Bill Britton: Culture and Money in the Shadow of American Politics

 

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IN RECENT YEARS, BOTH AUTHORS AND MEDIA PUNDITS HAVE BEMOANED THE DECLINE OF CULTURE IN AMERICA.

The word itself, “culture,” can be defined in many ways. As it pertains to society as a whole, it may be defined as the beliefs, customs, arts, and politics of a particular society, group, place, or time. If individuals and society are to advance their native culture, their political systems must be sound and their leaders must epitomize integrity.

The mid-seventeenth century saw the emergence of the Enlightenment, which ushered in dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society, and politics and swept away the medieval world-view. [1] Political revolutions are rarely peaceful: for example, the American Revolutionary War and the communist revolution in Russia. Revolutions in science, philosophy, and the arts, by contrast, are peaceful for the most part, although those whose lives are being disrupted by the “new” oftentimes resist bitterly. This can be seen in America’s move from a manufacturing to a service-oriented economy and in the politicized debate between religion and humanism.

Politics operates as a function of society, although the reverse could be argued in today’s America–that is, society operates as a function of politics: in other words, the “tail” (politics) is now wagging the “dog” (society). To some extent, this has always been true, but in the current presidential election cycle, politics has frayed the underpinnings of a stable society–civility and decency–the Golden Rule, so to speak. I’ll not point fingers at a particular candidate; I’ll leave that up to the reader.

We Americans praise our democracy as an example to the world. Indeed, our attempts at “regime change” can be seen as a projection of that conceit, although the “spreading of democracy” has often served as a convenient cover for our insatiable appetite to acquire control of the world’s resources–oil, in particular. What we don’t appreciate is that representative democracy is probably the most fragile form of governance. It depends on both economic and social stability, which, in turn, depend on the equitable distribution of a nation’s wealth. For most political conservatives, “wealth redistribution” is an obscene concept. According to Forbes, the top 1 percent now control 43 percent of the nation’s wealth; the next 4 percent control an additional 29 percent. [2] CEOs at major companies earn 500 to 1,000 times that of the average worker.

Some contend that the 1 percent have a moral imperative to mitigate this trend toward wealth concentration. This is at once both naïve and unrealistic. Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, for the people” no longer operates. American democracy has morphed into a government that represents the interests of the financial sector and big business; the financial sector alone accounts for almost eight percent of the nations total output (GDP) and 25 percent of its total profits. [3] A redefinition of “obscenity” is in order.

This new American reality is partly the result of an act by Congress and one by the Supreme Court. In 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which kept investment firms separate from commercial banks. Once repealed, banks became cash cows for the financial services industry which led directly to the catastrophe of the derivatives/sub-prime markets. [4] In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down limits on campaign spending in the Citizens United case. [5] In a very real sense, these two decisions obliterated Lincoln’s Gettysburg assertion. The financial foxes have entered the henhouses of ordinary Americans.

All of this brings me back to the “culture” question: Is American culture in decline? I ask the reader to look honestly at a number of indicators: television programming in general, not just the news “shows;” tabloid magazine offerings at the grocery check-out; the lyrics of the top music hits; food store shopping-cart contents; our polluted streams, lakes, and rivers; our littered roadsides; our eroding infrastructure; our appalling inner-city schools; and, of course, our outrageous politics.

Your answer? [6]

[1] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/

[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/moneywisewomen/2012/03/21/average-america-vs-the-one-percent/#235493d311a8

[3]

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/novemberdecember_2014/features/frenzied_financialization052714.php?page=all

[4] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/economic-intelligence/2012/08/27/repeal-of-glass-steagall-caused-the-financial-crisis

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/05/21/money-unlimited

[6] Cartoon from New Yorker Magazine: http://www.newyorker.com/cartoons/daily-cartoon/daily-cartoon-thursday-april-23rd-2016-election

Bill Britton is a contributing editor and a freelance writer for John Hopkins University.

Bill Britton

 

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