Live Free and Die

Um, sorry, black folk. Apparently in Ron Paul’s America, the right of a state still trumps your right to be considered more than three-fifths human.

Originally published in the January 12th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press

The highest office in the land is the only job where applicants are rewarded for the level of disdain they express for the position they seek. The greater the antipathy toward government, the better the candidate connects with voters; or so it seems given the tenor of the GOP primary season. 

The image of the self-loathing politician promising to shrink the role of government in our lives is as old as the nation itself and usually appears during woeful economic times such as these. Of course, what someone utters on the campaign trail is almost always a far cry from how he speaks upon ascending to the Oval Office. Watching the current slate of GOP-hopefuls repackage this timeless anti-government dogma while vying for the single most powerful job in government is as ironic as it is ridiculous, but it is not without precedent. 

Many of the Founding Fathers were highly suspicious of government and the competence of the men seeking to run it. To them, government was a necessary evil, which is why so many provisions were enacted during America’s youth to protect its citizens from tyranny. But even the Founding Fathers weren’t immune to the awesome and corrupting power that accompanies the presidency. One early example was John Adams, one of the staunchest proponents of the Bill of Rights and the author of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which included many of the Constitutional amendments we hold so dear today. It was Adams who cajoled a reluctant James Madison to introduce the Bill of Rights in Congress to protect citizens from encroachments on their liberty. 

Only a few years later, Madison was jolted from retirement to join with Thomas Jefferson against an emboldened President Adams, who had recently signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, thus allowing the federal government to detain and arrest any citizen who spoke out against it. Adams was reacting to federalist fears triggered by watching the French Revolution turn ugly, and his paranoia was not without merit. But the totality of federal authority granted under these acts was so abhorrent to many of his contemporaries and fellow American revolutionaries it prompted the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions whereby these respective states unilaterally deemed the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional. 

Now put this conflict into its proper current context. Libertarians such as Ron Paul, the second-place finisher in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, and free-market conservatives (every other GOP candidate including frontrunner Mitt Romney) routinely paint themselves as Jeffersonian state’s rights advocates. Paul, in particular, identifies strongly with the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions in spite of the fact that they were specific to the threat of the Alien and Sedition Acts and later were the primary separatist arguments upon which the Civil War was fought. While the larger field of candidates is likely incapable of discussing these measures in any thoughtful way, Paul has actually made a career arguing that these resolutions are somehow as sacrosanct as the Constitution itself. He has even gone so far as to criticize their demise under President Abraham Lincoln and has called the Civil War a “major setback” due to the “undermining of the principle of sovereign states.” In a statement made on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2004, which was re-circulated by the organization Campaign For Liberty over the summer, Paul lamented this development saying, “The Civil War profoundly changed the balance of power in our federalist system, paving the way for centralized big government.”

Um, sorry, black folk. Apparently in Ron Paul’s America, the right of a state still trumps your right to be considered more than three-fifths human. 

Beyond the unintended consequence of setting the stage for the Civil War, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions did serve to unify the Democratic-Republican Party (later just the Democratic Party) against the Federalists and Adams’ frightful encroachments on individual liberties. But the fight with Adams was cover for the real issue that divided the nascent empire: taxes. 

Most of the Founding Fathers were opposed to Alexander Hamilton’s insistence upon centralizing and maintaining a strong federal treasury. They opposed it, that is, until it was their time to lead the nation as president. America’s ability to purchase land, fight skirmishes at home or wage war on the high seas was impossible without levying taxes upon its citizens: an early example of the evaporating campaign promise. When it comes to dollars and cents, ideology cannot overcome fiscal reality. 

It’s one of the reasons why our economy is struggling so badly today. Believing that war somehow pays for itself and, even more magically, stimulates growth, the Bush administration chose to ignore history and embroil the nation in two costly wars while simultaneously cutting taxes to anemic levels. This type of disconnect is central to the Republican psychology of this presidential campaign and each candidate’s continued misinterpretation of the Founding Fathers.

As much as the Jeffersonians were ideologically opposed to a strong central bank and morally opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts, they were pragmatists. Their fight against the latter gave spirit to the party, the former provided substance. Same concept, different century. 

Mind you, the GOP isn’t alone in their disassociation between candidacy and presidency. Take the curious case of candidate Barack Obama, self-proclaimed expert on the Constitution who signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 on New Year’s Eve, which includes the controversial indefinite detention provision that has libertarians and others going berserk. As well it should. It’s a confusing bundle of words that, in conjunction with the authority granted to the government under the Patriot Act, theoretically provides President Obama with powers dangerously akin to those bestowed on President Adams by the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

So while pundits split hairs over who hates government the most and which candidate has been married the longest, we’ve tragically lost our place in our own history. And so here we are again: back where we started, none the wiser and with little to show for our experience.

Culture of Corruption

U.S founders maxed individual liberty, freeing Americans, “to give full vent to the good, bad and ugly behavior of which people are capable,” Walter McDougall observes. “Americans became past masters at hustling: both in the pejorative sense of scofflaws, speculators, imposters, tricksters, self-reinventors, and conmen, but also in the positive sense of hard workers, strivers, builders, doers, joiners, and team players.”

Everyone does it.

“It’s a courtesy, not a crime,” the PBA union president declared to a throng of off-duty cops packing Bronx Supreme Court waving signs insisting “IT’S A COURTESY NOT A CRIME.”

Sounded like a ripe example of PR tone-deafness or maybe just the PBA honcho playing to his troops, public be damned!

The police commissioner begged to differ re: fixing tickets.  “Those actions are crimes under the law and can’t be glossed over as ‘courtesies.’”

The PBA honcho retorted: “When the dust settles, and we have our day in court, it will be clear that this is a part of the NYPD at all levels

Everyone does it.  Gotta problem with that?

Almost all Long Island Railroad employees who retired in 2008 did so on disability, adding an average of $36grand to the average annual pension payout, compliments of the beleaguered LIRR commuter.

Joe Rutigliano, former conductor and one-time LIRR union president, put in 570 hours of overtime with nary a single sick day in his last year, jacking up his pension, then fattening it even more with his disability claim.  Surveillance revealed that Jolted Joe went on to play golf regularly.  To add insult to injury (in a manner of speaking), Jolted Joe played public courses where, by statute, he didn’t have to pay green fees because of his so-called handicap (and we’re not talking 13 over par).

Special treatment for the handicapped has become one of those well-intended cobblestones on the road to hell.  Not because it’s not a noble proposition, but because it is so pervasively abused.  Ever notice what percentage of people parking in handicap spaces actually use a cane, crutches or wheelchair?  For the overwhelming majority there is no noticeable handicap.  But, like railroader scammers, they get notes from their doctors enabling them to score privileged parking.

Could faked handicap parking be the gateway scam to major scams like pension fraud?  I, for one, make a point of confronting obvious abusers when the occasion arises.  A couple of days ago, in fact, I was limping through the ‘Y’ parking lot with my son on our way to a workout.  A lean and limber-looking man about my age in his gym outfit was walking jauntily from the ‘Y’, drawing a bead on his car, parked in a handicapped space.

“And what is your handicap?” I asked him.

“Whatya mean?” he shot back.

“Well, you’re parked in a handicap space and I don’t see any visible handicap.”

“It’s none of your business,” he sneered.

“Oh, it most certainly is my business when someone’s running a scam.”

“Look at you,” he said, outraged as could be, “what kind of example are you setting for your son?”

“He sees me do this all the time.  Call a fraud a fraud.  And you’re a fraud, just like those Long Island Rail Road frauds.”

He slammed his door as I took my three prosthetic joints to the treadmill, my son chuckling for good measure.

Back when I was doing grad work in the mid-70s, I bartended weekends at Long Island’s notorious nightclub – the OBI South.  For a stretch, I worked side-by-side at the back-bar with a rough and ready rogue nicknamed the “Snakeman.”  Invariably, at the height of the mad rush, he would call out, as he was ringing up drinks, “Bonus hour…one for us, one for them.”  “You’re all thieves,” the Snakeman told us, by way of touting he was the most honorable of thieves by copping to it.

Everyone’s always done it.  It’s the American way, according to one distinguished historian.

U.S founders maxed individual liberty, freeing Americans, “to give full vent to the good, bad and ugly behavior of which people are capable,” Walter McDougall observes.  “Americans became past masters at hustling: both in the pejorative sense of scofflaws, speculators, imposters, tricksters, self-reinventors, and conmen, but also in the positive sense of hard workers, strivers, builders, doers, joiners, and team players.”

To con others, best one first con one self.  McDougall believes that Americans’ talent for “self-deception” is one key to their success.  “They pretend in order to get along with each other, or to grease the skids of their institutions, obscure the contradictions in their politics and law, or just to sustain their common faith in truth, justice, and the American way.”  In a broader sense, people are compelled to rationalize their circumstances – self-delusion springs eternal.

Charles Dickens charged, upon a visit in 1842, that Americans “will swallow a whole caravan of camels, if they be laden with unworthy doubts and suspicions…. [They] simply cannot bear truth in any form,” and American newspapers contributed mightily with their “pimping and pandering.” By the eve of Civil War, one of those panderers, the New York Herald worried there would be, “another general collapse like [the Panic] of 1837, only on a much grander scale.…  Worst of all is the moral pestilence of luxurious exemption from honest labor infecting all classes of society.”

Sounds like Fox-watching Tea Baggers spit-balling ne’er-do-well Wall Street Occupiers.  Yet, they are a funhouse mirror of one another’s outrage, one against Big Government, the other against Big Money.  Note how many who sermonize against the breakdown in morality are themselves caught with their pants down.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a stolen moment– it’s far more satisfying to point fingers then look in the mirror.