(Expanded version of the Letter to the Editor that I submitted to the San Francisco Chronicle this week):
In the Sunday Insight, (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/12/11), California State Supreme Court Justice Ming W. Chin expressed alarm that 75% of U.S. students lack a basic understanding of democracy. While disturbing, this is not surprising considering that reality is quite different from the idealized system we are taught in school. For example, the one person-one vote rule is violated each election, when the wealthy are able to disproportionately influence the outcome. The fairness of our legal system is called into question by the fact that affluent defendants can afford better attorneys and are more likely to be acquitted. The separation of powers is routinely undermined when Congress defers its power to declare war to the President, as they have for every war since WWII. Even when civics is well-taught, the take-home message is muddled by propaganda like “America is the freest country in the world,” repeated ad nauseam, leading many to believe we have complete and unfettered personal freedom, a delusion that can cause confusion, frustration and hostility when the Legislature or Court limits personal freedom. And why should children believe their textbooks when they themselves are denied the right to vote, yet are subject to laws created by adults?
One might also question why one should care that children lack a “basic understanding of democracy,” or, for that matter, what a basic understanding of democracy means? Being able to recite the responsibilities of the three branches of government may help students pass an exam, but will it make them better people? Will it help poor children earn a living or grow into affluent adults? Or is it really all about getting everyone to agree that we really do live in the world’s greatest country so that we all remain docile and accepting of our lot in life?
Contrary to the propaganda, democracy does not mean freedom or equality or justice. Rather, it means rule by the people, rule that can and does include injustice, inequality, imprisonment and slavery. Furthermore, while “rule by the people” implies that everyone gets to participate, even this is inaccurate, as juveniles, foreigners, prisoners and even some “rehabilitated” convicts are denied the right to vote. Ironically, while “the people” love Democracy and their right to vote, they have great disdain for politicians and elections, complaining about the greed, dishonesty and sleaze, and the fact that their elected officials do whatever they like once in office, often contradicting their own campaign promises.
Part of the problem lies in the paradoxical definition of Democracy. “Rule by the People” implies that the people have power, a very appealing concept, especially when contrasted with autocratic forms of government. Yet, the existence of a ruler (the people) implies there must also be a subject (the people, again?) As Ruthless Criticism points out, “rule” loses its meaning when the subject and ruler are one and the same.
Fortunately for the English language, everyday experience shows us that despite the vote, the “people” are not really the rulers. Rather, we elect representatives who, in effect, rule over us. The structure of the state, the political and economic system, the existence of inequality and fact that we must be governed are never up for vote or even debate. The “peoples’ rule” is thus reduced to yearly ritual of voting for those who will make the real decisions and wield the power. Most importantly for the rulers, this yearly ritual also serves to reaffirm the people’s consent to be ruled, thus justifying their claims to have a mandate from the people to impose their profit motivated agenda.
What about Judge Chin’s concern that we’re raising a bunch of barbarians who do not appreciate the independence of the judiciary? For the poor who make up the vast majority of the nation’s death rows, the judiciary’s independence was irrelevant—it was their inability to afford good legal counsel that was the problem. Yet prejudice (if not dependency) does occur, too. Consider Judge Sabo, who presided over Mumia Abu-Jamal’s capital case, who said he wanted to “fry the nigger.”
Regardless of judges’ independence and objectivity, the judicial system is designed to protect private property and the power and privilege of the capitalist class, not for the betterment of the rabble. Thus, even independent judges would uphold everyone’s right to sleep under a bridge (if such a law actually existed), but they would never deny Larry Ellison’s right to own multimillion dollar homes up and down California, or entrepreneurs’ right to develop a decommissioned army base rather than leaving it as housing for the homeless.
They also enforce the stipulations of a contract, even if that contract is inherently unfair. (A deal is a deal, after all). Working people, for example, have no choice but to enter into contracts with their employers in order to secure employment and earn wages necessary for their survival, thus placing them in a weaker position during contract negotiations. (A hungry person will accept a lot in order to fill their belly). While unions increase workers’ power in these negotiations, the labor contract always favor the interests of the employers, who simply refuse to sign if the profits are not considered high enough (even at the risk of closing shop and moving out of town).
Judge Chin may be correct that American children (and adults) lack a basic understanding of the American political system and Democracy, but I do not see this as a crisis. In fact, it might actually be a positive sign that they have not completely bought the fantasy that the U.S. political system is the epitome of perfection and that they find it troubling that so much want, misery and oppression could occur under it.
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