December 31, 2010

Closing thought for 2010

I leave you with this idea, as we see the headlight of Train #2011 appear far down the track, heading toward the station: a constitutional democracy is something of a learned discipline, not so different from the scientific method in some ways. It takes a certain habit of mind, a kind of intellectual persistence to sustain. There is nothing automatic about it. "Serious" people in our society often seem to discount the idea that a democracy such as ours can degenerate into some far less desirable form of polity, but such thinkers suffer from the fallacy known as the normative tendency of the factual. This fallacy inculcates the illusion that the social and political arrangements around us are in some sense permanent and indestructible.

This is not really the truth at all. Democracy is actually the aberration; humans are far more predisposed to arrange themselves into hierarchical systems which are anti-democratic, which repose absolute power in elites accepted either by acclamation or by acquiescence in Divine Right. Looking back over history, and around the world even now, we can see that kings and dictators have been far more plentiful than democratic governments. Such tyrannies are the default position, anthropologically speaking, just as religion is the default position in the absence of a scientific establishment.

What is going on right now in Washington, D.C. is a modern, technologically-driven form of this degeneration. Sheldon Wolin calls it "inverted totalitarianism," Chris Hedges calls it a move from "Brave New World" to the dystopia of "1984." What it doesn't seem much like is the democracy in the United States which existed even twenty years ago. It's true we still have elections, as poorly attended as they are. There are still "sea changes" in our government, even "hope and change," yet you can still discern the inexorable slide toward a government of men and not of laws. If you pay attention, if you don't get caught up over much in partisanship and just observe how almost all of our leaders are behaving, you can see this. It has become the norm to disregard statutory law and the Constitution, most particularly the Bill of Rights. To my way of thinking, this is neither a "liberal" nor a "conservative" position, the act of pointing out this devolutionary process. Absolute power, once it is achieved by elites, is indifferent to "left" or "right." Was National "Socialism" a disease of the "left" or of the "right?" Were Stalin's gulags features of a "leftist" government or a "rightist" dictatorship? What's the difference, really? In neither system did the common person have any rights. Both systems were simply about the exercise of absolute power by those who seized it.

It has become standard practice in Washington never to punish a member of the political/financial/military elite for anything except betrayal of the elite's interests. That is the only crime now. Torture, lying to Congress and the American people in furtherance of a war, routine violations of the Fourth Amendment, suppression of First Amendment rights, fraud on an industrial scale - nothing ever is done about it through the justice system. Wars were launched first without a Declaration as required by Article 1 of the Constitution. Now they are pursued, as in Yemen, without even the token (and constitutionally insufficient) compliance with the War Powers Act. No government official seeks a FISA warrant to spy on us. If Wikileaks is too big a problem for the U.S. government, it employs a specious distinction which does not exist between Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg, as far as First Amendment rights are concerned, in order to silence the former while leaving the latter, contradictorily, untarnished as an American hero.

In some way the power elites, as C.Wright Mills called them, have managed to confuse the common American into thinking that patriotism consists in party loyalty and not devotion to the best interests of the country. This is a very clever trick, and one that the Tea Party has completely fallen for. The Tea Party demands that "the Bush tax cuts" be enshrined and perpetuated, without seeming to realize that the evisceration of the U.S. Treasury cannot possibly serve the interests of the middle classers who tend to populate the movement. They cheer on wars that are supposed to keep us "safe," without thinking through that the wars are for the same purpose as the tax cuts, to keep taxpayer money (and the huge borrowing which such dwindling income makes possible) flowing to well-connected defense contractors and war profiteers. The power elites have managed to incite hate between liberals and conservatives by getting them to argue about such things as wars and tax cuts for the rich in symbolic terms - being for war and tax cuts for the wealthy is patriotic; being against such things is subversive and anti-American.

Eventually, when all the bills come due, the commoners always realize they've been had, when intellectual distinctions or the fine points of partisanship are no longer relevant, because the Queen is telling you to eat cake if there isn't enough bread. Then you wind up with France in 1789, or the American colonies in 1776. Or more darkly, Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1933.

While I don't really see how we're going to do it, I hope we begin to figure such things out before events themselves compel the changes. History teaches us that's often a disastrous way to evolve.

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