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The Super Heroes vs the Super PACs

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The Men in Black kicked the Avengers' butts last weekend at the box office. The Avengers and the MIBsters both kicked the aliens' butts (or their biological equivalent). Gigantic movie battles between innocent, minding-their-own-business Americans and evil-doing invaders intent on destroying our cities have become a Memorial Day tradition. And it's always the grit and chutzpah of a handful of superheroic patriots that save the country and the planet.

Why do Americans especially embrace these fantastical films of victory against seemingly invincible enemies during a holiday that recognizes those who have given their lives for their country? It's probably a coincidence. After all, how many Americans celebrating Memorial Day actually know what it stands for, apart from shopping, barbecuing and movie-going?

Not many, is my guess. One reason is that only one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population -- that's 0.5 percent -- has been on active duty in the military at any point during the last 10 years, according to the Pew Research center. Only a quarter of Americans say they "closely follow" news of the wars in Iran and Afghanistan. About half told pollsters the wars "made little difference" in their lives and that neither was worth the cost. This is hardly surprising; in fact, it was a deliberate strategy by the nation's leaders.

There was never the congressional Declaration of War that our Founders mandated in the Constitution to ensure that the decision had the support of a majority of the country. To avoid a national draft, which they believed would be massively unpopular, Bush administration officials disastrously outsourced a huge chunk of the work of the two conflicts to private corporations such as Halliburton and Blackwater (both have since changed their names). And war itself increasingly became a sterile and distant affair: U.S. soldiers directed drone attacks from buildings on U.S. soil, using high-tech weaponry much like blockbuster video games.

There was nothing like the clarity of purpose or mission that arises when a galactic Hitler seeks to wipe out the species -- the kind of "live free or die" choice that led a united United States to enter World War II. We were threatened -- that much we knew -- but the rest of the details were shrouded in secrecy and overt lies. The post-9/11 wars were under the radar for many -- maybe most -- Americans.

That's bad news for our democracy. Countries that had populations that were disengaged from the wars conducted in their name have not fared well in history, beginning with the archetypal example: ancient Rome. As pointed out by Cullen Murphy, that city's infamous decline and fall bears a distressing similarity to the privatization, coarsened discourse and elite-driven political establishment that characterizes contemporary America. A sense of betrayal and powerlessness -- felt most painfully over the last few years as a result of the Wall Street debacle and bailouts -- was behind the Tea Party (until it got take over by corporate interests) and Occupy uprisings.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the disenfranchisement of average Americans has only accelerated since the crash while a small class of the warrior elite has been elevated: the political consultants. Their mission: to manipulate the judgment of citizens as they attempt to exercise the right to vote.

Back in the day, political consultants were restrained by whatever boundaries were imposed by the candidates and elected officials they represented. The candidates, in turn, were bound by rules limiting how much money special interests could give them.

No more, reports the New York Times.

Ruling in the outrageous Citizens United case that corporations and their leaders have the same First Amendment rights as people, the Supreme Court has cut the tether between candidate and consultant. Now, practitioners of the dark arts of domestic poli-sci warfare can work directly for corporate-funded Super PACs without having to worry about anyone's sensibilities. "You don't have kitchen cabinets made up of well-intentioned friends and neighbors who don't know what they're doing but eat up a lot of your time," a Republican consultant told the Times. "Super PACs don't have spouses."

The Supreme Court has done away with the middleman -- the candidate -- and, perhaps inadvertently, torn away the modest cloak of legitimacy that the old campaign finance laws used to provide to a fundamentally corrupt system. Now the corporations and malefactors of wealth exercise with zeal their First Amendment freedom to blast their political opponents into oblivion.

Looking for the Avengers? If we are going to preserve our democracy against this final assault, citizens are going to have to become the superheroes.

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