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They tell me advice books sell, so here goes:
*Don't ever buy a pit bull from a one-armed man.
*Never sign nothin' by neon.
*Always drink upstream from the herd.
Oh, and one more: Never, ever believe the "conventional wisdom," which is to wisdom what "near beer" is to beer. Only not as close.
This is especially true when it comes to our interlocked political and economic systems, in which the game is about power, and conventional wisdom is a trick play designed to keep you in your place. Today's powers-that-be, for example, loudly broadcast that there is no such thing as "class war" in our society, that the major media outlets deliver the "news" to us, that environmentalism is an extraneous concern fomented by liberal "elites," and that we Americans are overwhelmingly a middle-of-the-road, "conservative" people.
These purveyors of conventional wisdom are putting out more baloney than Oscar Mayer, hoping to keep America's political debate from focusing on an insidious new "ism" that has crept into our lives: corporatism. Few politicians, pundits, economists, or other officially sanctioned mouthpieces for what passes as public debate in our country want to touch the topic, but--as ordinary folks have learned from daily encounters--the corporation has gotten way too big for its britches, intruding into every aspect of our lives and altering by private fiat how we live.
Less than a decade ago, for example, your medical needs from birth to death rested in the hands of a doctor, whom you chose. Quicker than a hog eats supper, though, America's health-care system--including your personal doc--has been swallowed damn-near whole by a handful of nationalcorporate mutants called HMOs, most of which are tentacles of Prudential, Travelers, and other insurance giants.
When did we vote on this? Did I miss the national referendum in which we decided that remote corporate executives with an army of bean counters would displace my hand-picked doctor, and would decide which (if any) hospital I can enter, how long I can stay, what specialists I can consult, and what (if anything) these medical professionals are allowed to tell me about my own medical needs? I know Congress did not authorize this fundamental shift to health maintenance organizations (a phrase, by the way, that sounds as warm and welcoming as a lube and body shop). To the contrary, Congress in 1994 rightly trashed the Clinton health-care reform legislation on the grounds that it would do the exact thing being done to us now: limit the choice of doctors and put the bean counters in charge. Only back then we were warned by the infamous "Harry and Louise" television spots that it would be government bean counters managing our health.
What irony. For years the very companies that financed the "Harry and Louise" ads have flapped their arms wildly to scare us about that old bugaboo, "socialized" medicine, but while we were looking over there, they blindsided us with something even harsher: corporatized medicine, a brave new world in which the Hippocratic Oath has been displaced by the bottom-line ethos of HMO profiteers like Richard Scott. A mergers and acquisitions lawyer who never cared for a patient in his life, Scott headed the $20-billion-a-year Columbia/HCA corporation until July 1997. A far-flung HMO, Columbia/HCA demanded that its local hospital executives return a 20 percent annual profit to headquarters, or else. How did they meet Scott's demand? By cutting back on services, on employees, and ultimately on us patients.
One place Scott did not cut back, however, was on his own paycheck. In 1995, he took a 43 percent salary hike, which meant he drew a million bucks from the till. A month.
He is far less generous when assessing his industry's responsibility to meet the needs of America's sick, lame, and infirm: "Do we have an obligation to provide health care for everybody?" this captain of corporatized medicine recently asked rhetorically. "Where do we draw the line? Is any fast-food restaurant obligated to feed everyone who shows up?"
While it is true that the corporation has long been an economic powerhouse, since the 1970s it has metamorphosed into something different and disquieting. Just as HMOs have seized control of our health-care system and unilaterally redefined its ethical underpinnings, so have corporations become the governing force in our society, reshaping American life to fit nothing more enlightened or enriching than the short-term profit agendas of these privileged economic entities. Everything from our amusements to our government, from the food supply to the money supply, from language to public education, from the public dialogue to popular culture--all corporatized.
In the summer of 1976, while I was visiting with my folks back in Denison, Texas, my daddy and I were passing a slow Saturday afternoon together, chatting some, catching bits of the baseball game on TV. He was cranked back in his La-Z-Boy and we were sipping a couple of cool ones when an ad for a national chain of fast-food fish houses suddenly blared at us from the television, boasting that "Our fish doesn't taste fishy!" Daddy blinked a couple of times, turned to me, and said, "I like my fish to taste fishy," realizing as he said it that corporations are not beyond tampering even with life's small pleasures.
The true symbol of today's America is no longer Old Glory, but the Corporate Logo. No space, no matter how public the edifice or how sacrosanct, is free from the threat of having "Mountain Dew," "Banc One," or "Nike" plastered on it. Not even space itself is off-limits--one visionary business enterprise is already working on launching a low-trajectory satellite with what amounts to an extraterrestrial billboard attached. It will be programmed to beam various product logos back to earth from the night sky. No matter where you live, from Boston to Bora Bora, you can gaze into the vast darkness, as humans have for thousands of years, and absorb the natural wonder of the moon, the Milky Way, and, yes, an orbiting ad for Mylanta. Lovely.