Tuesday, March 11, 2014

History's Echo: Mr. Flower and His Warning Against Corporations

by Nomad

Let's take a glance back over a hundred years ago to an era suspiciously like our own. 

I'd like you to meet Mr. Flower, a now forgotten progressive journalist with a word of warning about the growth of corporations.

History is full of surprises and hidden secrets. One such surprise is how epochs and eras often repeat themselves at regular intervals- never quite the same, but the same echoes vibrate through our own time.

Take the Progressive Era which started in the late 1800s and lasted to about the 1920s.  Ever wonder why this important time of American history gets so little attention? 

To answer that, we can peer into Arena Magazine, Volume 19, dated 1898. In it, we discover an article written by the magazine's editor, B.O. Flower which is entitled "The Corporation Against The People." The article warns its readers about an encroaching menace- the monopolies of corporations:
Monopoly in money, monopoly in transportation, monopoly in all public utilities... and monopoly in commodities essential for man's life, comfort or well-being are the offspring of corporate control, ... in which great profits of the few are acquired at the expense of the many.
Against this evil.. all reformers, all friends of liberty, freedom and justice should unite.

The forces of freedom and the forces of oppression are being rapidly marshalled, the lines of battle are being drawn. The tendencies of the opposing theories are no longer vague or doubtful. If corporations are to continue, a popular government cannot live, any more than liberty can exist under the rule of absolutism.
Over a hundred years have passed and the subject- and the Flower's viewpoint  - is just as important as it was then.

Raking the Muck
The United States- as modern nation- owes a lot to the Progressive Era and the roster of investigative journalists, known as the Muckrackers. Most- if not all- of their names have been forgotten by history. That's only fair, I suppose. For the most part, these people didn't pursue fame or, unlike so many journalists today, celebrity.

The term, Muck-rakers first started out a kind of insult. It referred the kind of journalists that stirred the shite, instead of looking at the world with rose-colored glasses. They tended to see - and not without good reasons- a world in need of reform and of corruption in need of exposure.

Seemingly out of nowhere, squads of investigative journalists began peering into the darker areas of life. They were dedicated at exposing such crimes as political corruption,  fraud, waste, violations to public health and safety, graft, illegal financial practices.

True, many muckraking journalists tended to be on the sensational side. That's especially true as time wore on. Competition tended to make many reporters rush to judgment. (How long can the public be continually shocked with feeling a bit fatigued?)  Sometimes the journalistic standards were dubious. However, the more conscientious of them  became the fathers of what Americans used to call modern journalism.

Today, unfortunately, corporations have been allowed to create media empires out of what was once something like a public utility. What has grown up in the place of journalism is a pale imitation of what existed in the past. 

Due to deregulation, the media markets have become concentrated in the hands of a few.  Critics claim, this has become a serious threat to pluralism and diversity of opinion. As with all monopolies, they have squeezed out diversity from weaker competitors and are now on a mission to control the Internet's egalitarian nature.

As of 2012, The Walt Disney Company is the largest media conglomerate in the US, with News Corporation, Time Warner and Viacom ranking second, third and fourth respectively. 

As the graph clearly shows, the number of media corporations who supply the public with news in all forms is shrinking to shocking low levels. If any one of the media giants mentioned above choose to suppress stories that do not serve their interests, either financially or politically, then the public will suffer. 
How can citizens make smart voting decisions, when information on vital matters is slanted in the corporations' favor? Well, they cannot. 

A world without muckrakers, like Flower, a world in which journalists have been marginalized to the point of non-existence by market forces would not greatly concern the media corporations.

Saluting Mr. Flower
Benjamin Orange Flower, editor of The Arena, a Progressive Magazine, certainly fits into this group. Born in Albion, Illinois on October 19, 1858, Flower had originally wished to become a Protestant minister, like his father and an older brother. Instead, following college, he took an interest in publishing, particularly in magazines aimed at social issues.

Flower was undeniably an idealism in the liberal tradition, believing in social evolution, rather than revolution. He advocated for pre-school education, public libraries and improved housing for the poor.

Of the many issues his magazine dealt with were for prison reform and, the abolition of capital punishmentwomen's suffrage, reform of divorce law, but also the relationship between poverty and crime, and race relations between the white and black populations of the United States.

In the Arena article, Flower describes quite clearly the dangers of corporate overreach.  Corporations have ensnared our nation, he said.
They have been tolerated until they have gained power and a firm foothold in the government through all its ramifications. Moreover, and worse, the great opinion-forming agencies of the age have come under their power, Silently, secretly, but with the one central thought of mastery... a few men have banded themselves together an seized upon various sources of wealth.

The great power of corporations is fed by sources of wealth which belong to all the people.... It is a crime when a few persons are permitted to seize and hold for their own profit these vast privileges while the humblest citizen, because of these unequal advantages, is made to suffer and die for what other would have made life a joy.
It's hard to imagine what Mr. Flower would have made of the present situation in which corporations have essentially bribed the Supreme Court to declaring them "persons."  A personhood that allows the legal right to corrupt the political system under the guise of free speech. His first reaction most likely would have been to laugh in our faces.

Corporations today are free to assault the voting process and to write the laws for everybody in state legislature in a travesty of free speech. America is now a nation in which economic inequality is at an all time high and the Congress filled with millionaires. And even then, with all of that, the public is both angry but confused. It seems unable to put the system to right with their vote and public outrage.

Even an optimist with a strong faith in reform like Mr. Flower would have no doubt felt wilted at what he saw.