Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The word that is not "democracy": it can happen here

The New York Review of Books: The New World Order

Tony Judt, a historian, fears for the American Republic.
...With rare exceptions—notably the admirable Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker—the American press has signally failed to understand, much less confront, the threat posed by this administration. Bullied into acquiescence, newspapers and television in the US have allowed the executive power to ignore the law and abuse human rights free of scrutiny or challenge. Far from defying an over-mighty government, investigative journalists were actively complicit before the Iraq war in spreading reports of weapons of mass destruction. Pundits and commentators bayed for war and sneered—as they continue to sneer—at foreign critics or dissenting allies. Amnesty International and other foreign human rights groups are now doing the work of domestic media grown supine and subservient...

...Historians and pundits who leap aboard the bandwagon of American Empire have forgotten a little too quickly that for an empire to be born, a republic has first to die. In the longer run no country can expect to behave imperially—brutally, contemptuously, illegally—abroad while preserving republican values at home. For it is a mistake to suppose that institutions alone will save a republic from the abuses of power to which empire inevitably leads. It is not institutions that make or break republics, it is men. And in the United States today, the men (and women) of the country's political class have failed. Congress appears helpless to impede the concentration of power in the executive branch; indeed, with few exceptions it has contributed actively and even enthusiastically to the process...

... The American people have a touching faith in the invulnerability of their republic. It would not occur to most of them even to contemplate the possibility that their country might fall into the hands of a meretricious oligarchy; that, as Andrew Bacevich puts it, their political "system is fundamentally corrupt and functions in ways inconsistent with the spirit of genuine democracy." But the twentieth century has taught most other peoples in the world to be less cocksure. And when foreigners look across the oceans at the US today, what they see is far from reassuring.

For there is a precedent in modern Western history for a country whose leader exploits national humiliation and fear to restrict public freedoms; for a government that makes permanent war as a tool of state policy and arranges for the torture of its political enemies; for a ruling class that pursues divisive social goals under the guise of national 'values'; for a culture that asserts its unique destiny and superiority and that worships military prowess; for a political system in which the dominant party manipulates procedural rules and threatens to change the law in order to get its own way; where journalists are intimidated into confessing their errors and made to do public penance. Europeans in particular have experienced such a regime in the recent past and they have a word for it. That word is not 'democracy.'
The study of history is always illuminating. There are several points in American history where the Republic was at risk, and I'm not referring to the Civil War alone. Were we to replay our history, and change a few details, it might have come out quite differently. We are fundamentally human, no different than Germans, Japanese, Argentinians, Chileans, Spanish and others who've descended into brutal political states. I am staggered by how poorly America has managed a single very effective but conventional terrorist attack; imagine if a nuclear or biological weapon had caused mass casualties in a major urban center.

There is nothing in our national character or history that ensures we will not follow the path others have taken.

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