Monday, April 25, 2011

'Born Yesterday' Feels Like Today

Early in the first act of Garson Kanin's 1946 comedy Born Yesterday, now revived on Broadway, the wife of a recently bribed senator says to the recently arrived-in-DC Billie Dawn: "Too bad the Supreme Court isn't in session. You'd love that," Billie answers: "What is it?" To cover, her boyfriend's lawyer laughs and says: "Lots of people would like to know the answer to that one."

Although Billie, a classic dumb blonde, later learns all about this country and its institutions, she and her teacher, journalist Paul Verrall, would probably be dumbfounded by the current description of the Court – an institution that handed the Koch Brothers, among others, the legal right to "advise" their employees how to vote.

The Nation describes the blatant politicking undertaken by Koch Industries prior to the November 2010 election, an act that is no longer illegal thanks to the Citizens United decision of January 2010, giving corporations the right to free speech. The Kochs provided substantial funding for the case, and in their advocation of candidates who adhere to their views, they are both returning favors and shoring up their investments.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote that the ruling is:
"a rejection of the common sense of the American people…who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt…While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."

The danger of corporate money in politics is what sets Born Yesterday's plot in motion. Harry Brock, he who bribed the senator, is in town to see he gets what he paid $80,000 for – an amendment guaranteeing "no interference with free enterprise – foreign or domestic." Brock has been bragging to Billie about how he's going to run everything. She admits to the lawyer that she doesn't care either way. His response: "Very few people do, that's why he may get to do it."

The strength of Born Yesterday's satire in its time was that Brock freely said things no corrupt businessman would dare say aloud in 1946. Whereas a mogul complaining how difficult it is to expand because of "This law, that law, tariffs, taxes, State Department…pesky rules and regulations—" then telegraphed a man who needed to be brought low, today he might be deemed a hero. If the only reason Brock would pick up Ayn Rand's 1943's behemoth The Fountainhead would be to bash in someone's head, he nonetheless echoes her views when he proudly describes his work ethic as "every man for himself…you gotta get the other guy before he gets you."

It's surely no coincidence that Brock's business is junk (scrap metal). The temptation for naughty innuendo involving how "big" he is and the current slang use of "junk" is great, but this is a man who's developed a $50 million empire, making the joke less funny. He's a forerunner of the Kochs, whose empire includes such tempting subjects for metaphor as toilet paper and fertilizer.

When Brock is interviewed by Verrall, who writes for the New Republic and is the sort of idealistic and intrepid journalist who was often a heroic character, representing the rigor and fearlessness of our fourth estate (no, really); he says he doesn't mind if the story makes him look bad – that makes people scared of him and then they leave him alone. So much for fear being a motivator. The Kochs probably don't mind a negative story either. Partly because they can guarantee regular puff pieces from the conservative press and partly because people are less frightened than overwhelmed. The Kochs don't need anyone to be afraid of them – they can take public inertia all the way to the tax-dodging banks.

Verrall opens Billie's mind, explaining, "All the bad things in the world are bred by selfishness" and that selfishness can even be organized as a government – "then it's called Fascism." Yes, but it can just as easily be called capitalism sans regulations.

The Kochs, who donate to artistic institutions, likely don't believe art has the power to rouse people. If they do, they'll hope for a quick end to this revival of Born Yesterday. It gives people way too much to think about. When Brock insists that he's got his rights like anyone else, it's pointed out that he keeps buying more and more rights for himself. Verrall asks what Brock and his ilk want: "You've got all the oil, lumber, steel, coal, and aluminum – what do you want now – all the people? All the laws?" Verrall's job is to tell the public the truth, which will stop Brock from buying and selling legislation as though it were junk. It did then. Could it do so today? What has more power – truth or truthiness?

Or maybe Kochs and Company won't notice this aspect at all, and instead applaud lines like "I'm gonna get it fixed so I can do business where I want and how I want and as big as I want." That's what they have fought for, after all, and they'd laugh knowingly at Brock's retort to Billie's insistence that it's a free country: "That's what you think."

They would dismiss the notion that government is "you and me and a few million more" and that those who thirst for knowledge and fight for justice can make it tough on men like themselves. They know better. They know that when Verrall says "you near-sighted empire builders have managed to buy little pieces of it once in a while, but you can't have it all. If you do, it won't be this country anymore," he's right, but it doesn't matter. It'll be their country, and that's all that counts. They know that today, Brock could be one of the men running the country or, "better than that," running the men who run it, without being married - his beautiful, stupid girlfriend would have her own reality show, making them even more millions.

Across the street from the New York Public Library is a plaque bearing this quote from Born Yesterday: "I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."

Book, anyone?