Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Roosevelts: 'Rosies' and Thorns in America's Common Garden



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            If we learn anything from the Ken Burns documentary concluding Saturday night on the Public Broadcasting System, it's that the progressive, humanitarian future foreseen by America's two great 20th century presidents has regressed in the last thirty years to a version of the darker, oligarchal, corporately manipulated past.
            It was Theodore Roosevelt, a Progressive Republican, who declared he would stand up to "the malfactors of great wealth."
            Nowadays Washington insiders would proudly wear that phrase as a team affiliation on their T-shirts. If somone or some entitly possesses great wealth, he must be good, because it's only by cuddling up to possessors of great health that elected can keep their seats. It's the new normal. Elections are too expensive for a Congressman to look a gift horse, however mangy, in the eye. The Supreme Court tells us that's the way things should be.
            FDR had some interesting epithets for his opponents as well.
            "Economic Royalists," we heard Franklin Roosevelt say in one ofhis famous Depression ERa speeches to the country, "fear that we are threatening their power."
            He regarded the coprorate bosses of his era as a class who saw themselves as "royalty." They deserved to hoard the wealth because they were born to their position, their class, their privileges. FDR was born to that class as well; he knew and understood them. He knew they 'hated' him as a 'traitor.'
            JP Morgan, the darth vader of suffering inflicted on the millions of exploited workers and their families in America's 'gilded age' -- i.e., society divided into rich robber barons and impoverished masses -- clashed with both Roosevelts. He could not believe that Teddy Roosevelt invoked 'emergency' powers to prevent his takeover of the entire railroad system with toal of setting tranporatation rates for all goods. It doesn;t say in the constitution you have the power to do that, his lawyers pointed out.
            "The consitution exists for the poeple, not the people for the Constitution," TR said.
            Who would say anythng liek that today?
            FDR saved the country in 1933 by closing the banks until he had a plan to reform them. Morgan, still around -- no Luke appeared to slay this Darth Vader.
            Their hate was a price he would pay for saving America from chaos and despair, and saving them from the real possibility of a Soviet-style, class-based revolution. 
            But while much of this story might be familiar to many of us, what continues to amaze me is that the words -- the ideas, ideals and values -- routinely spoken by the men in the White House are completely absent from today's political vocabulary.
            FDR, in another archived film moment, observes that a public policy should not be judged by whether "it added to those who already had more than enough, but whether it added something to those who have too little."
            This would be apostasy today. There is no concept in American society of "having too much." Given the routine compensation packages for CEOs, bankers and stock brokers, how could there be? There is no notion in common public opinion tht they they are fleecing the public good to feather their own no nests.
            And there is no consensus that public policy ought to be concerned with those who have too little. If you are unemployed, poor, hungry or homeless or driven inot penury by exorbitant medical costs, the genearl opinion appears to be that such matters are your own business. Why come running to us? Congression leaders ask today. We take care of ourselves. Model your behavior on us.
            Americans wrote thousands of letters every day to FDR when he was in the White House because, int the words of one, this was the first time he thought someone actually cared about them.
            The government had an obligation to take action to ensure "a decent place, a and decent government" for its citizens.
            Somehow we've lost the notion that "providing for the common good" was the purpose of government.
            Maybe watching a documentary that provides a detailed passage through the major events of the first half of the 20th century will remind of us how hard life was for the many and how far we had to come to create the common social advanatages the Baby Boomer generation could take for granted. Do we have to go back to 1900 and do it all over?