Our Own!

There is an old Indian joke about two country yokels on their first visit to the city. Coming out of the railway station, they are dazzled by all the skyscrapers around them. As they stand admiring the skyline, a city slicker walks up to them and demands, “Quick, which floor were you looking at?”
The first countryman, after a quick count, replies timidly, “The 21st…”

“That’ll be 210 rupees”, says the slicker, and collects the money.

“And you?”, he turns to the second villager.

“7th floor”, the latter replies quickly, handing over 70 rupees.

After the cheat pockets the money and departs, the second yokel whispers proudly to the first, “You were an idiot –I was actually looking at the 30th floor. You’ve got to learn to think on your feet, when you are in the City!”

Here is an administration which has lied wholesale to the American people, and prosecuted a war which has taken thousands of lives, overseen the looting of some of Mankind’s most precious treasures (the Baghdad Museum), and spat on the face of the American people, and all we can hear Messrs. Kerry, Edwards, Clark and others is … “Intelligence Failure”?

That’s right. “Failure of Intelligence” is the phrase de-jour. And not too inaccurate either, when you think about it. It has been a failure of intelligence –ours, as a nation.

We watched as the illegal and fraudulent war was proposed, pushed, planned and perpetrated. Some of us got busy deconstructing every distracting ball of wool the fraudsters threw our way, never asking the basic question. Every other country saw through the sham, but not us. A majority of the American people ‘supported the war’. To paraphrase Churchill, “Never before, in the history of American politics, have so many been hoodwinked, so openly, for so long”.

Give Bush and Co. their due: they had read the American public better than their adversaries. They relied on public ignorance, gullibility and apathy, and drew handsome rewards. Their faith in the above qualities of the American people was not misplaced; it was based on a few years of ‘product-testing’.

They had their prototype with ‘The Silence of the Lambs (see Feb 2001 article below)’, the mute national response to the thwarting of an accurate recount in Florida. They pushed through a lopsided tax cut, with Greenspan’s mendacious nod. No national outrage was forthcoming. 9-11 was followed by the institution of the most draconian provisions and the subsequent conflation of Al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussain. This too did pass.

Then came the October 2002 campaign, with charges of treachery cunningly leveled upon anyone questioning the hurry towards Iraq (and the egregiouis castigation of the war-crippled Max Cleland as soft on national security). The Democrats scurried for cover, afraid to call the Lie a Lie. And throughout Bush’s Presidency, the heaping of all manner of benefits on the rich while starving public programs was met with a widespread fatalism that would shock even the worst cynics.

Every such successful action has given the Bushites greater assurance. To be sure, people have written about it, some have spoken out, but isn’t it imbecilic that, even after David Kay’s ‘revelations’ (which, remember, is exactly what UN Inspectors Blix and Baradei said way back last year), not one Democratic candidate has used the word ‘lie’ or ‘fraud’, preferring instead the ambiguous, ‘intelligence failure’? The word, ‘Impeachment’, seems to have been lost to the Democratic lexicon.

Of course, leadership matters. Articulation is vital. Leaders who can pose issues in proper perspective, and both involve and educate the public, are the so-called geniuses of communication –surely a commodity not much in evidence in recent years, Bill Clinton notwithstanding ( Clinton’s impact on popular political philosophy practically non-existent). Is is not unbelievable, yet true enough, that a president like George W. Bush, with a record of mendacity and failure quite unequalled in recent memory, can still garner the favorable ratings in the polls and is spoken of as the ‘man to beat’? It is all very well to criticize the dandy for dressing up in combat gear and landing on the aircraft carrier, but what does it say about the population he hopes to impress with such antics?

The founder of the Indian National Congress, Allen Octavian Hume, wrote that every people gets the kind of government it deserves. Here in America, Benjamin Franklin made the famous reply, when he was asked by a lady what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had fashioned, “A republic, if you can keep it”. The national outrage that Watergate sparked has not been matched in a quarter century; Nixon’s deception of the American public, however, has been routinely excelled by his successors, most markedly the current incumbent. In Iran-Contra, the President deliberatly broke a law Congress had passed. They named an airport after him. George W. Bush sent his Secretary of State to the UN to lie to the world. I’m sure they’ll name an aircraft carrier after him…

Where has all the outrage gone?

The American Republic is threatened (and will continue to be) by the true WMD’s (Weapons of Mass Distraction), more pervasive and more effective than Saddam’s non-existent armory. One is Television. When one reads of the presidential campaigns of the 60’s or 70’s, barnstorming the country and holding public meetings was the chief way of campaigning. There was time to listen to a candidate outlining the party platform and his own position. This has been replaced by TV. Most Americans still use the TV as their chief source of news, the Internet notwithstanding. This means, effectively, that you will only hear pieces of the what any political leader has to say, and that too only those sections that the network thinks fit to present. News and discourse, presented through TV, puts an effective and near-complete filter on what you learn. The shrinking of TV station ownership in fewer and fewer hands means further filtering. The last point has been quite dramatically captured in Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. The more general point, of what TV has done to public discourse in America, is the subject of a prescient 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, who died a few months ago.

But that still leaves open the question –why would a free people willingly surrender their right to know (or let it atrophy)? I think the answer lies in a second aspect of the above WMD’s –Consumerism. It is the Universal Religion. Go to Costco on Saturday afternoons. This is the only church where you will find them all –people from every ethnic group, people from every religious background, the young and the old, the fit and the wheelchair-bound. At the pulpit of the checkout counter, you will find Orthodox Jews in yarmulkes standing in line with Muslim women in burqas (shopping evidently is an equal right under Islam). If Marx were to return from the dead, he would probably revise the old saw about religion being the opiate of the masses –today it is consumerism. Cheap goods, please, at any cost (including my own job). What’s a little more intrusion into my library habits (probably non-existent), so long as my right to buy is preserved? Even President Bush, in one of his early pronouncements about freedom, emphasized only the freedom to shop (see my article: Open your Wallets, not your Mouths).

Bush was not being dumb. He knew what he was appealing to. And if Kerry or Dean or anyone else is serious about changing the politics of the country, they will have to address America’s consumption addiction. That means catching us between our favorite TV shows and our visits to the Mall, and slowly but steadily drawing –and focusing –our attention to the loss of our sovereignty, both political and economic.

The Silence of the Lambs
Written February 2001


Conventional wisdom holds that the exact moment at which Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election was the instant he gave a calm response to a debate question, “How would you view the death penalty if your wife were raped?” He answered that that he would still oppose it, on principle. What kind of man gives a dispassionate reply to a visceral question like that, the talking heads asked ruefully, leaving no doubt that this bloodless one was not the brave leader of the Free World we would want. The nation nodded in agreement.

Now, Dukakis seems prophetic –more in tune with the country than it realized. Twelve years later, regard the complete ‘calm’ with which the country has greeted the molestation of its most sacred process.
Predictably, this has been a week of paeans to ‘orderly transition’ –Bush himself mentioning it in his inaugural address. Like Mr. Dick of David Copperfield, he has an unerring knack of putting his finger on the nub of the matter. To have accomplished a coup without raising any commotion –and without needing any overt enforcement –surely such is a peace deserving of note!

Individuals across the land will continue to wonder if they are alone in being beset by a continuing sense of unreality. From election night to Gore’s capitulation, outrage was the only emotion that provided some assurance that one had not fallen through the Looking Glass. In fine Goebbelsian tradition, George W. Bush & Co. kept speaking of ‘recount after recount after recount’, all the while blocking even the first count of the votes in question, through a mix of mob action and legal maneuvering which might have won plaudits from Palermo. But was the outraged shared? We watched with a helpless mystification as the news media and the Democratic Party let their untruths pass without challenge. “That’s a lie”, we waited for them to thunder –and in vain did we hope. Finally we had the spectacle of Al Gore having to plead for time from the Democratic elite, to fight for what, after all, was ostensibly a common ideal –a genuine electoral outcome.
I grew up in India, a country routinely described in the media as made up of a fatalistic, often quiescent, generally supine, populace, where extraordinary political transgressions might be countenanced with stoic acceptance. I remember, as a student, hearing the judgment of the Supreme Court of India, upholding a retroactive law passed by a rubber-stamp parliament, changing the rules after the election of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been vacated by a lower court. Then too, a handpicked Chief Justice delivered, abetted by three other cronies, overriding a brave, lone, dissenting judge.

The shocked silence that followed the midnight ‘constitutional’ coup on June 26, 1975, was used by Indira Gandhi to exult: the fact that the country was calm, she claimed, showed that the people were behind her. But India did not go quietly into that night –censorship had been clamped, and over 100000 people put behind bars.

That was then. But could it happen today –with the Internet and email everywhere? Looking at the recent American elections, one has to conclude that it can and it has, that technology is no automatic friend of democracy; that television and Internet may, in good measure, have helped turn ‘people’ into ‘audiences’. Terms like quiescent, fatalistic, stoic and supine may now apply as much to the American populace as to those of other countries whose pretensions to the democratic spirit are so frequently debunked in the American media with some preening. Continuing prosperity and the appurtenances of modern consumption only seem to have made the people less interested –let alone involved –in the political process. How else to explain the lack of participation, the absence of vehement protest, belying the polls even?

Corazon Aquino, Boris Yeltsin and Lech Walesa all made their careers leading popular demonstrations to prevent subversions of democracy in their countries. True, the perpetrators of those heists were more clearly identifiable. Is the need for genuine political leadership any less because the popular mandate was manipulated in solemn robes, inside august buildings, under high-minded etchings? The peace so widely extolled by the political elite, including Al Gore (gracious and cautious to the bitter end) is one born of indifference, helplessness, or both.

So much for the leadership. What about the people? Mahatma Gandhi, who could be presumed to know a thing or two about popular upheaval, foresaw this complacency –asked if he would advocate civil disobedience against a national government as he did against foreign rule, his reply was an emphatic Yes, “Real (freedom) will come, not by the acquisition of authority by the few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused.”

Historians of the future will be struck by how smoothly the country rolled along its path through it all. Presently we hear our media pundits and politicians hail this equanimity with words like ‘the strength of our democracy’, ‘bi-partisanship’, and ‘the closing of ranks’. But then maybe there is something to celebrate too in the resilience of a family, where the battered wife daubs some rouge under her black eye and goes to work as usual.

The true revelations of this election lie not so much in the evidence found as in the evidence missing. As Sherlock Holmes might say, “The dog was silent at the nighttime –that was the curious incident”. Or, if you prefer the modern, “The Silence of the Lambs”, fits too. At his inaugural, with the trademark squint that accompanies his most acute observations, George W. Bush declared, “Citizens, not spectators”. ‘Prudently’, he had saved this catechism for after the swearing-in. He need scarcely have worried. After fifty-some years of the-news-as-entertainment, the American people have no doubt that what is asked of them is not their views, but their viewership.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.


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/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.