By Penny Smith
One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read is James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which came with equally powerful photographs by Walker Evans. Eschewing traditional journalism, Agee distills the experiences of tenant farmers during the Depression to archetypes. It’s a powerful indictment of economic inequality and testimony to the limitations of our national claim to equal opportunities.1
The title comes from the Wisdom of Sirach, the oldest wisdom book to have survived. Its acceptance as scripture depends on your faith tradition (in for Catholics, out for Jews, for example), but the title is intended to be ironic. Surely one would not praise famous men for the conditions Agee described or Evans photographed.
Irony has long been part of the western literary tradition. We can trace its roots to the Greek classics. Probably young people in the United States encounter it most forcefully in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony delivers his soliloquy on the death of the title character. Brutus, one of his killers, is, after all, an “honorable man.” Antony means quite the opposite and the “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech is not only an introduction to the power of irony, but one of those English class staples that a certain generation of readers had to memorize. My mom could still recite it in her 90s.
All of that is introduction to a new occasional feature in this blog space – the designation of honorable men (and they are almost always men) who are more dishonorable than not. Maybe it’s the level of dishonesty that pervades our political landscape that’s led me to this exercise; maybe cynicism is overtaking my efforts to remain convinced the glass is half-full and not half-empty.
So, let’s begin with our first nominee: Mitch McConnell, our honorable man of the moment. Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr. of Tennessee is currently the majority leader of the Senate. To his credit, he overcame polio as a young child. Although he credits FDR’s Warm Springs Institute with helping him, he has spent much of his political career attempting to lay waste to any remaining New Deal and Great Society programs. When he initially came to the Senate, he had a reputation as a centrist. Subsequently, McConnell pragmatically became a confirmed right-winger, who took obstructionist tactics during the Obama administration to places they had never been. It’s not by accident that Alec MacGillis’s book about the man is titled The Cynic.
I intend to test honorability by looking at what these people have said. Honorable, then, in their own words, since I don’t want to be accused of ad hominem attacks. So, here then is some of the wisdom of McConnell:
- “All Citizens United did was to level the playing field for corporate speech. We now have, I think, the most free and open system we’ve had in modern times.” Now if you buy that I have a pink unicorn to sell you. What Citizens United did was profoundly tilt the playing field, but in McConnell politics up is down and left is right.
- “We all know that Social Security is one of this country’s greatest success stories in the 20th-century.” And what my colleagues and I want to do in the 21st-century is destroy it.
- “The minimum wage is mostly an entry-level wage for young people.” And we should tell that to all fast food service workers who are approaching senior citizen status and middle-aged migrant workers doing construction and landscaping jobs.
- “The biggest problem confronting the country is our excessive spending. If we’re not going to deal with it now, when are we going to deal with it?” Under our leadership we’ve dealt with it by reducing taxes for the rich and corporations, raising spending for our military, and ignoring the national debt.
- “NATO is the most important military alliance in world history.” McConnell won’t, however, tell that to President Trump, since he doesn’t want to provoke a twitter storm.
- “Obama hasn’t been working to earn reelection, he’s been working to earn a spot on the PGA tour.” And has the golf critic commented on the state of play by our current White House occupant, who has, in less than two years, far eclipsed Obama’s playing time and done it at his own resorts, which benefit from government dollars paid for his support and security staffs in those locations? Nope.
- “My job is to protect jobs in Kentucky now, not speculate about science in the future.” So, coal now; alternative energy never. And about those children of Kentucky citizens, well, too bad, guys and gals. There is no global warming, maybe, perhaps, maybe.
- “The debt they ran up in the first year of the Obama administration is bigger than the last four years of the Bush combined.” Of course, I don’t want to mention that it was in response to a Wall Street crash on Bush’s watch, was done to save us from turning a deep recession into a Depression, and didn’t count money spent on various Bush wars.
- “America being a force is a lot more than building up the Defense Department.” It also means being quiet about the evisceration of the State Department, the resignations of many of our top diplomats, offending our long-term allies, and playing cozy with President Putin.
- “The country is yearning for a change. I’d rather take my chances on somebody new, particularly with regard to the Supreme Court.” And McConnell wants that newness to come in the form of a Scalia clone named Neil Gorsuch, whose mother was Reagan’s EPA chief for a short period of time. In that position, she pointed the direction currently being followed even more aggressively by EPA chief Pruitt (alienate civil service professionals, deny science, don’t bring cases against polluters, manage poorly).
- “We need to be honest with the public.” Oh, come on!
- “I think it’s time to be sad about what’s been done to the United States Senate, the greatest deliberative body in the world.” Even though McConnell tries to make sure it doesn’t deliberate, has not passed a budget with regular order in years, and has adopted a “my way or the highway, majority rule, minority rights be damned” attitude under his leadership.
- “Bills should go through committee.” Except when they shouldn’t. Let’s hear it for health care reform developed in closets and presented without hearings or committee meetings.
McConnell’s cynicism can be encapsulated in a single quotation: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.” That quotation comes from the same man who told us “We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We’re Americans first. We’re patriots first.” If the most important thing McConnell thought needed to be done at the height of a recession was to limit the effectiveness of a dually elected President, I’m not sure I want him as my model for patriotism.
Let’s now praise honorable men – Mitch McConnell, what a guy!
1 For a somewhat similar use of generalized characters, check out Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted, for which he won a Pulitzer – you’ll never think of the immigrant experience in quite the same way again. Two additional poverty books are well worth reading: Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York was written at the end of the 19th-century, included Riis’s photographs, and is credited with influencing progressive reforms and Michael Harrington’s study of Appalachia poor, The Other America, directly influenced JFK and LBJ policies. Yes, I know I’m a book nerd.