerry votes [being moved] to the Bush column") were far more than the 136,483 votes by which Bush officially "won" Ohio. If just 51 percent of those votes were fraudulent - roughly 70,000 votes being for Kerry but counted as for Bush (or an equal number of Kerry voters disenfranchised) - then John Kerry would be President of the United States right now.
Given this, consider the Conyers Commission reports summary that:
- "There were 93,000 spoiled ballots where no vote was cast for president, the majority of which have yet to be inspected."
- "We learned of improper purging and other registration errors by election officials that probably disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters statewide."
- "In Miami county, voter turnout was an improbable and highly suspect 98.55 percent, and after 100 percent of the precincts were reported, an additional 19,000 extra votes were recorded for President Bush."
- And, preceding a long list of specific, documented crimes committed by Ohio Secretary of State (and, thus, chief election official) Kenneth Blackwell, the charge that: "In the run-up to Election Day, the following actions by Mr. Blackwell, the Republican Party, and elections officials, disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Ohio citizens, predominantly Minority and Democratic voters."
The Committee dryly noted: "In many cases these irregularities were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio."
While BBC, Vladimir Putin, and the world's media have been comfortable pointing out that there was something odd about "democracy" when it involved George Bush Junior in 2000, Congressman Conyers' House Judiciary Committee's findings have faced a near-total reporting vacuum in the mainstream media. If you go to http://news.google.com and enter the search words Conyers Ohio vote fraud, you discover only five hits -- two from French publications, two from TomPaine.com, and one from by a Canadian professor writing on a Venezuelan website.
Fortunately, the Conyers report -- aptly named "What Went Wrong In Ohio" -- is now available in paperback from Academy Chicago Publishers. Complete with a foreward by Gore Vidal, it comes in at a concise and Saturday-afternoon-readable 116 pages. It's essential reading for anybody who wants to know how Republicans have been stealing elections both nationally and on a statewide basis for at least the last three election cycles.
Ironically, May and June of 2005 see the trial of Democratic Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire's campaign, her election tenaciously being challenged in court by losing Republican Dino Rossi.
"We have evidence of voter fraud," Rossi and Washington State Republicans repeat like a mantra.
If only Democrats in 2000, 2002 (particularly in Georgia), and 2004 had had such cojones.
Some people think that FDR invented the progressive income tax when he raised income tax rates on the super-rich to 90 percent. Some believe that LBJ invented anti-poverty programs when he more than cut in half severe poverty in the US by introducing Medicare, housing assistance, and food-stamp programs in the 1960s. Some believe that Jack Kennedy was the first president to seriously talk about international disarmament, a conversation that Richard Nixon carried on in pushing through and getting ratified the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty so recently discarded by George Bush Jr. Some believe that Teddy Roosevelt - the Republican Roosevelt - was the first to seriously discuss the "living wage," or ways that corporate "maximum wage" wink-and-nod agreements could be broken up. Some believe the inheritance tax to prevent family empires from taking over our nation was the idea of Woodrow Wilson, or that FDR was the first to think up old-age pensions as part of a social safety net known today as Social Security.
But it was actually Thomas Paine who first developed all these themes in their modern political context. He did so in his book "The Rights of Man."
Thomas Edison is largely responsible for our knowledge today of Thomas Paine and his writings. In July of 1925, Edison rescued Paine from the dustbin of historic obscurity, when he wrote a widely-read plea to return Paine to our schools:
"Tom Paine has almost no influence on present-day thinking in the United States because he is unknown to the average citizen. Perhaps I might say right here that this is a national loss and a deplorable lack of understanding concerning the man who first proposed and first wrote those impressive words, 'the United States of America.' But it is hardly strange. Paine's teachings have been debarred from schools everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his memory is hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind.
"We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic. He was the equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where Washington performed Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the Weld were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen.
"Washington himself appreciated Paine at his true worth. Franklin knew him for a great patriot and clear thinker. He was a friend and confidant of Jefferson, and the two must often have debated the academic and practical phases of liberty.
"I consider Paine our greatest political thinker. As we have not advanced, and perhaps never shall advance, beyond the Declaration and Constitution, so Paine has had no successors who extended his principles. Although the present generation knows little of Paine's writings, and although he has almost no influence upon contemporary thought, Americans of the future will justly appraise his work. I am certain of it."
Thomas Edison was successful in moving the writings of Thomas Paine into the mainstream of American education, influencing a generation that a decade later brought us the many progressive reforms of the 1930s.
"Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine was written as an answer to a correspondence and debate Paine was having with Sir Edmund Burke, the famous British nobleman who is revered by modern conservatives (Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr.) as the founder of modern conservative thought. In some ways, it's a classic debate between conservative and liberal worldviews, with Paine presenting the liberal side of the equation. (Burke's words are not found in Paine's book.)
Liberals, after all, founded our nation. They were skeptical of the power of any institution - be it corporate (the Boston Tea Party was an anti-globalization protest against the world's largest transnational corporation, the East India Company), religious (Ben Franklin left Massachusetts for Philadelphia during his childhood in part because they were still hanging witches in the outlying regions), or governmental (the "kingly oppressions" such as the power of a king to make war, referred to by Madison and later quoted by Lincoln).
Although modern conservatives like to say that Burke was occasionally progressive in some of his opinions, it was a progressivism that never threatened his lifestyle or that of his wealthy and powerful British peers. He'd come around to supporting American independence, although he was skeptical of our potential for survival without an aristocratic class; he supported the British takeover of India through the East India Company, but felt British rule should be "benevolent" and so prosecuted a man who had "abused" Indian citizens (in a fashion similar to the show-trial of Sgt. Charles Grainer for Abu Ghraib, with no mention of civilian command or national policy); as an Irishman, he supported Irish emancipation.
But in his heart and soul Burke was a true conservative, and a staunch supporter of the sort of hierarchical "government" that Paine rails against in "Rights Of Man."
Burke and Paine were acquainted, and Paine, after the Revolutionary War, had returned to England where he was hailed as the bestselling author of "Common Sense" ("These are the times that try men's souls...") and heralded as one of the true fathers of the American Revolution. (It would not be an exaggeration to say that without Paine there may not have been a Revolution.) Paine had stayed at Burke's home, and the two corresponded.
When the French Revolution broke out, Paine went to France where, despite the fact that he spoke hardly a word of French (he'd dropped out of school at age 12), he was elected to the National Convention. He was initially fortunate to be in France, as during this time "Rights Of Man" was published in England, and the book was considered so radical that he was put on trial and convicted in absentia for seditious libel against the Crown.
But then he publicly crossed swords with Maximilien Robespierre and suggested that King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette should be exiled to America. For this, he was sentenced to the guillotine and thrown into prison.
It was in prison that he wrote his book promoting Deism and attacking organized religion, "The Age Of Reason." It so infuriated churchgoing Americans that when Paine later escaped France and returned to America, he died in obscurity in Greenwich Village, with only six people attending his funeral. As Thomas Edison wrote, "His Bible was the open face of nature, the broad skies, the green hills. He disbelieved the ancient myths and miracles taught by established creeds. But the attacks on those creeds -- or on persons devoted to them -- have served to darken his memory, casting a shadow across the closing years of his life. ... If Paine had ceased his writings with 'The Rights of Man' he would have been hailed today as one of the two or three outstanding figures of the Revolution. But 'The Age of Reason' cost him glory at the hands of his countrymen -- a greater loss to them than to Tom Paine."
Burke promoted the world-view that animates today's conservatives: That people are essentially evil and need a strong external controlling force to prevent them from acting out their evil nature; that such a force should most appropriately come from those who have inherited or lawfully obtained wealth, religious power, or political power; that a permanent large underclass with little power and a permanent small overclass with great power will produce the greatest social good because it will ensure social stability.
In 1790, following up on his conversations with Thomas Paine, Burke wrote a letter/pamphlet titled "Reflections on the Revolution in France." In it, Burke laid out some of his most important philosophical points, many of which are still quoted by American conservatives.
Burke noted his belief in the danger of true democracy.
"The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler [candle maker], cannot be a matter of honour to any person to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments," he wrote. "Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature."
This so incensed Paine, that he had to respond, and that response is the book "Rights of Man."
Ironically, Burke's analysis of the French Revolution - at least over the short term - was more accurate than Paine's. Burke wrote:
"When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one."
Paine, in response, wrote nearly the entire first half of "Rights of Man." He initially believed the French Revolution would turn out the way the American Revolution had, and was shocked when Robespierre began the Terrors and the nation devolved into a horrific and bloody purge.
In defense of democracy and self-government, Paine wrote:
"When I contemplate the natural dignity of man, when I feel (for Nature has not been kind enough to me to blunt my feelings) for the honour and happiness of its character, I become irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud, as if they were all knaves and fools, and can scarcely avoid disgust at those who are thus imposed upon.
"We have now to review the governments which arise out of society, in contradistinction to those which arose out of superstition and conquest.
"It has been thought a considerable advance towards establishing the principles of Freedom to say that Government is a compact between those who govern and those who are governed; but this cannot be true, because it is putting the effect before the cause; for as man must have existed before governments existed, there necessarily was a time when governments did not exist, and consequently there could originally exist no governors to form such a compact with.
"The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
"To possess ourselves of a clear idea of what government is, or ought to be, we must trace it to its origin. In doing this we shall easily discover that governments must have arisen either out of the people or over the people.
"Mr. Burke has made no distinction. He investigates nothing to its source, and therefore he confounds everything... As he thus renders it a subject of controversy by throwing the gauntlet, I take him upon his own ground. It is in high challenges that high truths have the right of appearing; and I accept it with the more readiness because it affords me, at the same time, an opportunity of pursuing the subject with respect to governments arising out of society."
Burke strongly defended rule by the rich, enforced by corporate and chartered state power. He wrote:
"Let those large proprietors be what they will, and they have their chance of being amongst the best, they are at the very worst, the ballast in the vessel of the commonwealth. For though hereditary wealth, and the rank which goes with it, are too much idolized by creeping sycophants, and the blind abject admirers of power, they are too rashly slighted in shallow speculations of the petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of philosophy.
"Some decent regulated pre-eminence, some preference (not exclusive appropriation) given to birth, is neither unnatural, nor unjust, nor impolitic."
Paine, on the other hand, believed that neither government nor corporations should have rights, and that the rich should be so taxed that hereditary aristocracies couldn't emerge. In this regard, the last chapter of "Rights Of Man" is perhaps the most important. Paine wrote:
"I begin with charters and corporations.
"It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect - that of taking rights away.
"Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few. ... They...consequently are instruments of injustice.
"But charters and corporations have a more extensive evil effect than what relates merely to elections. They are sources of endless contentions in the places where they exist, and they lessen the common rights of national society. ... This species of feudality is kept up to aggrandise the corporations at the ruin of towns; and the effect is visible."
But the cornerstone of conservative philosophy is the belief that control of government by a corporate elite and those with inherited wealth will ensure a stable society. It's the core of Reagan's "greed is good" philosophy that led Republicans in the 1980s to stop enforcing anti-trust laws and to lower taxes on the super-rich. In this, Burke was equally consistent:
"The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it) are the natural securities for this transmission."
Paine's rebuttal was to propose what he called "progressive taxation." The last chapter of "Rights of Man" has several tables, showing specifically how the more wealthy an estate would be, the more heavily it should be taxed. Paine pointed out that most of the taxes then paid in England were consumption taxes, such as sales taxes, which fell most heavily upon the working class and the poor, while the vast land holdings of the wealthy were relatively free of taxes.
"Before the coming of the Hanoverians, the taxes were divided in nearly equal proportions between the land and articles of consumption, the land bearing rather the largest share: but since that era nearly thirteen millions annually of new taxes have been thrown upon consumption. The consequence of which has been a constant increase in the number and wretchedness of the poor, and in the amount of the poor-rates. Yet here again the burthen does not fall in equal proportions on the aristocracy with the rest of the community. Their residences, whether in town or country, are not mixed with the habitations of the poor. They live apart from distress, and the expense of relieving it."
Much like today, corporations and the super-rich paid relatively little in taxes as a percentage of their assets.
Progressive taxation, Paine said, would cure both the problem of inherited wealth corrupting government, and the continuous drag of taxes on the working class and the poor:
"On small and middling estates it is lighter (as it is intended to be) than the commutation tax. It is not till after seven or eight thousand [Pounds] a year that it begins to be heavy. The object is not so much the produce of the tax as the justice of the measure. The aristocracy has screened itself [from taxes] too much, and this serves to restore a part of the lost equilibrium.
"As an instance of its screening itself [from paying taxes], it is only necessary to look back to the first establishment of the excise laws, at what is called the Restoration, or the coming of Charles the Second. The aristocratical interest then in power, commuted the feudal services itself was under, by laying a tax on beer brewed for sale; that is, they compounded with Charles for an exemption from those services for themselves and their heirs, by a tax to be paid by other people.
"The aristocracy do not purchase beer brewed for sale, but brew their own beer free of the duty, and if any commutation at that time were necessary, it ought to have been at the expense of those for whom the exemptions from those services were intended; instead of which, it was thrown on an entirely different class of men."
"But," Paine added, "the chief object of this progressive tax (besides the justice of rendering taxes more equal than they are) is, as already stated, to extirpate the overgrown influence arising from the unnatural law of primogeniture [inheritance], and which is one of the principal sources of corruption at elections."
Burke, of course, saw things differently. How dare the working-class "many" think of taxing the rich "few"? It would threaten his beloved aristocracy, and therefore threaten the very core of society.
"It is said," wrote Burke, "that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second: to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many, and their interest, must very often differ; and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice."
Burke and his conservative friends in the House of Lords had run up a huge national debt in England, and used this as an excuse to slash spending on programs for the poor. Since they held much of the debt bonds themselves (like the Bush and Cheney families being heavily invested in US Treasuries), they profited from the nation being in debt.
Paine considered exploiting national debt in this way to be both intolerable and unpatriotic.
"There now remains only the national debt to be considered," he wrote. "The present scheme of paying off the national debt appears to me, speaking as an indifferent person, to be an ill-concerted, if not a fallacious job. .... The debt, therefore, is not reduced one farthing to the public by all the millions that have been paid; and it would require more money now to purchase up the capital, than when the scheme began."
But if taxes were raised and the debt paid off, he noted, the money then freed up by the government no longer having to pay interest to the rich would be substantial:
"But after paying the interest, abolishing the tax on houses and windows, the commutation tax, and the poor-rates; and making all the provisions for the poor, for the education of children, the support of the aged, the disbanded part of the army and navy, and increasing the pay of the remainder, there will be a surplus of one million."
Burke was not fond of the poor, however. He was a strong believer in the conservative dictum, badly misappropriating and twisting the meaning of Jesus' words, that "The poor you always have with you..."
Paine, on the other hand, thought that the best way to build a strong democracy was to use his tax on the wealthy to give the poor bootstraps by which they could pull themselves up. He proposed helping out young families with the expense of raising children (a forerunner to our income tax exemptions for children), a fund to provide housing and food for the poor (a forerunner to housing vouchers and food stamps), and a reliable and predictable pension for all workers in their old age (a forerunner to Social Security). He also suggested that all nations should reduce their armaments by 90 percent, to ensure world peace. Summarizing, Paine noted:
"When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government."
This, Paine hoped, was the fate of America. And, he believed, when our nation had achieved such an egalitarian and liberal way of life, other nations of the world would naturally emulate us. (He thought he was seeing this in the French Revolution, remember.) Thus, he predicted that Burke's beloved "benevolent rule by the rich" was doomed to the ash heaps of history:
"The fraud, hypocrisy, and imposition of governments, are now beginning to be too well understood to promise them any long career. The farce of monarchy and aristocracy, in all countries, is following that of chivalry, and Mr. Burke is dressing for the funeral. Let it then pass quietly to the tomb of all other follies, and the mourners be comforted."
"Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine is one of the foundational and seminal documents of modern liberalism. It's an important book to read, and to have in your library for reference.
Review by Thom Hartmann
In 1976 -- long before American conservatives would claim that Ronald Reagan's 1980s debt-driven massive military spending "bankrupted" the Soviet Union -- French demographer and author Emmanuel Todd wrote a best-selling book titled La Chute finale (The Final Fall), predicting the imminent fall of the USSR. He based his projection, in large part, on a careful study of the increase in infant mortality in that empire, one of the leading indicators of the health of a nation.
Time proved him right, and hindsight tells us that Reagan and Bush had nothing whatever to do with the fall of the USSR, con claims notwithstanding. It rotted from within, something that I witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s visiting both the USSR and several of its captive states, and living a year in 1986-1987 within 30 miles of Soviet-dominated East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Any 70s or 80s visitor to the USSR or its vassal sates, in fact, could have come to the conclusion that -- barring a world war -- it was an empire about to expire, and the CIA and others in the American, European, Israeli, and Japanese intelligence services had been saying the same thing since, in some cases the 1960s.
Yet it was Emmanuel Todd who captured Europe's attention by explicitly saying that the Soviet Emperor had no clothes - and doing so in a way that was widely discussed across Europe. Thus, when my best friend and former business partner Jerry Schneiderman and I found ourselves in Budapest in early November, 1989, the week before the Berlin Wall fell, as East German refugees were streaming into the country and the Soviets seemed helpless to stop it, we discovered that the reaction of the Hungarian shopkeepers and bartenders we talked with was a resigned shrug: "We knew it was coming. Everybody knew it was coming." Other than, of course, the average American.
Now comes Emmanuel Todd to predict the fall of another empire: America.
In Après l' empire ("After The Empire"), a runaway bestseller across Europe and in Japan, Todd points out that many of the same demographic and historic indicators that led him to boldly predict the looming collapse of the Soviet system can now -- with some variations that are even more alarming -- be applied to the United States.
Every American should read this book. First, we must read it to understand how Europe, Russia, China, and Japan (among others) view us. Second, we must read it because its logic, facts, statistics, and conclusions are unassailable.
The main thesis of Todd's book is that America is posturing, playing the role of the leader of the "free world" and head of the new American Empire, when, in fact, we are militarily, economically, and morally bankrupt -- and the rest of the world knows it. In fact, he suggests, much of the posturing is for the consumption of the domestic American audience, as the rest of the world (with the exception of a few dependent Third World nations) knows we're already in decline and perhaps even ready to implode.
Economically, twenty-five years of conservative Reaganomics -- "free trade" elevated to a virtual religion (including complicity by Clinton in signing GATT/WTO and NAFTA) -- and the massive budget and trade deficits that have resulted from this, have turned the United States from an independent manufacturing powerhouse and the world's leading creditor into a bankrupt nation with little manufacturing capacity left, dependent on other nations for the imports that maintain our unsustainable standard of living. The result is that the US "has become the center of a system in which its number one job is to consume rather than produce."
"If the United States has greatly declined in relative terms as an economic power," writes Todd, "it has nevertheless succeed in massively increasing its ability to siphon off wealth from the world economy. Objectively speaking, America has become a predator; ... [and] is going to have to fight politically and militarily in order to sustain the hegemony that has become indispensable for maintaining its standard of living."
In his concluding chapter, Todd writes, "The United States is unable to live on its own economic activity and must be subsidized to maintain its level of consumption -- at its present cruising speed that subsidy amounts to 1.4 billion dollars per day."
Referring to the "bizarre behavior" of the Bush administration's America, Todd asks the question -- in italics for emphasis -- "How does one deal with a superpower that is economically dependent but also politically useless?"
In "The Fragility of Tribute" chapter, Todd suggests the world won't -- or can't -- long continue to support our "parasitic" lifestyle by loaning us money to sell us goods, while we export our manufacturing industries and hollow out our internal productivity. "The most likely scenario" he sees as a result of this "is a stock market crash larger than any we have experienced thus far that will be followed by a meltdown of the dollar -- a one-two punch that will put an end to any further delusions of 'empire' when it comes to the US economy."
Our moral bankruptcy, Todd suggests, is the result of these same economic and political policies emanating from the radical right (neoliberals) in America, and are rapidly morphing our nation from a democracy into an oligarchy.
Without irony, he notes, "It is a surprising return to the world of Aristotle in which oligarchy may succeed democracy." As "American society is changing into a fundamentally unegalitarian system of domination..." he notes that this turnaround of increasing rule by the rich in America and a wiping out of our middle class "explains the strained relations between the United States and the rest of the world. The progress of democracy around the world is masking the weakening of democracy in its birthplace [America]." The result? "...the United states is beginning to lose its democratic characteristics..."
Because America has become a "parasitical" nation of importers of oil and goods from around the world, paying with debt, Todd says, "From now on the fundamental strategic objective of the United States will be political control of the world's resources."
Thus we have had to invent a "myth of global terrorism" so we can convince ourselves that our projection of power into oil-rich regions of the world is to "save" both America and the world from "terrorists." Because our military power is insufficient to take on any serious foes, we rattle sabers, proclaim "Axis of evils," and attack essentially defenseless nations, while proclaiming our efforts great military victories comparable to the defeat of the Third Reich in World War II.
The world, Todd notes, isn't buying it. And they're getting tired of our constant hectoring about "democracy" even as we cut back on civil liberties and economic opportunity at home, support "strategic" dictators abroad, and are increasingly ruled by oligarchic families.
Which brings us to his third conclusion -- that we have become militarily impotent. Todd notes that, "In the childlike universe of Donald Rumsfeld, for example, only physical force matters." Thus, we stir up problems in the militarily weak (but oil rich) Arab world, destabilizing the entire planet. This is not a situation European and Asian powers take lightly. Europe, Todd notes, "cannot accept indefinitely the continuous disorder in the Arab world sponsored by the United States..."
The result is clear, he says. "But make no mistake, all the ingredients are there for a serious conflict between Europe and the United States in the near future." Such a conflict could be devastating to the US.
Dissecting -- and dismissing -- numerous American "strategic" books like Zbigniew Brzezinski's "The Grand Chessboard," Todd notes that our leaders in the post-Carter world have always taken the lazy way out, rather than building the strategic alliances and offering the moral leadership that would have been necessary to maintain America as the moral, economic, and political international leader we were before Reagan began the destruction of the traditional American way of life.
In part, this has been the result of the capture of our political system by oligarchs, powerful rich interests including multinational corporations with little allegiance to America (or any nation). "This is why," he notes, "the United States' export of its specific model of unregulated capitalism [necessary to sustain oligarchy] constitutes a danger for European societies, as well as for Japan...."
The result of our export of privatization, deregulation, and unrestrained oligarchic capitalism (called "the liberal model" in Europe) is that "the constant attempts to foist the liberal model onto the strongly rooted and state-centered societies of the Old World is in the process of blowing them apart -- a phenomenon that can be observed nowadays in the regular gains of the far right in a number of recent elections. Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria have all been affected."
Rush Limbaugh/Newt Gingrich politics have led to the rise of a neofascist right in America, and our export of these ideas are inspiring the return of right-wing politics in Europe, threatening to tear apart the social fabric of that continent.
Todd notes that Portugal and Spain are the least affected by these ideas, because of their recent experience with Franco's fascism.
But our increasing moral bankruptcy (detention without trials, phony war on terror), economic bankruptcy (living on debt borrowed from Europe, China, and Japan, along with the dramatic oligarchic trends in America toward richer rich, poorer poor, and the loss of the middle class), and military impotence (leading us to loudly attack relatively defenseless countries to create "show victories" and a "bloody vaudeville show" in Iraq) are causing many in Europe to reevaluate their relationship with -- and support of -- America.
If they decide to throw their lot in with Russia and Iran instead of the US -- and Todd suggests this is a growing probability -- then the result is "easy to predict."
"The United States," he says, "will then have to live like other nations, notably by reigning in its huge trade deficit, a constraint that would imply a 15 to 20 percent drop in the standard of living of the population."
And this, he suggests, may be a good thing, long term. "What the world needs is not that America disappear but that it return to its true self -- democratic, liberal, and productive."
One can only hope that America will return to the ideals we held prior to Reagan, and do so with a minimum of damage to our working class. Reading Emmanuel Todd's book "After The Empire" will help crystallize in your mind so many of these issues, and help provide a roadmap for Americans to a return to domestic and international political sanity, hopefully as soon as the 2006 elections...
Thom Hartmann's "Independent Thinker" Book of the Month Review
How is it, some have wondered, that the Republican Party has been taken over by a relatively small band of radical ideologues who don't believe in democracy or honesty or any specific religion, but relentlessly flog the language of "freedom," "honor," and Christianity? How is it that people who run the government into deficit can campaign on fiscal responsibility? Or that people who campaign on a "pro life" position can be responsible for lying us into a war that has killed well over 100,000 human beings, nakedly advocate torture, and openly promote the death penalty in American?
Most of it goes back to one man - Leo Strauss. To understand what has happened to America since the dawn of the "Reagan revolution," one must first understand Strauss and his disciples.
Several of my previous monthly book reviews for Buzzflash have been about books that provide insights into the history of modern American liberalism and its contrast with traditional European and American conservatism. But the folks who today call themselves "conservatives" - from Limbaugh to Gingrich to Kristol to the senior Bushies - are not conservatives in either the American or the classical European mold. They represent something entirely new in the experience of America, breathtaking in its sweep and horrifying in its reach and ambitions. They are the "new conservatives" or "neo-conservatives."
Arguably, the last two political philosophers who both influenced world events and shared many of the worldviews of today's neocons were the Nicolo Machiavelli (who published "The Prince" in Italy in 1515) and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (who inspired a young Adolf Hitler with his magazine "Ostara"). Following in their tradition - relatively obscure men who peddled cynicism and faux patriotism while deeply influencing some of the world's most powerful people - came Leo Strauss, a professor at the University of Chicago through the 1950s and 1960s. A Jewish émigré from Germany, Strauss was obsessed with the noble goal of figuring out how to prevent America from falling into the same trap of a decline into fascism that Germany had. Ironically, he himself fell into the trap of fascistic ends-justifies-the-means thinking, and has taken a large segment of the American conservative movement with him.
As Canadian (University of Calgary) political science professor Shadia B. Drury notes in her brilliant critique of Strauss, his work, and his students' influence:
"Strauss's students and their students have occupied important positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations and continue to play a significant role within the Republican party. Prominent figures on the American political scene include Reagan's ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Wolfowitz; Caspar Weinberger's former speechwriter, Seth Cropsey; National Endowment for the Humanities Deputy Chairman, John T. Agresto; National Security Council advisor Carnes Lord; Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, Alan Keyes; legal scholar and judge Robert Bork...; Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court; former Secretary of Education William Bennett; former Education Department Chief of Staff, William Kristol (later former vice-president Dan Quayle's chief of staff and then the chief pundit and policy maker of the Republican party). Journalists have been fully cognizant of this influx of Straussians into Washington and of the power they have within the Republican party. So much so that the New York Times has dubbed Leo Strauss the godfather of the Republican party's 1994 Contract With America."
What's particularly useful and fascinating about Drury's book is that she not only lays out the core and evolution of Strauss's philosophy, but puts it into the context of the history of modern conservatism and modern liberal thought and history. (There are several other books on Strauss available and most fail to provide this useful historical context.)
Drury is an academic, and it shows in her writing style, which often lapses into textbook-ese. The information she's providing is so compelling, however, that this is merely a distraction and not a deterrence from reading this brilliant and deeply researched book. Drury also assumes her readers know the philosophies and histories of Max Weber, Martin Heiddeger, Carl Schmitt, and other Germans who influenced the Nazis (or became Nazis), and of other somewhat more obscure historical details such as the arguments Jefferson and Madison had with Plato's critiques of democracy. Some reviewers have said that because she assumes such depth of knowledge on the part of her readers, this book should be only for post-graduate students of history or philosophy. I disagree - her references to philosophers and philosophies (and histories) are sufficiently contextual that the reader can easily and readily infer who unfamiliar people may have been and what their positions were, and thus not only extract Strauss's philosophy and impact from the book, but get a running start on many others as well. (You'll become an armchair expert in famous philosophers in no time, and amaze your friends!)
About the neocon philosophy itself, Drury notes:
"The truth of the matter is that neoconservativism is not conservative, but radical and reactionary. Its radical nature is manifest in Kristol's refusal to accept the basic tenets of the American slate and start over. Neoconservatism is also reactionary in the technical sense of the term. Reactionaries are not interested in conserving the present as it is. On the contrary, it is the present that they find intolerable. ...Neoconservatives are repelled by the liberal present, and they hunger for radical change intended to restore a lost golden age."
Ironically, the "lost golden age" of the Neoconservatives never existed. The Founders and Framers of America were not, by and large, Bible thumpers, and the nation was founded on egalitarian - liberal - principles. The Enlightenment, which led directly to the American Revolution, was the dawning birth of modern liberalism. Thus, because history doesn't support their story line, the Neocons have actively set out to reconstruct America's history to their liking - producing a flood or phony history flooding America's airwaves, bookstores, churches, and schools.
They also determined that people must live in constant fear, and that a religion - any religion so long as it was monotheistic, patriarchal, hierarchical, and authoritarian - must be used to "opiate" (to paraphrase both Strauss and Marx) the people.
The cynical neocon manipulation of Americans was done for the very best of reasons. After all, the ends - in their minds - justified just about any means, including the death of hundreds of thousands of people. All this brought about the ultimate irony: Strauss's fear of Nazism - and his misunderstanding of Nazism - led him and his followers to repeat many of the philosophical and political errors of the Nazis.
To understand how America got here, read Shadia Drury's brilliant book, "Leo Strauss and the American Right." Once you have, the path back to democracy will become much more clear.