HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 5, 2009
From Liberty Street

Restitution

John Turner


We've all seen films in which the government of a small, isolated town has fallen into the hands of a criminal gang. For years the hoodlums loot and terrorize the citizens, and employ thugs to beat up and even murder anyone who protests. Most people go along with the situation because they are too afraid to do anything else. But, then, from somewhere outside, a hero arrives, who confronts the villains, ousts them from their positions of power, gives them their just desserts, and restores the town to decent, lawful behavior. It's always a satisfying tale, and the best thing about it is seeing the foul bullies get what they have coming to them.

It a good, clean story as long as there is some outside from where the hero can come. But what if there's not. What is the situation applies to an entire nation? What can be done then?

The problem is that no matter how filthy the transgressors were, some portion of the citizenry will continue to say they weren't so bad. And if, after the malefactors have been removed from power, the new authorities pursue them, that same portion will declare that the new order is behaving vindictively, that the best thing to do is to let the former thugs rejoin the community and merge into the common life.

It's not an outlandish argument. But it ignores one thing. If atrocious behavior is accepted as simply part of the game, there will be slight historical memory to prevent its taking hold again, when new criminals arrive on the scene.

In Hollywood, we seldom let that happen. But what about in America? The latter may turn out to be the most potent political question of 2009.

In The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank's carefully documented account of the rise of the modern conservative movement (which, by the way, has almost nothing to do with the actual meaning of the world "conservative"), we find a very good explanation of why Americans have accepted the conservative assault on their most cherished and valuable possessions. Here it is:

Mainstream American political commentary, with its own touching faith in fair
play, customarily assumes that the two great political parties do whatever they do
as precise mirror images of each other; that if one is guilty of some misstep, the
other is also automatically and equally culpable. The idea has a geometric elegance
to it, and to journalists this doctrine of symmetry is especially appealing: It is a
shortcut to fairness, an easy way to brush off the accusations of bias that plague
them. But when applied to the political war that I have described in these pages, it
serves to advance our understanding not at all.

There is no symmetry

Because of this softhearted -- and soft-headed -- naiveté, the people of the United States have had a very hard time imagining the viciousness of the people who have been conducting their affairs for much of the past three decades.

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidential race, I knew that something very bad had happened to my country, very bad that is for those of us who believed that our political health resided in a system providing liberty and justice for all. I can't say that I understood then the mechanisms by which justice was to be undermined. I didn't fully grasp that the people who took Reagan as their hero, had no interest in justice for all, that, instead, they wanted a cutthroat world in which they were simply the superior cutters of throats. Still, I knew it wasn't a good thing and I was sad about it. Now, after watching the Bush administration carefully, I see that I should have been more sad than I was.

So, here were are in 2009, facing the question of what to do about the plutocracy which has viewed the entire nation and most of its people as fodder for its own chewing. What do we do about what has been done.

I'm not perfectly sure. But we could start with fixing Justice Brandeis's warning firmly in our minds: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

It seems to me that if we got that truth clear, we could proceed to examine the punitive measures that ought to be taken with respect to past crimes. We don't have to be vindictive, but we do have to get the story straight, and do what's necessary to make sure it is widely understood. Then, maybe, we wouldn't need a hero from outside. We could, collectively, be that hero ourselves.


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