Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty.

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and Let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

- Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838
  Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Truth or consequences

I wonder if we as Americans can ever break free of media influence and elect a president that will really represent us.

Oh we have plenty of leaders: candidates with integrity, honesty, new and creative solutions to serious national issues - even a little 'fire in the belly' from time to time. We also have legislators with strong records of defending our interests in congress, instead of toeing the lobbyist line.

Yet for some mysterious reason, we we allow our television media - and powerful corporate donors - to pick our candidates for us, and the best people seem to fall right off the radar. If a candidate doesn't have that desired 'look' or 'slick packaging', they are marginalized - ignored - summarily dismissed as irrelevant. We are letting corporations and the media dictate our democracy to us, based on... appearances and sound bites.

Why is that? Can't we think for ourselves anymore?

I often find myself comparing our current, broken electoral system with the one that was in place just before the Civil War, when the fledgling Republican party had recently formed out of a coalition of former Whigs, Northern Democrats, and Free-Soilers who opposed the expansion of slavery (hint to angry Democrats and Republicans - we've formed new parties before, and quite successfully.)

Abraham Lincoln made made a national name for himself as an outspoken critic of slavery, and as a brilliant orator during a series of debates with popular and charismatic Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 (both were running for the US Senate seat from Illinois.) In spite of his gawky, tall frame, ill-fitting suits and high, reedy voice, Lincoln had a rare gift: he could inspire an audience by connecting with them on a human level, and by telling them the truth.

Lincoln lost the Senate race in 1858, but beat Douglas two years later in the 1860 presidential campaign, to become President of the United States. By this time, everyone knew who he was and remembered his fiery and persuasive arguments from the Illinois debates.

The two differed in more than background and education (Douglas received a classical education, and Lincoln was from a humble background and self-taught.) Douglas had chaired the Senate Committee on Territories, and helped enact the Compromise of 1850, which included the highly controversial Fugitive Slave Act. Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act outraged many abolitionists, and heightened their resolve to put an end to slavery once and for all. This act also served to bring the the subject of slavery squarely into the public eye, and many people who had previously been ambivalent began to question the morality of the institution.

Douglas was a proponent of 'Popular Sovereignty,' and was responsible for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which led to the outbreaks of unprecedented violence in Kansas. In contrast, Lincoln represented the growing anti-slavery movement that was taking hold across the nation, and believed that the country could not survive as one nation, half slave and half free. The country was being torn apart by the divisive issue of slavery, and people were paying close attention to the opinions held by each candidate - as demonstrated in both their words, and their actions.

The media of the time - which consisted solely of newspapers - was undoubtedly every bit as slanted as it is today, with the exception that there was no television: the people actually read, and thus were able to see actual transcripts of the candidates' speeches and debates, rather than relying on sound bites picked out by the television media. By reading the actual words of the candidates, citizens could discern where each one stood on important issues. And if a candidate was a talented writer/speaker, he could often sway many readers solely by his choice of words, the intensity of his argument, and his intellectual prowess as he made his case.

People have a pretty good sense for when they are being told the truth. In recent years, our contact with our candidates has been carefully screened by 'handlers' and edited by the powerful, corporately-owned media. But surely, people really do want the truth. They crave the truth. They have simply lost track of how to connect with the authenticity of the person for whom they plan to vote.

In the old days of 'stumping,' the people gathered around and actually listened to live speeches and debates. There was no hiding for these politicians - no lights, no make-up, no leading questions. They duked it out in a clever and intelligent war of words, and to the victor went both popular support... and the nod of his party. In those days, intelligence and grasp of issues easily trumped looks, lighting or corporate sponsors. The candidate sank or swam on his own merit.

Candidates were picked by their own party leaders - who had known them for years, and could vouch for their character. The chosen candidate's intelligence and ability was well established, and generally anyone who was picked to represent his party in a general election had the education, stability and leadership skills to eventually run the nation. It is believed that members of Lincoln's new party underestimated his independent nature, and expected him to take direction from more powerful leaders behind the scenes and basically toe the party line.

However once elected, Lincoln showed creativity and an unusual willingness to embrace non-partisanship, by picking for his cabinet political opponents and politicians who frankly and openly disliked him - all on the basis of their credentials. Lincoln demonstrated a remarkable ability to pick the most effective and competent person for each of his cabinet positions, and placed his loyalty to party - and personal comfort - behind the best interests of the nation as a whole.

We don't have to go back to Lincoln's time to find examples of political courage and devotion to 'nation over partisanship.' Lately we have been treated to some rather remarkable acts of political courage and devotion to truth, in presidential debates and on the House floor.

Last Wednesday, Dennis Kucinich claimed an hour of time on the House floor, and delivered a powerful and truthful expose on the inner workings of the oil industry and their designs on Iraqi oil. Kucinich explained how this lust for Iraqi oil led us directly into this current and disastrous war, and implied that we will never extricate ourselves while the Iraqi people manage to hold out against the interests of Exxon, Chevron and BP.

This was amazing, truthful and critically relevant testimony. Yet it received no mainstream, corporate media coverage, was largely ignored by other members of the House - even members of the Democratic party. I find it hard to imagine that something so critical and so fundamental to our current situation could have been swept under the rug, but there it is: it happened.

Kucinich is often laughed at or simply ignored by the national media. Whereas Lincoln was 'too tall,' Kucinich is apparently 'too short'; he speaks his mind, and sometimes comes across as a bit folksy or 'off the cuff,' (similar in many ways to Lincoln and his famous yarns.) The media pundits will also tell you something else - something that would have spelled disaster for Lincoln if he were to run for the presidency today. According to television media 'experts,' Kucinich doesn't look presidential.

I have often wondered if 'doesn't look presidential' really translates to 'we can't bully, influence or control you.'

The media would have us believe that issues are of far less importance... than how the candidate looks, and how well he or she 'spins.' Since most Americans claim that they do not want a president that lies or 'spins' every word, but rather gives it to us straight: it would appear that the television media and our best interests are at cross purposes.

In his own time, Lincoln suffered many of the same, lame media abuses. Cartoonists mocked him, portrayed him as an ape, a hillbilly and made fun of his home-spun humor, while describing him as an ignorant farmer. Of course as we know today, the truth was vastly different. Lincoln was one of the sharpest minds and wits in our presidential history, with a firm grasp of law, government, and even military strategy.

Somehow, the people saw through all of the media slander and connected with the character of the man. And they were rewarded with 'presidential courage,' and dedicated, bipartisan leadership during a time of national crisis.

If not for Lincoln's leadership, America would be two separate nations today... or perhaps it would have ceased entirely to exist. Perhaps we would now be a region of Canada, a 'state' in Mexico, or worse... the Nazis or Japanese would have eventually invaded and enslaved us during WWII. It is impossible to know where we would be today, had there been no President Abraham Lincoln to bring us through the bloody Civil War as one nation, intact.

I often wonder if we have lost our way as people, and as a nation. We seem to have forgotten to use our minds, but instead sit dumbly and passively in front of the television set, feeding on whatever garbage the media has served up for our consumption. Perhaps this is the result of several generations of Americans growing up with televisions as glorified babysitters; or perhaps there is some other brain deadening effect built into the medium that allows us to abandon our natural skepticism and reason when we flip on the set.

Do we really want the truth? Because candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul would be happy to tell us everything we say we want to hear, and more. Or are we instead willing to settle for a political 'American Idol;' with blow-dried, clean-cut and good-looking actor/politicians, posing for the cameras while carefully avoiding the issues - or heaven forbid - letting slip with any comments that might be construed as an actual opinion?

What about the pathetic state of our health care system, our disappearing jobs, the poisoning of our food, pollution, climate change, inflation, loss of our constitutional protections, and this horrific, bloody, illegal and budget-breaking war? These are issues that affect us all, every single day. Who on earth really cares or is affected by how much John Edwards paid for a haircut? How on earth can that possibly be relevant in a presidential campaign? When will we tire of this media circus, and demand some real honesty, authenticity and straight answers?

Dennis Kucinich gave us issues and answers, and he sounded a very loud trumpet of alarm. So did Ron Paul, when he lectured Rudy Giuliani on the finer points of U.S. history - and our years of intervention in Middle Eastern politics - during the second GOP debate. It is time for us to pay attention... even if this means occasionally watching C-Span, to find out what is really happening in our government (yes, it is boring to watch the House and Senate plod around.) It is time for us to break free of media influence, especially that of television, and instead turn on our active brains and doggedly pursue the truth.

Why are we in Iraq? What is the best plan of action to get our troops out? Every voting American should be asking these questions and actively seeking out the candidate that will best accomplish this end. John Edward's haircut has nothing to do with our nation's role in this bloody 'War on Terror.' Mitt Romney's declaration that he would like to 'double the size of Guantanamo,' and Rudy Giuliani's shameless promotion of torture are frighteningly relevant to our future as a nation.

What do we the people of this nation think it means to be 'American,' and what is our system of values? What do we believe in - what do we consider moral? Is torture moral? Are cluster bombs that kill hundreds of innocent civilians... moral? And are we truly willing to give up our democracy for a little 'temporary safety?' If not, we had better get off the couch and take charge of our government: it is ours, and we have been entrusted with its protection so that it will survive for future generations.

The Internet provides many new opportunities to hear our candidates as they wish to be heard, speaking in their authentic voices - whether via personal blogs, their own video and YouTube presentations (free of media influence,) or their own written dispatches. There is no longer any reason to settle for sugar-coated drivel dished out by mainstream television pundits. We don't need a cynical middle man editing our democratic dialog... we need truth.

I believe it was Mulder of 'X-Files' fame who said "the truth is out there." The opportunity to wake up, pay attention, and meet our candidates is available to us. The choice is in our hands.

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