One of the things I think a lot about is the corruption of our political and legal systems (and hence way of life) here in America, and trying to figure out how, as a citizen, I can help improve things.
America Is Broken
To put the problem succinctly, the American way of life that I was brought up believing was important to protect no longer exists. It has now become an ideal… a sort of imaginary utopia. As a child, living in that utopia, I was taught not to fear police, but to appreciate them. I grew up in a time where the 4th Amendment’s protections were strong and important. I didn’t need to fear that I would be detained by police because of my thoughts or opinions… but nowadays, it’s genuinely dangerous to write or talk about trying to change the system because planning any sort of revolution immediately falls into the category of terrorism.
It bothers me on a very deep level that we are now living in a nation where every electronic communication, whether it’s a cell phone call, text message, email, FB, Twitter, or a blog entry is automatically being collected by a government intelligence agency. It’s now known that our government can activate any webcam that’s connected to the internet to see what’s happening, even though a federal judge told the FBI not to.
The actions taken by our many intelligence agencies (DHS, FBI, CIA, NSA and regular law enforcement) presume guilt, rather than innocence, on the part of every citizen because it is absolutely impossible to have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity for every single citizen of our country. This kind of surveillance has a chilling effect on both free speech and freedom of association.
Many people are understandably afraid to discuss how bad things have really gotten because they are afraid of being labeled a terrorist. They would rather live as serfs in a country where they are repressed by the upper class and can’t say or do anything to actually affect the government than be jailed because they’re seen as terrorists for wanting a change in public policy to restore our freedom from unwarranted invasions by the government.
It boggles my mind that the kind of country we’re living in right now is the exact same kind of regime that we were taught to rage against and hate as children in school.
I remember in 3rd grade, crying for the kids in the U.S.S.R. who were just cogs in a communist system that didn’t allow them to grow up to be whoever they wanted to be… who couldn’t speak out against their oppression.
I remember the terror I felt as a Jewish girl learning about the political regime in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany, where citizens of many countries were too afraid of the Nazi government to stop the military from killing 20+ million of their friends and neighbors.
And now, in America of all places, we’re afraid of our own military intelligence agencies and police because Congress and the courts have stripped us of our reasonable expectation of privacy in communications with one another. We’re reasonably afraid because we have such a disproportionate amount of our population incarcerated compared to other countries. The USA comprises about 5% of the world population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners. We have more than two million inmates. Imagine the entire population of Houston, TX. That’s how many people we have in prison.
Sure, people haven’t been thrown in jail simply for casually stating how they feel, but there have been a lot of people who have dealt with police brutality and jail time for protesting both the nanny state and insane wealth disparity in this country. (over 7,700 convictions so far)
I used to be genuinely proud to be American. I used to feel some amount of patriotism. The thing is, the intense upset feeling I have nowadays is probably more like the patriotism of our forefathers. I mean, the Revolutionary War was fought specifically because we didn’t want to be taxed and controlled by a regime that did not represent or protect our interests.
Looking at our current setup, that’s precisely what’s occurring again. 47% of Congress is comprised of members of the top 1% of the population which controls 35.4% of our country’s wealth. That’s incredibly disproportionate. Is it any wonder that Congress keeps passing laws that benefit the 1%, gut the middle class, and hurt the poor? Nothing is a stronger motivation for writing and passing laws that oppress the disenfranchised than self-interest. Shouldn’t Congress be staffed by people who genuinely care about their constituency’s well-being?
And the corruption doesn’t stop with the law makers. Our entire justice system has been so warped by financial corruption that a rich kid in Texas got no jail time whatsoever for a DUI that killed 4 pedestrians because he had “affluenza.” The court actually gave probation for killing 4 people because they believed the defendant was too rich to understand the difference between right and wrong.
Now, I graduated law school. I know all the defenses for DUI by heart. Being rich isn’t one of them. The only way it would make any sense is if they were using an insanity defense, and last time I checked, being rich was not considered a mental illness.
Worse yet, our legal system’s very processes are ripe with racism. That certainly doesn’t seem right for a country that is so bullish about the equality of every person that we’ve made it a part of our constitution.
So What Can We Do About It?
For several years now, I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do to help improve the situation. The unfortunate truth is that without an absurd amount of money, affecting political change from within Congress seems impossible.
Many of my friends have, at times, echoed the sentiment of the French before their bloody revolution where the lower and middle classes murdered their aristocracy. It makes sense. I mean, in France in 1787, their government wanted to tax the rich to fix a deficit problem, and the rich were like “screw that.” That lead to the Great Fear, where the lower class believed the king was conspiring with the upper class against the Third Estate.
The political climate leading up to the French Revolution was similar to our current situation. American citizens believe that the President, Supreme Court, and Congress are firmly in the pockets of an aristocracy of corporations. The 1% screams bloody murder when there is discussion of raising their taxes and throws around bald-face lies, like that taxing the rich negatively affects employment.
One of the toughest questions that we face, as citizens, is how to fight our corporate elite. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United created two huge problems for the country. It disingenuously equated corporations with people and money with speech. But corporations can’t be killed like people… or jailed… and controlling interest in an American corporation can be held by anyone in the world. Moreover it created a horrible truth for us: If money equals speech, then those with the most money get the loudest voice.
Even if we took a page outta France’s playbook and brutally murdered anyone who makes a million or more per year, the bulk of their money still wouldn’t return to the populace, thanks to the way our tax laws are set up. Most millionaires bank off-shore to take advantage of the protections afforded by other countries.
And then there’s the fact that many of the corporations in our top 1% are, for all intents and purposes, completely lawless. Our banks were first too big to fail and were supported by the populace during hard times caused by bad decisions (many of which were illegal), and now have even been deemed too big to prosecute. The idea that our economy is actually regulated by our laws is a delusion.
Many folks have suggested that we essentially fight fire with fire and create more corporations like Citizens United – ones whose sole purpose is to raise funds from the 99% in an effort to affect Congress with our money all pooled together. The sad truth is that the wealth of the 99% is dwarfed by the money controlled by the 1%. Even if everyone in the 99% banded together and could agree on something (like that would ever happen), we still couldn’t buy Congress because the lawless 1% could outbid us. And then, if they have financial problems because of buying Congress, the 99% would again be forced to bail them out in an effort to stop our economy from imploding.
So, really, what can we do?
Not much. Since Citizens United equated money with speech, the Supreme Court essentially decided that the only way to have a voice in politics is to have money, and lots of it. The only way I know to fight against big corporations is to choose to not give them our money. It may not seem like much, but money is where corporations get a voice and the power to affect our laws. So, we’ve got to vote with our pocketbooks.
1.) Shop at Mom & Pop shops, and stay away from Wal-Mart and other chains like it.
2.) Cook more food at home, and stay away from multinational fast food chains. Support local non-chain restaurants.
3.) Shop from local farms by joining a CSA and shopping at small, local grocery stores. Stop supporting big grocery chains.
4.) Move your money from a “too big to have rules” bank into a local credit union.
5.) Pick up sewing so that you aren’t dependent on big companies for your clothes.
The sad thing is that even if thousands of people did those things, the corporations and millionaires would still have more money than us.
At the end of the day, the only thing I think will make a big enough impact on Congress would be a nationwide strike of workers… but most of America is too poor to be able to afford to go on strike.
If anyone has any other ideas, I’d be really glad to hear them, because I hate to think that we’re living in a hopeless dystopia. We need to reclaim our government.
Much like Lawrence Lessig, I have hope because I love my home.