Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents Day Event

This holiday is celebrated as nothing more than a day off in the middle of the year's dreariest month, which is probably not a bad idea. The only tradition associated with Presidents Day is a sale at the car dealership, but I figured what the heck, I'd acknowledge the official excuse for the holiday here.

I don't subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, for the most part. We get the presidents we deserve. So, while the presidency has sunk pretty low before, right now we ought to be deeply ashamed of ourselves, as a nation. While the White House Occupant is morally culpable for his incalculable crimes, the Bush presidency is an indictment of some of the most important institutions of our society. It convicts the corporate information media of either grotesque failure or treasonous conspiracy, depending on whether you think the blatherers and scribblers are self-adoring fools, or willing tools of their corporate masters. A little bit of both is a fair conclusion.

We've been over that ground before, and it may largely be barren. They have shown almost no ability for self-reflection or remorse, if indeed they are troubled in the first place by the disasters they have helped to visit upon us. Because they were almost all completely wrong about the Iraq war, they have decided that only people who were wrong are deserving of respect. The structural problems of a capitalist news media aren't going to get any better any time soon, even as the shrinking budgets for real reporting and the ever more incestuous Washington culture are just going to further promote and reward stenography, sycophancy and intellectual laziness in the journalistic "profession." (Katie Couric? WTF?)

But just as troubling to me is the demise of the political party. At one time, parties were mass organizations. People actually belonged to them, it wasn't just a box you checked on your voter registration form. Labor unions, civic organizations, farmer's cooperatives, neighborhood groups, actually constituted political parties, while the parties themselves were organized right down to the city block -- all of this for better or for worse, to be sure, but it meant that people were directly connected to politics and to politicians. Insurgent parties even formed at times from mass organizations, including the People's Party, forged in the 1890s from the Farmers' Alliance and the labor unions, which nearly pulled off a revolution until it was hijacked by the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan.

With the decline of labor unions and mass political movemnts, and the rise of television, that has changed. Parties are not mass organizations, they are loose federations of politicians, established for the purpose of fundraising. Politics doesn't happen in union halls and granges, it happens in the shadow box, a moving pattern of tiny colored dots in each lonely living room. The parties' money is used principally to buy those dots.

The exception, unfortunately, is the church, and specifically conservative evangelical churches dedicated to restoring the society and knowledge base of 2,000 BC.

If we're going to avoid another disaster like the neo-con presidency, and have any hope of digging ourselves out of the pit they've led us into, we are going to need a basic reordering of society. Many people know this, of course, and they are seizing on the new opportunities offered by the Internet to try to build new models of mass organization and do an informational end run around the corporate media. It's even starting to work, a little bit. However, I don't see sitting with your feet up and pecking at a keyboard as a sufficient model for civic engagement. We still need to rebuild popular organizations, start having those meetings again in the church basement and the union hall and the public libarary, have the demonstrations in the town square, build the non-partisan leagues and the third parties, get out there and build movements, and once again build politics upon the polis.

Maybe that way, when we get the president we deserve, we'll be glad for it.

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