Throughout our country’s history, from the Revolution to 9/11, America has found the unity necessary to triumph in our most treacherous moments. But those days are ancient history.
Like termites, a dark “meism” is eating at the foundation of this country. America is on the verge of surrendering to today’s threats — the climate crisis, anti-democracy, the pandemic, wealth inequality, racism, and a loss of empathy for the lives of others — because an aggressive, bullying minority have decided they want out of any obligation to contribute to the common good.
We have now lost more lives to a pandemic perpetuated by barbaric, propaganda loving Americans, than we lost fighting barbaric, propaganda loving enemies in both world wars. A generation of Americans who were willing to put on soldiers’ uniforms and sacrifice themselves to protect and defend all Americans has given way to generations of Americans unwilling to make the simple sacrifice of putting on a cloth mask to protect even their own children.
Pioneer leaders that settled Utah by inspiring our ancestors to sacrifice for each other — pulling handcarts across the plains, planting orchards for those who came after and building temples and cities they themselves might never inhabit — have given way to leaders who are preventing any community sacrifice to prevent a climate that no one can inhabit.
But grooming us to behave this way started decades ago. Three historical figures played an outsized role in our paralysis to deal with anything beyond self-absorption. In today’s social media world we would call them “influencers.”
The first was Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, infamous now for preaching a dogma that, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business; to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”
Imagine if individuals behaved the way Friedman says corporations should behave; if parents raised their kids by telling them, “Your only objective in life is to make money, and you have the duty to do everything within the law to pursue that.” Corporations are coddled and privileged far more than people, we have allowed a scaffolding to be erected that grants them protections no individuals have. When corporations kill and injure people they never go to jail, and nobody in the corporation ever does, either. Corporations don’t even lose their charters when they render the planet unlivable.
The second was Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. Before he was placed on the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, he probably did more than any one person to turn the keys of government over to corporations. His memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce entitled “Attack On American Free Enterprise System,” is to corporate pre-eminence what the Magna Carte is to democracy and human rights. His manifesto was a “Braveheart” call to arms for businesses to rally all their resources against whomever he viewed as sinister business antagonists; people like a young Ralph Nader, who merely called for corporations to stop killing people.
His manifesto became the spring board for corporations immersing themselves in the political arena as never before. It gave birth to professional lobbyists, and led directly to elections and government being drowned by corporate money.
The third was conservative patron saint Ronald Reagan. His most famous line was, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’.”
Not only did he plant the seed that government oversight and regulation was our enemy, but he also helped undermine any commitment to the common good with a less well-known line, “But what I want to see above all is that this country remains a country where someone can always get rich.”
The value system stamped in Reagan’s rhetoric was that Americans’ greatest gift to the world was the potential to accumulate wealth, not our protection of human rights, democracy, mutual sacrifice or morality; all things now in short supply in his party’s descendants.
Since Reagan, the seeds of toxic meism, have been nurtured into full blown tribalism by radical right-wing media, disguising it with a verbal mirage of “freedom,” “liberty” and “your constitutional rights.” Many Utahns believe a legend that someday our Constitution will hang by a thread. But what’s hanging by the same thread is democracy, human decency, a livable planet and the future of civilization itself.
Brian Moench, M.D., Salt Lake City, is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the author of the nonfiction book, “Death by Corporation, the Killing of Humankind in the Age of Monster Corporations.”