Published on
the Portland Press Herald (Maine)

America's Claim to Be Real Democracy for All Is Doubtful

Leigh Donaldson

It's difficult to attend any social function these days where the conversation doesn't lead to an unhappy tug-of-war over the social, economic and political problems our country faces.

A lot of our woes hinge on corporate scandal, economic disparity and an administration gone amok.

It's important to point out here that after the American Revolution, our founders laid the foundation for this democratic state, but the original Constitution didn't include the Bill of Rights and other amendments we now enjoy.

Written by white owning-class males, the original document not only allowed slavery and prevented women from voting, but institutionalized rights primarily for its authors.

This country didn't exactly start off as a perfect democracy and that it has taken ongoing popular struggles to ensure equality of rights.

Maybe one of the few upsides of the Bush administration is that they have made it abundantly clear that our democratic system is flawed and vulnerable to manipulation. For the record, let's go over just a few of the current attacks on our democratic society.

We've got the tax breaks for the rich, the massive cutting of government social programs, and the promotion of global trade agreements that result in the outsourcing of well-paying jobs to countries where workers get paid peanuts and wouldn't recognize a human right if it fell into their laps.

The unchecked use of violence throughout the world to gain economic and political dominance is the sad icing on the cake when it comes to our abuse of power.

I am not completely disheartened, though.

The global justice movement, as it is called, was in full swing in February 2003, when between 10 million to 30 million people worldwide demonstrated against the war in Iraq.

Yes, the war is still going on, but what we witnessed here was global organization and cooperation against domination and violence so deeply embedded in our culture and institutions.

During my lifetime, I've been led to believe that we had to choose between two types of societies: a cutthroat capitalistic system based on individualism or a communist/socialist system based on collectivism.

In the former, community concerns often take a back seat, in the latter, individual interests lose out. But a healthy alternative might be one that balances both individual and collective needs. Is that asking too much? Perhaps.

For example, take the global financial market system, if you can get your head around it.

In a recent interview with The Sun, David Korten, author of "The Great Turning Point: From Empire to Earth Community," states: "Part of what is so pernicious about publicly traded corporations is that their only real accountability is to impersonal financial markets for which the only measurement that matters is instant profits.... Human and environmental costs are totally ignored, as is any other long-term consideration."

Add to this the reality that antitrust laws, designed to prevent consolidation of corporate power, are also readily ignored.

The problem is straightforward. Greedy, mercenary behavior is richly rewarded. On the corporate level, criminals are rarely punished to the full extent of the law.

Korten suggests that even our university's economics departments' research and teaching "are grounded in the premise that humans evaluate every decision solely in terms of financial gain," thereby establishing that "unmitigated greed is the defining characteristic of humanity."

The world is, of course, full of good, well-meaning people, but all of us are subject to the manipulation of advertisers, political tyrants, religious zealots or economists telling us even on public radio stations the justifications behind worldwide avarice.

In his book, "Deep Economy," Bill McKibben lists the huge misallocation of resources in every sector of society and adds, "Too much of our wealth goes to maintaining the systems of domination and providing obscene luxuries for a tiny percentage of the population."

Let's face it, we're all, almost from birth, conditioned to buy things and aspire to attain wealth and power. Juliet Schor, author of "Born to Buy," found that the average kindergartner can identify more than 300 corporate logos.

Consumption equals happiness and money is more important than life itself.

It doesn't have to be like this. But first we must face some hard truths about our way of life. We have never been a true democracy.

Before we can set a positive example in our foreign policy and to ourselves, we must recognize that our country has too often used military force to control resources and territories, rarely to anyone else's advantage but our own.

Then and only then will we ready for change that places community above commerce.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer. He can be contacted at:

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