How Rich is Too Rich for Democracy?
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
By Bob Mayhew
At what point does great wealth held in a few hands actually harm democracy, threatening to turn a democratic republic into an oligarchy?
In a letter to Joseph Milligan on April 6, 1816, Thomas Jefferson explicitly suggested that if individuals became so rich that their wealth could influence or challenge government, then their wealth should be decreased upon their death. He wrote, “If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree…”
In this, he was making the same argument that the Framers of Pennsylvania tried to make when writing their constitution in 1776. As Kevin Phillips notes in his masterpiece book “Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich,” a Sixteenth Article to the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights (that was only “narrowly defeated”) declared: “an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights and destructive of the common happiness of mankind, and, therefore, every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”
Unfortunately, many Americans believe our nation was founded exclusively of, by, and for “rich white men,” and that the Constitution had, as its primary purpose, the protection of the super-rich. They would have us believe that the Constitution’s signers didn’t really mean all that flowery talk about liberal democracy in a republican form of government.
But the signers didn’t send other peoples kids to war, as have two generations of the oligarchic Bush family. Many of the Founders themselves gave up everything, even risking (and losing) their lives, their life’s savings, or losing their own homes and families to birth this nation.
The majority of the signers of the Constitution were actually acting against their own best economic interests when they put their signatures on that document, just as had the majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Forrest McDonald notes in his book, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, that a quarter of all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had voted in their own state legislatures for laws that would have helped debtors and the poor and thus harmed the interests of the rich. “Another fourth of the delegates had important economic interests that were adversely affected, directly and immediately, by the Constitution they helped write.”
So what motivated the framers of the Constitution? Why did James Madison not publish his own notes of the Convention until 1840, just after the last of the other participants had died? The reason, simply put, was that most of the wealthy men among the delegates were betraying the interests of their own economic class. They were voting for democracy instead of oligarchy.
But there were larger issues at stake. The people who hammered out the Constitution had such a strong feeling of history and destiny that it at times overwhelmed them.
They realized that in the seven thousand-year history of what they called civilization, only once before, in Athens-and then only for the brief flicker of a few centuries-had anything like a democracy ever been brought into existence and survived more than a generation.
Their writings show that they truly believed they were doing sacred work, something greater than themselves, their personal interests, or even the narrow interests of their wealthy constituents back in their home states.
They believed they were altering the course of world history and if they got it right we could truly create a better world.
Since the so-called “Reagan revolution” more than cut in half the income taxes the multimillionaires and billionaires among us pay, wealth has concentrated in America in ways not seen since the era of the Robber Barons, or, before that, pre-revolutionary colonial times. At the same time, poverty has exploded and the middle class is under economic siege.
The Founders of our republic fought a war against an aristocratic, oligarchic nation, and were very clear that they didn’t want America to ever degenerate into aristocracy, oligarchy, or feudalism. We must hold to their vision of an egalitarian, democratic republic.
Impact of Women
25 years at radio station KRCL featuring women of history, plus music by women, Babs De Lay captivated the October audience with her wry humor and insight of how women have impacted humankind.
De Lay began with, “How many women are in the world today? 3.1 billion women, according to 2003 statistics. How many generations of humans have we had on earth? Let’s say just ten although there have been more. That would make 60 billion people with 30 billion women with history.”
As an illustration of irony about gender inequity, De Lay cited a Greek play by Aristophanes named “Lysistrata” where the women of Athens, led by Lysistrata, devised a plan to stop the Peloponnesian War which was in its twenty-first year. Every wife and mistress was to refuse all sexual favors until the men came to terms of peace. As a precautionary measure, they also seized the Acropolis where the State treasure is kept. The result was the war ended.
The irony, De Lay asked? The play was written by a man, and performed only by men for both genders.
Centuries later we still have war, but women are not publicly withholding sex. Instead, De Lay said emphatically, they are TOLD publicly to not have sex or to hide their sex or be killed for it–in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Thailand, China, and many other countries. Women are dying today because…they are women.
Stories of Great Women
- The Nobel Peace prize was inspired by a woman. Alfred Nobel, for whom the prize was named, had felt guilty about inventing the blasting cap for dynamite in the 1800’s. Having been interested in peace for years, Nobel’s friend, Baroness Bertha Von Suttner, drew his attention to the international movement against war.
As a result, he wrote to Bertha in January 1893 that he planned to establish a prize to be awarded to “him or her who would have brought about the greatest step toward advancing the pacification of Europe.” In 1905, she was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. To date, only nine women have won the prize.
- Louise Hay was a metaphysical healer who began her work decades ago when the AIDS plague hit the United States. Her work involved mind over matter.
- Mother Teresa “saw Christ in every human being” and whose life’s work was respect for the individual and her worth and dignity, for example, the abandoned lepers.
- A vital, critical organization, the American Red Cross, was founded by another well-known woman, Clara Barton.
- Everyone has heard of Amelia Earhart, a pioneer in a male world yet De Lay asked who has heard of Women Airforce Service Pilots, another WASP acronym? Because during World War II so few men were available, women were needed to fly new planes from manufacturing factories to military bases. Thus, 25,000 women applied, 1,830 were accepted, and of those, 1,074 earned their Silver Wings.
In two years, these women flew 60 million miles in every type aircraft at the Army Air Force arsenal and for every type mission a male pilot flew except combat. In addition, they paid their own way for training and for their return trip. If a woman was killed in her plane, the government did not pay for her body to be shipped back or for her funeral; 38 women died while in service.
These WASPS were deactivated in 1944 without any government benefits, their records were sealed as secret or classified for 30 years, and they were denied “Veteran Status” for 35 years. They could only be buried at Arlington National Cemetery as “Enlisted” and not with “Officers Honors”.
A personal friend of De Lay’s, Bill Nicholson, whose mother Alberta Hunt Nicholson was a Utah WASP, is part of Hill Air Force Military Museum’s memorabilia. Bill’s mother is an exemplary local example of courage and sacrifice.
- A contemporary woman of courage, Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in April of 2004 in Iraq, is actively protesting against the Iraqi War.
- Ofra Haza, one of De Lay’s favorite singers, represented Israel well during peace and war with her fusion of Yemenite folk and ’80s beat. The ninth child of poor immigrants, a star who made it from the back streets of South Tel Aviv to Hollywood, she died at 41 of AIDS. She could have been a poster girl for women with AIDS, but she refused to tell the world.
In 2004, forty million people in the world were living with HIV or AIDS, and three million died from AIDS in 2004. Women are the largest growing community of people infected with HIV in the world. Why, asked De Lay? Because women are raped.
- Tori Amos was one of the first celebrities to go public about her rape when she released Me & A Gun on her Little Earthquakes CD in 1991. Amos in 1994 reached out to her label for help, Atlantic Records, who provided seed money for creation of the nation’s only toll-free hotline for survivors of sexual assault. Five years and more than 280,000 crisis calls later, Amos continues in this work.
Women in Politics
De Lay continued with asking how many countries are in the world, and how many of those countries have women leaders. Almanacs estimate between 189 to 194 countries. Of those, only nine countries have women heads of state, not counting figureheads like Queen Elizabeth. The countries are Sri Lanka, Ireland, Latvia, New Zealand, Finland, the Phillipines, Bangladesh, Mozambique, and Sao Tome/Principe.
De Lay then asked a provocative question: Do you think it might make a difference if there were more women running the world, since almost half of all humans are women?
Fight for the Right to Vote
In 1897 Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage in England. Thinking violence would cause men to think women could not be trusted to vote, her plan was to exercise patience and logical arguments. One argument was that since women were on school boards, paid taxes, and managed large estates that employed gardeners, workmen and laborers who could vote, it was unjust they could not vote regardless of their wealth.
However, Fawcett’s method was making little progress. Most men in Parliament believed women simply could not understand how Parliament worked and therefore should not take part in the electoral process.
This left many women angry which included Emily Pankhurst and daughters Christabel and Sylvia who formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. This Union, known as the Suffragettes, used peaceful means at first. It was only in 1905 that they created a stir when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask two Liberal politicians, Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey, if they believed women should have the right to vote. Neither man replied. The two women then raised a banner that said, “Votes for Women” and demanded answers to their questions.
Pankhurst and Kenney were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for obstruction and assault on a police officer. They refused to pay the fine, preferring prison to emphasize the injustice of the system. Thereafter women interrupted many meetings, and were insulted and violently thrown out.
Suffragettes were glad to go to prison and on hunger strikes. The government was concerned they might die in prison, thus giving martyrs to the movement. So prison governors were ordered to force-feed Suffragettes but this caused a public outcry as forced feeding was used for lunatics, not educated women.
As a result, the government of Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act where authorities would allow the Suffragettes to go on a hunger strike and not force-feed them until they were very weak–and then were released. Dying out of prison would not embarrass the government.
But they did not die. After regaining strength, they were re-arrested for trivial reasons and the process was repeated. This, from the government’s point of view, was an effective weapon against the Suffragettes.
The Suffragettes became more extreme. Their most famous feat was at the June 1913 derby when Emily Wilding Davis threw herself under the King’s horse. Killed, she became the first Suffragettes’ martyr. For a dramatic look at these courageous women, De Lay recommended HBO film “Iron Jawed Angels.” “It should make you want to go out and vote in every single election!” she said.
De Lay concluded with what she has learned from women in history.
- Women are feelers. They sense what is wrong and fix it if they can.
- Women are motivated by compassion…for their families, friends, and communities.
- Through compassion, women are more tolerant than men. To affect change they are often patient and peaceful in their actions.
It has been nearly a month since Bob and Julie Mayhew and I returned from our trip to Amherst N.Y., where we attended the International Academy of Humanism, World Congress, “Toward A New Enlightenment.” It was most enjoyable and I am still excited about the experience. For me it was very gratifying to be among so many freethinkers (there were over 600 who registered for the congress). I will refrain from saying much more about the trip at this point because the three of us will give a short report on the trip at the December 8th dinner.
For the last few years the Board has been putting on this dinner instead of our usual meeting with a guest speaker. So please come and come hungry, I look forward to some good food and lively conversation.
We will be having our annual membership meeting and social in February. At that meeting we will elect board members. For that reason I ask that any member that would like to serve as a board member, contact any of the current board members so we can announce it by the deadline in January. We need to fill a couple of vacancies so please give it some thought.
Also, in my message last month, I stated that we would vote on a change in the by-laws “at the next general meeting.” That is incorrect. This is a matter we will vote on at the February annual meeting.
Finally, I would like to recommend that you check out the latest edition of the periodical Mother Jones, “God and Country. Where the Christian Right is Leading Us.” It is a very good issue.
Thanks to everyone for your support of our chapter.
Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis
President Jimmy Carter’s newest book is a no holds barred condemnation of America’s current leadership. The book is divided into several parts.
The first section of the book addresses President Carter’s personal religious beliefs. He declares emphatically that he is an evangelical Christian. He takes issue it very clear that “evangelical” means spreading the word and draws sharp contrasts between his own personal beliefs and those of who he refers to as “fundamentalists.” “Personal” is probably the operative word of his religion. He notes that while is decidedly a Southern Baptist that he is at odds with the Southern Baptist Convention; specifically over the issues of world peace and women’s rights. Most readers of this essay will probably find this the least important and least interesting section of the book. I would argue that what he is really talking about is a “moral compass.” In my opinion, humanism is a better instrument that religion and I found myself substituting “humanist” for the word “Christian” as I read the book. However, I suspect that President Carter would disagree, his personal faith and beliefs are obviously extremely important to him.
The next theme of the book is the concept of separation church and state. President Carter articulates the importance of this concept at great length. He quotes extensively from Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the importance of Jefferson to Carter is apparent in several parts of the book. Carter, upon leaving the White House, received a plaque with a Jefferson quote stating pride in the fact that no hostile blood was shed during his watch as President. I also believe that Carter’s religion is much like Jefferson’s was; very personal and dedicated to following the life and teachings of Jesus rather than centered upon the dogma of any particular sect.
President Carter then expresses his opinions the importance of maintaining women’s rights, support for the poor, and opines strongly against the death penalty.
Perhaps the strongest point that he makes in this important book is that the current administration has changed foreign policy. America has abandoned diplomacy in favor of preemptive war. What is to stop other countries from following our lead. It seems likely that the tragedy of September 11, 2001 was used an excuse to turn the diplomatic work of all administrations in the past 50 years on their ears and pursue military occupation as a means to further American goals. This is resulting in the opposite. Our country is losing our moral leadership and respect.
The final chapters of this book concern the almost unbelievable redistribution of wealth that is taking place. The poor are getting poorer and the rich are bleeding the middle class and becoming richer. Statistics show that the government is spending the same amount of money, but is taking in much less due to the massive tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations. This is causing a dramatic rise in our international debt. The Warren Buffet Berkshire Hathaway report states that within a decade from now international debt levels will be at roughly $11 trillion which will effectively change America from an Ownership Society to a Sharecropper Society.
The Price of Loyalty. The Conscience of a Liberal
The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind published by Simon and Shuster, 2004.
This is an explosive account of the George W. Bush administration based on interviews primarily with Paul O’Neill, U.S. Treasury Secretary during the first two years of GWB’s presidency. O’Neill is the first George W. cabinet member to resign and talk frankly about the secrecy and smugness of the administrations insiders.
The author was the Wall Street Journal’s senior national affairs reporter from 1993 to 2000 and won the Pulitzer Price for Feature Writing. He appears frequently on PBS network news.
The Conscience of a Liberal by Senator Paul Wellstone, published by Random House, 2001.
The late Senator Paul Wellstone speaking for his Minnesota constituents and millions of other Americans said if you get beyond political labels you’ll find the overwhelming majority of people don’t like anything big–big government or big corporations. But they want the government to be on their side. People respond according to their sense of right and wrong. They respond to leadership of values.
He dedicated his life to the cause of economic justice and equal opportunity for all Americans. Fortunately for us he spelled out his goals and recommendations for achieving them before his untimely death in an airplane accident.
Science and Ethics
I believe that we must find a way to bring ethical considerations to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life sciences. By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry.
Rather, I am speaking of what I call “secular ethics,” which embrace the principles we share as human beings: compassion, tolerance, consideration of others, the responsible use of knowledge and power. These principles transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers; they belong not to one faith, but to all faiths.
Sometimes when scientists concentrate on their own narrow fields, their keen focus obscures the larger effect their work might have. In my conversations with scientists I try to remind them of the larger goal behind what they do in their daily work.
This question must assume a sense of urgency for all those who are concerned about the fate of human existence.
A deeper dialogue between neuroscience and society–indeed between all scientific fields and society–could help deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and our responsibilities for the natural world we share with other sentient beings.
Excerpt from New York Times OP ED 11-12-05
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the author of The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.
Member Recommended Websites
This month’s featured site is recommended by Flo Wineriter. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia/dictionary that anyone can edit. Check it for definitions, histories, etc. And if you have something to add, you can!