The 10 Most Important Ideas of 2004: Politics and Society

Cartoon by Gary Markstein, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

This is the third and final installment of my three annual ‘top 10 ideas’ lists. The list for Blogs and the Internet is here; the one for Business and the Economy is here. These are my nominations for the 10 Most Important Ideas of 2004: Politics and Society.

Note that we’re talking about ideas here, not events. There were many notable political and social events in 2004, but they mostly played out the important ideas of 2003: That constitutional liberalism must precede democracy, that the alternative to ‘free’ trade is fair trade, that we can withhold consent for tyranny, that terrorism is a reaction, not an action, that our education system has become dysfunctional, that we accede to political bullying out of learned helplessness, etc. I should also confess that my perception of ‘most important’ reflects the fact that I live in North America; I don’t know enough about political and social events and thinking on other continents to say whether these ideas hold outside North America or not.

The most important political and social ideas for 2004 are subtler and more complex than those of 2003. They don’t have memorable taglines or books named after them. But they will drive much of the political and social activity of 2005 and the years to come:

1. The Commercialization of the Citizen: Political systems don’t work the way economic systems work, and there are good reasons for this. Political programs were designed to be developed and debated with reason, a balancing of opposing ideas and interests. Commercial programs are designed to appeal purely to the emotions.  If you want to sell a breakfast cereal, you don’t offer a reasoned debate of its good and bad qualities between its developers and its competitors. Consumer Reports does that — it introduces political mechanisms (user ratings) into the commercial arena. It does this as a modest offset to the onslaught of incursions of commercial mechanisms into our political systems, to the point where, in North America at least, the citizen is treated no differently from the consumer of breakfast cereals. Presidential candidates no longer advance proposals and positions — they spout jingles. Political representatives and ideology are marketed and sold, using precisely the over-simplified and unreasonable techniques that are used to sell cars. Political acts are deliberately and utterly mis-branded to sell them more easily to political consumers: The ‘Patriot’ Act, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act. The media passively run these commercials as ‘news’. Some media like Fox News have become nothing more than ad agencies for their favourite companies’ ‘products’. Nike recently won the legal right to lie to its customers about its suppliers’ sweatshop practices, because the courts don’t see such lies as any different from the lies that politicians tell with impunity to hawk their wares. And in the commercial world, the end always justifies the means — if coercion or deception or pandering or sex sells the product, forget your scruples, blow the whole arsenal and win at any cost. Modern North American politics now mimics this same utter lack of ethics. Not only is this an insult to the body politic, to the informed citizen, it threatens to degenerate into the ultimate result of the blurring of politics and commercialism — corporatism, or, as it later came to be known, fascism.

2. The Power of Nightmares: Fear works: A series last year by the BBC demonstrated that by instilling fear in people, you can convince them to do, or agree to, anything. Fear has often been the lever of power in our past — racism and the anti-communist hysteria for example, but in 2004 we began to see fear used routinely, deliberately and cynically to motivate citizens to do what was clearly not in their best interest. In both the American and Canadian elections in 2004, most citizens candidly acknowledged that they had voted against what they feared (homosexual rights in the US, and US-style conservatism in Canada). Fear breeds best among the ignorant, so fear campaigns deliberately mis-inform. That’s what brought enough people out to the polls to decide the result in both countries. Now the fear-mongers are telling Americans their Social Security system is on the verge of collapse. The straw man, not the issues, has become what most of political discourse is about.

3. The End of Democracy in America: For the second time in a row, Americans had to acknowledge that their political system was incapable of reliably reflecting the voters’ choice. After the debacle in 2000, not only did those in power not fix this utterly broken system, they deliberately made it worse by introducing electronic voting equipment with no audit trail, so a repeat was assured in 2004. Not only is the electoral equipment incapable of identifying the winner accurately, but because of the anti-democratic process of gerrymandering (or as it is euphemistically called, ‘redistricting’), election or re-election was guaranteed for all but a handful of House seats. The media has come to treat riggable election systems and corrupt electoral boundary-setting as non-news, and no longer reports it. The courts, selected by those with a vested interest in ensuring the system remains broken, refuse their duty to recognize the unconstitutionality of these practices. By the dictionary definition, America is therefore no longer a democracy.

4. Why No One Talks About the Real Issues: We are bombarded with mountains of data and information every day, and, except for scholars of current events (and perhaps a million guys in pajamas), we are increasingly convinced that we don’t know enough to understand the critical issues that face our world, and that these critical issues are astonishingly complex, perhaps even unknowable. So it’s not surprising we choose not to talk about them — for fear of sounding stupid, pretentious, or arrogant, and bringing the conversation to a deadly silence. So we have given up trying to talk about these issues: Global warming, globalization, crises in the Third World, species extinction, the End of Oil (and soon, the End of Water). Those in power mostly have a vested interest in keeping the public ignorant about these issues. And the media, who find such issues costly to cover and impossible to reduce to film clips and sound bites, are all too happy to not talk about them either — more space for Michael Jackson’s trial. But there is a reason these million guys in pajamas are reading and writing about these issues, as best they can — because they’re important, and our action or inaction will determine the fate of our world and the legacy we leave future generations. But these million guys are poor and not getting any help, so they’re just talking, earnestly but a bit embarrassed about their amateurishness, to each other. So far.

5. The Seduction of False Comforts: Perhaps as a consequence of (4.) above, and of the learned helplessness that stems from ignorance and reliance on others to take informed action on our behalf, we are discomfited (uneasy, anxious) but also looking for, and prone to accept easily, reassurance. When you feel helpless and overwhelmed, it’s not surprising that you want someone to tell you “everything’s going to be all right”. So when someone comes along with even a vaguely plausible refutation for those who are describing or predicting crisis or catastrophe, we bend over backwards to accept it. We want to believe. Organized religions that offer salvation and Rapture, like the fundamentalist Christian, Jewish and Islamic religions, are hugely popular for precisely this reason. So are those well-funded pundits who deny that anything is wrong with the world, so that their sponsors can go on causing the problems. It has always been so — no one wanted to believe that the Earth was just one planet in an infinite universe, that slaves had real feelings, that women should be able to vote, that Jews were tortured and slaughtered by the Nazis, that children in the Third World are shackled to sewing machines, that global warming threatens the continuation of civilization, that animals in factory farms suffer incredible agony every day of their lives, that 800,000 people in Rwanda would be butchered by countrymen with machetes, that whole tribes are being brutally exterminated in Darfur. Tell us it isn’t so! And there is always someone there to offer that false comfort, so the atrocities continue unabated.

6. The Ignored Threat of Bioterror: Scientists in the past year have shown how easy it is to manufacture and even genetically alter bioweapons so that vaccines don’t work. They have shown that an individual with a bachelor’s degree and a bit of ingenuity can create and even ‘weaponize’ (increase the toxicity, concentration and ease of dispersal of) contagious and horrific diseases — no ‘state sponsorship’ is needed. They have personally passed through dozens of airports with mock-ups of such weapons to prove that all the security measures in the world won’t stop them. And the most notable early trial — the anthrax attack on congressional Democrats — was very successful, with no arrest in sight. And these horrors don’t even need to be perpetrated by man: Nature has already brought us Plague, Smallpox, AIDS, SARS, Mad Cow (transmitted by a prion, a tiny molecular protein that isn’t even alive!), and ‘bird flu’ that threatens to erupt into a global epidemic again even as we speak. Yet politicians are doing nothing to alert us to this danger, the way they did with their calls to seal our homes with duct tape in 2001. The media are silent. It is as if there was a tacit taboo on the subject. Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away.

7. The Tort Reform Fraud: Because of the commercialization of the citizen (1. above) we should probably not be surprised that the war between corporations and consumers (most manifest in the attempt to stop file-sharing) should expand into a war between politicians (the corporatists’ handmaidens) and citizens. This is now happening under the fraudulent label of ‘tort reform’. The excuse, which is about as lame and transparent as those of the Third Reich, is that ‘frivolous’ lawsuits by citizens against fine upstanding corporations are (a) driving these good corporations out of business, and (b) driving up the price of goods and services. Never mind that the vast majority of lawsuits are initiated by corporations against other corporations, and by corporations against individuals. Never mind that most individual and class actions against corporations wither in the face of threats of counter-suits by armies of well-paid corporate lawyers. The real agenda is to protect corporate profits, however egregiously obtained, from being accessed by the victims of corporate misconduct — negligence, fraud, pollution, and other socially and environmentally irresponsible behaviour. The politicians have now been enlisted, in return for the corporations’ generous campaign contributions, to indemnify the corporations from legal responsibility for their acts, by restricting or prohibiting the right to sue — eliminating the only right, the only recourse citizens have against corporate excess. And it’s going ahead almost without opposition, the ultimate consequence of allowing corporations to buy politicians with campaign donations — and write off the cost as a tax deduction.

8. Playing Into Bin Laden’s Hands: Conspiracy theorists need to be excused for wondering if the neocons are in cahoots with Al Qaeda, so well has all the American reaction to 9/11 contributed to Bin Laden’s goals. Bush continues to spout, probably disingenuously, nonsense about fighting ‘evil’ and spreading freedom and democracy, while everything he does plays powerfully and directly into Bin Laden’s hands. In case anyone is unclear (i.e. hasn’t listened to Bin Laden’s taped messages), the objective of Bin Laden is to radicalize and unite all Islam peoples into a single, devout nation. Nothing accomplishes this more than massive and unprovoked attacks on Islamic countries, the torture and humiliation of Islamic prisoners, the slaughter of Islamic civilians, and the Crusade rhetoric of the US Christian fundamentalist religious right. And the best way for that united Islamic nation to stave off attacks from the US is to bankrupt it, by provoking trillion dollar defensive expenditures in response to isolated Mickey Mouse attacks, and by provoking trillion dollar wars against secular leaders in Islamic nations that will be seen in other Islamic nations as unprovoked attacks on Islam. As Doug Muder said in his wonderful essay on terrorism: “So President Bush is keeping us safe in the following perverse manner: By following Bin Laden’s script so perfectly up to this point, Bush has made another attack unnecessary. Since the purpose of 9/11 was to rile us up, Al Qaeda need not hit us again as long as we stay riled.” What he needs now is for Bush to invade Syria or Iran, to sustain the impression that America plans to destroy and annex all Islam nations. Bush doesn’t look likely to disappoint.

Ideas 9 and 10 need some more time to ferment, in my own mind and in the light of current events. I’ll be writing about them soon. But just as a teaser, they are:

9. The Label Becomes More Important than the Substance (think ‘Right to Choose’ vs ‘Right to Life’ labeling applied to every aspect of current political and social discourse, going beyond Lakoff’s frames to their manifestation in language).

10. The Media Shed the Pretense of Objectivity (even when they try to be ‘fair and balanced’, what they don’t say betrays their bias).

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5 Responses to The 10 Most Important Ideas of 2004: Politics and Society

  1. Ken Hirsch says:

    “… most citizens candidly acknowledged that they had voted against what they feared (homosexual rights in the US, and US-style conservatism in Canada).”Uh, no, you’re just making stuff up again. Check out the actual exit polls. 60% of voters favored either civil unions or legal marriage for same-sex couples.

  2. Riggsveda says:

    Really fine insights and ideas, and plenty worth re-visiting in the future. Thank you.

  3. Dan Parks says:

    So you all say you believe in law and justice, you say are civilized people too, some say they believe in Jesus others Allah, God and still others say they believe in Buddha, there are others but these are the main players. You say you believe law, what law is it that any of you believe in? The Constitution of the United States, the Law of God as it is called, the Law of Allah, Allah said accept all people, what about Buddha as you call Gautama what did he say, accept people too. You believe in law you all say; your actions prove you don

  4. Dan Parks says:

    So you all say you believe in law and justice, you say are civilized people too, some say they believe in Jesus others Allah, God and still others say they believe in Buddha, there are others but these are the main players. You say you believe law, what law is it that any of you believe in? The Constitution of the United States, the Law of God as it is called, the Law of Allah, Allah said accept all people, what about Buddha as you call Gautama what did he say, accept people too. You believe in law you all say; your actions prove you don

  5. It stirs me to see that your list of ideas persists to apply in an ever changing world.In a song by Sinead O’Connor it says: “All I want to do is just sit here / And write it all down and rest for a while”. I am glad you did.

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