Defining Democracy Down
by Stephen Cox | Posted March 02, 2011
The subject this time is babies, dictators, and democracy.
Here’s how it fits together. Since the last Word Watch, the Islamic world has been convulsed by revolutions and attempted revolutions. The American media have responded as they usually respond — with the dumbest kind of coverage imaginable, intended for the edification of the dummies, the babies, that they believe the rest of us to be.
Example: on February 22, Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith expressed amazement at the fact that Muammar Qaddafi (the Man of a Thousand Spellings), who has ruled Libya for 42 years and who had, at that point, been besieged by protestors for about two days, had not yet surrendered his power. This, to Smith, was “unprecedented,” shocking, disgusting! What could it mean? When would Qaddafi quit? We’re waiting here!
Smith’s attitude was merely an elongation of attitudes already manifested by his colleagues at CNN and the FCC-regulated networks, not to mention the White House. We’re tapping our fingers . . . still tapping . . . still tapping. Now we're tapping our feet as well. Listen, bub, are you gonna quit in time for the six o’clock news or what?
Well, how dumb can you get? How uninteresting can you get? The passion of revolt, the drama of power, the lessons of history, the contingencies of human emotion, the intricacy of human societies . . . . Forget it. When will he quit? He should’ve quit by now. And the same thing had happened a few days earlier, in the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
In this atmosphere, it was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” wherever they thought they had found it, heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge. “We are all Egyptians now!” proclaimed many American welcomers of Mubarak’s fall. I don’t mind that Mubarak fell, although I would like to know who will replace him. But I am not an Egyptian, nor do I walk like one.
It was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge.
David Hume, who had an important, though not a crucial, influence on libertarian thought, observed that “in reality there is not a more terrible event than a total dissolution of government, which gives liberty to the multitude, and makes the determination or choice of a new establishment depend upon a number which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people.” I’m not sure that this is true, though I suspect it is. A "total dissolution" of government by the mob is plainly not what even anarchist libertarians ever had in mind, because it is likely to lead to a new and terrible establishment of power. Shouldn’t a more reserved, conceivably more skeptical, point of view be entertained, if only for a moment, when the media report on the furor of “democratic” crowds?
I’ll return to “democracy” a little later. But here’s Shep Smith, in his impatience for the overthrow of Qaddafi: “If the military doesn’t turn on him, we’re looking at a real possibility of genocide.”
Genocide? Did he say genocide? An attempt to exterminate a whole people? Was Qaddafi attempting to exterminate his fellow Libyans, as the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews? Of course not. All we saw in Libya was a revolution and perhaps the beginning of a civil war. Insurgents were attempting to overthrow an absolutist government, and the government was responding as such governments are wont to respond.
Now, this rhetorical redefinition of a morally important word, “genocide,” is disgusting in itself. But consider Smith’s summary of the reasons for his attack on Qaddafi: “This man has sent foreign mercenaries out to murder citizens? Come on!”
It is wrong, by definition, to send people out to “murder” other people. But that isn’t genocide. And the claim that it happened isn’t proof that it happened. Maybe it did. It’s the job of the media to report on that, not to provide us with moral labels in place of news. On all the networks and news services, Mubarak and Qaddafi have been habitually identified, for the benefit of Americans who presumably require such identifications, as “brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak” and “brutal dictator Muammar Qaddafi.” I’m not concerned about the insult to Qaddafi, who is certainly a brutal dictator, or about the insult to Mubarak, who may well have been such; I’m concerned about the insult to the audience. Fox’s slogan is, “We report; you decide.” Well, only in some cases. In others, the audience is assumed to consist entirely of babies, who must be told what to “decide.”
An adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades.
Actual information about the regimes of the North African authoritarians would be of interest, perhaps of compelling interest. But you could spend (and I have spent) many hours watching network coverage of North African events without ever hearing any presentation of political facts that lasted longer than a minute. One example was the treatment provided by Piers Morgan, the new messiah-interviewer at CNN. On February 22, Morgan modestly stated that CNN had “oversold” him to its audience — a claim he had already proven by his long, lugubrious, pointless conversations with people who asserted some knowledge of Libya. Most of these people were just oohing and ahing about how terrible Qaddafi is, but whenever any of them tried to fill the audience in on the nature of Libyan politics — the tribal divisions, the ideological divisions, the historical divisions, the people's inexperience with self-government — Morgan gave them short shrift. He asked no follow-up questions. He asked for no background information. He asked for no supporting facts. He switched to questions like, “So what is Qaddafi really like?”, and he soon tired of answers that went beyond “He’s a brutal dictator.”
His colleague Anderson Cooper was worse. Rather than presenting Qaddafi’s rants as the news they were, and letting them speak for themselves, he insisted on telling his audience how to think — and even not to think — about them. Introducing a one-minute clip of Qaddafi’s February 22 address, Cooper said, “He’s almost comical in his appearance, but don’t be fooled by his buffoonery.” Thanks, Anderson! I’m a baby, so I’m easily fooled. But you’ve kept me from swallowing that rattle.
After the Qaddafi clip, Cooper introduced Ben Wedeman, CNN’s correspondent in eastern Libya. Wedeman wanted to put Americans at ease with the Libyans. About Libyans’ opinion of Qaddafi he said: “They know he’s insane.” Well good; I'm glad to hear it. But an adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades? Didn’t anybody know he was insane? If people knew, why didn’t they do something about it? If they didn’t know, what does that say about the Libyan body politic? And what does all this tell us about the possibility of a real freedom movement in Libya? These questions weren’t worth pursuing, either by CNN or by its rival, Fox.
Among other things, this is a commentary on the American media’s abject devotion to the great and mysterious idol, Democracy. No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of this god, as recited daily by its media priests. At the same time, I haven’t heard a single question from the media about the authoritarian language that our own government has been using about recent events in North Africa. What kind of government is it that announces to a foreign nation that its leader “must go”? Answer: the Obama regime, first about Mubarak, then about Qaddafi. If the gentlemen in question had possessed any sense of humor, they would have made speeches in which they proclaimed that Obama “must go!”
No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of the god Democracy, as recited daily by its media priests.
As readers of this journal may remember, I have zero respect for the idea that the boundaries of dictatorial states are somehow sacred and that no armed forces must ever cross them. Those borders aren’t sacred to me. Yet the arrogance of the Obama administration takes my breath away — despite the fact that there’s a long tradition of this: the Bush administration showed the same arrogance, and so did most other administrations, all the way back to Woodrow Wilson. Arrogance, and hypocrisy. When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.
But speaking of democracy in the Middle East, let’s consider the “democracy” movement in Wisconsin, where state-employee labor unions are desperately trying to block the governor and legislature from passing a bill cutting their funds and limiting their power. The Republican governor was elected, four months ago, on a platform of doing exactly that; the legislature, elected at the same time, is overwhelmingly Republican and prepared to follow through on the scheme, if it can get just one Democratic senator to show up and make a quorum. Well, that’s democracy, isn’t it? But no: in the name of “democracy,” union hordes invaded and occupied the capitol, attempting to shut down the government, and Democratic legislators, unanimously friends of big labor, fled the state. Leftist demonstrators continue parading up and down State Street in Madison, carrying signs likening the governor to Qaddafi and Mubarak. They also carry signs announcing their own righteousness, signs saying, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”
When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.
We see again the kindergarten approach. What do you think democracy is, children? You don’t know? Well, here’s a pretty picture. But when normal adults see such a slogan, employed by such people, their first impulse is to laugh. Democracy? There was an election; the voters said what they wanted; it just didn't happen to be what the protestors wanted. So who's on the side of democracy — the protestors, or the voters they oppose? And notice, this is a rebellion of people who are getting paid by the voters, people who insist that they have a right to as much pay and power as they can get, no matter what the voters want. Doesn’t that sound more like dictatorship than democracy?
Strangely, however, the protestors’ slogans strike most of the media as cogent indeed. To cite only one of many amusing instances: on February 26, at 3:00 p.m. (EST), CBS Radio’s hourly news offered a report from Madison. It consisted of the following: Young woman’s voice speaking over the noise of demonstrators. Young woman: “This is what democracy looks like. These are the people of Wisconsin, fighting for their rights.” End of report.
The woman may have been one of the demonstrators, or she may have been a CBS correspondent in Madison. The absence of identification allowed listeners to make up their own minds about the provenance of the propaganda. The difficulty of deciding who she was exemplifies how hard it often is to distinguish nonsense from "news," leftist agitprop from normal media blather. Of course no question was asked, no remark made, about any of the brutally obvious issues that the “report” raised. Would you expect there to be? No, not unless the babies in charge of the news were replaced by intelligent people who respected the intelligence of their audience.
You might remark, as many libertarian thinkers have remarked, that “democracy” is not a word that (pace the media) is simply synonymous with “good.” You might make the historical observation that unlimited democracy — democracy without legally enforceable respect for rights or a government of limited powers — has often resulted in predatory regimes. You might record your skepticism about the legitimacy either of crowds shouting in the streets or of dictators who advertise themselves as the embodiments of crowds shouting in the streets. If you did that, you would be expressing nothing more than common sense and common knowledge of the world. But common sense and common knowledge will never get you a job in the information industry of America.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution.
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