the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 August 21


Democracy, rule of the masses, is the rough equivalent of ochlocracy, rule of the mob, and probably was so in origin also, as the line in ancient élite thinking between the de:mos and the ok‛los was thin, if it even existed. I have made a career of shifting blame for the problems in our society to the people, where it belongs, away from a few scapegoat leaders, whom the people hold responsible when their own folly has become plain and their complicity begins to make them uncomfortable. But calling leaders to account for the folly, or even crimes, that they encourage is still a productive exercise. Indeed, if there were a god, there would also be a reserved place in hell for the demagogues who cultivate mind control and make use of it to destroy the world, which they do, and are doing now.

Democracy is a process, not an outcome. Democracy is no more and no less than what the people want, or, in its practical sense, what a majority of the people wants. If the people want it, it is democratic by definition; if not, it is undemocratic by definition. It is neither good nor bad in result, though the democratic process, outcomes being equal, is preferable, in that the will of the majority is more equitable than the will of a minority. Democracy is not the same as electoral democracy, but as there is no other reliable way of determining popular will, in practice democracy requires elections that are frequent, secret, free, and fair.

Wanting something impossible can be democratic, and often is; but that it does not happen is not, for obvious reasons, undemocratic. The best example, perhaps, is wanting things that are mutually exclusive. The popular will frequently poses a challenge to the laws of logic and even physics. We cannot know the popular will in Iraq, since there have never been elections. The demagogues calling for immediate elections in Iraq have not been so unrealistic in Liberia, or formerly in Afghanistan or East Timor; only in Iraq is the difficulty of staging genuine free and fair elections ignored. Absent elections, we are given a fairly-consistent appraisal of the Iraqi popular will from pundits, apologists, and demagogues. The Iraqis wanted, and still want, freedom from Baath rule, but are ambivalent about the invasion that gave it to them. They want the occupation to end immediately, but they also want physical security. They want an instantaneous government that is Islamic but not theocratic, Arab nationalist but not Baathist, not in danger from Iran or Turkey but not a danger to its own people. And, it goes without saying, they want low taxes, high services, jobs for all, clean air and water, cheap power, a month off for Ramadan, and a timeshare in Monaco. This is not all going to happen. Even less of it will happen if the occupation ends any time soon. The assassination of Sergio Vieira de Mello and his staff, as well as recent reminders about Srebrenica, discredit the common nostrum about UN control. And those who condemn the overdue invasion and the botched occupation would condemn as well an abrupt end to the occupation and the chaos, suffering, and tyranny that would follow. Theocrat Muktada al-Sadr has refused a spot on the interim council so that he could demagogue the issue from without. He wishes to impose his Islam on Iraq, and is rousing the rabble to oust the occupation so that he might take advantage of an old fact ― the discipline of dominion trumps the indiscipline of liberalism in the political melee of society.

A raft of Arab dictators has called for immediate democracy in Iraq, the same democracy they refuse in their own fiefdoms, or transparently pretend to practice, or promise after a further few decades of “transition”. Likewise, Malaysian autocrat Mahathir bin Mohamad wants democratic reform in Burma, and freedom for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while thwarting democratic reform in Malaysia, and freedom for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. We might even note that George Bush wants civil liberties for the people of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, while John Ashcroft is out selling the police state in his “Patriot Act Forever” tour.

Bush’s demagoguery is special in that he himself has the maturity of a child. But in condemning his demagoguery we must acknowledge that it rests, like all such provocation, on the fact that the populace also has the maturity of a child. This is partially seen in the aforementioned simultaneous demand for the mutually exclusive. It is also seen in the complete inability to control or even moderate desires. Both of these appear in the something-for-nothing budget debate. Taxes are cut, services are increased, everyone is theoretically opposed to the debt and in favor of straight talk and tough love. California is throwing a fit because its economy has failed, recalling the governor it just elected to be replaced by someone with a fraction of his mandate, and possibly a fraction of his experience and a fraction of his policy positions (a fraction approaching zero, in some cases). The recall may be democratic, but the replacement will not be. But there was always an abundance of millionaires who would want to be governor the easy way, and of voters disgruntled with the fact that they lost the last election, and willing to believe a fool’s explanation about a $38 billion budget deficit. Bill Simon believes that balancing the budget is a “tax-fighter’s job”. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s main policy statement so far in the campaign has been a repudiation of the suggestion by his top economic advisor ― his only credible asset ― that California’s property taxes are too low.

I think individuals should have the freedom to smoke crack, and the responsibility to decide for themselves on its use. But I also think that those who smoke crack are foolish, and those who deal crack are immoral. I would extend this to those who encourage and facilitate addiction to alcohol, tobacco, heroin, and pills, especially among real children, but among nominal adults as well. If irresistible temptations could be resisted, they would be called something else. Something-for-nothing is irresistible. The Republicans’ fiscal policy is crack; and I am left mouthing an emptier version of “just say no”.

As with crack addiction, or a particularly-candy-lucrative night of trick-or-treating, the vague promise of future health cannot be proof against the immediate gratification of a splurge. In goes another pint of Ben and Jerry’s; out goes a fortnight of careful calorie-counting. In comes a self-serving tax-cutter; out goes a budget surplus that took decades to emerge. Gratification politics will destroy this country and this world, and not just physically, by “thinning” (read: clear-cutting) our forests, polluting our air and water, and building roads and buildings and oil derricks in every last open space. Gratification politics will destroy this country and this world economically, and thereby socially and physically. The US has squandered an unforeseen and irreplaceable chance to extract itself from debt without great austerity, indeed great suffering. Now the debt increases by half a trillion dollars per year; three hundred fifty billion dollars is interest (penance) on the current debt, the transaction fee for gratification past. In time, the US will default and cause a global depression. It will then lash out belligerently and cause a world war. And the proximate author of all this will be the presidency and retainers of George W. Bush.

The message is seductive ― things can be easy and painless; someone else is to blame; cost-free prosperity is within reach. The leaders know this to be false. So, perhaps, do the masses. The thinking person can detect the lie, and predict the devastation that follows. And yet the leaders tell the lie anyway, because power beckons, reality doesn’t sell, and if the consequences can be delayed long enough, no one present will live to see them. The masses are culpable; none of it would be possible without their consent and active participation. But history will and should give special condemnation to the leaders, an infamy commensurate with the depravity of the seduction, and their own corrupt role in provoking it.

But enough about the Nazis. Let us return to the subject at hand.


Original version


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