"If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals," said G.K. Chesterton, "it is the modern strengthening of minor morals." The latest manifestation of this truth is Al Gore and Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew blowing their stack over Rep. Loretta Sanchez's proposed fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, while seemingly having no problem with the fact that their convention's host city is the poverty capital of the United States -- with one in three children living below the poverty line.
"We have no alternative but to take action," said Andrews' spokesperson. Not, you understand, about the immorality of the children being -- in the phrase of the day -- left behind but about the immorality of politicians trading their votes for money. That's trodding the same turf as the Playmates who shed their clothes for cash -- and who, by the way, would not even have been at the Sanchez party.
In a sharply worded letter to Sanchez, Andrews said that "as the father of young children" he was troubled by the message being sent. Apparently he wasn't troubled by the message being sent by the fact that, according to a United Way report, "economic conditions for children in Los Angeles have not been so precarious since the Great Depression." That's obviously no big deal. But a little soft money changing hands in Hugh Hefner's grotto -- that's, for the DNC folk, "the end of the line." Isn't that what's known as a tempest in a hot tub?
If any further proof was needed that the convention at the Staples Center is all about preserving images, the Sanchez-Playboy episode was ludicrous confirmation. So the Democratic Convention is about spinning a fantasy -- of a world in a state of perfect order, morality and prosperity. Which is why we're holding a Shadow Convention just down the street -- to shine the spotlight on reality.
The Shadow Convention is about the one in three children in Los Angeles County living below the poverty line. The Democratic Convention is about the unprecedented economic prosperity that has given us a 400 percent increase in the number of billionaires in the last decade. The Shadow Convention is going to offer a grim daily reminder that Los Angeles has the largest number of poor of any metropolitan area, that the number of abused children placed in foster care here has risen 86 percent in the past 10 years and that homicide is still the No. 1 cause of death for children under 18. The other convention will do everything it can to make you forget all this: Downtown L.A. has been given a multimillion dollar comb-over, the homeless have been swept from the streets and the Staples Center itself is going to be sealed off from reality behind a 13-foot-high chain-link fence.
City leaders and convention organizers are clearly determined not to let anything disturb their carefully airbrushed facade. "Los Angeles has never looked better," crowed its mayor, Dick Riordan, as he rolled out a photo-op-friendly red carpet in front of the Staples Center.
"We want some positive images," echoed Noelia Rodriguez, head of L.A.'s host committee, "so that we don't continually see reruns of the same negatives." Yes, it gets so boring seeing all those shots of downtown sweatshops, multimillion-dollar toxic school sites and corrupt cops caught up in the Rampart scandal again and again.
Still shaking his pom-poms, Mayor Riordan promised to show conventioneers "the best beaches, the best mountains, the best weather ... the best restaurants, the best theaters. But most of all, we will show them the most diverse and beautiful people in the world -- Angelenos."
That's as long as they aren't carrying a protest sign. In which case, convention organizers would rather you just looked the other way. "We're not going to let 200 criminally minded people ruin this convention," said Riordan. "It's going to be a wonderful, happy time." Even if it means suspending the Constitution -- including trying to search the protesters' headquarters without a warrant and illegally detaining protest organizers.
The local authorities seem intent on enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for anyone hoping to remind people of what one human rights activist called "the politics behind the protests."
"We have plenty of room" in the county jails, chirped Sheriff Lee Baca. It's difficult to imagine how, since Los Angeles has the state's highest rate of imprisonment of those convicted of misdemeanor drug possession -- a 2,700 percent increase since 1980. The price tag for locking up L.A.'s misdemeanor drug offenders for a year: a whopping $110 million. Is that what's known as "affordable housing" these days?
From the comfort of the luxury skyboxes at the Staples Center, life must seem so cozy, so secure and so safe -- not just from protesters but from ordinary citizens. And it's so easy to paint all the demonstrators who will fill the streets this week with the same brush -- demonizing anyone not buying into the Democrats' "progress and prosperity" charade. The message is clear: "Don't mess with our party." But a democracy dismisses its disillusioned, disaffected and disregarded at its own peril.