Damaged Democracies: On Putting the “Us” back into the US

June 20th, 2006 - by admin

Laurie King / Electronic Iraq – 2006-06-20 23:19:06


(June 18, 2006) — Ask any American what democracy means to him or her, and you are likely to hear a response stressing words like “freedom” and “liberty,” most likely conveyed in a tone of pride and gratitude for all that the United States has to offer its citizens and the world. That gratitude is well founded. The US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are among the most stirring and bold political documents ever drafted.

The American dream of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and justice for all is revered throughout the world. It is not surprising, then, that American citizens and leaders consider exporting their system of governance throughout the world a noble objective as well as a means of safeguarding peace, security, and prosperity for all of humanity. We are the world leader in so many fields, after all, so why would others not want to follow us?

Second only to “security, “democracy” is a key word in the discourses of official Washington. “Rule by the People” has been the purported centerpiece of current US marketing campaigns to bring good governance, freedom, and progress to the “oppressed” peoples of the Middle East.

Democracy talk also serves, however, as a convenient and convincing fig-leaf for the “global war on terror,” a multi-dimensional project that knows no borders and respects no laws.

In tandem with US calls for democratic elections, freedom of religion, women’s rights, governmental transparency, and civil society in the Arab-Islamic world, the global war on terror has eroded the First and Fourth Amendments to the US Constitution, enabled NSA surveillance of millions of American citizens’ telephone calls, established the dangerously undemocratic PATRIOT Act, sidelined the Geneva Conventions, and created new and lethal legal black holes – Guantanamo chief among them – into which individuals from any country in the world can disappear and suffer psychological and physical torment without any judicial recourse.

The disconnect between the professed values and principles upon which the United States was founded and actual American attitudes and behaviors in 2006 is profoundly alarming. The average man, woman, or child in Iraq knows this viscerally. Democratization from above and outside is giving American values a bad name. Americans, however, are just awakening to the extent and degree of the damage that democracy – as concept and practice – has suffered over the last five years at home and abroad.

Following the outbreak of lawless and chaotic looting in Iraq in May 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated for the record that freedom is inherently “untidy.” By its very nature, liberty poses an inevitable risk that individuals and groups might behave badly as they pursue their own self-interest with abandon. “Free people,” he said, “are free to do bad things.”
Freedom, according to this view, implies that an individual has the inviolable right to do whatever he or she pleases. But the two pillars of a truly democratic system are not freedom and liberty, but rather, equality and justice. Without the rule of law, habeas corpus, legal protections of citizens’ rights, and a fair and transparent judicial system that enshrines the equality of all before the law, neither freedom nor security is sustainable.

Unlike most European nation states, the United States was founded on ideals, hopes, and dreams, not notions of communal ties based on blood and soil. (Oddly, of all the countries in the Middle East, Lebanon is the most similar in lacking a deeply rooted national identity expressed through symbols of blood and kinship.) Who is the average American? A wealthy corporate executive? A Native American artist? A White Anglo-Saxon Protestant suburbanite? An African American police officer in Washington, DC? A Gay man running a website in New York? An evangelical Christian wife and mother in Kansas? An Orthodox Jew selling men’s suits in Baltimore? A Latino educator in San Diego?

All are Americans despite their diverse ethnic backgrounds, political views, gender differences, socioeconomic status, and religious beliefs. What all have in common – at least theoretically – is a set of rights and duties as citizens, a valuable “tool kit” for political participation in the day-to-day workings of a democracy at every level of government. America is only America as long as it is a living democracy, i.e., as long as Americans remain informed, engaged, and responsible citizens. If we withdraw from public participation in domestic and foreign policies, give up, refuse to think critically, and neglect to act swiftly to safeguard democratic processes and values, the US will not have much to export to the rest of the world in the way of political reform and democratic revitalization.

Democracy is not a noun, but a verb. It is something one does. And it is clear, from scandals at home and disastrous interventions abroad, that we in America are no longer doing democracy.

Democratization is needed in the United States just as much as it is needed in Iraq right now. Democracy is always an “inside job,” one that arises from interaction and cooperation among citizens who understand the importance of justice and equality and actively engage in debate, dissent, and critical consideration of domestic and foreign policies.

Can a nation that truly values equality and justice simply stand by as its government violates domestic and international laws on an hourly basis? Can a nation that values human dignity accept policies that harm innocent Arab men, women and children in order to impose its will and pursue its interests? That is what is happening today in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where a democratically elected government that the Bush Administration despises finds itself subjected to draconian policies and severe financial pressures that have resulted in the cessation of health care and even malnutrition.

Should American citizens who do not understand who they really are—the subjects and agents of democracy – be held accountable for an increasingly dangerous global situation and the erosion of the rule of law?

It is time to put the “us” back into the US. It is time to reclaim our rights and duties as active, informed, and involved citizens. Were we to model democracy as something people do daily by paying attention, asking questions, making demands, debating one another, and calling officials to account, we might be able to prevent our government from debasing the concept and practice of democracy.

If not, democratization will become a debased and cynical by-word for something that is done to others through military force, strong-arm tactics, and draconian measures. Security at home rests upon the pillars of justice and equality for all, not just those who carry US passports.

Laurie King is a co-founder of Electronic Iraq, a translator and editor for the Arab Reform Initiative, and the former editor of Middle East Report.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.