Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore

This week, I saw an op-ed in the New York Times that reminded me of what the mass media should be reporting.   It’s a huge scandal, only it doesn’t involve an act of terrorism, inappropriate sexual conduct, or a celebrity homicide.  As a result, we have no face to associate with this scandal.  We cannot even point to an evil corporation.   It’s no wonder, then, that the scandal is receiving little publicity.   And yet it is truly disgusting.

The op-ed, which was written by Nicholas Kristof and is entitled “A Nation of Takers,” should be discussed in every high school social studies classroom in America.   Here’s the column:  As you see, it is exposing a broken democracy – the scandal of living in a welfare state where the beneficiaries are millionaires and billionaires.  Yes, we have come a long way in the USA since the time when our laws identified African Americans as 3/5th of a person.   But we still have a long way to go before we can boast with integrity about having a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.”   

None of us should have to wonder about why it is that we have, in the words of Kristof, “welfare subsidies for private planes … yachts … [and] hedge funds.”  The reason is simple:  wealth buys political power.  What puzzles me, however, is how the public is allowed to remain ignorant about these subsidies and how the politicians who permit them are not required to explain why.   I had always thought that the central purpose of a free press is to expose the inappropriate use of power.  Unfortunately, whenever the wrongdoer isn’t a single face but an entire infrastructure of lobbyists and politicians, the only thing that gets exposed is an out-to-lunch media.  

Kristof’s column is but a voice in the wilderness.  In this society, such columns tend to vanish shortly after they appear – like stones skipping on a lake.   By contrast, when a celebrity is caught misbehaving, the story can last for days or even weeks, and every reporter gets a few swings at bat.  Perhaps the public is partially at fault because it seems to have an insatiable appetite for stories about celebrities behaving badly, whereas structural problems with our tax system or our political process may be seen as too abstract to be interesting.  But I’m not buying that excuse.   You see, before I can absolve the media of responsibility for doing its job, I want to see them launch en masse into a scandal like welfare-for-the-rich as vigorously as they would talk about Anthony Weiner’s underwear or Eliot Spitzer’s socks.   I want to see them haul in one politician after another to the offices of a TV network and ask them to defend their decision to permit Mitt Romney to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.  And most importantly, I want to see them conduct interviews of “regular Joes” who actually do pay high tax rates and have them explain just how these welfare programs affect their own feelings about their government and their country.  Then, after a few weeks of attention to this scandal, the media may move on – for surely there will be plenty of other examples where the rights of the many are being abused by the interests of the few.  

That's the kind of American our founding fathers expected.  That's the kind of America Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he wrote that "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Nicholas Kristof is a  dinosaur.  For one thing, he still writes for a newspaper, and most people no longer read newspapers.  For another, he still focuses on exposing abstract scandals at a time when it seems that every scandal must have a public face.  But his column is a reminder that our Mount Rushmore is composed of men who cared deeply about the welfare of sharecroppers and shopkeepers, not to mention the environment.  If we share in their concerns, we had better open our eyes to the true scandals that plague our nation and assume personal responsibility for confronting them.  Kristof can accomplish nothing by himself.

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