Sunday, September 15, 2013

We Are a Democracy on Trial

A commentary from BuzzFlash, courtesy of their facebook page:

But at the same time we have yet to acknowledge that we live in a violence-tolerating society that allows an unconscionable level of ignorant, racist behavior in the name of freedom - - as if we never have to question whose freedom we’ve been celebrating. Lately the term ‘exceptionalism’ has become a popular expression of our national ethos although it is essentially meaningless rhetoric politicians use to inflate their dialogue and self-importance.


Unfortunately that is very much the way our society has been deriving its ethical structures; there are no overriding political and cultural devices in play to mitigate unhealthy thuggish behavior on the part of politicians.

More here.

For me, as a suburban white kid, it happened at some point when I was in elementary school.  Probably second grade, maybe third--second and third grade overlapped 1976 for me, the Bicentennial, so everybody, everywhere, was talking about "freedom" and "democracy" all the time, all year long.  That is, shortly after I had first come to have some sort of understanding of our American sacred words, "freedom" and "democracy," I came to understand also that "freedom" and "democracy" don't really mean that we're free or that we live in a democracy.  

Because, you know, despite all our American "freedom," the schools are pretty authoritarian places; consequently, freedom didn't mean I could, say, go to the bathroom whenever I wanted, or that I could refrain from the gendered order of boy-girl lines on the way to the cafeteria or the library.  No, "freedom" necessarily meant something besides my personally being free.  It was something that was for later, when I was an adult.  It was clear enough, I suppose, that I didn't get to have freedom in the mid 70s because I was a kid, but nobody ever really even attempted to explain what freedom is, exactly, not in elementary school, not in middle school, and certainly not in high school, although I did have a pretty decent government class--"freedom"  remained an abstract principle existing somewhere else besides school.

"Democracy" also remained a pretty mysterious term, too.  I understood that it meant that one day I would be able to vote for people to run the government, but nobody ever tried to reconcile this with the fact that I had absolutely no say at all in how the schools were run, how my life was lived, and on and on.  Again, it was clear that "democracy," like "freedom," was something for adults.  Unlike "freedom," however, I do recall multiple attempts to define "democracy" over my years as a student in the public schools.  Generally, "democracy" means essentially how we Americans practice government, rather than the notion of citizens taking part in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.  I ended up developing a taste for such intellectual minutia, so I paid attention to the seeming billions of details that collectively define American "democracy," even while I always felt like most of my fellow students just let their eyes glaze over during the monotonous drone of civics lectures.  But it doesn't matter either way.  The fact that I feel like I decoded the American word "democracy" hasn't made America any more democratic.  I might as well have let my eyes glaze over, too, for all the good that understanding our formal governmental structures has done for me, or the country.

Then I turned eighteen.  I could vote.  And, having left the authoritarian confines of the public schools, I definitely had a lot more "freedom," whatever that means.  But by then, the weird defining process wrought by the schools of our dual sacred words had done its work: the bizarre contradictions inherent in our society where "freedom" means freedom to do some things but not others, and where "democracy" means voting for people instead of making any real contribution to how the nation is ruled, didn't seem so bizarre or contradictory.  This is 'Merica, buddy, and if you don't like it, you can just go back to Russia, where there ain't no freedom or democracy.

America is, after all, the greatest country in the world.

Or it's not.  The reality is that most educated adults could probably offer up their own definitions of "freedom" and "democracy," but it's highly likely that they would all come close to describing simply the situation we're in right now.  In short, for a "democracy," where we're all living in "freedom," we have VERY LITTLE public discourse over what those terms mean, could mean, or should mean.  Clearly, the schools do not train us to engage in such a discourse, so, really, it's no surprise that there's hardly any discourse about these concepts at all.  Life goes on, year after year, no matter what dissenting thoughts you might have about our sacred words.  And really, nobody gives a shit what you think, anyway.  Get in line.  Shut the fuck up.  You live in the USA, asshole.

That's "democracy."  That's "freedom."   That's America.

So we're "free" to run up tens of thousands of dollars in debt trying to get a college education.  We're "free" to do what our bosses tell us to do because capitalism apparently trumps "freedom" and "democracy."  We're "free" to watch while politicians on the corporate dole enact legislation year after year that transfers wealth away from working people and toward the wealthy.  We're "free" to sleep in the park if we can no longer afford the rent, unless, of course, there are local ordinances against sleeping in the park, in which case we're "free" to go to jail for violating those ordinances.  We're "free" to die from curable ailments if we cannot afford health insurance.  And on and on.

Meanwhile, nobody thinks of these issues in terms of our sacred words because America, as it is, is the very definition of those words--why, OF COURSE, we're free; this here's 'Merica, ain't it, land of the brave, home of the free?  It's seemingly impossible, but we're living in both 1984 and Brave New World at the same time.