Edward Said (fwd)

jenyan1 jenyan1 at SPAMuic.edu
Sun Dec 24 15:56:27 MST 2000


                                               Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
 [Al-Ahram Weekly On-line]                     21 - 27 December 2000
                                               Issue No.513
 Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in Current issue | Previous
 1875                                          issue | Site map
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     American elections: System or farce?

     By Edward Said

                     For over a month, the entire world has been
                     transfixed by the spectacle of an unresolved US
     presidential election, as George Bush and Al Gore employed
     battalions of lawyers to fight out a very close election in the
     Florida and US Supreme courts. What first emerged from the sound
     and fury of the struggle (awarded finally to Bush by a very
     right-wing Supreme Court) is that the US is less a society of laws
     than it is a society of lawyers. This is the most litigious
     country on earth, where if you have enough money and power you can
     do virtually anything, even win an election when it is clear that
     you have lost it. Over $3 billion were spent on the campaign,
     enough to rebuild and run an entire school system in a medium
     sized American town.

     What was at stake, as Ralph Nader pointed out in his finally
     disappointing campaign, was a system of spoils and patronage. For
     each of the two candidates, one the son of a former president, the
     other the son of a former senator, the prospect of the presidency
     was mainly about power, power that could keep literally thousands,
     perhaps even millions of people, prosperous as appointees,
     employees, lobbyists, as well as millions more in industry, the
     military, the bureaucracy, and the universities, all of whom would
     benefit in one case, lose out relatively speaking in the other.
     Thus with the change to a Republican administration in Washington
     there will be a return to the city of the old Reagan and Bush
     crowd, led by Dick Cheney and James Baker, who seem as if they
     have only been biding the time and playing golf while Bill Clinton
     and his crowd were running the world. The transfer in sheer wealth
     and prestige should not be underestimated.

     But to return to the law and lawyers: after years of sending US
     observers to supervise Third World elections on the assumption
     that America leads the world in democratic process, I am surprised
     that the Congo's Kabila and Uganda's Mugabe didn't make the
     suggestion that some of their people be sent to the US to survey
     and help to manipulate our elections here. What was revealed in
     the unendingly broadcast news from Florida was that US elections
     are a frighteningly antiquated, inequitable and undemocratic
     hodge-podge of rules and regulations designed to keep out the poor
     and disadvantaged in maximum numbers. More important, the American
     ideological system -- which came dangerously close to breaking
     down completely -- once again saved the day, papering over and
     then removing from awareness the fundamentally jungle-like
     struggle of all against all that is the underlying reality when it
     comes to the power and money of the ultimate prize.

     And Florida's inequities were only Florida's. Had the recounts
     begun in Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Maryland, the whole
     edifice might indeed have crumbled, revealing it to be a very
     poorly held together paper castle designed, in the final analysis,
     to keep people from thinking too deeply and too critically. What
     does it mean, therefore, for one candidate to have won the popular
     vote, and the other to have won the election as the result of a
     decision by a nine-member Supreme Court staffed by five right-wing
     republicans voting in favour of their party, with the other four
     of them mounting a lustreless defence of principle and equity?
     That certainly cannot be called democracy. Nor is this all. What I
     had never known concretely before was that there is no uniform
     federal election code that guarantees the same rights and the same
     voting apparatus to each citizen. In Florida, for instance, the
     state has ruled that no one who was ever charged with a felony is
     allowed to vote. This means that about half a million people, most
     of them poor and black, were denied the right to vote for the
     president. In addition, each county in the state has its own kind
     of voting machine and style of voting: this runs the gamut from
     sophisticated machines to primitive, hand-manipulated pieces of
     paper. Discrepancies of every kind are therefore certain.

     Plus one more thing. Particularly in southern states, where the
     federal civil rights and voting statutes are not well-enforced,
     there were many reports of blacks (families or individuals) who
     were prevented from voting by white policemen. All sorts of
     trumped-up charges were manufactured against them, from driving
     without a valid licence to failure to register. Since the
     Democratic party attracts the vote of indigent and/or minority
     voters who are under the impression that the Democrats are more
     progressive than Republicans, this meant that Gore lost large
     numbers of prospective voters to Bush. This in addition to the
     90,000 people in Florida who had voted for Ralph Nader.

     As if this isn't enough to make clear that George Bush had
     absolutely no real chance of becoming president except as a result
     of the physical and political irregularities of the election as
     administered in one very unprogressive state, Florida, whose
     governor is Jeb Bush, George's brother, there is also the
     undemocratic electoral system which is a legacy of oligarchy and
     slavery. How it has endured for so long is inexplicable. The
     system was originally designed in the 18th century to protect
     property and race, so that a popular election might take place,
     only to be reratified (or not) by a small group of designated
     electors who would be seen as confirming (or not) the election
     results. It is this group that Bush gained to his advantage, even
     though the popular vote (one person-one vote) had gone against
     him.

     Is this unusual? Yes and no. It is true that only one other
     election in American history made it possible for someone to lose
     the popular vote and another to become president, but it is also
     true that the whole system functions essentially as a system of
     control rather than of democratic participation. We shall never
     know how many abuses took place in the past. Two per cent of the
     US population owns 80 per cent of the wealth, and to continue
     maintaining this disproportionality, the majority has either to be
     kept under control ideologically or kept out of the system,
     preferably both. No more than about 35-40 per cent of eligible
     citizens vote, because the remainder sense, correctly, that their
     vote does not mean what it should. What counts is that wealthy
     candidates can manipulate both the mechanisms of voting and/or the
     media (preferably both) and guarantee the absence of change that
     has kept the US a country of the very rich supported by a middle
     class that aspires, or believes that it can aspire, to the
     American "dream." And it is the survival of this dream with its
     underlying belief in the need to perpetuate the system that has
     kept this country so extraordinarily anachronistic by comparison
     with other industrial democracies. No wonder then that the US has
     effectively dismantled most of the attributes of the welfare state
     (absence of health insurance, social security and labour unions
     under constant attack, badly funded educational system, unceasing
     complaints about "government spending" on welfare even as the
     defence budget has exceeded $350 billion, the largest ever in
     history, extraordinarily punitive prison and police systems). The
     market rules over everything without regard for the justice and
     security to which each citizen should be entitled.

     I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that everyone in the
     US is brainwashed. Far from it. What I do want to point out is
     that a) the system favours the rich and powerful (one of the
     reasons why Bush won was that he spent far more money than
     anyone), and in effect works to preserve their ascendancy through
     a multiplicity of means, including the electoral and ideological
     systems, at the same time that the whole world is filled with the
     rhetoric of American democracy and freedom, most of it
     misleadingly propagandistic; and b) that in reality there is a
     constant struggle in America which the disadvantaged, including
     women, racial minorities, and underpaid workers like teachers and
     nurses, try to wage against the system, with varying degrees of
     success, but which at present is mostly a discouraging struggle as
     the effects of the "free" market undermine labour in favour of the
     largest employers who are coddled by the government through
     favourable tax laws, loopholes in social security payments, and
     unfair labour practices.

     To me, the ideological system is the most interesting case of all.
     Not having come to this country until most of my secondary
     schooling was over I was first struck and have continued to be
     fascinated by how the powerful presence of violence and conflict
     in this society is routinely masked and covered up with a more
     overwhelming rhetoric and unending stream of pacifying thought,
     stressing the country's unity, the perfection in it of democratic
     practice and theory, the animating and always benign influence of
     the Constitution (which although a secular document reflecting the
     wealthy, white, slaveholding, Anglophilic men who wrote it, is
     treated with the reverence accorded to scripture by any good
     fundamentalist anywhere), the completed fulfillment of public
     idealism, and the utter benignity of everything about America,
     always the most exceptional country that ever existed. I suspect
     that all this is ingrained in school children, so that by the age
     of 12 or 13 -- barring the birth of a critical sense in the
     individual -- most mature Americans tend to believe all this, or
     at least have little opportunity in the public domain to voice
     different sentiments.

     Certainly it is absolutely true that in the mainstream, discourse
     is heavily policed: alternative or radical or dissenting voices
     are either kept out completely or sent to the margins where they
     have no chance at all of gaining acceptance. So it was with the
     elections during the past month. No sooner did the Supreme Court
     make its scandalous decision than the commentators began to put
     the spin out that American democracy has been restored, national
     unity established, and so on and on ad nauseam. As if the flaws in
     the system were forgettable accidents, and therefore not worth
     dwelling on.

     And this brings me to my final point, which is the contempt for
     history and for rational understanding that underlies the
     ideological chorus in everyone of its individual manifestations.
     The subtle question is whether the willing manufacture of consent
     is worse or better than censorship by coercion. Back of the
     purification of reality that ideological consent requires is the
     idea that knowledge of history, the critical history that
     articulates the whole truth and violence of American politics, is
     to be opposed at all costs as basically disrupting what Foucault
     and others have called governability. The moment a large number of
     people challenge not just aspects of the system like the
     presidential elections but the whole thing, a red light goes on in
     the board rooms of America where the real decisions are made.

     Remember that CNN, Time Warner, Disney, NBC, Sky News and the rest
     are part of the same ideological system, serve the same clientele,
     and are owned by the same relatively tiny group of people whose
     interest is to keep things as they are. Memory is an inhibition, a
     possible threat to their hegemony, just as it is very dangerous
     for a critic to keep making connections between supposedly un- or
     non-political institutions like the Supreme Court and the
     Constitution, and on the other hand, base commercial interests. It
     can't have been a mere accident that the main Supreme Court judge,
     Justice Antonin Scalia, is a well-known right-wing Republican who
     wrote the majority opinion in favour of George Bush (and hence
     against a complete recount) and who also has two sons working as
     lawyers in the very same law firm that represented Bush. Or that
     Justice Clarence Thomas, also part of the conservative majority
     for Bush on the Court, has a wife who worked for the right-wing
     Washington think-tank doing studies of people who were being
     considered for the Bush cabinet. Or to go from there to Chief
     Justice Rehnquist, also a Bush supporter, who was once a
     well-known election officer blocking possible antagonists from
     voting during the election of 1964 in Arizona, one can immediately
     see that the system is to be kept functioning no matter how
     difficult the task or numerous the obstacles. Whether Gore would
     have been a better president than Bush is a question to be
     answered with these constants in mind. For those who voted for
     Nader, they believe that only an outsider to the system, a
     candidate who spoke about making real democracy the issue, would
     have made a genuine difference.

     Related stories:
     The US elections and the Middle east
     In the end 14 - 20 December 2000
     Desperate measures 7 -13 December 2000
     Keeping the populace entertained 7 -13 December 2000
     All hat and no cattle 30 Nov. - 6 Dec. 2000
     Bushestan defeats Gorestan 30 Nov. - 6 Dec. 2000
     The Florida fiasco 23 - 29 November 2000
     The Undecided States of America 23 - 29 November 2000
     Democracy laid bare 16 - 22 November 2000

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