Having had my annual respite at high altitude, away from it all, I do feel renewed, and will try and make at least a regular weekly post here–reengage with the world as it were. It was quite refreshing to be away from it all. Imagine, a whole ten days without seeing John Boehner’s red face! Without hearing about congressional gridlock. Without hearing about wars in the world. Without being pummeled by double talk from our politicians. The thing I noticed most was how absurd much of our world is, particularly how absurd much of our politics are. And how when we are inundated with them every day we begin to accept them as normal, as okay, as though what is being said makes sense.
When I get away from it for awhile, and then come back, I see far more clearly how daft our public discourse is. A president can say a secret program that the public would know nothing about but for a leaker, calls that secret program transparent. Orwell would be proud. And we accept it. Our House of Representatives, rather than doing the people’s business, votes for the 37th time to repeal the health care bill, knowing the vote is symbolic and the law will remain.
Between fund-raising and voting on laws that have long been decided and are not going to change (at least with the current administration and senate), it’s no wonder they don’t have time to do any good work. We accept this as business as usual. And when you get away from it and come back, it shines very clear that our government is no longer functional, in any useful meaning of the word.
Jim, you said in your recent post on Majoritarianism that in America the trend has been to increase civil rights. I think that in the long view that is true, and I think there are bumps on the road. Certainly the move towards marriage equality is a good sign, and an expansion of rights to more people. In that case, I think the law has begun to change as the majority opinion has begun to change, not the other way around. And there are certainly areas today where civil rights are being restricted rather than expanded. We don’t mind being spied on until it affects us personally, individually, and the history of the world shows that by then it can be too late to do anything about it.
Daniel Ellsberg has a useful essay in the Washington Post comparing his leaking of the Pentagon Papers with Snowden’s leaking of the NSA spying. He makes the point that he turned himself in because he knew that he would be out on bail, and it turned out they let him out on his own recognizance, where for the two years until his trial he was free to (and did) give interviews and speak to the press. He shows that America has changed, and that if Snowden had turned himself in, he would be locked away without bail (see Manning, Bradley) and probably exist in solitary confinement at best until his trial some years down the line. You can argue that is right or wrong, good or bad.
I think Ellsberg is right that we have changed. And it has happened slowly, and we all find it quite normal. And when I escape to the mountains for a couple weeks and come back to see it fresh, to me it does not seem quite normal, it seems quite un-American. For all the problems we had 30 years ago when Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, we did not muffle his voice, we had a conversation about things, about what he had leaked. We heard all the voices.
Today we pay lip service to having national conversations about things, and then we don’t have that conversation. We can have 80 % or more of our populace wanting universal background checks for gun purchases, but our congressmen, paid for and owned by the gun manufacturers, simply vote no. Certainly in this and on many other issues, majoritarianism does not rule in America. Even in health care, where a strong majority of the country favored a public option, such a thing was not even allowed at the table for discussion. Much of it is due to the gerrymandering of districts that you mention, Jim, and that has taken away the rights and power of the majority in our “democratic” United States.
I miss the mountains already. And I am back to speak with what voice I have. You concluded your post by writing, “When enough people don’t get their way, they have the right to wake up!” The question is what that means. What does it mean to wake up? I think the Occupy movement was a beginning of an awakening, undertaken by many people who saw that their votes no longer had the power to affect change (thanks to both the aforementioned gerrymandering and the big money in politics). Neither of us want violence in the streets. And the system is so fixed that it is hard or impossible to affect change through the ballot box. So what is the alternative? What is the way forward? How do we restore a republic that is responsive to the people. Because right now, in the clarity of seeing it anew, our government has turned a deaf ear to the people. And that is not the America I was taught about in school.