Transcript: American Story rant, 28 October 2008

How do liberals and progressives control America? Is 'control' the right word? What is America based on? What does it mean that we're going to have a change in government? You know, everybody, we talk about change. What does this change mean? What are the consequences of it? How does this all work? What are all the moving pieces? What is it to be an American? What does it mean to be an American?

How is America different than every other nation?

Thom Hartmann's American Story rant, 28 October 2008

How do liberals and progressives control America? Is 'control' the right word? What is America based on? What does it mean that we're going to have a change in government? You know, everybody, we talk about change. What does this change mean? What are the consequences of it? How does this all work? What are all the moving pieces? What is it to be an American? What does it mean to be an American?

How is America different than every other nation?

Here's a story, this Greg Sargent writing in, I'm not sure where this was originally published [TPM Election Central]; I received it in email from a bunch of different people. It may be an AP story.

Some three dozen workers at a telemarketing call center in Indiana walked off the job rather than read an incendiary McCain campaign script attacking Barack Obama, according to two workers at the center and one of their parents.

Now, in Indiana, there is a state law that makes it illegal to do robocalls. So in order to slime Barack Obama they had to actually hire a telemarketing firm that had, you know, one of these big buildings with a hundred people in it and they're all sitting in a cubicle and they're calling up saying, 'hey, you wanna buy some light bulbs or nylon stockings or whatever?' Today they were calling and saying' 'do you want to know about Barack Obama?' So they had to actually hire people.

Nina Williams, a stay-at-home mom in Lake County, Indiana, tells us that her daughter recently called her from her job at the center, upset that she had been asked to read a script attacking Obama for being "dangerously weak on crime," "coddling criminals," and for voting against "protecting children from danger."

Williams' daughter told her that up to 40 of her co-workers had refused to read the script, and had left the call center after supervisors told them that they would have to either read the call or leave, Williams says. The call center is called Americall, and it's located in Hobart, IN. "They walked out," Williams says of her daughter and her co-workers, adding that they weren't fired but willingly sacrificed pay rather than read the lines.

Which, by the way, I would say is a testimony to the company. I mean, the company just took a job, and when the workers refused to read the scripts, they didn't fire them. So let's not get all over the company about this.

We were asked to read something saying [Obama and Democrats] were against protecting children from danger," this worker said. "I wouldn't do it. A lot of people left. They thought it was disgusting.

So what we're seeing here is apparently some of these folks have this notion of America; a belief in America, that is different or inconsistent with the idea of simply sliming a candidate, win at all costs. This is how the notion has changed.

Here's the key to all of this. Every other country in the world, and maybe there are exceptions to this, I can't think of any; if you can think of any, you know, give me a call and let me know. But every other country in the world, by and large, arguably I suppose you could say some of the nations that, Central and South America in particular, where there's a lot of Spanish ancestry folks in addition to indigenous folks.

But pretty much every other country in the world, you are a citizen of that country because you have a genetic heritage. If you're Italian, it's because you're Italian and you speak Italianand you look Italian, and you can go back. If you're French, it's 'cause you're French. It's about the DNA. You're Norwegians because you're Norwegian. It's you're Nigerian it's because. Somalian, actually Somalia, pretty much everybody in the country, I just heard this oddly enough this morning on I forget what station it was, they were talking about Somalia and they kind of noted parenthetically that it's pretty much all one tribe, this nation, which is, you know, many of the national boundaries in Africa were carved out by the colonizing powers and they didn't respect tribal boundaries. Apparently Somalia largely did.

But the point is that in most countries there is a culture based on a shared assumption of 'we are all part of this tribe'. And in the United States it's a little different. In the United States it is the only country that was founded on the basis of an idea rather than the basis of genetics. Now, granted many of the founders were white Anglo Saxon Protestant males. But that was, and in fact there was a meme running through the early founding that, you know, African Americans weren't included, women weren't included, things like that. But that wasn't central to the founding of the country and that's why we've been allowed, we've been able, not allowed, well in fact it was inevitable that we would rise above those early limitations.

It was an interesting story, I think it was in the International Herald Tribune three or four days ago about a fellow in France who was being interviewed and he said, 'oh, there's no way that the Americans will vote for Barack Obama. You know, he represents a minority that's only what 11, 12, 14% of America's people; African Americans. And, you know, he doesn't represent the majority; the white guy will win'. I mean, this is what this French guy was saying.

And the countries that are based on genetics are struggling right now; in France with the influx of Algerians from their colonization of that country so they have Africans living in France and they're saying and, the French are saying, 'hey you know you've gotta become French'. Or, frankly, what is more often being said is, 'you can never become French because you're not genetically French'. The Germans are dealing with the same problem of the Gastarbeiters [guest workers] the Turks that they brought in after World War II to work in Germany. Big debate about whether they should have German citizenship and to what extent and when and how.

So because America is uniquely among most nations created based on a story, the story of democracy, the story of human rights, the story of blocking the concentration of wealth. The story about the necessities that home, food, health care, you know, back at the founding of this country, land was essentially free, home was available to everybody, health care was widely available, the government paid for the poor. Happiness of the people is an important function of government; it is written into our constitution and the Declaration of Independence, these were radical notions at the founding of this country. We were, we are based on an idea.

Now, the goodness of that is that it was essentially a noble idea. It was, this idea that came out of the early 1600s, out of the Enlightenment, that started with Hobbes, Thomas Hobbes who was both the original conservative and the original liberal, came up with the original conservative idea that people are essentially evil, came up with the original liberal idea that people could govern themselves. Or actually it was Locke, who followed Hobbes, who said government, people could govern themselves. Hobbes's original liberal idea was that people should be able own their own property. And then Locke came along and amplified that: life, liberty and estate; life, liberty and private property. So the wonder of it is that we were founded on this really noble idea.

The danger is that because we're a country that is based on an idea, whoever controls the idea at the moment, controls the country. And that realization is what led Joseph Coors and a small band of very, very wealthy right wingers in the 1960s and 1970s to say, collectively, 'we're going to change America's idea of itself. We're gonna grab control of the controlling story in this country'. Because America is not a nation based on DNA. People are not Americans because they happen to come from England or from Europe or from Africa or from Asia or from the south. People are Americans because they subscribe to the idea of America. And the proof of this, writ huge, is the Obama candidacy. But we've seen it over and over and over again in our history as we've transformed ourselves by changing our story, not by changing our genetics.

So the danger is, whoever controls the story controls the country. And the opportunity is that whoever controls the story controls the country. So what Joe Coors and his merry band did was they said, 'okay, we're going to control the story'. And they put together the Heritage Foundation and a series of other right wing think tanks so that they could comment on every news story, so that they could change the memes, so that they could change the language, so that they could change the inheritance tax to the death tax, so they could change the idea of taxation as the price of liberty, as the price of civilization, into a burden. So they could change the idea that we're all in this together into 'it's us; it's the individual against everybody else'. And they actually succeeded with the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, in 1980.

They changed the story of America. And for the last 28 years the story of America, even Bill Clinton bought into it, see it was Bill Clinton who said, 'the era of big government is over'. It was, you know, so right across the board they changed the story of America from one of 'government is us and we're all in this together' to 'government is a them, it is evil and we're not all in this together, each one of us is on his own, and the rich are rich because they are more noble and they work harder and they're more brilliant, and the poor are poor because they're lazy'. That was the meme that they laid out.

And now Obama has an opportunity to turn that story back. How should he do it? How should we do it?

Okay, here's the danger and the opportunity. I don't think most Americans realize how far down a road of change we actually are. This is something that I have only, frankly, personally been realizing this over the course of the last three or four weeks. It took me that long to figure this out and, you know, not like I'm some, you know, all-knowing observer, or something. I mean, I have a feeling, though, that most of us have not yet figured this out.

And that is that Barack Obama, by running a campaign that is entirely taking the higher road, that is not engaging in slime and slash and burn tactics against his opponent. He has not, they're not talking about how John McCain dumped his first wife and was unfaithful to her when she waited for him all those years. They're not talking about that his Vietnamese captors who said that he was never tortured and that he made propaganda tapes for them. They're not talking about the possibility that in the 1960s when he was young and wild and crazy he was in a car crash that killed somebody. They're not talking about any of this stuff. I mean, there is stuff that could be used against McCain that they're not going anywhere near.

Instead they're talking about a positive vision of America. And many of us early on said, "that's not going to win", and boy, were we wrong. So Barack Obama is laying out this story and he has fundamentally changed, I believe, how campaigning is done in America. And the question is, will he change how governing is done. Keep in mind, the last time this story changed was during Franklin Roosevelt's administration. Well, there was the Reagan change, it flipped to the right. But the last time it flipped to the left, as it were, to the 'we' society, into the Jeffersonian model, into the model of the original founders. We go back and forth like this in the United States.

We started out with this model of 'we're all in this together' in the 1790s, you know, 1787, 1789, the ratification of the constitution. And then in the 1830s it kind of flipped to, 'no we're all right wingers here, slave holders'. And then in the 1860s after the Civil War it flipped back to 'no, we're all in this together'. And then in the 1880s

during, when the rise of the railroad, it flipped back to 'no, we're all right wingers here'. And then with Teddy Roosevelt, 1901, it flipped back: 'no, we're all in this together'. And then in 1910 it flipped back into the right wingers. And essentially that led right to the Republican Great Depression in 1929. And then it flipped back to, 'yes' we're all in this together. And that was Roosevelt.

If Obama's going to create this kind of change he has to have more than a legislative agenda; he has to have a story. And he has to realize the kind of opposition he's going to come up against. When Franklin Roosevelt tried to change the story of America, he was attacked for being a Communist, for being a socialist, explicitly. My father went to his grave hating Franklin Roosevelt. My father was a good man and a good Republican all his life and he thought that Roosevelt took us down a socialist road. I mean, that was the meme of the day. And that's the meme that they're going to play against Barack Obama. And in fact, this even led to an attempted overthrow.

This is General Smedley Butler, some clips from the History Channel. General Smedley Butler talking about how he was enlisted by Prescott Bush and the Du Ponts and the Morgans and the very, very wealthy of the day to literally overthrow Franklin Roosevelt.

"I appear before the Congressional Committee, the highest representation of the American people, under subpoena to tell what I knew of activities which I believe might lead to an attempt to set up a fascist dictatorship. The plan as outlined to me was to form an organization of veterans to use as a bluff, or as a club at least, to intimidate the government."

Now, keep in mind Smedley Butler, a Marine Corps general, was the most decorated veteran in American history at this point. Everybody in America knew him. He was a national hero.

"And break down our democratic institutions. The upshot of the whole thing was that I was supposed to lead an organization of 500,000 men which would be able to take over the functions of Government. I felt it was my duty to tell all I knew of such activities to this committee.

My main interest in all this is to preserve our democratic institutions. I want to retain the right to vote and the right to speak freely and the right to write. If we maintain these basic principals, our democracy is safe.

So this was General Smedley Butler talking about how he had been hired to raise an army of 500,000 men to launch a coup, to actually overthrow Franklin Roosevelt. That's how powerful changing a story is. Franklin Roosevelt came along and said we're going to change the story of America; we're going to change it back to the story that the founders had in mind, that we're all in this together, that we are community of individuals, that we are a peaceful nation, that we are, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. That we're gonna move forward, we're gonna have progress and that so intimidated the right wingers that they launched a coup attempt against him. But he pushed through. That was the power of the story and he transformed America for a generation. I mean, literally transformed America. And that's the opportunity before Barack Obama right now; this extraordinary opportunity to transform America.

Is he going to be able to do it?

I think so.

Is he actually going to do it?

I hope so.

What will make it happen?


Franklin Roosevelt was pushed by the people, by the base, and if we don't push this, if we don't push Barack Obama if he is elected, god willing, as president of the United States, if we don't push him we will have lost an extraordinary opportunity.

Anyhow, just to wrap up this whole idea, this whole concept. Bottom line. If Obama can change the story of America, he will be a transformational president and here's what causes me to believe that that's what's on his mind. He was asked to name the most recent transformational presidents, or the transformational presidents of the twentieth century. And he said, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He did not include Bill Clinton. Now, Bill Clinton took that as a personal insult. He thought the Barack Obama was putting him down. Not true. Bill Clinton was not a transformational president; he didn't change the story of America. He went along with the right wing story, by and large. He declared the era of big government over. He said, we're going to end welfare as we know it, blah di blah di blah. He basically continued the right wing war on the New Deal.

So the transformational presidents of the twentieth century really were the first Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, arguably Woodrow Wilson with his efforts to bring us into the League of Nations in World War I, although he was unsuccessful getting us into the League of Nations. Certainly Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, flipping us, you know, left, right, left, right, you know, arguably like that. And if Obama understands this, and apparently he does, I mean, that was his answer to the question, then he can truly transform America, and, by changing our stories. And if he's successful in changing our stories, then that change will be deep and grounded just like Reagan's change was. They'll change us for generations in a way that will make this country a better, more positive, healthier, happier place to live, and a better citizen among the world. And actually might even bring about peace in the world. I realize this is like really kind of, sounds almost new age far out stuff but I think this is a real possibility. And I'm telling you, four or five weeks ago, I was thinking this is just and other candidacy.

[Asked by Mark what it would look like if Obama is radicalized by the population, and whether the cyclical nature of going back and forth is over, Thom said:]

I don't think so, no. I think that that cycle's always going to exist in the United States because those were the two dynamic tensions at the founding of this country. We're always going to bounce back between those two poles, frankly, and probably every other generation is gonna, is where the bounce is going to occur. And I, you know, Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning was a real enlightening book to me in that regard. You know, every four generations you have a Great Depression and a war and it forms the basis for the next three generations. I think there is something to that.

On the other hand, every time we experience a transformation, it not only transforms us, it transforms the world and we never go back farther than we were before. In other words, think about Lincoln, for example: he was the first transformational president of the nineteenth century. And Lincoln, at the time of the Civil War there were only two or three other democracies in the world. I mean, there was just a small handful. And within thirty years after the Civil War there was a very large handful, a number of countries had become democratic, small 'd' democratic. And the reason why was because most of the world thought that we were this weird experiment. And, you know, they were just fine with kings and kingdoms and like that. And when the Civil War happened they were all sitting around going, 'okay, this is it, the experiment's over, they're going to fail, you know, De Tocqueville wrote that nice book Democracy in America in 1836 and we were all fascinated by it, but here it is twenty years later and we're watching it melt down'.

And in fact we didn't melt down, and we came together after the Civil War, and we healed the wounds and that, you know, that was the first stepping forward right, and then freeing the slaves, and then in the 1920s empowering women, and then in the 1960s really and truly talking about civil rights in an honest and straightforward way. And every time one of these progressive revolutions has happened, and Teddy Roosevelt for that matter, busting up the trusts. Every time one of these progress revolutions has happened, even though we've gone backwards a little bit in the next conservative revolution, we never went backwards as far as we went forward. We're continuously, we've been continuously moving forward.

So I think that Obama will move us forward. And the way that he would do that, Mark, is with his communication skills. And this is what I would love to see, Mark, thank you very much for the call. Here, this is FDR from his fireside chat in May of 1940. 19, May of 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What he did was, every month he'd sit down with Americans by the radio and he'd say, 'listen, I just want to tell you what's going on in the world'.

"It is whispered by some that only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors. I did not share those illusions. I do not share these fears. Today we are more realistic. But let us not be calamity howlers and discount our strength. Let us have done with both fears and illusions."

'Let us have done with both fears and illusions'. He was talking, he's arming for World War II, right? And he's saying, 'don't worry. We're bigger than that'. And he's saying we don't have to give up our liberties in order to move forward. The exact opposite of what George Bush said.

"While our Navy and our airplanes and our guns and our ships may be our first lines of defense, it is still clear that way down at the bottom, underlying them all, giving them their strength, sustenance and power..."

Here comes the story.

"... are the spirit and the morale of a free people."

See, that's the story.

"For that reason, we must make sure, in all that we do, that there be no breakdown or cancellation of any of the great social gains which we have made in these past years. We have carried on an offensive on a broad front against social and economic inequalities against abuses which had made our society weak. That offensive should not now be broken down by the pincers movement of those who would use the present needs of physical military defense to destroy it. ..."

See, this is exactly, he's just saying, 'don't do what George Bush did. This is what Obama needs to say.

"There is nothing in our present emergency to justify a lowering of the standards of employment. Minimum wages should not be reduced."

So here's FDR saying, 'yes, we're looking at war with the Germans and the Japanese', the possibility of this, we're looking at an economic disaster in the United States, the result of, you know, thirty years of Republican rule, but this is not an appropriate time, this is not a good reason to give up the ideals of this country, the standards on which this country was founded, the dream of this, the story of this country. It's all about the story.

And as the story changes, the country changes. Franklin Roosevelt changed our story by sitting down with us every month, or regularly, his fireside chats, sitting down and telling us stories about who we were. Ronald Reagan changed our stories by giving us speeches about who we were. They were, in my opinion, wrong stories, but they were stories that we adopted. Barack Obama now has the opportunity to transform America's stories again.

You know, Franklin Roosevelt was so brilliant about this and he just laid it right out, that it's all about the story. And I'm just so captivated by this idea. This is such a powerful, again, we're listening to his May 1940, May of 1940, his fireside chat and he's talking, he's talking about the war, right, and the present emergency.

"Our present emergency and a common sense of decency make it imperative that no new group of war millionaires shall come into being in this nation as a result of the struggles abroad. The American people will not relish the idea of any American citizen growing rich and fat in an emergency of blood and slaughter and human suffering."

Can you imagine if George Bush had said something about that? But his story is that it's an opportunity, you know? Roosevelt continues.

"Today's threat to our national security is not a matter of military weapons alone. We know of other methods, new methods of attack."

Yeah, and then Roosevelt gets into this whole thing about sowing discord, about how people sow discord among the American people in order to divide us from one another, and that's exactly the Republican strategy today. It is it is history repeating itself on steroids.

[Later in the show, Gary talked about Thom's use of the word transformational, and said that the president and the people need to transcend greed.]

Yeah, you're absolutely right, Gary, and point well made. And in fact Roosevelt talked about that; he talked about this undiluted poison in the American body politic and about the need to, you know, push back against it. Here he is, as I recall.

"It has happened time after time, in nation after nation, during the last two years. Fortunately, American men and women are not easy yet dupes. Campaigns of group hatred or class struggle have never made much headway among us, and are not making headway now. But new forces are being unleashed, deliberately planned propagandas to divide and weaken us" in the United States "in the face of danger as other nations have been weakened before.

These dividing forces I do not hesitate to call undiluted poison.

There you go, Franklin Roosevelt talking about the right wingers who were going after him in his day, and I guarantee you, if Obama is elected president, the day after the election, November 5, will be the day that they begin going after him with, you know, claws and hooks and everything. I mean full out, full out, they're going to be going after him. So, you know, we'll see.

Transcribed by Sue Nethercott.

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