Few things are more satisfying than sitting on a moral high horse and letting that horse do what horses do. The tail lifts slightly, the plats fall with a gratifying plop on unwary passersby. Nothing is easier than sitting up here, gaze toward the horizon, judging those who worship false idols, speak of doing the right thing without often doing it, feel a twinge of guilt but cannot refrain from doing what is best for themselves, no matter what the consequences to everybody else. How to be a moral force in the world? — that is another question entirely.
We are weary down here, and often enraged, to hear the endless streams of shit from the mouths of the corrupt hypocrites who run things in our democracy. Tune in to Trevor Noah, who will play you the clip of high-minded Mitch McConnell, pompously denouncing Democrats who vow to resist the Republican Health Care Bill. “Resist!” he sneers, as if these disloyal, anti-American Democrats have uttered an unprecedented stream of gratuitous fucking f and n words. Then Noah plays a collage of McConnell from a few years back vowing to resist everything Obama proposes, followed by Mike Pence vowing to do the same, also using the r-word. Neither one needs to make any reference to the n-word to make clear their unspoken feelings about the illegitimate, Kenyan-born secret Muslim presidential pretender. Their animus toward their enemy could not be clearer if they were wearing sheets.
On the other side of the aisle, politicians as corrupt and vicious as McConnell and Pence make equally sickening pronouncements. They defend indefensible compromises as the best they can do. They talk the language of egalitarian democracy while accepting huge sums of money from the same donors who support their opponents. Goldman-Sachs and their ilk support both sides in most elections, enabling them to call in favors from whichever party wins. The insurance, pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industries, same deal. Most people have little grasp of what has happened to the Democratic party, now our Neoliberal Party.
What is Neoliberalism? The belief that a healthy “Free Market” is the best indicator of good social policy. The Free Market’s health is determined by profitability. When the stock market makes money for investors everything is humming for the neoliberal. They are liberals because they believe in social progress, the right of individuals to control their own lives, the responsibility of the government to ensure these rights are respected. What makes them neoliberals is their belief that freedom is best expressed through competition and is best measured by how well private sector profits are doing. So neoliberals support a woman’s right to abortion, if needed, a gay person’s right not to be assaulted, a poor person’s right to a minimalist social safety net, while at the same time supporting the right of private corporations to do what they do best– make profit for their investors, in a Free Market.
The Free Market is theoretically based on free competition. This competition, according to the orthodoxy of capitalism, causes the best product to be offered at the lowest price. In practice, competition in modern capitalism is not free, it’s very, very expensive. In theory, however, the Free Market sounds excellent. American Health Care? Providers compete to offer the best service for the lowest price. If Private Health Insurance companies can sell a better product for less than Medicare, well, they should win and the government program should lose.
Oh, except the Free Market can never be allowed to be quite that free. Rich and powerful business leaders would likely lose a shit ton of money under that kind of competition. So our laws always protect the bottom line of those CEOs, who, in fairness to them, have spent millions influencing the legislators who will vote on the issue of how free the Free Market will be. If we allowed a government program to compete with private enterprise on an untilted playing field that would be… Socialism, maybe even Communism. Neoliberals do not believe the State should have a finger on the scale in matters of Free Market competition, except to make sure the most lucrative industries are properly incentivized to make maximum profits.
Public Schools? You can measure their progress and compare it to the progress of private schools. Let the best schools win. Private schools, of course, can throw out disruptive students, public schools can’t. There are certain other advantages that private schools have over the public schools, but let them compete freely and we’ll use metrics to see who performs better. Let the best enterprise flourish and the other fall away. “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” were two government attempts to set the parameters of this free, if slightly unfair, competition.
What neoliberals lose sight of, sadly, is everything that is not economically quantifiable. There are important human values beyond what can be monetized or reckoned on a balance sheet. In the neoliberal view, values like compassion, empathy, creativity, community, critical thinking, problem-solving, unless used to increase the monetary value of a thing, become the equivalent of what economists call ‘externalities’– their loss becomes part of the price we pay for financial progress for the most successful competitors. While some grow fantastically rich from this theoretically Free Market competition, the vast majority find themselves living in a hell more real than theoretical.
When my sister and I were kids our father used to give us grief when we brought home Sugar Babies, Sugar Daddys and Sugar Mamas. These candies, he explained, were made by a company owned by one of the founders of the John Birch Society. I don’t know who John Birch was, but the society that bore his name was composed of white men who believed Communism was taking over America and who were determined to resist it. Dwight Eisenhower was suspected of being a possible Communist agent. Negros and Jews were mostly Commies. The Supreme Court had a couple of Commies on it, notably Earl Warren. What these Commies wanted, presumably, was egalitarianism. What the John Birch Society wanted was the protection of the American status quo. The wealthy men who founded it hated the idea of a Welfare State where they would be taxed to provide a safety net for losers.
When I was a kid, in the sixties, the John Birch Society was a fringe group of xenophobic racists, far to the right of the most conservative members of the Republican party. Fifty years later, their ideas have taken over the Republican party. The man in the White House, although he has no firm political ideals, has grasped the essential strategy of this group– play to the prejudices of your base and fuck any discussion at all. Free debate is the enemy of extreme ideas. As long as informed debate is stifled, any insane idea put forth consistently in the media will eventually win the day. That is what those who hate the idea of democracy always count on.
What is the line between the far-right lunatics of the John Birch Society and Steve Bannon and his chaos-embracing employer? The politically active billionaire Koch Brothers, Charles and David, were both members of the group their father championed. Fred Koch, who built the oil refinery for Hitler that allowed the Third Reich to refine special fuel for the Luftwaffe, was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society. It took his sons decades, but their hard work and vast expenditure in politics, which included the creation of think-tanks and legislative and electoral efforts on the state level in every state, eventually brought the extreme idea that society must protect the wealth of the wealthiest at all costs, to the mainstream, to the White House.
The Koch brothers and their billionaire ilk are not stupid, not by any means. The Koch boys are brilliant, as is the man who put Trump over the top in the recent election, self-made billionaire Robert Mercer. They do not sell greed, or self-interest, or sadistic social policies that benefit only the already super-wealthy. They sell freedom, liberty, self-determination, the right to be free of unconscionable intrusions by the government on individual freedom. They sell the moral high ground, you can bet on it.
From up here on my high horse, I shit on them all. You can rest assured they don’t give the slightest fuck what I do. How to be a moral force in the world? I wake up almost every day with that question rattling in my head.