DEJA VU, KIND OF

The world is a mess. Regional wars are devastating several countries, and there is a serious threat of escalation, involving the major powers of the world. The wealth of the world is being concentrated in the hands of a very few, and those few are using the power of that wealth to gather yet more to themselves. The rights of the average citizen are threatened by limiting, or even eliminating, the right to vote and the right to organize. The stock market, having sustained a crushing blow from the misconduct of the financiers, is booming, and jobs are increasing, but wages are stagnant or even falliing. Funds for education and health care are being slashed. The middle class is disappearing, and the window of opportunity for youth is growing smaller and smaller. Bigotry is on the rise, and there is a demand to close American borders to essentially all foreigners, particularly those of another color or religious persuasion. Politics consists mostly of vicious attacks by each side on the other, and government, including both the legislatures and the courts, are almost completely controlled by the rich and powerful. More and more, the voices of dissent are being silenced or excoriated in the media as communists and terrorists.
Do you recognize this picture? It is America, and the world, but it is that world in 1900. The regional conflicts, and the various interwoven web of alliances caused by those conflicts, would draw the world into global war. The robber barons — Rockefeller and Morgan and Hill and the rest — were reaping millions on watered stock and other flimflams. Unions were being restricted by legislation, and even the right to peaceably assemble was under attack.
The comparison of that time to our own is, thankfully, not quite as close as it might appear. We have, since that awful time, passed laws and installed policies that have increased opportunities for the less advantaged and decreased the effects of bigotry. We have created programs that make education and health care more readily available. We have increased the rights and opportunities of women and people of color. The comparison, while uncomfortable, is not by any means complete.
Not yet. The disturbing thought here is that the recent political landscape makes one feel that we are moving backward, giving up the gains we made in human rights, limiting opportunities, restricting the vote, allowing wealth, and therefore power, to be once agains concentrated in the hands of a few.
Why? Why would we move back to a time and a set of policies that we know will end in injustice and perhaps even violence? The answer is, I suggest, far deeper and far more personal than the far too easy answer that it is the damned rich people, the damned Koch brothers, the damned capitalists. I suggest that the answer is in each of us. The answer is that the prime, the natural, the instinctive motive for our actions is self-interest. Graham Greene, in his masterpiece The Heart of the Matter, observed that each of has inside a little dictator who would wish serious damage to others just for our own convenience. We each, deep down and at base, want the world to operate in our favor. In a sense, we are each little Koch brothers, wanting to feather our own nests more and more, no matter how big that nest is at the moment. And since, as Plato so brilliantly observed in the Republic, politics is nothing but the individual “writ large”, we are constantly tempted to follow political policies that further our own interests. In sum, we have met the enemy, and it is us.
What makes us, humans, great, what gives us a hope, is that we are also the beings that recognize a calling beyond ourselves. That call is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. We recognize, we hold without any doubt, that all humans are created equal, that all humans have inalienable rights. As long as those ideals are preserved, we will inevitably be drawn back away from self-interest, both individually and politically.
Want proof? List for yourself your real, honest to God heroes. Find any Koch brothers on your list?

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