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We export Democracy big time, in the form of ideology (hold elections like ours and you’ll take a step toward political health or risk joining the axis of evil), entertainment (see Bay Watch, Dallas and Jerry Springer the finest quality T&A, treachery and hilarious loss of dignity scenarios Hollywood can produce) or “free market” capitalism (dare to restrict our capital and products and you’ll get what coming to you).
We Americans take democracy for granted. We’ve overcome slavery, segregation (a few remnants remain in the Senate perhaps), and all kinds of ethnic, racial and gender biases. We’re not perfect, but we’re about as good as it gets.
We know bad guys when we see them, like Saddam Hussein that fascist who makes us feel morally indignant. Indeed, some truly zealous believers have joined President Bush in his call for war against Iraq and maybe Islam in general. In this war democracy might finally conquer Islamic fascism (not like the half baked Crusades of centuries ago). Saddam the secular fascist or the Al Qaeda-Taliban-Wahabbi theocratic thugs they’re all haters of western civilization and therefore dangerous.
In light of some recent events, skeptics suggest, shouldn’t we ask questions about our democracy before aggressively promoting its export in all forms especially military?
A review indicates how our democracy has evolved. Go back as far as 2000, a year that made democratic history when less than a plurality of voters (about 23% of the eligible electorate) chose the president. The Supreme Court ruled that a republican form of government like ours, didn’t require vote counting to choose a president. So, Bush won. Some bitter liberals claim that the Court’s five Republicans simply outvoted the four Democrats out of partisan politics. I admit that the Court counted its own votes more precisely than those of Florida voters, but that’s only natural.
In 2002, the Bush Administration modified our system by replacing a slightly open government with a truly secret one. It’s more efficient. The new Administration tells Congress to stick its head in the toilet when it doesn’t feel like sharing secrets of state, or whatever. And Congress barely complains, After World War II, our leaders bent the Constitution a bit to erect a national security state on the back of the Republic in order to meet the threat of Soviet aggression. After the Soviet Union slipped away a decade or so ago, our leaders faced narco-traffickers and terrorists by maintaining and making more secret that structure.
Fighting dangerous enemies requires secrecy. Thus, the Administration claims executive privilege to withhold policy discussions from Congress. And, under Bush (43), democracy has fully evolved from a government of law to a government of men and a few women as well.
Making “war against terrorism” meant that the US government had to license itself to execute people without trials, hearings or other legal niceties. Some CIA officials apparently objected on the grounds that other nations could reciprocate. But their pleas went unheeded by the hardheaded realists. We only murder those we know deserve it.
In early December, we dispatched an Al Qaeda official in Yemen. Before the CIA’s drone fired its lethal rocket, unidentified intelligence sources had clearly identified him. Five others died in the car with him. Collateral damage in the war on terrorism! To get one bad guy, you may have to kill five others. Yes, the evolution of our democracy may have roots in the wild west.
Bush has cleverly stretched the meaning of democracy to attune it to concepts once considered undemocratic. For example, he and his advisors discovered “enemy combatants” a term designed to strip people of all human rights. Later, we confirmed that some of those reptiles were actual human beings. The December 22 Los Angeles Times reported that “The United States is holding dozens of prisoners at Guant?namo Bay who have no meaningful connection to al Qaeda or the Taliban, and were sent to the maximum-security facility over the objections of intelligence officers in Afghanistan who had recommended them for release, according to military sources with direct knowledge of the matter.”
When civil liberties lawyers tried to get them released, or when judges objected to their incarceration without access to habeas corpus, government officials sneered because they knew these men were hardened Al Qaeda terrorists. Okay, mistakes happen!
They only spent about 154 days in illegal detention. Now, the Times cites “classified intelligence reports” that say that “dozens of the detainees are Afghan and Pakistani nationals.” They were “farmers, taxi drivers, cobblers and laborers. Some were low-level fighters conscripted by the Taliban in the weeks before the collapse of the ruling Afghan regime.”
“None of the 59 met U.S. screening criteria for determining which prisoners should be sent to Guant?namo Bay [where the Navy had constructed a concentration camp], military sources said.”
“But all were transferred anyway, sources said, for reasons that continue to baffle and frustrate intelligence officers nearly a year after the first group of detainees arrived at the facility.” The government is not perfect, but I’m sure it will compensate these people for its minor mistake.
Homeland Security has become another new feature added to American democracy in the 21st Century. Previously, our democracy included a rigorous defense of human rights. But on December 19 Attorney General John Ashcroft modified that old fashioned notion and brought us into the modern democratic age. He ordered the arrest in southern California of some 2500 men and boys who had volunteered to register with the INS and get fingerprinted. But they volunteered, whined the civil libertarians. Hey, in our democracy no good deed goes unpunished. These people paid a price for their blind trust. Any study of our democratic history will show that confidence in authority is misplaced. Our democracy is based on hard-nosed realism!
Indeed, Bush and Cheney both have taught solid lessons in modern realism. They include in their understanding of American patriotism activities like shopping and taking vacations in Disneyland. They pressured Congress to pass a “Patriot Act” to “protect us.” Indeed, the Bush Administration had presented Congress with classified material serious enough to raise the hair on a dog. Congress, showing a proper lack of skepticism, accepted Bush’s version of “the threat,” defying the wisdom of the late and great journalist I.F. Stone who said: “Never believe anything government officials say. They’re all liars.” Maybe so, but they’re certainly patriots.
George Jean Nathan once called patriotism “the elevation of real estate above principles.” Well, Bush understood that all elevation means reaching greater heights and he included as patriotic the passing of a fast track for free trade in Latin America, to help our wealthy investors make more money faster.
We chuckled over such witticisms and laugh aloud over George Bernard Shaw’s “democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many to appointment by the corrupt few.” Or, Robert Byrne’s “democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least.” Those quips may have tickled a rib or two in the United States and Britain in the 19th and 20th Centuries. But as 2002 comes to an end, it’s no longer funny to make fun of our democracy. Your name could appear on the “No Fly” list, the names of dissenters whom the government has warned airlines not to let on planes. Many of these “no-flyers” have missed important flights because they get searched over and over again.
And thanks to the USA Patriot Act our democracy has removed distinctions between names of people the FBI or CIA gathered during secret intelligence investigations and laws that once protected these people. The government can easily wiretap them and open their mail. Don’t you feel more secure when the state shows its power?
Real power, however, means ability to dip into the public trough. The Administration buys lots of things and makes lots of contracts. Some call this looting. But such talk besmirches our beloved Armed Forces, which does a good share of the purchasing. Air Force Lieutenant Colonels for example order $50 billion a year or more of military paraphernalia. Given their job description, they should be leading squadrons. But thanks to the productivity and flexibility of our democracy we have produced many times more officers of that rank than squadrons, so they buy instead of fly. Voicing opinions against new weapons descriptions, they learned, does not enhance their post-military careers as vice presidents of defense companies in charge of purchasing. That should teach people how American democracy actually works. “Be all that you can be,” I believe the motto says. Or “get all that you can get.” Whatever!
Our electorate can choose theoretically between candidates who want more weapons spending not exactly defense because no country is attacking or plans to attack or those who want to invest in health, education, environmental cleanup or dealing with poverty. Some 42 million Americans lack access to medical care, they say, tens of millions live in environmentally compromised areas and millions live on the streets. President Reagan believed they preferred the streets, and many patriots believe that by making health care available government intrudes on peoples’ personal choices.
So, issues related to helping poor people rarely appear in modern campaigns. Those who raise these themes incite class warfare by harkening back to the New Deal of the 1930s and The Great Society of the mid 1960s. Thanks to the evolution of our democracy, only a minority of House and Senate Democrats continue to push for these outdated programs, but they have little hope of realizing them.
The “incompetent many” stayed home in the last federal election. The “corrupt few” known as the elite in Washington — now manipulate the electoral system and continue to insist that the majority voted for them. Under Bush the word majority has evolved and now means between 10 and 25%. Face it, most eligible voters focused on more important issues decisions involving shopping priorities or were too depressed to vote. Some didn’t find the candidates interesting enough to dislike them.
Those A-type millionaires who did vie for the few “contestable” congressional seats campaigned through clever albeit negative and downright nasty spots on TV. These short cuts to dealing with “issues” cost lots of money but they apparently hit home with viewers, especially those who have become hooked on shows like Jerry Springer. That’s the entertainment version of our democracy in action enjoying watching other people lose their dignity on national television!
“Voting is a pain the ass,” said a friend. In other countries voting takes place on Sundays. Here, we make it difficult and besides, said my buddy, “voting doesn’t matter.” Gore Vidal cynically said that American democracy is the most brilliant system devised for the rich to steal for centuries from the poor and convince the poor they’ve voted for it.”
“If voting actually changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” another wit remarked. We’ve refined that adage. If voters do make the “wrong” choice, our CIA in collaboration with the US-trained military helps de-elect the candidate. Some examples of this successful export of our order are: Mossadegh, overthrown in Iran in 1953, Arbenz, ousted in Guatemala 1954, Goulart, removed in Brazil, 1964, Allende, killed in Chile, 1973.
So, we export our democracy. Several less developed nations now have candidates who spend millions to win office, put nasty ads on TV and refuse to discuss so-called issues. If only those Middle Easterners or old Fidel Castro in Cuba would dance to our political rhythms, they could experience the satisfaction of our kind of elections. What fun it would be to watch millionaire Arabs or Cubans insulting each other on TV! If these less blessed peoples could grasp our optimal way of life, we could probably normalize relations with them well, if they do exactly what we say.
Many have modified the word democracy with adjectives like “imperfect,” “changing” “class-based and race-based,” but barely anyone challenges the word itself in our great country. When bin Laden and his conniving minions tried to sow fear and thus force us to undo the protection for dissent, minority rights and accountability in government, we showed him how we could quickly modify our political culture. Thanks to our agile leaders, we’ve adopted a balanced mixture of police state practices against resident aliens and dissenting citizens with continued tolerance for modest protest provided it is benign. Abroad, we have shown the efficacy of raging disrespect for law, including authorizing murder, and that’s what democracy is in 2002.
Those who long nostalgically for a return to the unfettered shopping mall-freeway culture of yesteryear, when “commerce uber alles” was the slogan of the day, are utopians. Security first and shopping second is the rule under our post-national security state democracy. We have met fear and loathing with genuine fear and loathing. We have bent our democratic principles to meet all contingencies. So, export away Senor Bush. Let the world feel our power and don’t forget the babes on Baywatch!
JONATHAN SWIFT is the indolent pseudonym of a commentator for Counter Punch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org