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Talking English
Can we really blame the people of the world if they're a little disgusted at the large gap between US practice and slogans when it comes to democracy and rule of law?

February 19, 2004

I was stuck in a cab in an English-speaking African nation when I noticed that the cabbie, an older gentleman with graying hair, was following the news of the war quite carefully on his car radio while murmuring and chortling in disbelief at the latest announcements by President Bush. He abruptly turned around to face me while he waged his finger at the radio and exclaimed, "This man! He is just talking English!"

Not knowing what the expression meant and not wanted to offend the guy, I just smiled at him and nodded in vague approval. The cabbie turned around in a huff, changed the radio station, and didn't seem to be in a good mood after that.

Later that evening when I was having dinner with my hosts and some of their guests, I asked them what "talking English" meant. The locals at the table seemed initially shocked to hear the expression, and then they all laughed. Talking English, my host said, means proclaiming to uphold high moral or legal standards as a cover for lying and cheating.

The expression was the result of the African experience as a British colony: the natives noticed that the British officials and judges would proclaim to be acting according to high concepts of law and morality which they used as a pretext to rob and pillage the natives. So the natives concluded that their colonizers were hypocrites and not really there to "uplift" or " civilize" them as they claimed. And when the natives figured that out, the British Empire was essentially dead because there was no way that a bunch of pale skinny guys with names like Nathaniel and Herbert were going to hold a few million Indians and Africans and Asians in bondage by force.

But unfortunately, by the time the colonizers left, they had also managed to sully the legal and moral principles that they had hid behind, and so the natives concluded that concepts such as freedom, rule of law and human rights were also just "talking English". And who can blame them?

Until recently, this story was just a little amusing memory that I kept stored away. But then I read Mr Hoveyda's article about how the "European Quartet" have secretly conspired to keep the IRI in power - after all, what else could explain the fact that the IRI hadn't fallen after 25 years? [See: "A mystery unravelled"]

Of course, I find the persistence of the Uncle Napoleon complex amusing, and I can think of several more ordinary reasons why the IRI hasn't fallen, namely the absence of a viable opposition (can you say "President-for-Life Comrade Rajavi"? How about "His Royal Majesty, King of Kings and Light of the Aryans, Reza Pahlavi II"?) While I can safely dismiss such conspiracy fantasies, there was something else in Mr Hoveyda's article that got me thinking, having just read Fareed Zakaria's work on the rise of "Illiberal Democracies".

So here's the scary thought: What if the Iranians (or many others) have had a good look at American-style democracy thanks to the Internet and cable TV, and what if they've decided that they'd rather not have any, thanks anyway? What if that is a reason why the IRI has not fallen? Not just because there is no viable opposition leader, and not because the people are particularly enamoured by the IRI, but because they've decided that democracy-in-practice (as opposed to democracy-in-theory, seen only in introductory poli-sci books, VOA broadcasts and State Department brochures) is not really as desirable an alternative system of goverment as Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz would like it to be?

Can we really blame the people of the world if they're a little disgusted at the large gap between US practice and slogans when it comes to democracy and rule of law? After all, let's take a cold hard look at the realities: Despite the talk about social justice and the scourge of corruption or elite favoritism, the US has the largest economic and social chasm between the rich and poor in the industrial world. America also has the largest population of prisoners in the world - an alternative program to pacify the poor. And you can be darned sure that money buys power and influence in the USA just as in any other country. In addition, democracy presumes that the people are informed, capable of rational deliberation on matters of government, and that their opinions matter to the government officials. However, in reality we all know none of that is actually true.

Study after study - as well as our own personal experiences as Iranians in this country - has shown that Americans are practically completely ignorant of world affairs; many can't find the Northern Hemisphere on a map, they barely have a 20-minute attention span, they hardly know who their Congressmen are, and they are far more knowledgable about Madonna's sex life than politics.

Who can blame them? Politics is so boring, difficult to grasp and requires making unpleasant choices most people would rather not know about. Is it any wonder that the people care much more about Janet Jackson's right tit than about tax policy or NAFTA?

And what can they do about it anyway? There is a government in the United States - land of the free, home of the brave - that blatantly lied to the people about Weapons of Mass Destruction to justify a war, and violated every norm of international law by invading and occupying another country & toppling a mass murder that they had themselves once supported - and nothing happened. Zip. Nada.

The few people who cared were ignored and the rest are too busy trying to pay off their credit cards which they used to chase down the latest carrot dangled in front of them. And its not like this sort of thing hasn't happened before - go look up the sinking of the Maine, the Tonkin Incident, or the Pueblo Incident in history books to see other fake pretexts for war that were fed to the people - and the people ate it all up thanks to the servile US media. A blow-job in the White House - that's cause for indignation because some fat ugly dope-fiend talk show host says so - war and illegal occupation is not.

In fact, the same people's official representatives, a.k.a. the Congress, simply decided to hand the legal power to declare war to the President instead of exercising any independent judgment, and they're now trying to cover-up for the President by claiming that the WMD phantasm was just the result of an "error" in intelligence and not a lie at all. How many editorials have you read recently that basically say "Lie? What lie? Who lied? Us? Naw! It was just an intelligence error!"

And its not just the recent war either. Look at the presidential election show that's going on: on the Right we have a neatly coiffed white male wealthy politician supported by massive contributions from large and powerful corporations, and on the Left we have another neatly coiffed white male wealthy politician supported by massive contributions by large and powerful corporations, and in between them we have a TV anchorman - white, neatly coiffed - who asks carefully selected questions about "the issues" as defined by other White neatly coiffed men... nothing that's going to actually embarass any corporate-paid lobbyists, oh no ... and let's not forget the armies of neatly coiffed "campaign strategists" who basically are hired as professional liars to say and do anything it takes to win. Heck they actually obtained degrees in misleading the public and have turned this into a well-paid profession called Public Relations - which was also invented in the US of A too.

Oh, and just in case there are any other potential Presidential candidates out there that don't fit the mold, the same corporations that own the candidates will make darned sure that no American ever sees or hears about any of them (unless they too happen to be white, wealthy and neatly coiffed - like Ross Perot) because the same corporations happen to also own practically every television and radio station in the USA too. Can YOU name a third-party candidate from the last election other than Gore or Bush? I didn't think so. And you won't this coming election year either.

So, this is a Democracy that Mills or Toqueville would recognize and be proud of? I don't think so. So why should any third worlder believe it? Like I said, more and more of the people of the world have cable TV and Internet accces. They may be poor, but they aren't stupid, just as the guys in the African nation I visited weren't stupid. They can tell when someone's lying to them. So here's the scary part: what if they take a nice long look at American politics and Bush, and conclude that Democracy is just "Talking English" too? That scares me. It would be the end of Democracy as a concept (after just 100 years of practice) as well as the end of the brief American Empire, because a couple of guys named Dick and George aren't going to be able to keep the rest of the world in line for long.

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By John Mohammadi


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