PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager
The essence of modern political radicalism is an insistence on the human
scale. Radicals demand that both government and business activities be measured
by -- and, if necessary, altered in relation to -- their impact on individuals.
In this way radicals differ from liberals and conservatives. Conservatives
only want to evaluate government's influence on individuals insofar as it
interferes with business, and they do not want to moderate, or even know
about, business' impact on individuals at all. Meanwhile the liberals are,
as usual, wandering around getting the worst of both worlds. They mostly
protect the corporations from the people and hardly ever protect the people
from the corporations, and wonder why they lose elections.
Buried deep in the American heartland is a strain of political radicalism
that is profoundly traditional in its origins. It requires that the constitution
be taken seriously. It objects to the rich owning both property and the
government. And it never ceases to trust the populace in the face of whatever
elite belittles them -- corporate, media, or political.
Despite the unpopularity of this strain of thought, it can at no time wholly
be repressed. Even economic influence of the propertied classes can never
quite obliterate so vital a portion of the American heritage. But as Bertolt
Brecht said, "It is very hard not to cringe before the powerful, and
it is highly advantageous to betray the weak. To displease the possessors
means to become one of the dispossessed. This takes courage."
As this column's contribution to The Progressive Populist's summer
beach-and-mountain reading list, permit me to introduce two useful books.
They will not entirely remove the taste of the official media from your
mind, but they will keep you in touch with the original radicalism of the
Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, whose influence has been felt in the Senate
and in the White House, is both a fellow-columnist in The Progressive
Populist and a former employer of mine. As such I have had an opportunity
to observe his thinking close up, and am happy to report that its appearance
in his twenty-one books is accurate, refreshing, and incisive. His latest
foray into public improvement is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents,
the Press and Reformers, edited and with an introduction by Keith C.
Burris (Times Books, 320 pages, $25). In it, McCarthy carefully spells out
the line between the radicalism that arises from tradition, and the reformism
that so often disfigures the face of liberalism.
Central to McCarthy's critique is the observation that those who mean well
often end up doing the most harm. He derides the metaphor of "problem"
and "solution" as having disastrous political consequences. "Fixing"
the ills of the political process by entrenching two competing political
parties in law and finance is his chief example of destruction caused by
reform, and it is a doozy. He uses his humor to make serious points, as
when he says that having Nixon influenced by contributors such as Clement
Stone was likely an improvement over an uninfluenced Nixon. But in general,
it is "do-good" institutions such as Common Cause and 60 Minutes
to which he traces most of the overkill generated by past reforms.
Neither Congress, presidents, nor the media fare much better than the reformers
at McCarthy's hands. A failure to appreciate consequences is his recurring
charge. Whether in foreign or domestic policy, presidents observed by McCarthy
have tended to personalize the office and consequently to weaken the institutional
barriers erected by the founders against the erratic use of power. Congressional
attempts at reforming the legislative process, whether Democratic or Republican,
seem always to trivialize the individual legislator as well as the legislature
itself, while exalting the momentary holders of leadership positions.
In his introduction, Keith Burris remarks that "The McCarthy wit is
an integral part of him -- like his values, his skepticism, his sense of
the possible." Few reviewers, certainly not this one, can do justice
to how McCarthy's way of viewing the world leads him toward humor and away
from despair. I can only record, with wonder, that it does, and commend
those who would take the journey with him across these pages.
Fellow Progressive Populist columnists Russell Mokhiber and Robert
Weissman have come out with Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Mega-Profits
and the Attack on Democracy, with an introduction by Ralph Nader, (Common
Courage Press, 214 pages, $14.95.) Their relentless focus is on the weekly
presentation of corporate greed and its assistance by government folly.
This collection of columns covers issues from 1997 to 1999 and is clearly
written, well thought-out, and seriously challenging to the status quo.
They, like McCarthy, are radicals within the meaning of the act because
they too are not interested in minor, or even fundamental, reforms. By taking
corporate actions as seriously in a political sense as the Republican
Street Journal takes them financially, Mokhiber and Weissman document
the skewing of the political process by business interests to the detriment
of ordinary citizens.
The columns are a series of case studies of insidious excess by corporations
and their servants among the media, the bureaucracy, and elected officials.
From Big Tobacco to irradiated food, their targets are fixed with the cold
glare of disbelief. They document the sadly lengthening tale of corporate
mal-, mis- and nonfeasance. It is clear that a political system elevating
paper-based realities such as corporate business structures into beings
that have as much existence as real people is in real trouble. And so we
Mokhiber and Weissman offer a form of business reporting, independent of
corporate press releases, in which what corporations do is more important
than the justifications they offer. That this form is not more widespread
than it is indicts the mainstream media for complicity in economic crime,
but that too is no surprise to radicalized readers. This book will probably
create a few more of them.
James McCarty Yeager, who served as press secretary in Eugene J. McCarthy's
1976 presidential campaign, reads as many books as possible in his small
corner of the Maryland forest alongside the Little Falls of the Potomac.
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