The House's Historic Health Care Reform Vote and the Lens of History

When the history of this, the Age of Irony, is written from the cool perspective of the future, the Greatest Irony of all will be this: by the time we elected our first African-American president the Party of Lincoln -- the Great Emancipator -- had been completely taken over by the political descendants of the slave-owners. [See "For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics", by ADAM NOSSITER, published: November 10, 2008, ; Op-Ed , "Regional Divides," by H. D. S. GREENWAY, Published: Sept 18, 2009; "The Southern Strategist," by RICK PERLSTEIN, published: Dec 30, 2007, .]

The second greatest irony will be this: we who are living in this era do not truly understand what that means. (Conservative columnist Parker alluded to this underlying cultural phenomenon -- the "dog whistle" -- but stopped short of fully describing her understanding of it in her warning to her party, "A Tip for The GOP: Look Away," by Kathleen Parker, Wednesday, August 5, 2009.)

As rightfully obsessed as we are with our history of slavery and racism we have forgotten that slavery and racism, despite all their evil consequences, were means, not ends -- cynical tools in a tiny cabal's ruthless pursuit of extraordinary wealth and absolute power, a pursuit that used everything and respected nothing, save its perpetrators' own appetites and obscene self-regard. (For two richly documented histories of cotton-era slavery see the classic, Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement, by journalist and author Henrietta Buckmaster, 1941 Harper & Brothers, 1992 University of South Carolina Press; and Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power, by Garry Wills, 2003 Houghton Mifflin Company.>>

Six years after the Constitution's drafting the invention of the cotton gin would render slavery, up till then a dying, marginally profitable institution, so lucrative it would beggar the rest of the South's economic development of resources, creating an extraordinarily wealthy plutocracy in the midst of widespread misery and poverty. Contemporaneous with the invention of the cotton gin, the successful slave revolt in Haiti would provoke in this planter plutocracy a terror of slave rebellion so fevered that any discussion of the slavery issue was regarded as a mortal threat against their wives and children. The First Amendment was the first casualty. In the supposedly halcyon antebellum days all mention of abolitionism was banned outright. Books and newspapers were burned, even on Jefferson's beloved University of Virginia, founded to be a bastion of free thought and free speech. The mails were regularly intercepted and searched for any sign of forbidden speech. Some three hundred white abolitionists were lynched. Even Congress in Washington was gagged, thanks to the added power the Three/Fifths clause of the Constitution gave to the slave states, and the slave-owners obstinately demanded the free states ban abolitionist speech as well. With their total power over government and press the plutocrats told the common people -- Soviet Union style -- that they were better off politically and economically than free state residents, and when a well-traveled son of the Old South blasted apart that myth with a book full of charts and facts they banned and burned his books, too.

By the dawn of the Civil War just under 3.5% of the population of the Confederate States owned just under 40% of that population outright and held the rest, largely white, largely poor and poorly educated, firmly under their collective thumb.

Today the cult of the slave-owner lives anew. Over the past thirty years the culture by which our banks and large corporations are run has deteriorated into a monstrosity of arrogance, parasitic greed and incompetence. All the checks and balances that once held management to a higher standard are eroded. Once independent boards of directors are simply overpaid rubber stamps. Shareholder rights have been gutted, as has government regulatory oversight. Unions are undermined and overthrown. The management of the Greatest Generation built great companies, communities and paved the way for greater opportunities for women and minorities and better lives for the average American citizen. Today's generation of managers goes to our best business schools not to learn to be builders, creators and healers but to be more clever and effective swindlers, gamblers and parasites.

Like the Old South, our Main Street businesses, our infrastructure and our educational systems are beggared. Our big banks borrow money for almost nothing from the Federal Reserve, thanks to the American taxpayer. Then, while our businesses go begging for credit, the banks spend it instead on unregulated gambling games, pocketing the winnings and handing off the losses to the rest of us, or else they lend it to the working poor at usurious rates and fraudulent terms, because the poor are so much easier to cheat.

This is the Cult of the Slave-owner, and it has a death grip on our health care system. We must tear it loose.