20 December 2004

It's the End of the World as We Know It, Part I

To separate fake CHRISTIANs from the genuine crusaders, Medium Lobster asks the important questions in life:
The end of the world:
1. Will be slower and more painful than I can possibly imagine.
2. Will be a vast disappointment.
3. Must be hastened by strict adherence to a collection of ancient inscrutable animal prophecies.
4. Has already happened.
I laughed... until I thought about it reworded this way:
The end of American democracy:
1. Will be slower and more painful than I can possibly imagine.
2. Will be a vast disappointment.
3. Must be hastened by strict adherence to a collection of ancient inscrutable animal prophecies.
4. Has already happened.
It reminded me of the perpetual (under Bush) discussion of the state of American democracy and the various protofascistic forces dismantling it. In most of these discussions, it seems to be assumed that those answering (3) will only be able to make (1) come true in, at worst, years (though I've noticed Orcinus revising his timeline to be more pessimistic the longer Bush is in power). However, two articles I read recently lead me to believe that (4) can't be entirely ruled out. Is it possible that, while the legal institutions of democracy are still there, there's no 'there' there? Have we become a "managed democracy"?

Ordinarily, even I wouldn't be cynical enough to seriously answer "yes," but I've noticed that everytime I think I might be too cynical, it turns out I'm not cynical enough. Furthermore, two articles on this topic have gotten me thinking on the subject, and now think it might be more accurate to say we need to "reclaim" democracy rather than "defend" it. The first is from the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine by SUNY philosopher Paul Kurtz, who asks the question Is America a Post-democratic Society? What does he mean by this?
We need to ask: are we already in a post-democratic stage? Is it still possible to stem this tide and restore American democracy? In my optimistic mood, my response in the short- and mid-run is “Yes, we can,” but we face enormous political battles. In the long run, we need to embark upon a New Enlightenment, defending reason, science, free inquiry, and nonreligious ethical alternatives—if there is still time to do so.

In my pessimistic mood, I recognize yet another source of danger to democratic institutions. It is virtually impossible for any one nation-state (democratic or nondemocratic) to solve its economic, cultural, social, and environmental problems alone. Neither France nor Germany, China nor Brazil, Britain nor the United States is capable of dealing with these problems in isolation from their impact on others in the world. For the problems we face are planetary in scope. The Europeans have discovered this truth, and they are working hard to strengthen new European institutions—a European Parliament and a new Constitution—and of course the World Court.

Only the present leadership of America stands in haughty isolation, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the World Court or to abide by treaties; only the United States has abandoned the principle of collective security and the United Nations; only the United States assumes for itself the role of policeman to the world. Possessing a preponderance of weapons of mass destruction, it seeks to impose its will on others. Incredibly, among the major powers only the United States is fixated on a premodern theological worldview. Whether a future Democratic administration could change this trend is at this point questionable—unless there is a genuine realignment of the centers of power in the United States.
Before reaching this conclusion, Kurtz defines the preconditions for a functional democracy - political, economic, and social - and explains how four major trends in American society actively undermine them. Most of you are probably familiar with these trends and how they individually undermine free society, but seeing them all together makes me think Kurtz had it right with his pessimistic conclusion. First is plutocracy - "government of, for, and by the wealthy class in society":
Between the booms of the 1920s and the 1980s came the New Deal and the Great Society, a time of great strides toward equality. Average workers after World War II improved their economic standing dramatically. These gains now seem to have been curtailed, even reversed, especially since the Reagan years. For more than two decades, we have been deluged by the libertarian mantra: that government is evil, that regulations and taxation have stifled the free market, that welfare is abused and needs to be drastically reduced, and that the amassing of wealth is the basic American virtue. A form of plutomania has overcome us, as, for example, during the speculative stock-market bubble of the 1990s. Many Americans considered this period of exponential growth to be sanctified by God. I have called the reigning sacred cow “Evangelical Capitalism.”
This, Kurtz explains, not only undermines economic and social democracy, but also weakens political democracy. It takes money to run for office - lots of money - so only the rich or those financed by the rich can attain national office (or prominent state office). There is nothing new about this; however, the problem is made far worse when the fraction of the population capable of running or buying contributing to a candidate shrinks, as is happening now. He who cuts the checks dictates policy, regardless of party (cf. DLC, Lieberman). As Kurtz writes:
Undoubtedly, Democrats are more amenable to social-welfare policies than are Republicans. Yet both parties bear responsibility for the present crisis... All too few radical reforms are enacted by our legislative system, because the plutocrats control it and they assiduously protect their interests—with all too few notable exceptions. In one sense, the heated debates between candidates serve as a cover, for the basic interests of those who control the country are very rarely in contention.
In other words, DC pwn3d by plutocrats! The "hereditary aristocracy" buying its greed-driven policies (e.g., repeal of the estate tax), unfortunately, is not isolated, but instead closely related to the growth of mega-corporations (but you already knew that), the second anti-democratic trend Kurtz analyzes. As corporations grow in power, they not only concentrate wealth, but begin to dictate government policy directly. After all, if they don't like a country's policies, they can just go somewhere else and take the jobs with them. This gives corporations the upper hand in almost all government-corporate interactions, leading to perverse policies (I swear, the assonance wasn't intentional), such as a tax structure where:
From 1996 to 2000, 63 percent of U.S. corporations paid no taxes at all, while 94 percent paid taxes equal to less than 5 percent of their net income.
Ouch! Kurtz even convincingly (IMHO) ties this trend to American imperialism due to the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of and the sense of triumphalism and invulnerability a large, technologically advance military engenders. However, the primary force behind jingoism is the next trend: media consolidation. (Yes, Simbaud, the Fairness Doctrine is mentioned.) Kurtz explains that the key threat is that mass media mostly consists of official, scripted 'conventional wisdom' (i.e., propaganda), and that this goes beyond FAUX News and the Bush administration 'public diplomacy' (i.e., propaganda):
Today, the public square has been inundated by mass communications media, which all too often drown out dissenting viewpoints. Secularists and humanists opposed totalitarian societies, because the ministries of propaganda spewed forth the official party line and squelched opposing viewpoints. We are surely not at that point yet, but a kind of iron curtain is closing American society; a quasi-official propaganda line is too often the only one heard. For example: it is widely held that capital punishment is the only way to deal with murderers; that violence is the most effective response to evil; that long prison sentences are necessary for drug dealers and heavy users; that government is wasteful; that the free market is the only way to get anything done; that we need to privatize everything and judge all services by the bottom line; that we should consider those who possess great wealth to be role models (e.g. Donald Trump); and that self-righteous chauvinistic nationalistic patriotism, which venerates God, country, and the flag, is the only posture to assume, ad nauseam!
Something Kurtz does not touch on, but I believe is closely related, in both effect (misinforming the public) and motivation (promoting policies, based on cynical self-interest, that nobody would support if they knew the truth), is the increasing government secrecy. Secret laws, secret regulations, secret lists, secret meetings, secret prisons, secret trials... that, I believe, is the iron curtain descending upon America. Kurtz frequently mentions the importance of government transparency, but, perhaps due to space constraints, does not delve into the memory hole to elaborate on how this is being directly attacked. Perhaps this is because he considers it derivative: the mass media only care about money, so they won't pry; the "quasi-propaganda" tells everyone that, well, the government has to keep some secrets, so mind your own damn business; the plutocrats and corporatists want to cover up their shady deals... And the farther they go with secrecy, the more the populace becomes desensitized; I'd say that by now we're at least knuckle-deep within the borderline. But I digress.
Finally, we get to the "moral values" crowd: theocracy. Though this is the single trend that most drives me up the wall - or perhaps because of this - I really don't have much to say here, since it's all old news. However, you still might find it interesting since it discusses the issue from an explicitly secular humanist perspective - a perspective that reveals double-standards taken for granted, 'even' among liberals:
Positively, Democrats in the Congress have opposed [the faith-based initiatives], though regrettably most Democratic politicians have expressed their piety in public (including Mr. Kerry) and almost none has been willing to admit any nonreligious identity.
Kurtz isn't complaining that Kerry is religious - what he means is that politicians are expected to trumpet their piety from the pulpit stage, but any politician who declared that he does not tie himself to a particular religion and thus feels no need to push any personal beliefs on anyone would be dead (politically, though I wouldn't rule out assassination). Most (but not all - cf. Obama) public displays of religion from politicians reek of exclusion to anyone without "faith". For instance, when Kerry gave his speech at the DNC and emphasized "faith" as a shared value that ties Americans together, I wanted to wretch. Even though I knew it was probably a political calculation to include that, I rather clearly got the message "no athiests allowed." In fact, the tacit point to most "Democrats need to get religion" articles I've read is that Democrats need to pick secularists for their Sister Souljah Moment. Joe "there's no freedom from religion" Lieberman must be happy as a clam on Prozac.

So where does this leave us? Is it hopeless? Kurtz believes there is hope, but that it will require not only hard work, but radical changes, both nationally and globally, in a way that fits nicely with John's conclusion about George Packer's essay in the New Yorker, Invasion vs. Persuasion:
every person on the planet should be considered to have equal dignity and value. Thus we should do what we can to defend and extend democracy to every country and region of the world, on a decentralized basis. But we also need uniquely to build new, viable democratic institutions on the planetary level. In my view, this is the daring new frontier for democracy in the twenty-first century.

Thus, the battleground is not simply to restore democracy in the United States, but more importantly to expand democratic institutions on the global scale. If this noble goal is to be achieved, we need to overcome intolerant xenophobic, racist, ethnic, nationalistic, and religious prejudices. We need to vigorously criticize religious fundamentalism on all sides with courage and determination. We need to define and defend planetary ethics, to strive to build a new democratic humanistic civilization based on shared human rights and values. This battle both at home and on the planetary scale is awesome, but we have no viable option but to strive to bring it about.
Still, is such a drastic, global restructuring necessary? The daily grind continues the same as before; wouldn't life have changed drastically if American democracy really died, or even was on its deathbed?

Tomorrow (or the next day, depending on how long it takes): The Rhinoceros in the Living Room.

[UPDATE(21:06): cleaned up some typos and editing wierdness.]

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