Monday, August 17, 2009

Of democracy, drivel, demagoguery and demonization

The current orgy of demagoguery surrounding Mr. Obama’s attempts to insure that all Americans actually have health care is troubling to say the least. On the one hand, the willingness of so many no doubt decent Americans to buy into mindless drivel about death panels and socialism readily provided by insurance corporations and talk show hosts is disturbing. I find myself saying aloud “What are these people thinking?” when in reality it’s pretty clear they aren’t thinking much at all. They are driven by fear readily whipped up by demagogues only too willing to provide a stimulus for that fear even if it is imaginary.

Frankly, the tenor of these disruptions of public meetings and the vapid celebration of them on the airwaves has me doubting one of my long held values – democracy. A true democracy relies upon a free press to inform a responsible people. But our media today clearly exists to sell consumers products they don’t need by creating false senses of need while entertaining them rather than informing them so they don’t think too long about their mindless consumerism. Democracy in its highest forms is based in notions of the common good, “liberty and justice for all,” not the egocentric “What’s in it for me?” mantra or the tribal rhetoric about deserving v. undeserving patients, a thinly veiled reference to class and ultimately to race.

In the past week I’ve encountered two scholars who have offered me even more to trouble my soul as I watch this travesty unfold in town meetings and frenzied media sound bite fests. Robert Paxton of Columbia University wrote a paper in March 1998 detailing “The Five Stages of Fascism” published in The Journal of Modern History. (Vol. 70, pp. 1-23) Paxton notes that fascist reactions almost always come in the wake of any real expansion of democracy such as the massive increase in voter rolls in the 2008 election resulting in the election of America’s first African-American president and the conservatives’ loss of Congress as well. Among the aspects of the 20th Century’s fascist movements Paxton identifies that are currently observable are “obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood…cults of unity, energy and purity…chauvinist demagogue[s] haranguing an ecstatic crowd…” It’s a fairly good description of the childish, mean-spirited and irrational eruptions of vitriol we’ve seen the past couple of weeks.

But Paxton’s research contains an observation that ought to concern thoughtful people. So long as the eruptions remain in the realm of the media circus, they are relatively harmless. It is when the conservatives who have formerly held power and sense they may be displaced from power for an extended period that they make the devil’s bargain with the fascist mentality to regain power. The conditions for such a move almost always come in a context of polarization within civil society, disorder, decline and a political deadlock resulting from the refusal of the right to work with the left to resolve the nation-state’s problems. When we see former governors and current members of the House of Representatives pandering to crowds of tea-baggers and birthers talking about “death panels,” it ought to make us wonder if the devil’s bargain is not being struck.

On Friday as I drove down to Vero Beach for a weekend getaway, I heard Princeton scholar Melissa Harris-Lacewell talk about the racist and class-based undertones of the current debate on NPR’s All Things Considered. The rhetoric of individual responsibility v. the nanny state surrounding welfare and other public programs has often had a wealth of unspoken assumptions attached to it. As Harris-Lacewell noted, while welfare recipients have been cast as immature and childlike in their response to the world, in fact many “carry even greater responsibility than middle class folks who have lots of opportunities around them that kind of shore up their reality.” Try juggling family responsibilities plus work without healthcare and manage all of that while relying on public transportation. As the Princeton professor noted, “[W]hat we know over the past 25 years is that language of personal responsibility is often a code language used against poor and minority communities.”

Clearly that line of reasoning struck a chord with my friend in West Palm and his wife with whom I had lunch Saturday. Over our salad and pizza he observed: “Of course they don’t want public health care. They’d have to use their money to help blacks. Of course they don’t want public transportation. They’d have to transport blacks. Of course they don’t want public schools. It means black kids might get educated and compete with their kids.” And, no, for the record, my friend is not black. He was raised in a fairly exclusive white neighborhood of Chicago.

The personal responsibility rhetoric is insidious in form and presentation. It appeals to the Protestant work ethic which generally translates for most Americans today as slavish drivenness in their work just to keep their heads above water. It also allows for the demonization of the other, demonization that historically has followed the well worn ruts in the American imagination of class and race.

In a desperate attempt to escape the wasteland of hotel TV Saturday night, I watched an episode of Bill Maher’s Real Time. While I generally agree with Bill, I do find his smugness and cynicism wearing in fairly short order. One of his guests was Ashton Kutcher. On the subject of health care, Kutcher opined that he shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s bad habits and eating patterns. He went on a tear about junk food and fast food joints. Of course, a multimillionaire star with personal trainers has little insight into the life of the working class. Junk food, while loaded with fat and sugar, is also cheap, available in neighborhoods where fresh produce often is not, and provides quick energy for people who often make their living actually working their bodies rather than merely showing them off. Kutcher embodies the cluelessness of many Americans regarding class. And one hears no small hint of Ronnie Raygun’s “welfare queen” and her Cadillac rumbling around in the background.

In Paxton’s article, he begins with an observation about universal suffrage. Noting that Friedrich Engels presumed that “widening the vote would inevitably benefit democracy and socialism,” Engels and his compatriot Marx completely missed the possibility that self-interest, tribalism and nationalism might come to mark the new democratic enterprise, not a commonwealth, much less a communist utopia where the state would ultimately simply wither away. Paxton insists that “fascism is, after all, an authentic mass popular enthusiasm and not merely clever manipulation of populist emotions by the reactionary Right or by capitalism in crisis.” Frankly, I am not so sure about the manipulation part given the large role of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in generating the current spate of tantrums at town meetings. But I am sure that the visionaries of the late 19th CE simply missed the possibilities that the successor to a democratic capitalism in crisis might well not be socialism but rather a fascist entity focused on a return to golden day glory by identifying and destroying all perceived enemies contributing to its current lassitude.

There are days that I have to wonder if Plato is not chuckling to himself as he watches the current devolution of democracy in America into sectarian consumerist chaos. As I watch the circus on the cable purveyors of entertainment called the news, the rule of the philosopher-king based in reason looks better every day.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

No comments: