COLUMBUS _ "You know what they say about a little bit of knowledge? It can be a dangerous thing, because it gives the illusion of knowing, without perspective," Uncle Chet said to his old antagonist, his sister, who sat across the table from him.
Then he hoisted his coffee, as if that had ended it.
She was about 60, face deeply lined, but hair still dark and long, and her brown eyes were like rifle barrels aimed at him.
"Citizens United lets anyone exercise their right to influence an election, which is their American right," she declared. "It lets corporations donate money and it lets unions donate money. It is not a partisan decision; it's upholding our right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed under the Constitution."
His mug came down hard.
"There's false equivalence, if I ever heard it. Unions are dying and have been for a half-century," he snorted. "If unions weren't dying, how could corporations have gotten away with NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)? Let's face it, American workers are poorer now than they were in the '70s, and all the bosses are bucking to be millionaires and billionaires."
"It was the unions that chased the jobs away," she retorted.
"It was right-wing corporate cash, of the kind we saw in the recent election, that created the campaign that swayed the Congress to sell out the workers and allow corporations to move factories offshore and continue to call themselves American, when in fact most of their work forces, and much of their loyalty, went offshore, too."
"I think they call that free enterprise," I interjected.
"Don't you start," she said.
"That's what they call it," Uncle Chet said, "but I call it economic treason, and it's ruining the government as well as the economy. At a certain level of economic disparity it's impossible to operate a democracy. In the middle ages, peasants had no chance to fend off marauding nobles, and average Americans are just as powerless compared to the rich around them, controlling their health, wealth, even what they believe."
"Unless you're a government employee," I said.
"The last bastion of the middle class," he said, "teachers, professors, public employees because they still have unions."
"That's the bloated bureaucracy that's dragging us down," she said. "Millions of people milking the system, working 25 years, then retiring for 30, living off the public dime, driving up our property taxes so we can't afford to retire."
"You haven't changed a bit," I said.
"Yes I have; I'm one of those people now, paid by taxpayers," she said, "but I still see it all around me."
"The public sector is bloated," Uncle Chet conceded. "But where's most of the fat? In the military, with bases in a hundred countries, armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've lost trillions in the desert, a giant stimulus package for defense contractors like Haliburton and an enormous bill for American families who've lost loved ones and been saddled with the IOUs."
"Don't you criticize our soldiers," she said as she shook her head at him.
"I don't," he said. "I criticize the liars who sent those soldiers into action, but we were talking about the bloated bureaucracy."
"I wish I could get a government job," I said. "Imagine having Martin Luther King Jr. Day off. …"
"Those guys are going to be the next to get it," Uncle Chet said.
"I agree," she said, and then to me: "Can you believe it? We agree!"
"Wait, I've got to find a tape recorder," I said.
"Public employees are going to be thinned out just when we need them most, because the fruits of Reagan-Bush rule, the jobless recovery and a cheapening dollar are going to destroy the remnants of the middle class. People are clinging to their jobs like lifeboats, as shopkeepers turn into wage slaves and wage slaves into beggars."
"What a campaign speech that would make," I said. "`Vote for me, then slit your wrists!"'
"He doesn't know what he's talking about," she said before drawing a deep breath and forcing a smile.
"Republicans have bashed the government because they want to rule directly but keep the illusion of democracy," he said. "To make that happen, they have to translate cash into votes, and to make that happen," he looked at me, "they have to own the media."
Cooperstown Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, who he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week. For more of his columns, visit www.thedailystar.com/tomgrace.