Sunday, January 27, 2008

Democracy in America Revisited

We face the radicalization of the obvious. The zeitgeist demands that we deny what is right before us and give reality all manner of euphemistic descriptions and evasions. And so we want simple answers for everything. But, on the other hand, the social reality is not so complicated that we cannot speak of it. We stand on the self-destroyed scaffolds of the New Right and the ashes of the New Left, generations removed from the promises of social democracy and looking toward an uncertain, chaotic future, mindful of the need to rise above the tired categories of “left” and “right” and demonizations of the Other. My generation has enslaved itself to trendy, escapist and cynical patterns of thought, as we, to borrow the language of Port Huron, look uncomfortably to the world we inherit from our vantage in college dormitories.

We have so many opportunities ahead of us and are so privileged. Social change on an institutional, systemic level is a moral imperative that rests on our shoulders. This should not be of academic interest, or the province of “change agent” elites, but the work of ordinary citizens. We are a republic only if we can keep it, to borrow Benjamin Franklin’s words. I have no doubt that my words will be given some or other ideological sign or tag. We can ask what were the tags appended to the proponents of the American Enlightenment and revolutionaries who resisted colonialism? It is surely recognizable.

So we must proceed from elementary facts. One of these is that we have betrayed the Founders in word and spirit, for which we ought to be deeply ashamed and embarrassed. The second is that even acknowledging that fact is illegitimately tarred radical. Orwell, at one point in his life an anarcho-syndicalist fighting fascism in Spain, wrote that to “see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” What faces us is a bald-faced betrayal, a usurpation of American liberty and the Constitutional order that has thrown us, atomized, confused and self-deluded, into a denial of the reality before us. To speak honestly, the litany of high crimes perpetrated by our government need not be reviewed here. Have we been awake?

It should suffice to say that we cannot afford to approach the world as liberals or conservatives, terms now more worthless than international peacekeeping missions. “Liberal,” for example, when not a pejorative term of abuse and derision, means in an operative sense accommodating of neocolonial foreign policy and “centrist” management of the domestic polity in an arch-regressive, statist direction for the sake of political expediency (Clinton). It can at times take on a charismatic form (Obama) or fashion itself as populist (Edwards), but all are a far cry from traditional Enlightenment notions of freedom and equality. “Conservative” has been deformed beyond recognition.

Tocqueville wrote admiringly of the impressive “equality of conditions” that gave meaning to freedom in the United States. No big government enforced such conditions of life; the society was structured along the contours of small townships and direct participatory democracy was realizable. Much has obviously changed, like industrialization—not altogether a bad thing—but some things, thank God, do not. The preamble to our Constitution still speaks of a strange concept called the “general welfare.” What of it now? Does it even remain coherent or sensible to talk of American society, when the dominant culture encourages us all to think only of ourselves so we can “get ahead” by climbing over everyone else’s backs as we all ascend the same pyramid?

I believe in the power of individuals, and think of myself as an individual with the rights of an individual and, hopefully, a free mind. So, for example, my attraction to democratic socialist theory, a school of thought obvious enough at several points (i.e., the insane idea that people, as human beings, ought to own themselves and not submit to state or corporate power), is tempered by several caveats. Yet politics has discredited itself. But we avoid any and all things “political” at our own expense, and at the peril of generations unborn, in these times.

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