Here at the Thoreau Meeting, Sunday’s as good as any other day for a sermon.
We have no one to blame but ourselves when it comes to the corruption of our public institutions, as well as our private ones and everything in between. Our consent and complicity have been given entirely too freely.
I’ve been writing about the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s revising of its noble heritage of science and education in the community interest into a leisure garden funded by the rich, with a veneer of bread and circus flowers for the rest of us. Typically, such despoilers latch onto an ugly neologism like “revision,” management Newspeak, for such awfulness because they can’t even admit the truth to themselves. This is only one small example of the societal transformations we have been living through, but it is one close to my heart, and one that illustrates the larger problem.
For instance, in Prospect Park, the unelected Alliance running it has become the plaything of wealthy donors (“I want this thing here with my name on it or else you don’t get any of my money,” goes the extortionate philanthropist, who also gets a tax credit, increasing the non-rich’s share of the tax burden). Civic-minded reformers like Stranahan, Olmsted, and Vaux would be aghast. (Make no mistake, those men, all white Protestants, were paternalistic as all get-out and shared the racism of their day, but, like the deeply compromised U.S. Constitution, it’s the ideas and ideals they unleashed that count above all human faults; also, at least they weren’t creepy eugenicists like a later generation of conservationists.) Brooklyn Bridge Park will soon be dominated by the Floodplain Estates, as I call them for their irresponsible situation in the floodplain, apartments whose existence was part of the money deal to make the park possible in yet another perverse abandonment of the public weal. The High Line, meanwhile, turns out to have been a gold mine for developers, now milking a public amenity for their own profit. It may not come as a surprise that all of the boards in charge of these entities, the “conservancies,” are dominated by wealthy white elites.
I love all these places and I have now spent four years documenting on this blog the life-forms found in them. The crumbs are good, but they are still crumbs. We have come a long way indeed from what the founding director of the BBG, Charles S. Gager, defined as that institution’s mission: “For the advancement of botany and the service of the city.”
In NYC at large, like the country, cultural institutions have become dependent on the money of Bloomberg-like tycoons like so many junkies on their dealers; Bloomberg’s a relatively enlightened plutocrat, but the trouble with policy-by-plutocrat is that there are also some really nasty ones out there, like the Koch boys, who imbibed Bircher toxins from birth. These plutocrats are avowedly working to dismantle citizenship and community, and trash the planet as they do so, as they plaster the family name on Lincoln Center, the American Museum of Natural History, and etc. Tiny numbers of very wealthy people should not be given rein to forge our future.
But this is the neoliberal triumph in all its naked ugliness. “Neoliberalism” is an unfortunate term, since “liberal” is a word of variable meanings over time and at the same time. And we are not generally trained to think in terms of political economy. What it means is a revival of classical 19th century Liberalism, defined now essentially as the primacy of private property — including, of course, in its day human property — and “free trade” and the “freedom” of individuals to do what they will, pollute, cheat, steal, colonize… etc., with the understanding that corporations — pervertedly defined by the majority Republicans on the Supreme Court as having the same rights as individuals — stand in for actual flesh and blood humans. (It’s a theory that was only adopted by Britain and then the United States after they rose to prominence through protectionism: do what we say, not what we actually did.) Neoliberalism is largely accepted by both wings of the ruling American consensus, however fractious they may be on the details and however far apart they maybe on social issues; I call this consensus the “Corporate Party,” although I’m also fond of its historic names, understanding that it’s obviously not exactly the same thing: Slave Power, Money Power, Business Party. The socially liberal (that word again) wing of the Corporate Party — let’s call it the CP — is represented by the Democrats (Carter, Clinton, and Obama, all true believers; witness the horrible Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated now) and the socially reactionary, frequently extremist, wing represented by the Republicans.
Yes, there are differences between these wings, particularly when it comes to the basic human rights and dignity of women, LGBT people, and people of color. But there’s no question the dismantling of the reformist checks on the inequalities and undemocratic realities of capitalism (during Progressive, New Deal, Great Society eras) is driven today by many if not most Democrats cautiously and by all Republicans recklessly and/or sociopathically. Maggie Thatcher famously boasted that there was “no alternative” to this authoritarian regime, in which instead of the state feeding us soma, it’s oligarchical corporations turning us into treadmill consumers, happily eager to be sold to advertisers like so much chattel, while both statist and private security monitors and, on occasion, thuggishly represses dissent.
It is a step between the corruption of public and non-profit institutions within the ruling ideology and, say, the tear-gassing of sitting Occupy protesters and the collection of data on all Americans, but it’s not a leap. A minority will defend its power to the last. The scariest thing to them is our belief in our own agency, our consent (the only thing, as George Monbiot notes, that has not been globalized), something many have abandoned for their mess of pottage (shopping, video games, porn, mood-altering pharmaceuticals, whatever), throwing over citizenship for consumption.
Tonight, the new Cosmos will be airing on just about every Fox channel there is, including its NatGeo components (was ever a brand more quickly destroyed than after National Geographic’s TV efforts were captured by Murdoch?). Space Time continuously interrupted by commercials for things you don’t need in any multiverse. I won’t be watching it, because a) I don’t own a television (which I believe is the base-line step towards freedom/enlightenment/citizenship), and, since I could watch it on-line, b) there is no way I will support Fox. I found it quite saddening to hear host Neil deGrasse Tyson expressing his hopes that his show would educate a woefully undereducated population, while his efforts go straight towards supporting Fox News’ endless anti-science poison. (Of course, every cable subscriber in the land does this, too.) But even ignoring the Fox angle, his argument isn’t supported by sixty plus years of television history. It has been pointed out to me that The Simpsons boldly mocks Murdoch’s vile empire, but this sort of mockery is impotent, just as Viacom’s John Stewart’s satire is, since all that matters for the bottom line is that the audience is watching and that the advertisers are paying for their oh-so-knowing eyes.