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The Rules of School: Big Business Gets Detention

Money! Money! Enough money will buy you a politician or two>>
It's time for finals! Before your exams, you find out that your teacher is "selling" grades. For a $50 "contribution," she will give you an "A" -- no questions asked -- and for $25 you can buy yourself a "B-" without even having to study. How many students do you think would take advantage of this "sale"? Would you? If you're thinking to yourself, "Why not?" then think about this: what if a student who doesn't like you gives the teacher $100 to make her fail you? Or pays for her to go skiing, or buys her a new pair of Ray-Bans. If she accepts, then nothing you can do will change her mind and you're doomed. You failed even before taking the test.

If this kind of thing really happened, can you imagine the scandal it would cause? Headlines would read, "Corrupt Teacher Sells Grades!" "Students Buy Diplomas!" "The Education System a Mess!" After all, we hold teachers to be fair, honest and objective. We expect them to treat everyone equally and not give special treatment to certain students, not even the rich ones.

Why then, do we not apply these same values to politics?

As a rule, politicians have been for sale in America for more than 100 years. Business interests make million-dollar contributions to the Democratic and Republican parties ($653 million in the 1996 campaign). Laws get passed all the time to serve big corporations (just ask your teacher about HMOs). And the wealthiest 1% of Americans own almost 40% of the wealth, thanks to tax breaks and legal loopholes.

Becky and Matt talk Progressive Politics
I think this stinks! Why? Because the rich (and the corporations they own) don't play by the same rules as the rest of us. A lot of times, the rules don't even apply to them at all. They have enough money and power to influence the way politicians vote, and since they're only interested in making more and more money, everyone else is left out. In other words, our elected officials end up passing laws that help CORPORATE INTERESTS at THE PEOPLE'S expense.

I realize that you may not agree with me. You may think I'm (a) exaggerating or (b) making all this stuff up. But my opinion is not new. Many people (much more important and respected than me) have been saying the same thing for many, many years. One of them even ran for President in 1924 and captured almost 5 million votes by pledging to "break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people." His name was Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and his words ring as true today as they did eight decades ago.

In our quest to find out more about La Follette, Becky and I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, his home state, and dropped in on Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, the magazine La Follette founded 92 years ago. This name was chosen because it defined La Follette's politics and ideals. In fact, he so preferred it that in the 1924 campaign, he ran as a third-party candidate for the Progressive Party instead of the Republican (his party up to then).

La Follette was a champion of equality -- he disagreed strongly with any type of discrimination (against women and African-Americans, to name a few). He was also a supporter of labor unions and small farmers. But his most scathing criticism was directed towards corporate powers, which he believed "moved upon the capitol" and led wars abroad.

The Progressive magazine has been published for 92 years
Corporations that manufacture weapons, such as the "smart-bombs" used during the Gulf War, tanks, landmines, guns and fighter planes need a war -- or at least the possibility of war -- to stay in business. So they send lawyers to Capitol Hill, invite politicians to take a little ride aboard their new state-of-the-art helicopter and make contributions to their political parties. Then they sit back as Congress votes on yet another defense-spending increase. By the way, in case you didn't know, the US defense budget is currently $300 billion a year!


Our guardian angel from the Heartland

La Follette saw this happening way before the term "military-industrial complex" was coined. In the Senate, he emerged as the leading opponent of World War I, a war he described as a scheme to line the pockets of corporations. As a Senator, he argued: "We should not seek to inflame the mind of our people by half truths into the frenzy of war." In his view, WWI would benefit the wealthy, but not the workers, who would be the ones fighting it. He stated: "The poor…who are always the ones called upon to rot in the trenches have no organized power."

La Follette understood that during times of war, civil liberties (such as freedom of speech) were taken away from people. Others who spoke out against WWI were sent to jail, including Eugene V. Debs. In their defense, he charged, "Never in all my many years' experience in the House and in the Senate have I heard so much democracy preached and so little practiced as during the last few months."

During our conversation with Matt, I kept thinking about how so much of what La Follette campaigned for is still relevant today. Although he passed away in 1925, many others have taken up his crusade. The most well-known Progressive today is Ralph Nader (remember him?), who ran for President promising to remove special interests from positions of political influence, cut defense spending, reform health care and support the unions. During his campaign, he came to Madison and gave a speech on the steps of the Capitol building, the same spot where La Follette addressed his supporters decades before.

Matt shows gave us the lo-down on La Follette
Matt heard Nader speak then and said he "hadn't seen the excitement that Nader generated since Jesse Jackson ran for [President] the first time in 1984." Just like La Follette, Nader brought crowds to their feet everywhere he spoke. He, like La Follette, criticized our system for not providing national health care, even though a majority of people wants it; for not instituting campaign finance reform, even though a majority of people agrees with it; and for not spending more on education and the environment, even though a majority of people thinks it's needed.

Daphne visits the Capitol, where La Follette and Nader have both spoken
It's that simple: most people want to live in a fair and just society; one where schools have enough money, health care is available to all, and workers -- especially your teachers! -- get paid what they deserve. Instead, we live in a society where one out of five children go hungry, where one out of three African-American men are in the prison system and where 44 million Americans are without health insurance.

Instead of feeling pessimistic about our current state of affairs, I think about all the things La Follette was able to accomplish during his time as Governor of Wisconsin and in Congress. He preserved his state's forests, protected labor rights and broke up monopolies, among other things. Matt summed up La Follette's career best when he said, "[Bob] was one courageous individual. He stood alone in the political landscape" even as others dismissed him as a radical.

 'Don't fall!' Daphne checks out La Follette's boyhood home in Argyle, Wisconsin
In school, we are taught many rules: to respect our fellow classmates (and our environment); share our materials; always tell the truth; work hard; and stand up for the little kids (the ones being constantly bullied). Why don't these rules apply in the real world? Why are people with money allowed to get away with everything? And why do politicians protect and serve the privileged, not the ones who need it most? I don't know…

Many people have tried to change the system. "Fighting Bob" spoke loudly and courageously, and others, most notably Ralph Nader, have since followed. Me, I would take everyone -- Senators, lobbyists, defense contractors and big business -- and tell them to be nice. Otherwise, they'd have to stay after school for detention!


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org

Quotes are taken from "Portrait of the Founder, Fighting Bob La Follette" and "Nader is Running on Principle, as Did La Follette" by John Nichols.

Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Does money really talk or should it take a walk?
Jennifer - A crater of tears and a forest full o' love
Nick - Pop goes the price of corporate farm corn
Stephen - Political corruption: the good, the bad and the ugly
Neda - Two Wobbly ghosts named Ralph and Wilma
MAD - Is that a worm or a spliced, mutated gene in your apple?