Emile Zola's passionate denunciation of the persecution of Major Alfred Dreyfus by bigoted, ancien régime leaders of the French army was a landmark achievement for the voice of righteous protest. A call to the nation's moral conscience, it galvanized a movement that forced Dreyfus' exoneration. "J'accuse" was notable for breaking a complicit silence about the sordid affair among most of the political elite. Careers, popularity and comfort were felt as too precious to jeopardize. Fear of being branded 'anti-nationalist' bred timidity.
America's situation today bears some resemblance insofar as the sound of silence in the face of disgraceful political conduct deafens us to the dire implications of what we have done. The so-called debt ceiling crisis is doing grave damage to the country's public institutions, their perceived integrity in the eyes of citizens, and the social compact that has bound together wage earners and the wealthy and powerful in the cause of national unity and basic decency. The toll will rise as the full implications of this affair register on the economy and social relations. As an enterprise in calculated destruction of the great reforms of the past eighty years that reconciled 'Americanism' with the realities of modern life, it marks a reactionary turn unprecedented in our history or that of any other Western country. As an attack on the authority of the peoples' elected representatives by the creation of an ad hoc 'super Congress,' it erodes the constitutional foundations of the Republic. As a success for the rabid dogmatists who held hostage the financial solvency of the United States to exact a ransom whose terms are rejected by a large majority of the citizenry, it rewards behavior inimical to democracy. In demonstrating the minority power of financial special interests to impose itself on the country, the crisis has confirmed the plutocratic realities of our current situation while sowing the seeds of strife down the road. In demonstrating how craven is the Democratic Party -- the self-avowed party of the 'little' people -- it has highlighted the hollowness of our much touted two-party system. In demonstrating that the Democrats, in a crunch, give priority to well healed campaign contributors over their electoral constituency, it has made a mockery of the principle of representation. Government of the people, by the people, for the people has never been in greater danger.
Then there is Mr. Barack Obama -- nominally President of the United States. His oath of office places on the president the unique responsibility to provide for the general welfare; to preserve the unity and integrity of the nation; to meet fully the constitutionally stipulated obligations of his high office; and ensure that the collective interest is upheld against the challenge of particular special interests. The president is, above all, the custodian of the civic religion that binds the country's diverse people into a polity that calls for loyalty in exchange for legality and security. The principles and norms that make up that civic religion are the crucial intangibles that breath life into the words that are sealed in the constitution and sanctify our prosaic institutions and practices. To fulfill this duty, the Chief Executive must strive to embody our public values. The inescapable wheeling and dealing that is an integral part of the job must not be driven by personal ambition alone to occupy the White House. Measured against these somber responsibilities, Barack Obama has failed the country. Moreover, it is a failure that is not dictated by the array of forces or flawed strategy. The truth is far more troubling. He has failed us due to a lack of conviction, a lack of appreciation where the path of presidential duty lies, a lack of courage, and no lack of expedient impulses to promote himself.
This last is cause, and reinforced effect of an alarming contradiction between a skillfully cultivated public persona and his actual, private thinking about the issues of our era. We have seen proof after proof that Obama the self-proclaimed enlightened progressive is in fact deeply conventional man who instinctively bows to the powerful established interests vested in an America that shuns the liberal philosophy that has legitimated the Democratic Party for a century -- and that provided the foundation for the great post-war era of prosperity and social progress. It is not by happenstance that Barack Obama drew his political inspiration from Ronald Reagan -- the president whose leadership Obama repeatedly has lauded above all other occupants of the White House.
We have had ample evidence of this dismaying truth over the past two-and-a-half years -- and even earlier. We have conveniently overlooked it -- we being Democratic voters, the lax media, and of course the favored interests who encouraged the crackpot right to depict Mr. Obama as a 'socialist' while he so nicely served them. There was the bailout of Wall Street masquerading as salvation of our financial system. There was the hiring of their obedient servants to run the national economy. There were the clandestine deals with 'big Pharma' and the health care industry that made a mockery of the 'reform' legislation. And then there was the egregious giveaway of continued Bush era tax cuts for the super rich in December, for which he received a handful of gruel in return. That last act should have been the conclusive evidence of where the president's heart and mind lie. The true believers among supposed liberals refused to see it. For they have proven true believers in an imagined man who does not exist; true believers of what satisfies their own needs for a hero more than the well-being of those whose cause they claim to serve. All this goes unexamined by mainstream pundits, analysts, experts, political journalists, economic sages, academics, etc.
The Tea Party coup of August 1 - 2 is the culmination of incompetence and misrepresentation by the White House, abetted by a timorous, compromised Democratic Party, by mainstream media that long since have ceased to meet their heralded obligation to inform and to monitor our political discourse. All of the above have contributed to, and benefited from, a populace that flees from the responsibility of citizens to do their homework. Sadly, in the end it is the self-indulgent, lazy populace that is the big loser out of proportion to their civic sins of omission.
A reactionary coup. A regressive revolution in social policy. An economy doomed to stagnation for sure -- and another collapse as a definite possibility. Discredited governmental institutions. The national interest made hostage to the machinations of an extra-constitutional Congressional junta. America the laughingstock of the world -- except by those too frightened by the threat we now pose to global stability. Yet, for all these seismic events, the country hides its head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. Rule by the 24- or 48-hour news cycle prevails. A couple of days of headlines, countdowns to debt Armageddon by hyper-ventilating news anchors, the superficial play-by-play reporting that conveys no greater weight or deeper meaning than playoff sports games. After all, this story does not have the gripping attraction of Ms Casey Anthony or Tiger Woods' Then it's gone -- relegated to the inside pages of newspaper and the filler segments of T.V. news. Even the so-called quality press seems eager to relegate this story of the century to the prosaic world of 'Washington doings.'
There are three paramount functions that the press is supposed to serve: to inform accurately, completely and fairly; to observe critically the conduct of our government and to bring forth any dubious activities; and to sustain a public dialogue on policies of consequence. The mainstream media have failed ignominiously on all counts. They could not even expose the flat earth economics that underlay the dominant discourse of both Congress and the White House. Not one of them pointed out that Social Security and Medicare have no direct relation to the deficit since they draw on dedicated Trust Funds whose FICA withholding monies are separate from Treasury tax revenues and expenditures. Ignorance fed ignorance in a closed cycle of untruth.
Mr. Obama? He neatly punctuates the return to normalcy by quickly leaving town for some fundraising R&R. Within 48 hours of the dramatic surrender to the Tea Party, and just as its profound consequences are hitting home, he was prowling the moneyed precincts of Chicago and Hollywood on the hunt for big bucks from fat cat contributors. So our celebrity president smilingly mingled with the professional celebrities while a bruised and battered country licked its wounds.
The biggest story is not these unsavory antics but the silence. Democrats in Congress have long seemed to have been struck mute. Harry Reid in the Senate went through the motions of resistance to the sell-out and then blessed the sell-out. Nancy Pelosi promises a last-ditch fight and then passively watches 50% of her minions sign the unconditional surrender. Individual maverick voices are notable for their absence -- the exception is the venerable Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who looks an incongruous throwback to another time for saying what he believes and believing what he says. The others kowtowed obediently to Mr. Obama and lent their dead weight to dragging the country over the cliff. Other Democratic dignitaries secluded themselves on Cape Cod and similar cozy retreats far from the confused and maddened crowd. No one is called to account; no one calls to account.
As used to be said in bygone times, let's tell it like it is -- for better or worse, whether we like it or not.