Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Attention Deficit Democracy by Jim Bovard

Another one of those libertarian-leaning books. And like Who Killed the Constitution?, this one leaves me rethinking much of what I once thought about the country I live in.

Bovard has two main observations to make. The first is that, despite popular opinion to the contrary, “we the people” are not in control of our government.

In 1693, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, wrote what could be the motto for modern American government. “Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed.” Rulers endlessly assure people that they are in charge—while creating agency after agency, program after program that people can neither comprehend nor control. Americans’ political thinking is becoming akin to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance—a series of bromides that sink into the mind and stifle independent, critical thought.

It wasn’t always this way. Early in our nation’s history, the majority of people were suspicious of federal power, and actively worked to curtail it.

Wariness toward government was one of the most important bulwarks of American freedom. Representative government worked partly because people were skeptical of congressmen, presidents, and government officials across the board.

But Bovard says that all began to change in the 1900s, and really accelerated during the New Deal, when “government was placed on a pedestal.”

And it seems that the people most enamored with government are the people in the government itself. There is one vignette, about the publication by the Harvard University Press of a book titled Why People Don’t Trust Government, that is quite revealing.

Britain’s Times Higher Education Supplement published an interview with Joseph Nye, the book’s senior editor and dean of the Kennedy School. The Times reported that “the book, and its subject matter, are being taken seriously in the highest political circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Nye was among a group of American experts led by Hillary Clinton who recently came to Britain for a seminar on the book attended by, among others, Tony Blair, who left clutching a copy.” The book—and Nye’s move from the Clinton administration to Harvard—was prompted by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Nye explained: “I was preoccupied that people could become so anti-government that they were capable of an act like that.” Why People Don’t Trust Government had no mention of Waco. Nye lamented: “All the evidence is that government and politicians are at least as honest as they were in the past, but that isn’t the impression people are getting.” Three days after the interview was published, a Washington Post banner headline heralded the start of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Monica Lewinsky is not a troubling as what happened at Waco, but the point is well made. The people in government and their academic colleagues sit there and scratch their heads, wondering why the people don’t trust them, while scandal after scandal pours out of Washington. It’s frankly laughable that they can be both so educated and so blind. Bovard sums it up well.

The tone of disbelief in Why People Don’t Trust Government is at times almost comical. Harvard professor Gary Orren wrote: “The public has not only lost faith in the ability of government to solve problems, but it has actually come to believe that government involvement will just make matters worse.”

But it’s not all fun and games. This lack of trust in government has a darker side, and I’m not talking about blowing up buildings or other acts of domestic terrorism. Bovard also quotes Gary Wills, from A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.

Many people find themselves surprised at the sympathy they can feel for even outrageous opponents of government—as was demonstrated when popular support blossomed for the anti-government forces holed up with David Koresh at Waco, Texas, or with Randy Weaver, who defied the FBI at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. … But the real victims of our fear are not those faced with such extreme action. … The real victims are millions of poor or shelterless or medically indigent who have been told, over the years, that they must lack care or life support in the name of their very own freedom. Better for them to starve than to be enslaved by “big government.” That is the real cost of our anti-government values.

This makes me think of much of the modern Republican Party, comprised of low and middle-income white America, who stand to lose more than they stand to gain by fighting for the rhetorical liberty that so many false Republican prophets proclaim during their stump speeches.

Loss of control over lawmakers and the resulting increase in distrusting government is, I think, an observable phenomenon, but Bovard’s second observation is more sinister. It is that our perception of democracy as a grand liberating force is flawed, and that this perception, or misperception, is directly responsible for our enslavement. Bovard puts it this way:

The issue is not whether democracy is good or evil, but that seeing democracy as an absolute good open the gates to great evil.


The more people who believe democracy is failsafe, the more likely it will fail. Attention Deficit Democracy produces the attitudes, ignorance, and arrogance that pave the way to political collapse.

I find it to be a persuasive argument. The thought that Who Killed the Constitution? exposed me to—that a government that is responsible for policing itself will inevitably drift towards at best cronyism and at worst tyranny—seems equally applicable to democracies as much as other forms of government. Why would they offer any special protection?

So what does Bovard prescribe for this malaise? I’m not sure he’s clear on that, but it is in his Conclusion that he comes closest to issuing a call to action.

It is time to de-sacralize democracy. Being crowned a winner by the Electoral College does not give one American the right to dispose of all other Americans’ lives and liberties. If we want a new birth of freedom, we must cease glorifying oppressive political machinery. Most of what the government does has little or nothing to do with “the will of the people.” The combination of ignorant voters and conniving politicians is far more likely to ruin than rescue this nation. In the same way that our forefathers in the 1770s refused to be grabbed off the streets and pressed into His Majesty’s navy, so today’s Americans must cease permitting politicians to impose one scheme and fraud after another.

It’s an appealing message for me, but I am not sure how practical it is. Most Americans are uninterested in politics and the activities of politicians. Those that are interested are lost (I think) in an ideological battle between a Left and a Right that increasingly have more in common than the small issues that separate them. I do agree with Bovard when he writes:

The sin of most political activists today is that they want to be anti-conservative or anti-liberal, anti-Republican or anti-Democratic, without being anti-Leviathan.

What is a liberty-minded individual to do? The central message of Bovard’s book is a powerful one.

We must recognize that mankind has not yet devised stable, lasting institutions that can safeguard rights without spawning oppression.

I used to think we had. I used to think—and was taught—that America was that stable and lasting institution. But, increasingly, I am no longer sure.

+ + +

Much of this book reads like a series of loosely connected essays. Bovard’s focus on the two main observations I describe above comprise only a portion of the text. The balance is a cavalcade of libertarian tropes.

The government always lies us into war:

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 provided a challenge for the first Bush administration to get Americans mobilized. In September 1990, the Pentagon announced that up to a quarter million Iraqi troops were near the border of Saudi Arabia, threatening to give Saddam Hussein a stranglehold on one of the world’s most important oil sources. The Pentagon based its claim on satellite images that it refused to disclose. One American paper, the St. Petersburg Times, purchased two Soviet satellite “images taken of that same area at the same time that revealed that there were no Iraqi troops ‘near the Saudi border—just empty desert.’” Jean Heller, the journalist who broke the story, commented, “That [Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn’t exist.” Even a decade after the first Gulf War, the Pentagon refused to disclose the secret photos that justified sending half a million American troops into harm’ way.

Bovard goes into some depth on this general theme, quoting some people throughout history who observed how governments convince their citizens to go to war. Here’s author Randolph Bourne after the United States entered World War I:

Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war. For the benefit of proud and haughty citizens, it is fortified with a list of the intolerable insults which have been hurled toward us by the other nations; for the benefit of the liberal and beneficent, it had a convincing set of moral purposes which our going to war will achieve; for the ambitious and aggressive classes, it can gently whisper of a bigger role in the destiny of the world.

And here’s an interesting exchange between Hermann Goering and an interviewer during his Nuremberg trial:

Goering: “Of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. … But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along.”

Interviewer: “There is one difference. In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

Goering: “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

It’s almost as if there is a science to this—to taking a nation to war. And, if that’s so, are we fools to think that our leaders aren’t students of that science?

Here’s another trope, that the priorities of government are surreal:

In the spring of 2005, Congress showed vastly more enthusiasm for investigating steroid use by baseball players than torture by the U.S. government. Congressmen were more concerned about the sanctity of home run records than they were about the CIA or military interrogators killing innocent people. IN August 2005, the House Government Reform Committee opened a perjury investigation of a baseball player who had testified to the committee that he did not use steroids but tested positive for steroid use a few months later. Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) piously announced that “we have a obligation to look at this.” Perhaps this obligation to scrutinize private misconduct is the flipside of their obligation to ignore government atrocities.

And a thing I plan to use in future arguments:

For those who continue to fail to understand how American actions abroad can motivate foreigners to hate our government, Bovard offers one of the most compelling “shoe on the other foot” examples I’ve come across.

Many Americans have remained oblivious to the impact that the Abu Ghraib photos and other torture reports have on foreigners. How would Americans have responded if the roles had been reversed? Consider the case of Jessica Lynch, the 20-year-old blond, blue-eyed, attractive West Virginian Army supply clerk captured after her supply convoy was attacked during the invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon and the Washington Post trumpeted grossly deceptive accounts of her capture and rescue that were later exposed as frauds (and which Lynch disavowed). What if Americans had seen photos of Lynch with blood running from cuts on her thighs, cowering before attack dogs lurching at her? What if Americans saw photos of a hooded Lynch with wires attached to her body, looking like she was awaiting electrocution? What if Americans saw videos of Lynch screaming as she was being assaulted by Iraqi captors? Such evidence would likely have swayed millions of Americans to support dropping nuclear bomb on Iraq. And yet many Americans refuse to recognize how similar evidence inflames Arabs’ attitudes towards the United States.

And some things that I just didn’t know.

The Abu Ghraib photos were only the tip of the iceberg. Far more incriminating photos and videos of abuses existed, which Pentagon officials revealed in a slide show for members of Congress. However, the Bush administration slapped a national security classification on almost all of the photos and videos not already acquired by the media. Rumsfeld told Congress that the undisclosed material showed “acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman.” Highlights included “American soldiers beating one prisoner almost to death, apparently raping a female prisoner, acting inappropriately with a dead body, a taping Iraqi guards raping young boys,” according to NBC News. Suppressing this evidence enabled the Bush administration to persuade many people that the scandal was actually far narrower than the facts would later show.

Finally, in the course of his book, Bovard time and again gives me new perspective on issues I had long thought were settled. For example, we’re taught in school that, early in our nation’s history, the right to vote has reserved only for white men who owned property. That has always struck me as short-sighted and archaic. But read this:

In the era of the Founders, few things were more dreaded than “dependency”—not being one’s own man, not having a truly independent will because of reliance on someone or something else to survive. One of the glories of America was the possibility that common people could become self-reliant with hard work and discipline. John Philip Reid summarized eighteenth-century political thinking: “Property was independence; lack of property was servility, even servitude. … A man without independent wealth could easily be bought and bribed. A man of property has a will of his own.” This was part of the reason why many of the states initially required a property qualification for voters. Sir William Blackstone, whose work on the English constitution profoundly influenced Americans, observed that a property qualification for suffrage was necessary because if the property-less “had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other.” Thomas Jefferson warned: “Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”

This is a view I have never taken before, and certainly never have been offered before. Depriving certain citizens of the right to vote still may not be the proper course of action, but knowing that the motivation for the property qualification was maintaining an independent electorate rather than racism changes the view of the problem.

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