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See no evil

By George A. Ricker

In the kingdom of the blind, an ancient wisdom tells us, the one-eyed man is king. If we were cloaking the aphorism in modern garb, no doubt we would dress it in the language of political correctness, thus sparing feelings and disguising meaning. In any society, those who have an advantage and seek power will rule those who are disadvantaged. It doesn’t matter whether the advantages and disadvantages are conferred by random chance or by institutionalized inequity, the calculus remains cold and inexorable.

“Them that’s got shall get. Them that’s not shall lose.” 1

One of the myths we Americans hold dear is that our democratic system mitigates the disparities and evens the playing field so that, for the most part, we the people control the process. We have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” to borrow Lincoln’s phrasing. Jefferson said it differently but meant essentially the same thing when he described a government that “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence.

The American experiment whose birthday we celebrate every July 4th was, above all else, proclaimed to be a testing of the liberty assured by self-governance. America would be ruled not by gods or kings but by the people themselves. We the people would choose our representatives, and we the people would expect, would demand, that they govern in accordance with our wishes. The process was never intended to guarantee equality of result, but it was intended to guarantee, as much as possible, equality of opportunity. It also guaranteed that each American was an equal partner in the enterprise. In the people’s government, all of us are stake holders. We are the people in whose name our government is supposed to act.

Such mythic lies have nursed succeeding generations of Americans to such an extent that any demurral is regarded as anathema. Never mind that the patricians who founded this great republic were, with few exceptions, chiefly interested in creating a society in which the democratic impulses of the majority could be managed and controlled by the propertied classes whose interests that republic was created to protect. Never mind that this great experiment in liberty ignored the rights of women, the rights of minorities and the rights of the indigenous Americans who lived here long before any European colonies were established on these shores. Never mind that the founding document, the Constitution of the United States, enshrined slavery in its text and guaranteed its continued existence, at least for a time.

Of course, it may be argued by the apologists for such policies that our society was no worse than any other in the way it dealt with those matters, and there is some truth in that. However, if we were no worse than most, neither were we much better. The impediments placed in the way of genuine democracy ensured that the voice of the people, when it was heard at all, could be muted and, at times, ignored by those in power.

All of which is not to say there was nothing of value in the American experiment. The creation of a society dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal” and endowed with inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was a worthwhile effort, even if the reality of the America brought into being would fall far short of that promise. The establishment of a written constitution with a declaration of rights that protected individual citizens and states from encroachments by the federal government placed checks on the power of the central government. The establishment of a government that declared its legitimate authority came from the consent of the governed and not from deities or their appointed representatives helped to ensure the secular nature of that government and protected the nation from the sectarian divisiveness that had proven so destructive in the nations of Europe.

But the mythic America that fills the rhetoric of politicians and excites the imaginations of those who never question the claims on which it is based never had much reality at all. If the American people are, in large part, myopic about the true nature of the rest of the world, and I submit they are, the myopia begins at an early age and at home. It makes us oblivious to the faults in our own society and the dangerous implications of those faults for us and the rest of humankind. It makes us unwilling to see the evil we perpetrate in the world and unforgiving toward those who try to point it out to us.

The strident nationalism so characteristic of American institutions is based on the myth of American exceptionalism. “We are the greatest nation in the world,” we tell ourselves, as we collectively pat ourselves on our collective backs. American media, devoted as it is to promoting the mythology that best serves the global corporations who are its masters, regurgitates the myth reflexively as soon as a new target has been acquired by our political leadership. After all, how can the “greatest nation in the world” be wrong? Why should we have any care at all about what we are doing in the world when everyone knows our motives are always pure and our causes are always just?

We the people tell ourselves we are in charge because that’s what we have been programmed to tell ourselves and because, for most Americans, admitting the truth is too painful and too destructive to our sense of who we are. Whatever we are doing must be right because it depends on the “consent of the governed” after all. When all is said and done, our government reflects our wishes. When all is said and done, we get the government we deserve.

At least, that’s the theory. The reality, especially in our brave new world, is somewhat different. In today’s America, the consent of the governed translates into desultory trips to polling places where we vote for preselected candidates who represent major political parties that are, in their turn, controlled by powerful elites who have a vested interest in preserving the illusion of democracy while retaining power for themselves. In today’s America, the people are made blind by a dominant media controlled by powerful corporations who have turned news broadcasts into infotainment presenting a nightly ration of hype, hysteria and the latest celebrity sightings with little or no solid reporting or analysis of the days events.

Once the self-styled “land of the free and home of the brave,” today’s America, all too often, is the land of the fearful and the home of false bravado. And if we are poorly served by the mass media in our society, it’s at least partly our fault. It’s much easier to simply vegetate in front of the, aptly named, “boob tube” than to go in search of real information, much easier to accept the predigested wisdom of talking heads and anointed pundits than to seek to find out for yourself. Even if it is self-induced, however, our blindness makes us timid and afraid.

Too many Americans don’t want to know. Too many Americans are frightened by the truth. Too many Americans think that by perpetuating ignorance we can avoid the consequences of our own complicity in the destruction of our democracy. Too many Americans continue to invoke the tired and shopworn myth of American exceptionalism, rather than facing the truth about what we have become. But surely even our strenuous denials cannot disguise the truth that the “shining city on a hill,” so often extolled in political rhetoric, has become tarnished and tawdry of late.

Today’s America is a three-tiered society composed of a relative handful of extremely wealthy people, a modest group of well-paid professionals whose chief concern is to service the needs of that wealthy elite and all the rest of us who exist as pawns in service to the system created thereby but are not important enough to deserve much more than a passing glance. The corporate media ensures the continuation of the stratification by constantly distracting the broad mass of Americans with the latest celebrity gossip, the exacerbation of racial and religious tensions and hysteria-laden screeds about the threats of crime, terrorism and illegal immigration.

Today’s America produces very little in the way of consumer goods. Most of the products in our stores and catalogues are manufactured elsewhere, many in developing nations whose workers are employed in conditions that are tantamount to slave labor. The vaunted American standard of living is purchased at the cost of a great deal of misery around the world and has been for some time. Meanwhile American and some European corporate interests work very hard to keep the aspirations of workers in those impoverished lands from being realized. They cannot afford the cost, corporate interests tell the leaders of those nations, if workers’ wages or living conditions are improved. Meanwhile profits swell to obscene levels.

Today’s America declares its commitment to spreading freedom and democracy around the world, but our actions belie all such pretense. We invade sovereign nations at will. We torture prisoners. We prop up dictatorial regimes who serve our purposes, all the while denouncing democratically elected governments that have the audacity to refuse to submit to our authority. We are the chief exporters of arms in the world and our defense budget, if the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is included, exceeds all the military expenditures of all the nations on this planet combined. Under the guise of fighting a global war on terror, our government has effectively waged war on the constitution of our own nation and the human rights of people around the world.

And make no mistake about it. Just as these problems have not ended with the election of a Democratically controlled U.S. Congress, so they will not cease with the end of the Bush administration. These conditions do not exist because of a brief political aberration. They are part and parcel of the way the government of these United States has done business since the end of the Second World War.

We have exalted the rights of corporations over individuals. We have enshrined the myth of American exceptionalism as a reality to which all must pay obeisance. We have declared that the only important interests are American interests, just as the most important lives are American lives. We have overthrown legitimate governments and installed dictators. We have reserved to ourselves the right to wage war anywhere on the planet under any pretext, while denouncing efforts of other nations to achieve self-determination when those efforts run counter to our own preferences.

For the most part, the American people are decent enough. We can be generous and caring. The same can be said of the people of all the nations of the world. However, our basic decency does not absolve us from complicity in the actions of our government. In a democratic republic the people in whose name government acts cannot turn a blind eye when that government acts irresponsibly. When we refuse to see the evil being done in our name, we implicitly endorse it.

Today the corporate takeover of the United States of America is nearly complete. It has been engineered by Republicans and Democrats alike. It has led to the wholesale corruption of our political process and the destruction of democratic values here and around the globe. It has created huge disparities of wealth and influence, huge inequities in our society and huge instability in the world as a whole. It has turned the dominant American media into the house organ for the status quo and has marginalized or ignored totally any inconvenient truths that do not fit its paradigm of the way the world is supposed to work.

Certainly, America is not responsible for all the world’s ills. But our corporate state is responsible for a great many of them. Our society is our responsibility as American citizens. What we do in the world has a cost not only to the people of other nations but to our own people as well. Ending what is wrong with our society is not a task we can leave to future generations. There is no time.

If the American people fail to act to end the travesty in Iraq, if we continue to pretend it was simply a mistake, or a bad policy decision instead of a criminal act that violated not just international law but our own constitution,2 if we continue to refuse to see the plain truth about the ruinous economic policies we have forced on many of the nations of the world, we, and our children’s children’s children will bear the consequences for ages to come.

It’s time to reclaim the promise of liberty and equal justice for all that is at the very heart of the American myth and make that promise a reality. It’s time we the people demand a society that conforms to our best impulses and not our worst fears. It’s time we rein in the corporations and the politicians who have yielded to them and remove them from the seat of power. It’s time we demand honesty and openness from our government and end the duopoly of political power by Democrats and Republicans alike whose first concern after gaining office is how to perpetuate their own political fortunes. We need a political system that is open to all comers and is divorced from the corrosive effect of corporate payoffs. We need a political process that is characterized by honest debate and dialogue, not by photo ops and sound bites.

It’s difficult to know whether any of these things can happen. It may well be too late for the United States of America to be reclaimed by its citizenry. It may well be that the corporate powers who control us are too firmly entrenched to be unseated. Certainly there appears to be very little reason for hope in today’s political landscape.

But if there remain ideals worth preserving in the American dream of liberty and social justice that has fired the imaginations of reformers around the world, surely those things are worth a struggle in the nation where they began. Let it not be said that we allowed the utter failure of that dream without fighting to redeem it. Let it not be said that we allowed this experiment in liberty to end, like the world of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

© 2007 by George A. Ricker
1. Song lyric. “God bless the child,” words and music by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.

2. If you doubt this, read the Constitution of the United States of America, Article VI, paragraph two, which declares that all treaties made are to be considered the supreme law of the land and are binding on our government. We are party to several treaties and international agreements, the United Nations Charter for one, that specifically ban the unilateral use of force by one state against another state, except under certain, clearly defined circumstances. Those circumstances had not been met when we invaded Iraq. It was an illegal act. While he was still secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan came to the same conclusion.

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