History might be written by the winners, but our most profound, long-lived legends and stories are created by the folk. That’s why the stories, songs and poems are not called Elite Lore. Many of them are cautionary tales about the blindness, cruelty, hubris and dehumanizing excesses of authority.
The Framers, aware of this creative power, protected the people’s voices with the principle of free speech. The folk have never achieved political ascendency, of course. It seems rather obvious to say that authentic popular democracy has nowhere been achieved.
After a brief flourishing of grassroots, popular literature in the 19th Century, the high costs of mass communications handed the elite some ability to keep the gates of culture and mediate or censor popular tales. I say “some ability” because a remarkable thing about human creativity is its radical persistence and resistance to authority. It was Joshua’s music that brought down the walls of Jericho. African-American creative traditions of resistance, made necessary by failure of the Framers to abolish slavery, are the ghosts in the machine of popular culture.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission greatly strengthens the authoritarian domination of the people’s speech, reversing the intent of the Framer’s free speech principle. By freeing unaccountable, global corporations to use their nearly unlimited resources to dominate the political sphere, the authoritarian Court has sacrificed free speech on the altar of greed. They would have us believe that it is the powerful and nearly irresistible voices of the rulers that need liberating.
Moloch is unchained.
In the Hebrew Bible, it is the idolatrous Solomon who builds an altar for the sacrifice of children to Moloch, “the abomination of the sons of Ammon” (1 Kings 11.7). In early 21st Century America, it is the five be-robed authoritarians, led by a dull, uncharismatic elitist with the unpoetic name of John Roberts.
The Iliad is a tragic and bloody tale of the failures of kings and elite warriors. The Old Testament is a colorful compendium of woeful human leadership. Buddha found enlightenment only after forsaking his royal family. Jesus’ radical parables pull the spiritual rug from under the powerful. The lone and rugged western hero of the American imagination loathes power.
The democratic revolutions of the 17th-20th centuries represented the political rise of the tale-tellers. Democracy was designed, in principle, to give the people a voice so that the tragedies of kings could be avoided, that Absalom might live, that there would be no Pilate in need of handwash.
But the American political elites flourish behind the walls of Jericho. We expect too much if we think any of them will, without a popular uprising on par with the abolitionists and civil rights movement, participate in the revolutionary music making that might bring down the walls. The Supreme Court’s ruling undermines both government and the competitive marketplace (by allowing corporations to buy government-enforced market dominance rather than compete for it). But they will not see that. They will see only the possibility of more wealth and power.
Already they are accepting the Court’s decision as not all that significant.
If ever there was a voice for status-obsessed Washington, D.C. insiders, Politico is it. And Politico is telling us the outrage against Citizens United v. FEC is unjustified, that freeing corporations to spend what they want to elect or defeat whomever they want is no big deal.
Beware. The elite are coming to the realization that the Supreme Court’s decision is just the ticket. Officeholders see a new source of cash. Consultants, who work for candidates and corporations, are getting teary eyed at their potential windfalls. Pundits work for corporations. So do journalists.
The Court’s decision repudiates the Framers and the principle of free speech. It is a kind of ultimate empowerment of Moloch that spits in the face of humanity’s ancient search for liberation and equality.
Only a full-bodied revolt from Americans of all political stripes will undo what the court has done. Small, incremental legislative solutions should be pursued, but it will take a constitutional amendment or a new Supreme Court majority to reverse this awful ruling.
Sing, America, like it is our last song.