So You Think You Live in a Democracy?

Aren’t we lucky to be enjoying the fruits which democracy offers? We in the West get to choose our leaders, decide our own futures, and enjoy free speech and individual privacy. Right?

Wrong. Democracy is an illusion, a nice, neat ideology held out as a reality by the powers that be to string us along. True democracy is rule by the people. Few of us are empowered to rule on anything except whether to watch The Sopranos or switch over to Oprah; to mow the lawn or defrost the freezer.

Election time is a good example of this. We take it oh, so seriously and believe that our vote will make the difference when we are really voting for candidates chosen by various lobbies, interest groups and big business. It boils down to middle-aged white Christian male candidate ‘A’ versus middle-aged white male Christian candidate ‘B’.

In our freedom-loving, non-discriminatory societies minority groups don’t get a look in when it comes to the real leadership. How many black American presidents and German chancellors have there been? How many women have presided over the Oval Office or the Elysees Palace?

In the US, which holds itself out as the epitome of a democratic country, there are ruling dynasties, such as the Kennedys and the Bush’s, and yet over and over we are indoctrinated into believing that we actually choose the best person for the job. The chances of two or even three members of the same family ‘coincidentally’ being the best there is must be over three hundred million to one.

The fact is that as each year passes, whatever freedoms we did have are fast disappearing. We can no longer drop out, hang out or disappear from the government radar screen. The computer age has meant that from cradle to grave, in true 1984-style, we are registered, monitored, tracked and labeled.

We are designated numbers, which remain with us throughout our lives, details of our credit rating, our health and our speeding fines are in a central computer, and soon biometric identity cards, driving licenses and passports, with our unique iris print and facial shape, will be the norm.

There is no escape for those of us who cherish our privacy. On almost every street corner there are video cameras, monitored by law enforcement.

In Britain there are over 1.5 million closed-circuit television monitoring systems watching roads, shopping malls, schools, parking lots and public buildings, and yet crime is on the up and up, including homocide. Britain is the most monitored country on earth and yet the government plans to spend a further US$115 million to purchase more spy eyes in the sky.

In the US, the Patriot Act has facilitated intelligence gathering agencies to listen-in on telephone conversations and to read anyone’s email, while the guy who arrives to tune your piano or repair your washing machine could be a potential TIPS’ informer.

Most of us are reared on the work ethic and persuaded to believe that hard work reaps high rewards. Ask a worn out garbage collector, or a woman who flips burgers in McDonalds just how much his or her labor provides in real benefits each month. Ask him or her whether it’s Hawaii or Palm Beach this summer and you may get a blank stare in response.

We are constantly being fed the line that we live in lands of opportunity where the streets are paved with gold. What they don’t tell us is money goes to money and the success stories featuring entrepreneurs rising up from the wrong side of the tracks are comparatively few.

We are told that we have choices in life. True. Americans, for instance, have the ‘choice’ to pay US taxes or go to jail even when they live and work overseas. At the same time, they have no decision concerning the use to which their taxes are put or the right to object when a high proportion is sent off to prop up America’s allies, such as Israel.

Britons can ‘choose’ to pay high National Insurance contributions or be dragged to court, even though Britain’s National Health Service is a shambles with waiting lists for important operations stretching over years.

Many of us carry on our daily lives believing that we actually own our own homes when, in fact, they are owned by the banks and mortgage companies for much of our adult lives. In many cases, we spend most of our time working in boring repetitive jobs simply trying to keep a roof over our heads and pre-cooked dinners in the refrigerator.

Ask single families on welfare about their aspirations and ambitions. Have a word with the bag ladies, the drunks and the druggies what democracy has done for them.

I wonder what the victims of corporate scandals, such as Enron, think about a world where CEOs use the millions of dollars gleaned from insider trading to buy mansion ‘homes’ which are protected under the law, while they look forward to a poverty-stricken old age.

Better yet, pop over to that other paragon of democracy India. As you drive from Mumbai (Bombay) Airport you will be outraged to see the fruits of India’s democratic system. On each side of the road to the city as far as the eye can see humanity in its most wretched state lives under cardboard and corrugated iron surrounded by sewage.

Inside the city proper, the democratic Indian government does its utmost to clear out the beggars and the street residents but still the cart goes around every morning to pick up the bodies of those who died of disease or starvation during the night.

In the birthplace of democracy, Greece, a new law says that anyone who plays electronic or computer games, including chess or Game Boy will be fined or imprisoned. If anyone dares to play on-line Trivial Pursuit in an Internet cafe, the owner will be fined and the cafe closed down. I am sure that the British plane-spotters, who were accused as spies and jailed, will be delighted to attest to Greece’s new democratic principles too.

But all is not lost. There is a country where its citizens are given a free piece of land upon which to build their homes using interest-free loans. It is also a tax-free state where people pay state-subsidized electricity and water bills while enjoying a free internal telephone service.

In this paradisical place, couples are given a lump sum upon marriage and their children free further education anywhere in the world. If they should fall ill, they are treated by the world’s leading medical specialists at the hospital of their choice, while two members of their family are put up in a five-star hotel and receive a daily cash allowance, courtesy of the state.

It is a new country, only 30 years old, and yet it now boasts one of the world’s highest standards of living. Some 98 per cent of its nationals travel overseas at least once every year, and almost all own their own homes and businesses.

At the same time, there is little crime, no beggars and nobody goes hungry.

This is a diverse land offering cuisine from all over the world, golf courses, racecourses, marinas ice-rinks, pubs, clubs and every kind of sports facility. It boasts first class universities, an Internet city and a Media Village.

It is also a multi-cultural melting pot where Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, British, Americans, French and Filipinos brush shoulders in the many multi-storied air-conditioned shopping malls. It is a spot where the smile-count has to be among the highest on the planet.

Welcome to the union known as the United Arab Emirates and made up of seven sheikhdoms, the principal two being Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Yes, one of those Gulf countries where democracy is absent. Instead, the forward-thinking rulers treat the country just as if it formed part of their own back garden and its people their own sons and daughters.

The UAE offer real freedoms: the freedom to feel safe; the freedom to live well and the freedom to put the rewards of your labor into your own pocket without having to pay up to one third of it to the government. In the UAE, a woman can walk in the city at 3am without being afraid and children can play outside their homes without fear of being abducted.

I can almost hear you muttering to yourselves: So what? The UAE is awash with oil money. It’s hardly surprising that its people live well.

Exactly my point! It’s all about wealth. Wealth is health and cash is freedom. With cash in your pocket you can travel anywhere, live anywhere you like, and consequent opportunities open up.

Day to day existence in a phony Western democracy and belief that this is the ultimate lifestyle is widespread. It derives from being told the same thing over and over until we have little choice but to believe it. It’s a sham. Nothing else but a massive con perpetrated on the masses by fat cats who have never worked in their lives.

Western-style democracy? Phooey! It’s time to go back to the drawing board and define what democracy really means and what can be done to change our pretend democracies into the genuine article.

LINDA HEARD is a writer, editor and Arabist, who has lived and worked for most of her life in the Middle East.

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