Sunday, October 16, 2011

democracy, we hardly knew ya ---a late, Sunday night thought.

As I stood with Occupy Moncton at City Hall today and yesterday, I thought of all the myths we believe about democracy, and the myth that we have ever had it.

Democracy is the belief that we have the right to determine who shall govern us, that we all  have the same right. That seems simple enough.

But, for it to work, we have to have accurate information about what is going on in the world - what is happening, what is being discussed. We need honest journalism.

We need to discuss. We need to exhange ideas. We need to be literate.

We need to know that the government we elect is acting in our interests.

Without those, we don't have democracy. And we have never had all those.

The British are fond of tracing democracy back to the day King John signed Magna Carta. And that's nonsense. Magna Carta simply transferred some of the King's powers to the barons. The early parliaments were dominated by the very rich and by the aristocracy. Of course. Legislators didn't get paid. They had to have money to live on, and even to run. Most men weren't even allowed to vote; and no women at all were allowed.

Over the years, the aristocrats ran out of money; and the very rich took over the political parties.  The Liberal party of Britain began as an openly big business party. Liberalism didn't mean the rights of people. It meant the rights of property. Liberals based themselves on the writing of Adam Smith who advocated freedom of the market place for business.

There was no party in Britain that had the remotest interest in the bulk of the British people until the turn of the twentieth century. That was when the Labour Party was founded, and it was made possible for ordinary people to run by paying salaries to legislators.  Alas, the most recent of the Labour prime ministers became a multi-millionaire while he was prime minister. He must have saved his salary by brown-bagging it to work.

It was the same thing in Canada. The Liberal party, originally called the Reform party, was openly a big business party. It represented Ontario business. The Conservative party represented Montreal business.

Confederation happened because British investors needed a united Canada to have a tax base big enough to afford to support their railway building. John A was quite openly on the take. He and most of his cabinet were on the board of directors of the Grand Trunk Railway - the same railway they gave grants and land to.  John A was also a land speculator on his own, and sold heavily to the GTR. Later, and while still prime minister, he was chairman of the board ofManulife.

The Senate was created to guarantee power to the very rich, just in case the voters got silly and elected the wrong party.

The only rebel among all of our prime ministers was R.B.Bennett from New Brunswick. It took him a while to understand the suffering of the depression. But he was a moral and compassionate man. When he did understand it, he acted to generate jobs and to create social programmes. But it was too late. R.B.Bennett got blamed for a depression he didn't create. He was beaten by Mackenzie King who talked constantly about his compassion for the poor - but made changes as slowly as he possibly could.

(Interestingly, when Canadians are polled about the greatest Canadians in our history, the top of the list is never held by John A or Mackenzie King or - Lord knows - Brian Mulroney or Trudeau or the railway capitalists or even the Irvings. Top spot usually goes to Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan premier who introduced medicare.)

In the US, the American revolution was not about freedom or democracy or human rights. The leaders of it were mostly the wealthy class. George Washington was probably the richest man in the US, and was certainly the biggest slave-owner. How could it be a revolution for democracy and freedom when it was a slave society, one with no rights for women and, in the early days, no rights for many men?

It was a revolution for property rights, designed to give the very rich control without paying back Britain for defending it during the wars against France. (That's what the argument over taxes was about.)  The rich have controlled it ever since.

Remember Davey Crockett, the symbol of the aw shucks ordinary man? The great b'ar hunter who was elected to congress and went there wearing his coonskin cap? In fact, Crockett was a big time land speculator - and a slave-trader.

The civil war had nothing to do with freeing slaves. Abraham Lincoln actually fired one of his generals for freeing slaves. The civil war happened because the north was industrializing, while the south remained based on cotton. The north wanted a high tariff to keep ou foreign competition. But the south depended on British suppliers for their manufactured goods. A tariff would drive up prices for them. (Almost all the weapons of the confederacy came from Britain.)

Slavery was the excuse for the war to establish the dominance of northern capitalists. Many, probably most, of the freed slaves would never get the right to vote or to get decent jobs or even to live where they wanted to.  Their great granchildren wouldn't these rights until the 1960s.

President Wilson (World War I) actually segregated the civil service. General Patton loathed African Americans and Jews. You don't find African-american senior officers in the US military until after World War Two.

To this day, African Americans live in poverty, get inferior education, and are in prison way out of proportion to their share of the total population.

Roosevelt and Mackenzie King were both savagely anti-semitic. Both refused to accept Jewish refugees from Germany in the 1930s, and even during the war and for several years after it.

The US president has now publicly declared the right to assassinate American citizens and to jail them indefinitely without any charge, any legal process. And no explanation, ever. That's not a democracy.

Then, of course, the public hasn't ever known much of what's going on. The early newspapers were largely commerical news - like shipping news. By definition, you had to be rich to set up a newspaper. So they were really propaganda sheets from the start.

It really took off with the development of the cheap newspaper in the 1890s. These were so powerful that a Hearst could publicly brag (truthfully) that his newspapers had started a war - by lying. The Canadian journalist, Beaverbrook, became so powerful that the Prime Minister appointed him a lord - so that he could not run for a seat in the House of Commons.

Foreign correspondents have been the most studied liars. There's a good book about them called "The First Casualty"  It's about lying by all the news media from newspapers through radio to TV. I have known a few foreign correspondents well. Even they admit that they lie. (One of the few truthful commentators in that field is Gwynn Dyer. I was on a radio show with him when we both first started. I was impressed by his intelligence and honesty from the start.)

In North America, in particular, the news media are bad -with New Brunswick close to the bottom of the barrel. In 1919, when Bill Clinton publicly apologized for CIA leadership in the slaughter of 200,000 Maya peasants in Guatemala, the only newspaper to report it was The New York Times - which buried it on p. E9.

You cannot have a democracy with dishonest news media.

Nor can you have it without open and public discussion. That doesn't happen in New Brunswick. I have heard freer public discussion in China than I have in Moncton. There's a fear of taking a position in this province. It runs all the way down to home and school. I've never seen such fear in a society. I think I know why that fear exists. Maybe you have a guess, too.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread around the world with it's appeal for democracy. Interestingly, you will find it mostly in countries, like Canada, that call themselves democracies. That's a clue.

People who believe in democracy aren't calling for improvements in it. There is no democracy to improve on. The call is to get democracy in the first place.

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