Bread and Circuses

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A remarkable shift has occured in the last few months that's gone unnoticed by the deafening calls for war on Iraq. That changed climaxed on 15 Feb, when somehwere between 6-10 million people across the world marched to protest an invasion of Iraq. The people marched in Spain, Britain, Italy and France (to name a few) to express their collective feelings about destroying Iraq. Even with conservative numbers in mind, it was perhaps the largest political demonstration since the Vietnam War.

Except you would never know it if you were in America.

The massive anti-war demonstrations were routinely ignored in this country: conservative stalwart Fox News dismissed protestors in New York as a gathering of the "usual protestors." Television coverage was equally scant, and the images that were shown on 30-second spots were interesting for what was conveyed. You might almost suspect cameramen were deliberately trying to find anyone who looked young, with long-hair and somewhat out of control. That image taps into the conservative revulsion against anti-war demontrators as "hippies" or left-wing losers who are vaguely threatening to any sense of law and order. It's an old gambit, but it works rather well if that's the center of your focus.

As compliant and unquestioning as it is, you could be forgiven for not asking why the American media hasn't noted the irony in all of this: aren't these demonstrations and massive waves of people in action with a common purpose the true essence of democracy? Is this not what we what cherish about freedoms and the workings of the best political system on earth? Now couple that unasked question with the response of those governments most bent on war, starting with the United States. Bush was dismissive of these protests, indicating that he doesn't govern according to poll numbers. It's an astonishing admission, even for someone who regularly strangles himself with poor language and lousy diction. His comment was more appropriate for kings or emperors, who see themselves as far above the opinions of the common rabble. In short, he might as well have said: "Let them eat cake."

And then, of course, there's Tony Blair, whose unwavering support for the Bush Administration's hard-line has transformed him into the Incredible Shrinking Prime Minister. Elected officials, being human beings, follow their own passions no matter who voted for them. Yet they cannot routinely dismiss popular expressions of protest (as Bush does) without pause. Blair continues to press for why invading Iraq is a moral issue -- one that has brought consternation from the British Anglican clergy. Blair may indeed truly believe that he's on a moral mission to save the world, except he cannot escape the realization that the opinion of the common rabble can be an uncomfortable check on power.

Which brings us to the question of post-war Iraq. In rapturous tones, the media informed us of Bush's "vision" for a new Iraq that would become a beacon of democracy and hope in the Middle East. This transformation would create a domino effect in the region, leading to the sprouting of new democracies resulting in the piece de resistance, a Palestinian state. Suddenly Baghdad has become the missing link to ending the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The more democracies, so the reasoning goes, the more stability, and the more terrorism decreases. Why blow yourself up when you can enjoy the bread and circuses of democracy?

How is it possible to boast of making a democracy in a country that has no traditions of such (and just in time for the 2004 presidential election) when those who give their consent to be governed are ignored? The democracies of the West seem to be an elaborate shell game. Bush even used the curious phrase of people being "allowed" to dissent. The usage of that word typifies how contemptuous conservatives are of the very traditions they claim to cherish and promise to uphold. The Constitution was ultimately a document forged against the prerogatives of royal power. The Founding Fathers, while they may have been upper class, were not imperious rulers throwing crumbs at their new subjects. The Bill of Rights was originally a compromise to those states that wouldn't ratify the Constitution without them, but they were never conceived as throwdowns to shut the populace up. Yet you might never know that by listening to the current administration, that will pursue its policy to the bitter end.

Calls for a democratic Iraq are not ill-founded, but they ring hollow at a time when the opinions of people are dismissed and dissent is considered an act of treason. The democratic traditions in the United States are held suspect by a obsequient media, that responds to people power by asking "Are anti-war demonstrations unpatriotic?" The very question is a value judgement that does not belong in a medium that proclaims its objectivity. Its subtext (fed by the aformentioned images of young, wild-haired and erratic youth) feeds an existing prejuidice and places dissent as undesirable by-product of democracy. Media outlets proposing that this question is a fair one are dishonest and disingenious: you've already stacked the deck and intruded on the area best left for editorial opinion. Imagine a news segment asking: "Does abortion kill innocent children?" and you get the idea of how fundamentally out of place the question really is.

We are supposed to content ourselves on having the ability to demonstrate and voice our opinion, but to believe it's a true function of democracy? Governments across Europe are ignoring their own peoples' demands, and the United States continues unabated on its path to war, nodding perfunctorily at demonstrations but utilizing the media to impugn protestors. How full a democracy will appear in Baghdad if an essential element of the people's voice is dismissed as inconvenient by the powers wanting to establish it there? As long as there are bread and circuses, governments will do as they please, making democracy the rallying cry of oligarchies but the last thing on their mind when making policy.

Makes sense. In an extremely circular kinda way.