Swans Commentary » swans.com December 17, 2007  



From Travesty To Tragedy


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - December 17, 2007)   It is hard reviewing the events of 2007 not to come to the grim conclusion that there is something fundamentally flawed about American democracy. And by that, I mean the very fundament on which the nation is grounded, the mechanisms by which it tries to govern itself and the people who are regularly exposed to its principles and practices. If that assessment is correct, if there is something inherently amiss about the assumptions on which the nation has been founded, then it is the cruelest of ironies to be talking about "exporting democracy" to other countries; an effort that would be tantamount to spreading one's own national infection to places that, troubled as they may be, can only be more weakened as a result of importing the disease.

In Congress, although there is a majority of elected officials that has received the voters' mandate to reverse the foreign policy in Iraq and bring the troops back home, the mechanisms of the US Government prevent that national desire from being realized. The cogs and wheels that operate the democratic machine prove themselves to be clumsy, unwieldy, and unable to reverse a course that has blatantly failed and that remorselessly continues to destroy thousands of young men who cannot understand (because we ourselves cannot articulate it) why it is that Americans are still fighting, killing, and dying.

If the underlying motivation behind the war is, as Alan Greenspan recently admitted, "about the oil" then we have to recognize that we are being led by venal, mercenary, and manipulative politicians who are consciously in thrall to the nation's major corporations. Even if we deny these facts, we have to acknowledge that the mismanagement of the war that has squandered trillions of dollars, most of it unaccounted for, is a travesty of governmental behavior caused by erroneous assumptions and widely-disseminated false information. A travesty that has fostered a tragedy.

The Press, initially hoodwinked by an administration hell-bent on a vengeful war, has continually disgraced itself -- proving gullible to disinformation and timid in assailing the villainy that has caused one of the greatest political debacles in recent history. And yet the Press, and the freedom of the press, is counted as one of the pillars of our democracy. Because we have a Free Press, the fable goes, citizen's rights are protected and governmental wrongdoing is exposed.

But, as we have seen recently, even when lies and deceptions are exposed, the government doggedly proceeds along its former path. (Even the revelation that intelligence about Iran's nuclear build-up has proved to be blatantly false has not stopped the juggernaut from rolling merrily along.) The media in America is like a running commentary on evils it can neither challenge nor retard. It speaks eloquently to itself but is incapable of motivating the citizenry to acts of protest that are clearly required if heinous wrongs are ever to be righted.

Failures of this kind exacerbate the futility of democratic processes in a land populated by people who care more for their personal well-being than they do the principles on which it is theoretically founded. In short, the hunger for "domestic tranquility" and promotion of the "general welfare" are precisely what prevent "a more perfect union" from being formed. And while we're juggling phrases from the Constitution, we should point out the gross distortions we have recently suffered in providing "for the common defense"; the fear-mongering-war-mongering activities of the present administration and the corrupt practices of what, in words that conjure up the shibboleths of Nazism, were "proudly hailed" as Homeland Security. The blind around the eyes of the figure of Justice has been pulled tight. We have watched a renegade attorney general politicize the justice department and seen petty partisan strife compromise those very scruples on which Americans have traditionally prided themselves.

Is it only the ignorance and cruelties of the present administration that cause us to distrust the workings of American democracy? Is it only because we never dreamt Americans would have to challenge the use of torture, the abrogation of habeas corpus, the chilling practice of "extraordinary rendition"? Or is there some deeply-embedded human failing in Americans themselves that makes the functioning of a true democracy unworkable? We know, for instance, that given the practices revealed in the elections of 2000 and 2004 that "one man, one vote" is only an empty shibboleth; that hundreds of thousands of Americans were denied the right to exercise their vote because of willful interference or mechanical ineptitude. When we try to jibe the rhetoric of American democracy with the dictators with whom our leaders brazenly fraternize -- Musharraf in Pakistan, Putin in Russia, other "strong men" in Latin America and elsewhere -- do we recognize some kind of contradiction between our principles and our practice? Or do we blithely accept the argument of expediency, which dictates that sometimes we are obliged to shake hands with leaders whose hands are dirty?

Just look at the people who are desperately seeking our support for the highest public office; people who believe themselves to be the incarnation of the American Dream and the spokespersons for our way of life. A power-mad philanderer and dogmatist who views himself as some kind of hero for being caught up in the havoc of 9/11; the wife of a former president who believes that having been exposed to the cynical cut-and-thrust of Washington politics in some way qualifies her to apply the shrewdities she has absorbed to the highest office in the land; a capitalist adventurer whose rubber-like principles will bend in whatever direction might increase his popularity and gain him evangelical support; a messianic minister who disdains Evolution and believes his campaign is being stage-managed by God Almighty and who also hungers for the support of the Religious Right. Consider the Evangelicals themselves, people whose narrow-minded view of morality shuttles between anti-humanist impulses they ascribe to God's teachings and the desire to protect their personal wealth from government taxation; people who preach brotherhood so long as it is strictly heterosexual and doesn't threaten their saintly conception of family values. The scruples of such people make one want to barf. We would as soon share their principles as we would share their beds or buy a used car from them. One has only to examine the failings of these candidates to realize what a paucity of virtue and true character American democracy has spawned. It is like a Pageant of Mediocrity in which everyone ties for first place.

There is something deep in the fabric of America that is essentially psychopathic. At regular intervals we are exposed to "troubled young men" who go on shooting sprees in schools, malls, and suburbs throughout the nation. The pharmaceutical companies make millions selling drugs that try to pacify the violent impulses and murderous frustrations that trigger some of our worst national tragedies. Psychiatrists are usually at a loss to explain these outbursts. They always fall back on hazy diagnoses that juggle words like stress, depression, alienation, and delusion. But more and more one feels these are not exceptional cases; that the devils that fester in the minds of these people are in some sinister way tied into exposure to commercial hucksterism, violent films, humiliating reality shows, and warped conceptions of celebrity. In the case of the most recent incident in Nebraska, it was reported by a neighbor that the teen-aged gunman was planning to "make his mark" with the havoc he wrought. It is as if, after many smoldering years of being repressed and ignored, the final fatal act is simply one of revelation; someone saying, "Hey, this is me, I'm here!" Bang-bang!!!

In similar ways, many Americans come to believe they are not there, their voice is not heard, their vote doesn't count, and that nothing in the realm of politics can change their lives. It is that feeling of anonymity that accounts for the regular phenomenon of low voter turnout and those myriad people who staunchly believe no government -- no matter what the political party -- can in any way mitigate their miserable status quo. For me, all of this is symptomatic of the alienating effect of democracy gone askew; a widespread social condition in which bottled-up frustration and gathering discontent regularly blows its top but, even when it doesn't, still engenders countless "lives of quiet desperation," which seethe in every part of our nation.

Because American democracy is built on free enterprise (read capitalist greed), there is an obsession with money that, in a twisted way, accounts for the widespread prevalence of graft. A day doesn't pass that some heinous act of corruption is not trumpeted in the local papers. At present, these include the accounting scandals of Halliburton's reconstruction efforts in Iraq, the lawlessness of Blackwater renegades, and the criminal destruction of interrogation tapes by the CIA, which, had they surfaced, would more likely than not put the administration on an even more defensive posture in regard to its treatment of so-called "enemy combatants."

All of these major and minor scandals bespeak a lawlessness that has become rampant under the present administration but they are similar to crimes and misdemeanors that besmirch the records of dozens of past administrations. Corruption, both major and minor, is endemic to American democracy. All of this reveals a deadly amalgam of criminality and incompetence, which, particularly since the Gilded Age and right through the so-called Progressive Era, has been a characteristic of American life. For four decades, from the 1920s to the end of the '50s, crime was better organized in America than politics and the two streams were constantly intersecting.

Perhaps enlightened politics -- a genuine paradigm shift -- can change things; one always hopes that will be the case, but more often than not, one is drawn to the conclusion that it is the emanations of American democracy -- the way its governors and government affect the psyche of the population -- that accounts for the malaise. And if that is the root of the problem, it is political in a far more profound sense of that word, and not something that can be cured by exchanging one elected official with another. It is a pathology that has to be analyzed beyond its obvious topography. One has to try to discover what it is in the very gut of American democracy that is causing these ailments, and to realize that obvious causes -- government, mass-media, religiosity, racism, consumerism, class warfare, the breakdown of families, inferior education, the rise of egocentricity, the disappearance of empathy -- in themselves are only little scraps of evidence that point to a fundamental fault at the very heart of the Weltanschauung in which we live.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

A Battered America, Careening Toward The Tipping Point - Gilles d'Aymery

2007: The Great Unraveling Begins - Eli Beckerman

The Nation Magazine And The 2008 Presidential Elections - Louis Proyect

The Meltdown - Gerard Donnelly Smith

Looking Back At The Antiwar Movement - Martin Murie

Who, What, And Why Was 2007? - Carol Warner Christen

2007: Disconnected In The Age Of Technology - Jan Baughman

The USA Of 2007: A Sinking Ship Of State - Philip Greenspan

What Myrtle Said And Read In 2007 - Peter Byrne

World Tragedy 2007 - Guido Monte & Francesca Saieva

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 17, 2007