“Decisions made in board rooms without a democratic process ensure we are not part of them,” author Craig Barnes told a large crowd upstairs at Tattered Cover Books in downtown Denver Tuesday night. A man known for his integrity and compassion, Barnes sounded like Edward R. Murrow, as portrayed by David Strathairn in the movie Good Night & Good Luck, at the podium.
Reading selections from his new book Democracy at the Crossroads, sharing anecdotes from his days doing conflict resolution in Eastern Europe during the fall of the Soviet Union (!!!), and offering solemn reflections on last week’s Supreme Court decision that will allow unprecedented influence on US elections by corporations.
“The Citizens United decision,” Barnes began, “leaves many of us disagreeing with The Denver Post.” Denver’s only remaining metro daily published an unsigned editorial trumpeting unlimited corporate money as “a major victory for free speech” the day after the decision. “Corporate plutocracy is not a victory for free speech,” said Barnes. “We are all at a high state of alert.”
Next he went way back in time, reading from the opening of his book. In the 1300’s, he told us, the writing itself was an act of rebellion and reading texts posted on churches and in other public places was an act of rebellion, too. Protestors were demanding the aristocracy be abolished, their debts be forgiven, and they even began burning the legal records that had them shackled to the feudal system.
Barnes flashed forward 200 years to Shakespeare’s bold decision to depict kings as human and frail. This led to the understanding that power comes from the people, not from the king and not from God through the king. He also recounted the trial of King Charles and one of Barnes’ heroes, John Cooke.
This led Barnes to point out how powerful people are today, particularly those of us who in addition to being able to read and write, also have our own printers. “We all have little royal printing presses and there are too many of us for corporations to repress,” he said.
He talked about samizdat in the Soviet Union, news not otherwise reported in the press that was copied clandestinely ten by ten and circulated to thousands. “While corporations operate under the false religion of free markets,” he opined, “we read and can print and can distribute what we print!”
He went on to describe more of his experience in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, pointing out that feudal society persists all over the world. The problem, as he sees it, is when personal relationships trump the rule of law. To articulate the merits of democracy in the face of undying feudalism, Barnes offered 5 essential values of a democratic society:
- Common Good – benefit the community as a whole, from the Preamble to the Constitution
- Nonviolence – democracy works better than violence for defending against the sword
- Truth-telling – courts, taxes, finance and other systems don’t work when based on fraud
- Even strangers can be told the truth! – it is not just about our own purposes, so spread it
- Competence – the opposite of corruption, merit is a stronger foundation than bribery
An audience member asked Barnes about citizenship and community. He responded by pointing out Reagan gave rise to the “me first” society and the notion that greed is good. But it was not new in 1980. Hamilton wanted a place in government for aristocracy, like the US Senate, so Barnes pointed out we can’t just lay blame at the feet of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Barnes pointed to the sense of common responsibility at the root of public funding for schools, science, roads, etc.
Then he concluded with some heavy-hitting inspiration, geared toward the crowd of Colorado Common Cause supporters. “Individuals transform communities,” he said. But “the greatest danger to democratic society is the poison of cynicism. The paralysis of people who seek the truth, persons of light, change agents.” Barnes, after all, is the one who convinced the founder of Common Cause to allow him to start a Colorado chapter, leading the way for decades of work in the public interest.