When I was a teenager my family spent summers in Greece. I remember the friends of my father congregating at the beachside resort outside Athens where we vacationed. I remember the endless cigarettes and tinkling glasses of ‘whiskey’, the women self-consciously adorned with gold and tanning oil and the swaggering, hirsute and overweight men.
This clan of social climbers and ambitious politicians, despite their privilege – or perhaps because of its precarious nature – forcefully projected themselves as ‘hoi oligoi’ of Greek society. Center-right politically, they were elitist, callous and craven. They would openly and derogatorily refer to the ‘little people’ over whom they lorded, the lowly and unworthy masses eternally and deservedly relegated to their base rank in life.
Years later, reading the 20th century liberal pundit Walter Lippmann’s admonition that only "responsible men" and not the "ignorant and meddlesome" public could be trusted to make the "right" decisions, the connection was immediate and transparent. After all it had been patently explained to me that the word aristocrat comes from the Greek, meaning right (aristos) for the government (kratos). This arrogant world view is exactly how threatened European monarchists viewed the universal suffrage promised by revolution. Clearly only "responsible men" could be entrusted with this privilege.
Frederick Douglass’ famously concluded, "Power concedes nothing without demand." While people have demanded real democracy for centuries, those few with illegitimate power have responded with sophisticated tactics to deceive us into thinking we have choices when we do not. Thus public relations was born – an industry originally uncontroversially understood to disseminate propaganda. This is Lippmann’s legacy.
It is with these musings in mind that I read a biographical sketch of Sarah Palin recently penned by an Alaskan community member who has known her since 1992. She has followed Palin’s career path closely and has written a comprehensive and modestly interesting summary. In it the writer asserts that there must be "literally millions of Americans who are more knowledgeable and experienced than she."
This issue of "experience" is a campaign talking point, along with "change" and "character", that is used to distract us from candidates’ true intentions. Sure, there is some truth to these concerns. It is widely acknowledged that the myriad catastrophes of the Bush regime are the consequence of ineptitude and/or malign neglect. Presumably leaders with better ‘experience’ would correct these failings. Americans are desperate for a departure from government that rewards and enriches society’s most powerful strata at the expense of the needs and livelihoods of most. Promises of change are understandably welcomed. And as for character, only a sociopath could argue for the election of a morally corrupt leader.
But these are mere slogans meant to obfuscate and distract us from concrete plans and true intentions. The following is what I wrote to my activist colleagues, who often expend great energy over but don’t progress beyond whether to vote on principle or tactics this November:
I found this sketch of Palin very interesting, useful and thought provoking. However, I want to note that this focus on "experience" – or lack thereof – of this particular candidate is a campaign talking point that is irrelevant to those of us who work for peace and social justice.
We know how dangerous Dick Cheney and his inner circle are and are only beginning to comprehend how many millions of lives his actions have cost the Middle East. Indeed, there are few politicians with more ‘experience’ than he. Let us not forget, however, that many esteemed, seasoned Democrats are responsible for their own rivers of blood. This includes Truman, the only leader in history to have used nuclear weapons, and the ‘best and brightest’ of the Kennedy administration who cost unknown (and uncountable) millions of lives in Vietnam. Clinton was bombing Iraq, Sudan and the Balkans long before G. W. Bush arrived in the White House. Now we are to believe that foreign policy ‘expert’ Biden was duped by Bush intelligence, his recent backpedaling on Iraq notwithstanding.
Such is the ‘experience’ we can choose between in this rigged and most squalid game of U.S. elections: On the one hand we have Obama, whose campaign is packed tightly with Clinton-administration veterans, war criminals who can’t wait to rain more terror on Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the other, we have the fanatic statists of the right, so despicable and/or unstable that they can’t help but reveal their true, hideous natures to the world.
If we are to build anything resembling a just society, this game must end. A tremendous amount of work is required, not the least of which is radical electoral reform that makes voting fully democratic, that abolishes the electoral college and completely removes private money from campaigns. We must stop revisiting this problem every election cycle without the time or resources to actualize real change. Otherwise, we are relegated to forever clinging to and arguing between the false hopes engineered by the same advertising agencies that sell us laundry detergent and snack foods, either Coke or Pepsi one day, some Republican or Democratic leader-du-jour the next.
This election, each of us must proceed to the voting booth – or not – in whatever way s/he determines most sound. Never forget, however, substantive democratic progress has only ever occurred and can only ever occur at the grass roots. Slavery was abolished beginning with a handful of committed folks in England in the late 1700’s. Against all odds, the slave trade was made illegal in 1808. Still, that was only the beginning of the end.
That is the kind of work and long-term dedication we must commit to these 21st century struggles. It is the only way forward, the only way we can ever better the human condition.