The red, the blue and the ugly

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. trumpets American values that are worth fighting for

HEART OF THE MATTER<br>Robert F. Kennedy Jr., shown here at an afternoon press conference, brought more than charisma to Laxson Auditorium; he brought a wide-ranging knowledge of the forces at work in America today.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., shown here at an afternoon press conference, brought more than charisma to Laxson Auditorium; he brought a wide-ranging knowledge of the forces at work in America today.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

The big-oil president: According to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., energy companies contributed $48 million to George W. Bush’s first campaign and $54 million to his second.

Butte County didn’t seem like a red-state bastion in a predominantly blue state last Friday night (Oct. 6), when some 1,200 people packed Laxson Auditorium to cheer on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as he gave a speech that ultimately prompted two standing ovations, despite the fact that Kennedy brought lots of bad news.

There was bad news about the environment (the Bush administration’s record includes some 400 environmental rollbacks that have subverted 30 years of environmental law), and there was bad news about our democracy (the Diebold voting machines are easily hacked, and Diebold himself is a major Republican campaign contributor), and there was bad news on how hard it is to stay informed when the public depends on what Kennedy called “an indolent and negligent press.”

Even the “red-state/blue-state” polarity touted by the mainstream media is a lie, he said. His speeches prompt the same positive responses from red-state Republicans as they do from blue-state Democrats, and he insists that nearly all Americans share the same values, despite the repeated attempts to drive wedges between them.

“Americans are populists,” he said, “and we have an inbred hostility toward elites. The right wing created the idea of the liberal elite to tap into that strain of populism. They talk all the time about the Hollywood elite, and scare their base with tales of Barbra Streisand, but the real elite is not in Hollywood, it’s on Wall Street.”

The nation needs to worry about those venal corporate interests who place all other considerations aside in service to profit taking. “When there’s a merger of state and corporate power,” he said, “that’s fascism. When the state holds all the power, that’s communism. America’s greatness is realized when we can maintain the narrow center between fascism and communism.”

But that center is not holding.

Got worries? Here’s a partial list of things Kennedy offered as reasons for concern.

• Only 10 percent of Americans now read newspapers. Thirty percent of Americans say their primary source of news is talk radio. Five giant multinational corporations own virtually all of the nation’s media outlets.

• Less than 4 percent of stories covered on television are devoted to environmental issues, and most of them are light, human-interest features.

• A sizeable majority of soldiers serving in Iraq believe they are there to punish Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attack.

• Eighteen thousand Americans die each year because of diseases of the lungs caused by dirty air.

• In 19 states, it is unsafe to eat locally caught fish due to high levels of mercury caused by acid rain, which is, in turn, caused by coal-burning power plants.

• One American woman in six now has dangerous levels of mercury in her womb. Mercury is known to create a range of birth defects and other medical anomalies that will taint the lives of many of the children born to these women.

The Bush administration, Kennedy charged, has put foxes in charge of the environmental hen house, appointing lobbyists for polluters to oversee the federal agencies created to protect the public interest. “The worst of the worst of the worst of the criminal polluters are now running agencies like the EPA,” he said, “and these people hold to no ideology but their own pocketbooks.”

The nation needs to recommit to the Jeffersonian ideal of an informed electorate. In order to do that, we must reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, the government regulation of the airwaves. “Those public airwaves belong to all of us,” Kennedy said, “and the public must be guaranteed truly balanced and thorough coverage of issues and events.”

That is demonstrably not happening now, he said. President Reagan eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1988, the same year Rush Limbaugh rose to prominence. Freed of the need to balance opinion, a legion of radio stations arose that filled the air with right-wing distortion.

“We have to have a Federal Communications Commission with a spine,” he said.

But real reform won’t take place until we’ve also eliminated the corrupting effects of money in funding political campaigns. “What we have now,” Kennedy said, “is a system of legalized bribery.”

“I am a free-market capitalist,” he added, “but what is happening now is not free-market capitalism. I am not anti-corporation; I own a corporation. But the role of government is to balance the interests of the public against the interests of corporations. Pollution is waste, and when the government picks up the tab for waste instead of the corporations that produce it, that’s not free-market capitalism; that’s subsidized inefficiency. Show me a polluter and I’ll show you a government subsidy.”

“Government has a duty,” he said, “to protect our shared assets. As it stands, we’ve privatized the air my children breathe.”

Kennedy turned from politics to the underlying philosophy that informs his politics. “Nature is the way God speaks to us most forcefully,” he said. “Wilderness is the undiluted work of the Creator. All of the great prophets brought the word back from the wilderness. They came back from the wilderness with the messages that were written there by the Creator.”

He ended with an attack on the current crop of Republicans. “They say they like law and order, but they countenance corruption and abandon the Constitution and the rule of law. They say they like states’ rights, but they overturn state protections of the environment when it suits their corporate clients. They say they are conservatives, but it is hard to point to anything they are conserving. They say they love Christianity, but they have violated every tenet of the Christian faith.”

And, in an aside, he added: “How did they get so many draft dodgers in one place? Rove, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, Cheney, DeLay, and Bush himself—all of them big supporters of the Vietnam War, none of them willing to fight it. The problem with those guys is that they really don’t know what makes this country worth fighting for. It’s not just the place we came to make our pile. We’re supposed to be the last best hope of mankind; we have to fight to take our country back from those people who don’t seem to know that.”

When he ended his speech, the audience was on its feet, 1,200 North State residents hungry for change and galvanized by the old Kennedy charisma. And then, after spending another hour in the foyer of Laxson Auditorium signing copies of his book, Crimes Against Nature, he was gone, leaving behind a reminder of the past, a vision of what the future could be, and a tired but energized Butte County audience of people who seemed to have heard truth in every word he had spoken.