Class Warfare in America by Bill Moyers, Part 4

Household economics is not the only area where inequality is growing in America. Equality doesn’t mean equal incomes, but a fair and decent society where money is not the sole arbiter of status or comfort. In a fair and just society, the commonwealth will be valued even as individual wealth is encouraged.

We don’t have a just society and I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime but I will go further: We can’t even hope to build a society that is trying to be fair and just unless and until the commonwealth and individual and corporate wealth are considered of equal worth. As long as the latter are more valued than the former, we don’t even have a democratic society–we have a society filled with oligarchs and people who want someday to be oligarchs. It is the revolutionary idea, first that there is such a thing as a commonwealth–that society represents a wealth that we all share in common–and second that our common wealth and well-being is at least as important as our individual wealth and well-being, that is the underpinning of the democratic ideal. Without it, without a profound and lasting commitment to it, we are at best a corporate oligarchy and at worst a dictatorship waiting to happen.

Let me make something clear here. I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m old enough to know that the tension between haves and have-nots are built into human psychology, it is a constant in human history, and it has been a factor in every society. But I also know America was going to be different. I know that because I read Mr. Jefferson’s writings, Mr. Lincoln’s speeches and other documents in the growing American creed. I presumptuously disagreed with Thomas Jefferson about human equality being self-evident. Where I lived, neither talent, nor opportunity, nor outcomes were equal. Life is rarely fair and never equal. So what could he possibly have meant by that ringing but ambiguous declaration: “All men are created equal”? Two things, possibly. One, although none of us are good, all of us are sacred (Glenn Tinder), that’s the basis for thinking we are by nature kin.

Second, he may have come to see the meaning of those words through the experience of the slave who was his mistress. As is now widely acknowledged, the hands that wrote “all men are created equal” also stroked the breasts and caressed the thighs of a black woman named Sally Hennings. She bore him six children whom he never acknowledged as his own, but who were the only slaves freed by his will when he died — the one request we think Sally Hennings made of her master. Thomas Jefferson could not have been insensitive to the flesh-and-blood woman in his arms. He had to know she was his equal in her desire for life, her longing for liberty, her passion for happiness.

In his book on the Declaration, my late friend Mortimer Adler said Jefferson realized that whatever things are really good for any human being are really good for all other human beings. The happy or good life is essentially the same for all: a satisfaction of the same needs inherent in human nature. A just society is grounded in that recognition. So Jefferson kept as a slave a woman whose nature he knew was equal to his. All Sally Hennings got from her long sufferance — perhaps it was all she sought from what may have grown into a secret and unacknowledged love — was that he let her children go. “Let my children go” — one of the oldest of all petitions. It has long been the promise of America — a broken promise, to be sure. But the idea took hold that we could fix what was broken so that our children would live a bountiful life. We could prevent the polarization between the very rich and the very poor that poisoned other societies. We could provide that each and every citizen would enjoy the basic necessities of life, a voice in the system of self-government, and a better chance for their children. We could preclude the vast divides that produced the turmoil and tyranny of the very countries from which so many of our families had fled.

We were going to do these things because we understood our dark side — none of us is good — but we also understood the other side — all of us are sacred. From Jefferson forward we have grappled with these two notions in our collective head — that we are worthy of the creator but that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Believing the one and knowing the other, we created a country where the winners didn’t take all. Through a system of checks and balances we were going to maintain a safe, if shifting, equilibrium between wealth and commonwealth. We believed equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of any democracy. So early on [in Jeff Madrick’s description,] primary schooling was made free to all. States changed laws to protect debtors, often the relatively poor, against their rich creditors. Charters to establish corporations were open to most, if not all, white comers, rather than held for the elite. The government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land, and even supported squatters’ rights. The court challenged monopoly — all in the name of we the people.

Moyers has here named exactly the source of the unease that afflicts many with doubts about the way things are going. They can’t articulate it as well, but deep down somewhere inside they know that something is dreadfully wrong with the attitudes that have been fostered by the right over the past three decades, that we are no longer even trying to live up to our promise, that we have allowed ourselves to be taken in by con-artists and snake-oil salesman who dazzle us with their “Goverment Is BAD” carnival sideshow.

Distance from the battles of the past, a plethora of new and and expanding distractions, a lack of direct understanding of or involvement in the democratic process, the pressures of an economy that is so friendly to business that it now requires two working parents and 60+ hours a week to survive, all contribute to the sense the right has exploited that government is irrelevant, that it has nothing to do with our lives. And I wonder if we will understand how Big a Lie that is before we lose the government we dismiss so easily and thoughtlessly only to see it replaced by yet another band of plutocrats, slumlords, and money-changers.

If we don’t, the Great Experiment that was America is over, and the shameful part is that we will have killed it for trivialities–greed and the illusion of a safety that doesn’t exist unless we band together for the common good of all.

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