Ragtime and the Seven Branches

Just after Christmas of 1998 I was in New York with drama students to see plays. One of the best shows we saw that trip was Ragtime. I’ll never forget the opening scene -- three groups of people swirling toward each other -- the blacks, the upper class whites, and the immigrants. They spun into the center, spiraling ever tighter, circling each other -- both menacing and inviting, perfectly picturing the social tangle that was turn-of-last-century society.

I thought of that show tonight when I was listening to Jonathan Turley decry the precarious state of the union and the need for the three branches of government to balance and patrol each other. As he talked I could just see the judiciary in their black robes, all 535 congressmen and women in their suits, and the president and vice president in their -- well, in their crowns. I hate to admit it, but my mental image featured crowns on the executives.

Those three groups are designed to police the goings-on in the other branches -- otherwise why have them? A tripod government can’t possibly be as efficient as a monarchy. It has to be more expensive -- all those salaries and pensions, all that pork to ensure ensuing elections. I’m beginning to be afraid that, brilliant as our founding fathers were, they may have misjudged one factor.

Essentially our government stands on 7 legs -- not on three.

We’ve long referred to the press as the “4th estate,” but the Constitution doesn’t overtly refer to it other than in the text of the 1st Amendment. It’s becoming obvious that the decent, good-hearted, earnest men of the Constitutional Convention either didn’t see the possibility of a press that would coalesce on one side of the political spectrum, or they couldn’t imagine a group of educated people so uninterested in truth, so willing to throw “facts” around like so much confetti. I’m afraid that those mighty men didn’t foresee the evil we face today.

So add corrupt journalists to that stage. Corrupt journalists and, having perhaps even more pull with the public, Hollywood celebrities. They aren’t in their own separate group, but have surrounded the president, are carrying his ermine cape, handing him his scepter, adjusting his diadem. Some rush ahead of him and try to trip select members of the other groups. We’ve all been watching this unfolding as our newspapers never cease distracting us with stories about movie stars and gay athletes. The press is just themanufacturer of smoke and mirrors.

And the fifth leg? The fifth branch of this overblown government are the lobbyists and the corporate cronies that pull their puppet strings. On stage they clatter around harassing congressmen, checking in with the throne, waving fistfuls of money under everyone’s noses. One wonders what influence they have over the guys in black.

The stage is now way too crowded to be anything but a mess, especially considering the fact that over half of these bad actors are heading stage left and the others are still trying, though half-heartedly, to move stage right. Lost is the smoothly choreographed tri-partate gyre. They’re making so much noise that the music has almost disappeared. It’s getting hard for the audience to tell what’s happening.

But we haven’t even seen the biggest contingent -- the bureaucracy. The 6th branch marches in lock-step. At first the unison movement is a relief, but they don’t keep time with the music; their movements are sluggish, uninspired, robotic. And there are thousands and thousands of them. They worship the executive because it is he who gives them their jobs, their marching orders, their security. Once on stage they gather under him and lift him high -- high above the clamoring press, high above inquisitive congressmen. They form a heavily-armed fortress around him -- or is it a prison? Are they the ones driving him? There’s so much confusion and congestion on the stage that it’s hard to tell.

And behind it all, like the Wizard of Oz, is the Fed. The seventh branch just sneaks around backstage printing the money the lobbyists throw around, the money the bureaucrats recklessly spend and the money the executive branch promises to everyone.

We can, however, be sure that one thing will happen -- it’s all going to spill over and land in our laps. Once I had a front row seat to see the Toronto Ballet. It was a wonderful performance, but I learned not to sit there again; every time a dancer spun around or landed a leap in front of me, I got sprayed with sweat. This will be worse.

If we impeach the president, which he roundly deserves, and even if we could dismiss the vice president simultaneously, the stage would still be filled with bad dancers --- like a giant stoned mosh pit. We’d still have judges who can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the audience, congressmen holding hands with the lobbyist puppets, who are married to either journalists or high-ranking bureaucrats and all them out of their own control, let alone anyone else’s.

If we take the Senate in November some of the movement may settle down a bit, but it won’t rid the stage of the bureaubots; it won’t pump any integrity into the press; it won’t rattle the judges who will just keep scurrying around and around, more or less unaware of and detached from the melee.

We could just get up and leave before they all fall off the stage. The nullification movement is heading that direction. Though that may infuriate the great monolith of agencies and unnecessary departments and from up there on stage they’ll have a good shot at each of us as we head out the door.

I wish I could hear the music, wish I had read the novel this play was based on. But no nation of this size, of this power and wealth, has ever existed, let alone fallen off the stage of history. Only God knows how this will play out, and it looks like the crescendo of the last act is building….

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