Democratic Underground  

A Parable for America
January 26, 2002
by Richard Mynick

Good Morning, America. Can we talk? Your recent behavior is signalling the need for honest feedback from someone who still really cares about you.

I'm concerned about the quality of your public discourse. The noble principles that you taught us all to honor can no longer be reconciled with the character of that discourse, today. I speak here of basic things that we all learned about in school: your proud commitment to tolerance, to honest democratic elections, to your Bill of Rights, and to a free press that serves the public faithfully enough to deserve its respect. I'm referring, more generally, to your present cultural standards for the quality and integrity of public speech.

Imagine, for a moment, a society in which the print and broadcast media were routinely filled with earnest discussion of the issues of the day. Imagine that these discussions were of such quality that typical citizens might not uncommonly feel enlightened by them; sometimes feeling real pride that their society had the courage to meet its most pressing problems with such candor, and such self-examination. Participants in these discussions would be selected so that a broad range of viewpoints was represented. Problems would typically be explored in their full historical context; if they were not, there would promptly arise a culturally-bred sense that the given subject was being inadequately addressed. Effort would be directed towards developing a sound conceptual framework, so that all might better appreciate the interlocking elements of the big picture.

Now imagine another society -- one far less blessed. Here, the print and broadcast media would also be filled with discussion of current issues. But in this case, participants' viewpoints would be limited to a very narrow range, all essentially in line with the groups wielding the most economic power in this society. The participants would be chosen on the basis, say, of their celebrity, or their talent for rapid smooth speech, or their proficiency at ridiculing or shouting down others. Sometimes too, these individuals might be selected because they're deemed "sexy;" other times, because they'd reached a certain pinnacle in the art of flattering or otherwise serving the powerful. In the ensuing discussions, participants would typically focus only on those parts of the whole picture most favorable to their own position. Subject matter unhelpful to the interests of the society's monied groups would be minimized or not even mentioned. Anyone who disagreed with policies favoring the powerful would find themselves attacked and demonized with stunning suddenness and ferocity. Distortion of fact, selective invocation of principle, shameless demagoguery and abject hypocrisy would all be freely indulged in -- the only criterion for using a given tactic being its judged effectiveness in the attempted destruction of one's opponent.

Just to flesh out this hypothetical society a bit more fully, let's suppose that the entire project of financing and staging these daily discussions of current issues was under the control of a half-dozen media corporations of global reach and immense influence. The people chosen to moderate the discussions, the "experts" brought in to expound upon specific issues, and the general flow of what subjects could be talked about, and how -- all this had to meet with the approval of the powers behind the scenes. These powers, let's say, had come to know the sweet pleasures of a special virtuous circle. They were able to use their position as communication link to the populace, to showcase in a favorable light candidates from a particular political party. In return, those candidates supported policies aimed at removing every regulatory barrier that stood in the way of unlimited growth for the largest media companies. Greater influence of the media companies would enhance their ability to get their preferred candidates elected, and the more they got elected, the better positioned these lawmakers would be, to bestow regulatory favors on their benefactors. Systems engineers call this sort of arrangement a "positive feedback loop." (It leads, incidentally, to uncontrollable and unstable system behaviors.)

An average member of this society listening to these sorts of news-based discussions would not often feel proud or edified. His culture's standards for public discourse would probably begin to disgust him; he might find them debased. The discussions would sound like state propaganda grimly decorated with a dollop of intellectual gloss, little different than the advertisements separating the discussion segments. On many days our typical citizen might feel that the "news" had become little more than a matter of learning who today's villains were said to be, then directing one's contempt and hatred towards the proferred evil-doers. Oh, perhaps sometimes there might be an occasional element of entertainment, when one's favorite talk show participant landed a particularly devastating verbal riposte on a humiliated victim -- similar to the pleasures offered by "professional wrestling." But in general, many citizens of this society would quickly sense that there was no educational benefit in watching these daily exercises on the telescreen. They'd be rightly perceived as bearing the relation to intellectual substance that junk food does to food.

Let's extend the tale of this hypothetical society a bit further, by considering a situation faced by a typical citizen near the turn of the millenium. He'd always been taught that he lived in a democracy, and that the quintessential feature of a democracy was that "the people" elect the government. But then an unusual presidential election took place, which was so close that it was not quite clear who had won. After several weeks of controversy, the party most closely aligned with the the mightiest corporations and the military was designated the "winner."

The process that led to this designation was quite novel. It consisted of a propaganda war in the media, then a decision by the High Court of the land. The propaganda war was won by the side that shrieked the loudest and most insistently, and hurled the vilest and most hateful accusations at its opponents. The High Court then terminated the whole affair by issuing a ruling that made no sense at all when viewed as a piece of legal reasoning, though it had a certain irresistible logic when viewed as a ruthless power play.

On the basis of this electoral process, the new government was duly installed. And then our loyal citizen noticed a curious thing!! Even though the most hallowed virtue of his country had always been said to be its "democracy," and even though he'd been taught that scrupulously honest elections were the defining feature of that worthy form of government, NOBODY in the media seemed to notice that no real effort had been made to find out who'd actually won the election. Much to the contrary, prodigious effort had been expended to suppress any possibility of determining this!! No one in the media found this seeming paradox worthy of comment. Our loyal citizen thought to himself, as did many millions of his countrymen, "But, but..., I thought we lived in a d-democracy. In a democracy, you always count the votes.... D-D-Don't you?...." But none of the well-coiffed handsomely-attired people on the telescreens, nor the writers of editorials, considered this train of thought worth pursuing.

From its first day in office, the new government began handing out favors for the very most powerful members of the society. Every protection that the environment had, every protection that the average citizen-consumer had, and every service that the government had traditionally rendered to working people -- all this came under ceaseless withering attack. And every favor that the new government did for the society's wealthiest members was grandly presented as though it were a proud achievement for the society as a whole. Many aspects of this nation's life had been greatly improved by lessons learned in hard times during the prior century. People had learned the hard way that if there is insufficient protection against financial fraud and stock market chicanery, that unscrupulous elements will arise to use the mystique and machinery of Wall Street to swindle staggering sums from the general population. It had been learned by painful experience that powerful corporations in almost every industry, when not overseen by adequate regulatory authority, tend to take advantage of everything they get their predatory hands on; and that it therefore becomes necessary at some point to rein them in -- or risk terrible damage to society at large from their unbridled rapaciousness. {"...I see in the near future a crisis approaching that ... causes me to tremble for the safety of my country... Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed..." – A. Lincoln, November 12, 1864}

Most citizens in this country understood as individuals the dangers of assigning a fox to guard a henhouse. Nonetheless, this new government began from its first day in office to appoint as its regulators persons who belonged to the very industries and companies they would now be "regulating." These people were chosen for their jobs precisely because they were sworn enemies of the types of regulation they were now supposed to administer. Thus, representatives of mining interests were chosen to "protect" the environment from mining interests. A man famed for his opposition to any regulation limiting activities of large accounting firms, was chosen to "oversee" the activities of large accounting firms. A person long in the employ of logging interests was chosen to oversee the logging firms. The official heading a cabinet department was someone who'd tried to dismantle that Department altogether, regarding its very existence as "unnecessary." The people charged with awarding huge government contracts for military gear were all old college roommates, golf partners, and/or close associates of the top investors and executives of defense firms. The rules regulating the growth of big media companies were entrusted to a man picked by the media companies themselves -- precisely because of his eagerness to rescind every single such rule. Thus, the government quickly became not a regulator of industry, but a wholly-owned subsidiary of it. There were tax breaks and subsidies galore. Every henhouse was guarded by a fox. And these foxes were very hungry, and their appetites were well-nigh insatiable.

Some months later, an angry man from another part of the globe managed to deliver a stunning and cruel blow against our hypothetical nation. No one had ever done anything remotely like this before, and the nation's people were angry and frightened. The new president went before them and posed the question: Why do they hate us? And he proposed this answer: "They hate us, because of our freedom, and our democracy."

Our model citizen noticed right away that there was a problem with this word, "democracy." Wasn't that the thing that was supposed to have been such a sacred principle, back in that controversial election 10 months earlier? Somehow, when the chips were really down, back then, the word hadn't turned out to be really all that deeply revered. But here the president had spoken without intended irony; and people in the media seemed pleased with word's reappearance. So our citizen simply shrugged, figuring that the word was back in vogue, at least when used for rhetorical flourishes. He held his tongue, and listened on.

The president announced that we were henceforth "at war" with... with..er.. the kind of people who had done this terrible thing to us!! But this declaration soon proved plagued by unfortunate problems of definition. At first, the president had proposed that we were embarked on "The War Against Terrorism." But everyone in the world had a different idea of who was a terrorist, and who was not. Many wits relished their chance to quip, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." So the definition required modification. The president's aides were more deft with the language than he, so they decided how best to modify the name of the war. It would now be, "The War against Terrorists Who Are Against US." That was clever, because it sidestepped the thorny issue of terrorists who are mainly mad at people in other parts of the world that we don't particularly care about. However, pretty soon yet another linguistic difficulty came to the fore: Most of the Terrorists who were Against US came from a country that had stupendous oil reserves and important business connections with many of our nation's most powerful people, including the president's father and all his best friends to boot. It clearly wouldn't do at all, to be at war with them. So one last modification of the war's name was in order. The conflict officially entered the history books as "The War against Terrorists Who Are Against US Provided That They are not Too Closely Linked to Our Business Interests," or TWATWAAUPTTANTCLTOBI, for short.

The war went forward. It was very glorious. All the telescreens obsessed all day long about the one terrible attack the nation had suffered. Many thousands of poverty-stricken people on the other side of the world who had nothing whatever to do with the terrorist attack were unfortunately bombed to smithereens, but the telescreens never paid them a moment's notice. Indeed, anyone who was curious to know just what they had done to deserve their misfortune, was quickly made to understand that this question was not welcome in polite company. There was copious and ubiquitous coverage of the war in the news media. It was featured on the cover of every glossy magazine, on the front page of every newspaper, and all day long in all the broadcasts. There were flags flying on SUV antennae and Pentagon briefings. There was proud talk of "Victory" over a foe that had started the war with a combined force of a few tanks, a few thousand barefoot troops, and a few rifles.

There were only a few things lacking in the abundant coverage. True, the telescreens showed plentiful footage of B-52's soaring overhead, and puffs of white smoke floating lazily above distant, rather scenic mountain ranges. But this was not terribly helpful to anyone interested in what might be happening down below, where the bombs were exploding on people, villages, and the occasional Red Cross facility. There seemed to be wide concern that unsettling images from a foreign war might adversely affect people's propensity to go shopping. You could have the bombing, the shopping, but not the unsettling images. It was like a puzzle where you could have any two of the three things, but not all three together.

Similarly lacking was any discussion that might give rise to unsettling thoughts. Therefore, no one on the telescreen or in the mainstream print media dared to question in any way the basic wisdom, justice, or guiding theory of the war. No one suggested that bombing innocent poverty-stricken civilians in a foreign land might cause people to hate us more, thus engendering future terrorist attacks. No one questioned the magnificent project of a war of indefinite duration against anyone that the president might feel, at any given time, that we should make war on.

The presumed leader of our hypothetical nation's opponents was a religious fanatic, who, as it happened, had a vexing knack for making videos and public relations (or "PR," as it was called). When our new government saw the first of the fanatic's videos, they knew right away that they had a problem on their hands. In a word, the guy wasn't half bad on video. He unfortunately didn't look very deranged, he spoke calmly, and the things he said made a certain sort of sense. The government got very worried that if people started discussing some of the points the fanatic raised, soon they'd be asking questions and getting strange ideas about things that they really had no business thinking about. The fanatic claimed, for example, that our hypothetical nation was involved in stationing its military all over the world, propping up corrupt and tyrannical dictatorships in the effort to assure its oil supplies, and was directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The inconvenient problem with all these despicable and outrageous claims was that they happened to be true. So the president and his team decided that the fanatic's videos had to be banned. Their friends in the broadcast media understood the situation immediately, and were happy to oblige. For good measure, the president's generals also bombed the little office in the foreign land to which the fanatic usually had his homemade videos delivered.

One of the president's appointees to guard a particularly important henhouse had been the fox that was now Attorney General. In this case, the henhouse in question was the nation's system of justice and the Bill of Rights. Within a few weeks of the war's start, the president and his appointed attorney-fox had fixed the Bill of Rights just as nicely as they'd fixed the tradition of honest elections, the national budget surplus, the laws regulating air and water quality, forest and wetlands protection, every international treaty that the rest of the world was in favor of, and everything else they'd gotten their hands on. Twelve hundred people were arrested, no charges against them were filed, and people in the media said scarcely a word. Tribunals were proposed that would let the president quietly jail, try, and execute anyone he felt was "a terrorist." (Please see section on "Problems of Defining a 'Terrorist.'") After a month a few cowering senators held a hearing to discuss some of these matters with the Attorney General. In his opening statement, he told them that basically, they could just keep their mouths shut, because anyone who disagreed with what he was doing was a traitor. None of the senators said a word. Scarcely a note of protest was registered by the media.

Then the president had another good idea -- he wanted all his documents to be forever kept secret, and he wanted all his father's documents kept secret too. In fact, once he started thinking about it, there were a whole lot of things he wanted to keep secret. So he issued appropriate executive orders. Hardly anyone said a word.

But a few pointy-headed professors in the country had studied a bit of history. Some of them knew that this country had gone through several similar periods before, when a fearful national hysteria swept over the land, and anyone who questioned the leaders' policies was deemed a traitor. Some of the professors tried to speak about the dangers of such times, about intelligent alternatives, and about the value of honest dissent. This time, someone came forth to speak out forcefully, all right -- an organization sponsored by the vice-president's wife. This organization issued a list of academics whom it called the "weak links" in the national response to the terrorist incident. Their heinous crimes included such blatantly treasonous and subversive remarks as "We offer this teach-in as an alternative to the cries of war and as an end to the cycle of continued global violence."

Our model citizen again felt a bit confused -- after all, weren't things like the Bill of Rights, the public's claim to eventual access to presidential papers, and the right to honest dissent -- weren't these things supposed to be the very "core" of what his country stood for? Weren't they part of the "freedom" that he'd always heard so much reverent talk about; that indeed, the present war was supposed to be defending? But then someone dispelled his confusion by explaining a subtle distinction: there were several definitions for the word "freedom." The Bill-of-Rights type of freedom, the dissenters' type of freedom -- that was a sort of a luxury-style freedom that could be turned on and off like a spigot, depending mainly on matters of convenience. But the primary definition of the word, in this hypothetical society, was "noun to be used in stirring phrases in presidential speeches, often in conjunction with the similarly-used noun 'democracy.' Can be invoked to justify almost anything."

Well, America, I guess it's getting near your bedtime, and perhaps you've heard enough fanciful parables, for one evening. I think, though, that it might do you some good to reflect on this little tale. There may be a moral in it for you, somewhere. If there is, it would go something like this: when a government enacts policies to loot the environment, its own population, and the natural resources of the globe, simply to line the pockets of its wealthiest citizens; when it tries to present this program to the people, gussied up with smart phrases like "compassionate conservatism" and wrapped in pious references to "freedom and democracy;" when the president proposes a plundering of the national Treasury to benefit the richest few percent of the population and calls it an "economic security package" -- what this leads to, first, is a debasement of our language.

When a spineless media becomes a full accomplice to this program, the debasement of the language becomes so widespread that we achieve the state known as "a completely corrupt society." The hallmarks of a corrupt society are a debased public discourse, an obscene accumulation of wealth by the society's tiny uppermost layer , and a pronounced tendency towards arrogant unilateralism and militarism. Those who would lead you down this unhappy path, America, run a fearful risk: if the great mass of citizens ever see their plan for what it really is, they will arise, with a terrible and righteous anger.

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