“You’ve lived long enough now to have observed a few things about democracy,” said the skeleton, squinting against the sunlight that was flooding his hilltop in Cortlandt, New York, brilliantly illuminating his tombstone. “As Winston Churchill quipped, between stiff drinks, democracy is the worst system of government in the world, except for all the others. Quite the wag, that Winnie. On this sunny Sunday, why not discuss the nature of our exceptional American democracy a little?”
Sure thing. As I learned from you, satire is often all we have.
“Well, it’s a pretty poor substitute for power, I’ll grant you that, but I’ll take a nice pointy skewer from Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor over even the most eloquent speech by your brilliant orator friend Mr. Obama. We’ll get back to your post-racial president later, I suspect, but first allow me a general observation about democracy.
“Your friend Thomas Jefferson, the refined renaissance man who never dignified the pernicious rumors of his thirty year miscegenation with a beautiful, light-skinned piece of his property, spoke of raking the educable few from the rubbish,” the skeleton gave a small chuckle.
“I was, it turned out, one of those educable few, so was my brother. Look, they raked me out of the rubbish, via the GI bill, et, voila! If I’d had more of an ability to smile as I was fed shit I might have become a college professor. It’s the wrong way to see it, of course, smiling as I’m fed shit. It would have been better to have just seen it as paying dues, but we only pay the dues we can afford to pay, as you yourself know very well.”
No argument here, dad. I’ve always lived on a very tight budget for dues paying.
“So you have an American genius like Jefferson, with his hundreds of inherited slaves and I believe thousands of acres of inherited land, surveyed by his father and his father-in-law, and later by him and registered as his property. And you have masses of people in the colonies who don’t have jack shit, as they used to say. There could never be enough seats in the newly created University of Virginia for all these folks, and most of them, frankly, wouldn’t know a book from a block. Although, for the rabble they were, the masses of Americans were surprisingly literate back then.
“So, really, there was a pretty sizable pile of educable material in that heap of rubbish that could have been raked, but what are you going to do with masses of highly educated poor people anyway? Once you’ve read all the great works of literature, philosophy and history, acquired the habits of critical thinking, you’re not going to be content working as a brute all day and drinking grog all night. How do we preserve life, liberty and property (forget the ‘pursuit of happiness’, you know what I’m saying?) for those who have it while making sure the brutes don’t rise up and grab any of ours for themselves? Give them beautiful platitudes and keep them as ignorant as possible.
“We create a nation everyone can take pride in, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. We create a government of, by and for the People. In civics you learn that the will of the People is carried out by elected representatives on the local and federal level. And blah, blah, blah. But of course, you remember when I convinced you to enroll as a Democrat, because the only meaningful vote you’ll ever get is in the party primary? Well, that was the last of my idealism talking. How many meaningful primaries have you voted in? You got to vote for Bernie Sanders this time. Did it feel great? I hope so.
“Anyway, let’s cut to the chase– what does it take to have capable elected officials working intelligently to solve difficult problems, making meaningful compromises to advance social progress, protect the environment, ensure domestic tranquility? Educated, critical thinking voters evaluating the candidates based on what they actually believe in and what they have proven they can do. How often does that happen, Elie? We are given the choice at election time between two shrewdly marketed brands already in debt to the people who put up billions to brand and market them, or more succinctly, as Lewis Black put it so memorably, two bowls of shit.
“Even our best presidents have been custodians of the status quo, protectors of privilege, it’s built into our two party system. Take FDR, a class traitor and great president by almost anyone’s assessment. His New Deal, while radical and a great improvement over what existed before in our Darwinian democracy, was largely put into place to prevent a Communist uprising here. People were sick, tired, depressed, angry, organizing, ready to smash something. Super-rich speculators had sucked the country dry as they have been doing from the day they arrived here in the land of opportunity. Sure, some of them had jumped from sky scrapers when they lost fortunes, but those were only the weak ones. The stronger ones figured out how to remain rich. The rest of us?
“You read Harold Lasswell’s description of how, from the beginning, mass media has been used to sell things to the American public by manipulation. Newspaper guys like Hearst sold war, and then when the great progressive Woodrow Wilson found it advantageous to take America into the World War he turned things over to George Creel, the advertising genius. And Creel’s Commission tirelessly turned the tide in a very short time– an isolationist nation was lining up to fight the fucking Hun who was chopping the arms off kids in Belgium.
“None of it ever happened, of course, the atrocities that were widely reported, but the truth cannot be allowed to stand in the way of greater truth, which in that case was to get America into that great war before it ended. We were about to fight a war to end war, a war to make the world safe for democracy, or safe from democracy, or whatever the hell you want it to be– it will be the greatest, most glorious, most exciting war ever!
“Until you get over there, of course, and it’s a filthy slaughterhouse worse than the battlefields of our Civil War — a war like all American wars, including the Revolutionary War, that the wealthy could literally buy their way out of serving in. The piles of excrement next to the stinking trenches were as tall as mountains. A hundred years later nobody has a very good explanation for why there was a world war in the first place, except that the greediest in every civilized nation were intent on exploiting the uncivilized nations without interference from every other civilized nation. That and the billions the U.S. had loaned to Britain and France, money that would have been lost if Germany won the war.
“Your democratic voters, if they had the true picture, would never have sent their children to be butchered in such a meaningless war. Advertising and propaganda to the rescue. Hitler was on the losing side in the war to end war and he was no happier about being a loser than most losers are about it. To his accursed credit, he learned a key lesson from unscrupulous Allied propaganda in the World War, which had succeeded gloriously where more truthful, honor-bound German propaganda had not. You read that section of Mein Kampf, where he wipes the rabies slaver off his lips and writes about how gloriously effective the lies of the Allies were.
“Photo of a pile of dead bodies outside a Brussels hospital? They died of disease, sadly, but why not put those corpses to good use with a nice inflammatory caption? Slaughtered by the Hun! Poisoned because they were witnesses to the Kaiser’s blood thirsty men’s butchery of the Belgian children. The lies were better, the Allies found, if there was a certain internal consistency to them. What did Lasswell say? ‘hacking and gouging were leitmotifs in the war to the East’? Pure bullshit calculated to enflame rage, and Hitler admired it greatly, would put the lesson to great use. Make people hate, and fear, and they’ll do whatever you tell them needs to be done.
“That was one reason there was so much skepticism here about the rumors of the death camps once Hitler got things back up to speed in Germany. Americans had heard the brutal lies before, the human skin lampshade story had already been used in the World War chapter one. Fool me twice, what did Dubya say about that?” the skeleton paused to watch a car raise a cloud of dust coming down the dirt road into the cemetery.
“Oh, my,” said the skeleton, “we have guests!”
I don’t recall you going on this way when you were alive, to be perfectly honest about it.
“Well, shit, I would have, Elie, but, if you recall, we were kind of lifelong adversaries. We agreed about most things, you understand, but the one thing I could not abide was the existential threat you always posed, or that I thought you always posed.”
You do realize how insane that sounds, don’t you?
“Yes, of course, as I was dying it became crystal clear to me how insane that was,” said the skeleton.
It looks like those guests are coming to visit Benny Peritsky, dad, so you can continue your remarks on American democracy.
“Well, let me sum up then. The most essential thing for an effective representative government is an informed, intelligent, critically thinking electorate. Free public education is supposed to educate our future voters in how to think and evaluate. You can judge for yourself how well that’s working out for you. Freedom of the press is supposed to ensure that the voters are well-informed. Of course, the press, in all its modern mass media forms, is mainly interested in the bottom line, profit. People tune in to what scares and outrages them, and to what titillates them. That’s it, you know, if it bleeds it leads. The details about an innovative environmental idea that can save tens of thousands, or even millions, of lives in rural areas every year? Show us the slow-motion sequence of that maniac mowing down gay dancers in that Orlando nightclub again. Holy shit! Did you see that? He took a pledge to ISIS right before he started shooting. Holy fuck! They’re coming to kill us!”
Indeed they are, pop. And that’s one reason I am so grateful to have a president who runs the most transparent administration in history and works closely with the press to make sure the American public always has the truth on every vital issue.
“Except when he’s threatening whistleblowers with the death penalty under Wilson’s 1917 Espionage Act, of course, or keeping top secret the number of children in Yemen and everywhere else his drones are killing and maiming every time he signs off on his secret kill lists,” said the skeleton.
Jesus Christ, dad, do you still hate our freedom so much?