Archive for the ‘HOW DEMOCRACY WORKS’ Tag

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: WHAT AMERICA HAS BECOME

 

WHAT AMERICA HAS BECOME

John Chuckman

Of course, the cozy popular myth of America’s Founding Fathers as an earnest, civic-minded group gathered in an ornate hall, writing with quill pens, reading from leather-bound tomes, and offering heroic speeches in classical poses – all resembling Greek philosophers in wigs and spectacles and frock coats – was always that, a myth. They were in more than a few cases narrow, acquisitive men, ambitious for their personal interests which were considerable, and even the more philosophic types among them were well-read but largely unoriginal men who cribbed ideas and concepts and even whole phrases from European Enlightenment writers and British parliamentary traditions.

And much of what they wrote and agreed upon involved what would prove mistaken ideas, with a lack of foresight into what the almost unchangeable concrete their words would shape. Americans today often are not aware that the word “democracy” for many of the Founders was an unpleasant one, carrying just about the same connotations that “communist” would a century and a half later. Men of the world of privilege and comparative wealth – Washington, Morris, and many others – were having nothing to do with ideas which rendered unimportant men important. That is why the country was styled as a “republic” – that most undefined term in the political lexicon, which then meant only the absence of a king with decisions made by a tight group of propertied elites.

False as they are, the very fact that there are such pleasant myths does tell us something about past popular ideals informing their creation. Now, how would any future Americans manage to weave attractive myths about a president who sits in the Oval Office signing authorizations for teams of young buzz-cut psychopaths in secret locked rooms to guide killing machines against mere suspects and innocent bystanders, often adopting the tactics of America’s lunatic anti-abortion assassins, sending a second hellish missile into the crowd of neighbors who come to the assistance of the victims of the first?

How would they weave attractive myths around the CIA’s International Torture Gulag, including that hellhole, Guantanamo, where kidnapped, legally-innocent people are imprisoned and tortured and given absolutely no rights or ethical treatment under international laws and conventions?

During the Revolutionary War, the battles were between armies, and captured soldiers were frequently granted their freedom upon their paroles, pledges of not returning to the fight. Spies were thought poorly of and often hung. Torture was uncommon and certainly not embraced as policy.

What myths can be written of two wars involving the deaths of a million or so people, the creation of millions of refugees, and the needless destruction of huge amounts of other peoples’ property, and all to achieve nothing but a change of government? Or about massive armed forces and secret security agencies which squander hundreds of billions in resources year after year, spreading their dark influence to all corners of the globe, and offering an insurmountable obstacle to America’s own citizens who might imagine they ever can rise against a government grown tyrannous? After all, polls in America show that its Congress is held in contempt by the overwhelming majority of its people, with percentages of disapproval rivaling those held for communism or Satanic rituals.

There are no myths about today’s Congressional figures. Everyone understands they are often to be found bellowing in ornate halls about points most Americans couldn’t care less about. Everyone understands that they are ready to go anywhere and say almost anything for large enough campaign contributions. That they take off on junkets paid for by groups hoping to influence votes and put faces to the exercise of future influence, trips commonly involving a foreign power trying to shape American policy. That their work is often steeped in secrecy from the voters, secrecy not governed by genuine national security concerns but by the often shameful nature of their work. That a good deal of the legislation and rules they create repress their own people’s interests and favor only special interests.

That their government regularly suppresses inconvenient truths and labels those who raise questions as foolishly addicted to conspiracy or even as treacherous. What are just a few of the events which have been treated in this fashion? The assassination of a President. The accidental or deliberate downing of at least three civilian aircraft by America’s military in recent years – an Iranian airliner, TWA Flight 800 on the East Coast, and the fourth plane of the 9/11 plot over Pennsylvania. The CIA’s past cooperation and engagement with the American Mafia during its anti-Castro terror campaign. The CIA’s use of drug trafficking to raise off-the-books income. The military’s assassination of American prisoners of war cooperating with their Vietnamese captors. Obfuscating Israel’s deliberate attack on an American intelligence-gathering ship during its engineered 1967 War. The huge death toll of locals, civilian and military, in America’s grisly imperial wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. 9/11.

I do not believe in 9/11 insider plots, but I know there has been strenuous official effort to disguise that event’s full nature. The motives? One suspects a great deal of embarrassment at demonstrated incompetence has been at work. Blowback from CIA operations in the Middle East seems more than likely. The documented involvement of Mossad in following and recording the plotters inside the United States leaves disturbing unanswered questions. One also knows that America’s establishment discovered in the wake of 9/11 the perfect opportunity for doing a great many nasty things it had always wanted to do anyway. You might say the terrorists did the military-industrial-intelligence complex a big favor. Anti-democratic measures involving surveillance, privacy in communications, secret prisons, torture, and effective suspension of some of the Constitution are all parts of the new American reality.

The FBI can record what you borrow from the public library. The NSA captures your every phone call, text message, and e-mail. The TSA can strip search you for taking an inter-city bus. Drones are being used for surveillance, and the TSA actually has a program of agents traveling along some highways ready to stop those regarded as suspicious. Portable units for seeing through clothes and baggage, similar to those used at airports, are to tour urban streets in vans randomly. Agencies of the government, much in the style of the former Stasi, encourage reports from citizens about suspicious behavior. Now, you can just imagine what might be called “suspicious” in a society which has always had a tendency towards witch-hunts and fears of such harmless things as Harry Potter books or the charming old Procter and Gambel symbol on soapboxes.

America has become in many ways a police state, albeit one where a kind of decency veil is left draped over the crude government machinery. How can a place which has elections and many of the trappings of a free society be a police state? Well, it can because power, however conferred, can be, and will be, abused. And the majority in any democratic government can impose terrible burdens on the minority. That’s how the American Confederacy worked, how apartheid South Africa worked, and that’s how Israel works today. Prevention of those inevitable abuses is the entire reason for a Bill of Rights, but if you suspend or weaken its protections, anything becomes possible.

American police forces have long enjoyed a reputation for brutal and criminal behavior – using illegal-gains seizure laws for profit, beating up suspects, conducting unnecessary military-style raids on homes, killing people sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses – having earned international recognition from organizations such as Amnesty International. The reasons for this are complex but include the military model of organization adopted by American policing, the common practice of hiring ex-soldiers as police, the phenomenon of uncontrolled urban sprawl creating new towns whose tiny police forces have poor practices and training, and, in many jurisdictions, a long and rich history of police corruption. Now, those often poor-quality American police have unprecedented discretion and powers of abuse.

Further, according to the words of one high-ranking general a few years back, the American military is prepared to impose martial law in the event of another great act of terror. Certainly that is an encouraging and uplifting thought considering all the blunders and waste and murder and rape the American military has inflicted upon countries from Vietnam to Iraq.

Where it is possible, power prefers to know about and even to control what is going on at the most humble level of its society, and the greater the power, the more irresistible the drive to know and control. It is essential to appreciate that whether you are talking about the military or huge corporations or the security apparatus, you are not talking about institutions which are democratic in nature. Quite the opposite, these institutions are run along much the same lines as all traditional forms of undemocratic government, from monarchs to dictators. Leadership and goals and methods are not subject to a vote and orders given are only to be obeyed, and there is no reason to believe that any of these institutions cherishes or promotes democratic values or principles of human rights. Of course, corporations, in order to attract talent, must publicly present a friendly face towards those principles, but that necessary charade reflects their future behavior about as much as campaign promises reflect future acts of an American politician.

Those at the top of all powerful and hierarchical institutions inevitably come to believe that they know better than most people, and those with any hope of gaining top positions must adopt the same view. For centuries we saw the great landed gentry and church patriarchs of pre-democratic societies regard themselves as inherently different from the population. It is no different with the psychology of people who enjoy their wealth and influence through positions in these great modern, un-democratic institutions. The larger and more pervasive these institutions become in society – and they have become truly bloated in America – the more will their narcissistic, privileged views prevail. Also, it is axiomatic that where great power exists, it never goes unused. Large standing armies are the proximate cause of many of history’s wars. And just so, the power of corporations to expand through illegality of every description, this being the source of the many controversies about failing to pay taxes in countries where they operate or the widespread practice of bribery in landing large contracts with national governments.

So far as security services go (the United States, at last count, having sixteen different ones), they may well be the worst of all these modern, massive anti-democratic institutions. Their lines of responsibility to government are often weak, and citizens in general are often regarded as things with which to experiment or play. Their leaders and agents are freely permitted to perjure themselves in courts. The organizations possess vast budgets with little need to account for the spending. They can even create their own funds through everything from drug and weapons trading to counterfeiting currency, all of it not accounted for and subject to no proper authority. And their entire work is secret, whether that work involves legitimate national security or not. The nature of their work breeds a secret-fraternity mindset of superiority and cynicism. They start wars and coups, including against democratic governments sometimes, they pay off rising politicians even in allied countries, they use money and disinformation to manipulate elections even in friendly governments, and of course they kill people and leaders they seriously disapprove of. Now, does any thinking person believe that they simply forget these mindsets and practices when it comes to what they regard as serious problems in their own country?

The record of arrogance and abuse by security organizations, such as CIA or the FBI, is long and costly, filled with errors in judgment, abuse of power, incompetence, and immense dishonesty. Owing to the black magic of classified secrecy, much of the record involves projects about which we will never know, but even what we do know about is distressing enough. And I’m not sure that it can be any other way so long as you have Big Intelligence. Apart from Big Intelligence’s own propensity towards criminal or psychopathic behavior, one of the great ironies of Big Intelligence is that it will always agree to bend, to provide whatever suppressions and fabrications are requested by political leaders working towards the aims of the other great anti-democratic institutions, the military and the corporations. This became blindingly clear in the invasion of Iraq and, even before that, in the first Gulf War.

America’s political system, honed and shaped over many decades, fits comfortably with these institutions. National elections are dominated by a two-party duopoly (being kept that way through countless institutional barriers deliberately created to maintain the status quo) , both these parties are dominated by huge flows of campaign contributions (contributions which form what economists call an effective barrier to entry against any third party seriously being able to compete), both parties embrace much the same policies except for some social issues of little interest to the establishment, and election campaigns are reduced to nothing more than gigantic advertising and marketing operations no different in nature to campaigns for two national brands of fast food or pop. It takes an extremely long time for a candidate to rise and be tested before being trusted with the huge amounts of money invested in an important campaign, and by that time he or she is a well-read book with no surprising chapters.

If for any reason this political filtering system fails, and someone slips through to an important office without having spent enough time to make them perfectly predictable, there still remains little chance of serious change on any important matter. The military-industrial-intelligence complex provides a molded space into which any newcomer absolutely must fit. Just imagine the immense pressures exerted by the mere presence of senior Pentagon brass gathered around a long polished oak table or a table surrounded by top corporate figures representing hundreds of billions in sales or representatives or a major lobbying group (and multi-million dollar financing source for the party). We see the recent example of popular hopes being crushed after the election of Obama, a man everyone on the planet hoped to see mend some of the ravages of George Bush and Dick Cheney. But the man who once sometimes wore sandals and bravely avoided a superfluous and rather silly flag pin on his lapel quickly was made to feel the crushing weight of institutional power, and he bent to every demand made on him, becoming indistinguishable from Bush. Of course, the last president who genuinely did challenge at least some of the great institutional powers, even to a modest extent, died in an ambush in Dallas.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: THE POOR PEOPLE OF EGYPT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE POOR PEOPLE OF EGYPT

John Chuckman

How is it that the people of Egypt, after a successful revolution against the repressive 30-year government of President Mubarak, a revolution involving the hopes and fears of millions and a substantial loss of life, have ended up almost precisely where they started?

After Mubarak’s fall, there were many comments from prominent citizens of one of Egypt’s neighbors, the one styling itself “the Middle East’s only democracy,” expressing great concern over the end of decades of brutal dictatorial rule for eighty million neighbors. The comments, from many prominent Israelis, were disturbing in tone and certainly did not welcome the idea of an expansion of democracy in the region.

But the revolution continued, with some starts and stops, and Egyptians voted in their first free election. By all accounts, it was a cleaner election than many in that other great defender of democracy, the United States, but democracy as Winston Churchill famously said is “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” and the majority went to a religious-affiliated party, the Muslim Brotherhood, a party which had been persecuted and suppressed for years by Mubarak, an activity which endeared him to democracy-loving Israeli governments.

Now, that name, Muslim Brotherhood, undoubtedly sounds ominous to many in a post-9/11 world, a world where fears and disinformation about Muslims have become a daily, unavoidable part of the news in much of the Western world. But the truth is that the Muslim Brotherhood was not radical, and in many respects the religious note in Egyptian politics was not altogether different from that of a long history of Christian-affiliated parties in Western Europe or Latin America, such as the Christian Democrats.

Indeed, Egypt’s good democratic neighbor itself has been ruled in many aspects of its national life by ultra-orthodox religious parties needed to make a governing coalition in its heavily-splintered political system. And these Israeli fundamentalist parties do not reflect anything like the mild religious traditions of Europe’s Christian Democrats. These Israeli parties are composed of people who believe in theocratic rule, in the superiority of one group over others, in the unique truth of one set of ancient writing, in ancient views of women’s rights, and in legalizing many practices violating principles of the Enlightenment. As political analysts know, small parties can exert inordinate leverage on a society where they absolutely are required to form a government, that leverage necessarily seeming quite undemocratic to most citizens living under its shadow.

Well, Egypt’s new government did do some things that strict secularists such as myself do not like to see, its new constitution being chief among them. No liberal-minded person wants to live under a constitution giving special place to one religious group over another, but then that is nothing unusual in the world, and it is especially the case for emerging countries with many years of political experimenting in democratic institutions ahead of them.

So Egyptians unhappy with Morsi’s brief time in government started demonstrating against him. In doing so, they unwittingly weakened the foundations of a fragile set of democratic institutions and played into the hands of those who wanted the military coup we have now witnessed, with members of an elected government under arrest and many hundreds of people on both sides, for and against the Morsi government, killed in the streets, and a distressing return to where Egypt was about three years ago.

The truth is that the road to a fully-functioning democracy is always a very long one. The United States from its founding took a couple of hundred years to achieve even the semblance of democracy we see today. America started – despite the high-sounding words of its constitution – as a place where the people did not elect the president (the elites of the electoral college did), where the Senate was appointed (not changed until the 20th century), where a massive industry in human slavery legally flourished, where no women or blacks or even most men (those without specified amounts of property) could vote, and where the Bill of Rights served as a mere advertising slogan because its list of rights could not be enforced by a Supreme Court owing strict allegiance to the concept of states’ rights. The common sentimental view of early America is just that, sentimental.

The journey toward free and fair democratic government must be started somewhere, and Morsi’s government was perhaps as promising a start as is possible in a country mired in poverty and lacking democratic institutions as Egypt is, but the re-establishment of a junta is no start at all.

So, who are the people who wanted the coup and why did they want it?

To answer this we must go back to some of the acts of the Morsi government and see just who was extremely unhappy about them. One was a new general policy towards the hostages Israel holds in Gaza, by which I mean the million and a half people who also elected a new government some years back, the Hamas Party, in clean elections. There is no use repeating the fairy tale about Hamas being a terrorist organization: it most certainly is not, although through Israel’s manipulation of the severe weaknesses in America’s political structure (the acceptance of political donations in any amount as free speech, the acceptance of virtually unlimited lobbying, and the duopoly party system allowing one to be played against the other) Israel did succeed in having white declared to be red.

Morsi’s new general policy, offensive to Israel but I’m sure acceptable to most Egyptians, was not one of throwing open the border with Gaza – that would have resulted in air strikes and dire threats by Israel – but it was one of easing up on the past harshness Mubarak maintained to please Israel and the United States, and Mubarak and his military were keen to keep them pleased because the United States pays a huge annual bribe to Egypt to keep just such matters under control.

Now we have the Egyptian military returning to harsh measures: I read, for example, that they were flooding the tunnels which have served as vital supply lines for the imprisoned people of Gaza. Before its overthrow, Mubarak’s government was looking to build a kind of underground Berlin Wall along the entire border with Gaza made of special steel supplied by the United States. Perhaps now the military will take the wall-project up again, surely bringing satisfied smiles to the lips of Israel’s brutal government. You know just on the face of it that there is something very odd and unnatural in Egypt’s behaving this way towards people with whom most Egyptians sympathize for the benefit of another people with whom they do not sympathize.

I think the single most important act leading to the coup likely was Morsi’s meeting with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, a much-hated man in Israel. The meeting in fact was a perfectly natural and normal thing for these two countries to do, given their mutual interests and an ancient history of associations. They are both predominantly Muslim and both are large countries, on the order of 70-80 million people. But I know the meeting must have sent Mr. Netanyahu into a sputtering dark fury and almost certainly had him reaching for the phone to Obama within minutes.

Does Netanyahu have a special phone to the Oval Office, a version of the ‘hot line” established between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s to help avoid a disastrous nuclear misunderstanding?

One suspects so because of what surely must be the volume of calls made from one of the world’s smallest countries to one of its largest, regularly asking for things – everything from increases in American aid or access to new technologies and weapons systems or seeking support for Israeli companies trying to land a contract or asking yet again that a damaging spy like Jonathon Pollard be freed or setting new demands in foreign policy towards this or that country fallen under Mr. Netanyahu’s wrath. And we have Obama’s own words when he was caught briefly with an open microphone while talking privately with President Sarkozy of France. Raising the eyebrows of reporters, Sarkozy remarked that Netanyahu was a liar who couldn’t be trusted. Obama agreed that you couldn’t trust anything Netanyahu said, and added further that Sarkozy was lucky in his dealings with Netanyahu: imagine having to speak with him every day the way Obama had to?

Every day? A call from the leader of 1/1,000 of the earth’s population every day? No wonder they keep such things secret.

When the demonstrations by Egyptians disenchanted with Morsi began, they provided the perfect opportunity and cover for a coup. Israel undoubtedly pushed the United States – after all, Obama had intervened to support the original revolution, something not pleasing to Netanyahu and only adding to his stock of reasons for often expressing contempt of the President, and now Morsi was carrying on in “I told you so” ways. The United States in turn undoubtedly let the Egyptian military know it would not object to the overthrow of Morsi (and it hasn’t objected, has it?), reminding the generals of what was at stake here – namely, about a billion and a half in annual bribes for keeping the government of Israel from complaining.

One suspects the CIA was active in stoking the fires of discontented Egyptians, handing out money and promises and encouragement to make the crowds larger and more aggressive. After all, that is just what the CIA does when it isn’t directly overthrowing someone’s government or assassinating someone’s leader or planting false stories in the press or secretly bribing government officials in dozens of countries deemed to be “ours.”

I heard one of CBC Radio’s lesser journalistic lights speak of such a close election as the one in Egypt leaving so many people there feeling the government didn’t represent them. She apparently was unaware that Canada’s Stephen Harper is deemed a majority parliamentary government with about 39% of the vote. Or that many American presidential elections end with margins as close as that in Egypt, Kennedy having been elected by a small fraction of one percent of the popular vote. George Bush received about a half million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, a victorious minority made possible by America’s antiquated constitution with its anti-democratic electoral college, a result which has been repeated a number of times in American history.

But Americans and Canadians do not go into the streets to overturn the results, nor would we say anything encouraging or positive if they did. If the existing rules are followed in an election, we accept the result, and that kind of stability is absolutely crucial to maintaining any form of democracy. Yet it is somehow acceptable for our press to take that view when the topic is government in the Middle East, and a struggling new democratic government at that.

After all, there has been a steady stream of prejudiced words and carefully selected facts about Islam and the Middle East in the mainline press since 9/11. And ever since that event, much as the five Israeli Mossad agents, disguised as workers for a moving company, who were reported photographing the strikes on the twin towers from the top of their truck while dancing and high-fiving before their arrest and deportation, apologists for Israel have steadily encouraged the notion of Islamic and Arabic irrationality to excuse Israel’s bloody excesses. The notion has become a handy tool to grab whenever there are other events viewed unfavorably by Israel, as in the case of the Egyptian election and some of the democratic government’s acts.

The political future for the poor people of Egypt is not bright. Their prospects for democratic government and all the social changes that it entails over time are indeed collateral damage of Israel’s endless bristling and America’s Israeli-like sense of exceptionalism and belief that it has the right to play God with the lives of tens of millions of others to satisfy troubles in its own domestic politics.