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How Democracy Dies: Lessons from a Master

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From Truthdig

AP / Matt York

The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes spent his life battling the assault on democracy by tyrants. It is disheartening to be reminded that he lost. But he understood that the hardest struggle for humankind is often stating and understanding the obvious. Aristophanes, who had the temerity to portray the ruling Greek tyrant, Cleon, as a dog, is the perfect playwright to turn to in trying to grasp the danger posed to us by movements from the tea party to militias to the Christian right, as well as the bankrupt and corrupt power elite that no longer concerns itself with the needs of its citizens. He saw the same corruption 2,400 years ago. He feared correctly that it would extinguish Athenian democracy. And he struggled in vain to rouse Athenians from their slumber.

There is a yearning by tens of millions of Americans, lumped into a diffuse and fractious movement, to destroy the intellectual and scientific rigor of the Enlightenment. They seek out of ignorance and desperation to create a utopian society based on "biblical law." They want to transform America's secular state into a tyrannical theocracy. These radicals, rather than the terrorists who oppose us, are the gravest threat to our open society. They have, with the backing of hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate money, gained tremendous power. They peddle pseudoscience such as "Intelligent Design" in our schools. They keep us locked into endless and futile wars of imperialism. They mount bigoted crusades against gays, immigrants, liberals and Muslims. They turn our judiciary, in the name of conservative values, over to corporations. They have transformed our liberal class into hand puppets for corporate power. And we remain meek and supine.

The huge amount of taxpayer money doled out to Wall Street, investment banks, the oil and natural gas industry and the defense industry, along with the dismantling of our manufacturing sector, is why we are impoverished. It is why our houses are being foreclosed on. It is why some 45 million Americans are denied medical care. It is why our infrastructure, from public schools to bridges, is rotting. It is why many of us cannot find jobs. We are being fleeced. The flagrant theft of public funds and rise of an obscenely rich oligarchic class is masked by the tough talk of demagogues, themselves millionaires, who use fear and bombast to keep us afraid, confused and enslaved.

Aristophanes saw the same psychological and political manipulation undermine the democratic state in ancient Athens. He repeatedly warned Athenians in plays such as "The Clouds," "The Wasps," "The Birds," "The Frogs" and "Lysistrata" that permitting political leaders who shout "I shall never betray the Athenian!" or "I shall keep up the fight in defense of the people forever!" to get their hands on state funds and power would end with the citizens enslaved.

"The truth is, they want you, you see, to be poor," Aristophanes wrote in his play "The Wasps." "If you don't know the reason, I'll tell you. It's to train you to know who your tamer is. Then, whenever he gives you a whistle and sets you against an opponent of his, you jump out and tear them to pieces."

Our democracy, through years of war, theft and corruption, is also being diminished. But the example Aristophanes offers is not a hopeful one. He held up the same corruption to his fellow Greeks. He repeatedly chided them for not rising up and fighting back. He warned, ominously, that by the time most citizens awoke it would be too late. And he was right. The appearance of normality lulls us into a false hope and submission. Those who shout most loudly in defense of the ideals of the founding fathers, the sacredness of Constitution and the values of the Christian religion are those who most actively seek to subvert the principles they claim to champion. They hold up the icons and language of traditional patriotism, the rule of law and Christian charity to demolish the belief systems that give them cultural and political legitimacy. And those who should defend these beliefs are cowed and silent.

"For a considerable length of time the normality of the normal world is the most efficient protection against disclosure of totalitarian mass crimes," Hannah Arendt wrote in "The Origins of Totalitarianism." "Normal men don't know that everything is possible, refuse to believe their eyes and ears in the face of the monstrous. ... The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far toward realizing a fictitious, topsy-turvy world is that the outside non-totalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity. ..."

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All ideological, theological and political debates with the representatives of the corporate state, including the feckless and weak Barack Obama, are useless. They cannot be reached. They do not want a dialogue. They care nothing for real reform or participatory democracy. They use the tricks and mirages of public relations to mask a steadily growing assault on our civil liberties, our inability to make a living and the loss of basic services from education to health care. Our gutless liberal class placates the enemies of democracy, hoping desperately to remain part of the ruling elite, rather than resist. And, in many ways, liberals, because they serve as a cover for these corporate extremists, are our greatest traitors.

Aristophanes too lived in a time of endless war. He knew that war always empowered anti-democratic forces. He saw how war ate away at the insides of a democratic state until it was hollowed out. His play "Lysistrata," written after Athens had spent 21 years consumed by the Peloponnesian War, is a satire in which the young women refuse to have sex with their men until the war ends and the older women seize the Acropolis, where the funds for war are stored. The play called on Athenians to consider radical acts of civil disobedience to halt a war that was ravaging the state. The play's heroine, Lysistrata, whose name means "Disbander of Armies," was the playwright's mouthpiece for the folly and self-destructiveness of war. But Athens, which would lose the war, did not listen.

The tragedy is that liberals and secularists, like Obama, are not viewed as competitors by the corporate forces that hold power, but as contaminates that must be eliminated. They have sought to work with forces that will never be placated. They have abandoned the most basic values of the liberal class to play a game that in the end will mean their political and cultural extinction. There will be no swastikas this time but seas of red, white and blue flags and Christian crosses. There will be no stiff-armed salutes, but recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. There will be no brown shirts but nocturnal visits from Homeland Security. The fear, rage and hatred of our dispossessed and confused working class are being channeled into currents that are undermining the last vestiges of the democratic state. These dangerous emotions, directed against a liberal class that as in ancient Athens betrayed the population, have a strong appeal. And unless we adopt the radicalism held by Aristophanes, unless we begin to hinder the functioning of the corporate state through acts of civil disobedience, we are finished.

Let us not stand at the open gates of the city meekly waiting for the barbarians. They are coming. They are slouching towards Bethlehem. Let us, if nothing else, like Aristophanes, begin to call our tyranny by its name.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Hedges was part of the team of (more...)

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is free to read The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 11:20:24 AM
Dear Daniel, I sympathize with your sentiment, ... by Josh Mitteldorf on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 11:58:05 AM
exactly what you say of republicans, is indeed the... by Atlantis1789 on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 12:34:27 PM
I have the impression that what you call socialism... by Marika on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 12:59:33 PM
I posted a question below to Charlie. Do you think... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 2:45:28 PM
Too many Americans have been sitting on their butt... by Steven G. Erickson on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 12:06:57 PM
Here's the problem.Josh said this..."When all peop... by Charlie L on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 12:21:43 PM
that something as (theoretically) simple as elimin... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 2:41:23 PM
and have argued for "Carville proposal" Another ... by BFalcon on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 6:18:42 PM
Obama is by no means a "contaminate" to be elimina... by Daniel Noel on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 12:47:05 PM
but can you define what you mean by "stand up and ... by Jeff Poster on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 9:07:42 PM
I know you're being metaphorical....... by Jeff Poster on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 9:09:22 PM
I can write about the elements of social disintegr... by Al Rodbell on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 1:27:24 PM
...Notwithstanding that WWII lead to the Cold War ... by Jeff Poster on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 9:15:01 PM
based on what I've seen since growing up in the fi... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 6:40:23 AM
someone calls Obama a liberal. He's at best the an... by Giovanni Eureka Springs, AR on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 1:44:20 PM
The condition of our materialism and religious syn... by Casey Reed on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 1:51:30 PM
Hedges makes some valid points, but like many of t... by Thomas Hill on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 2:09:49 PM
principle of treating others as we'd like to be tr... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 2:57:46 PM
It's pedantic to infer that Hedges believes that a... by Jeff Poster on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 9:25:06 PM
It's pedantic to infer that Hedges believes that a... by Jeff Poster on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 9:29:16 PM
How can any learned person look at infinite space ... by wagelaborer on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 9:36:40 PM
Would you call it arrogant if phrased as such?: It... by Jeff Poster on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 10:31:33 PM
hardly geometric, particularly if you take an hone... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 6:49:11 AM
"But how can any learned person observe the order ... by Marika on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 7:53:29 AM
I recently read the history of Athens which includ... by Donald on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 2:58:12 PM
The only way to defeat the tide of mumbo jumbo and... by R. A. Landbeck on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 3:32:35 PM
Chris, you lament "our inability to make a living.... by Kellia Ramares on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 6:07:06 PM
Chris, you lament "our inability to make a living.... by Kellia Ramares on Monday, Oct 11, 2010 at 6:18:08 PM
Dear Chris, a really excellent and valuable essay.... by Paul Carline on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 5:10:35 AM
We live at the center of a pendulum. It swings rig... by Larry Snider on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 7:13:20 AM
could reach persons only with his non-electrified ... by GLloyd Rowsey on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 8:44:57 AM
US is in the phase of defining its identity and ... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 8:54:46 AM
Liberals are losing the fight in America because o... by Deacon Solomon on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 9:35:37 AM
Until we all realize that there are no liberals or... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 10:23:03 AM
What else to expect? Wars, hot or cold, are an esc... by Margaret Bassett on Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010 at 10:59:07 AM
Don't look over there to see if the barbarians are... by Patricia Gray on Thursday, Oct 14, 2010 at 10:29:52 AM