Elayne Clift


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The Delusions of Democracy

Elayne Clift writes about social and political issues from Saxtons River, Vt. USA.

Ever since the coup in Bangkok, my email inbox is fuller than ever.  Having recently returned from living in Thailand for a year, my friends want to know what I think.  “What’s the inside story?” they ask. Those are two separate questions.  

There have been something like 19 coups in Thailand since 1932 when the first constitution was written establishing a fragile constitutional monarchy. Almost all of them have been relatively peaceful and none has resulted in absolute autocracy. The much-revered king has remained on the throne, a kind of moral compass and one-man checks and balance system. Some expatriates living there joke that Thailand has coups there like we have elections. This time no one was particularly surprised; trouble has been brewing for many months because of alleged corruption by the Thaksin government, and the challenge put to him by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.  The wealthy and recalcitrant Thaksin had to go and he wasn’t about to do that on his own. So I wasn’t particularly worried when I heard the news and received reassuring messages from Chiang Mai.

But then I got a message from my friend Laura who described what it felt like to see every street corner peopled by the pro forma military in their hot, heavy garb, guns in hand.  Her description of what they looked like and how they made her feel reminded me of Washington, DC in May of 1968 at the height of America’s civil rights and anti-war movements.  I remember feeling like I was living in a war zone as I crossed Memorial Bridge, lined with rifle-toting soldiers in riot gear.  The threat of doing something wrong inadvertently and getting thrown into a paddy wagon was very real, and very frightening.

Laura reflected on the fragility of democracy everywhere and how due diligence is required now more than ever.  She made me think about China’s Tienamen Square and our own Kent State.  I thought about political prisoners languishing in damp, despicable jails in rogue countries, and in our very own prisons.  I thought once again about the travesty of America -- whose current leader so loves to spout clichés about good and evil -- holding people without charge while they are being water-boarded.  (The current debate on torture should have people in the streets in this country. Where are they?)  I thought about the fact that we went to war in 1991 to help the so-called democracy of Kuwait, where half their citizens, women, cannot vote.  And how we are now mired in another debacle in Iraq in the name of democracy.  How grand our delusions are. Then I thought about the election stolen from Al Gore and about the growing concern over voting machines, which Princeton University researchers have now found to be so vulnerable to tampering.  

On top of that, Laura shared a chilling email she’d received from a friend in England.  Here, in part, is what it said:  “A walk through London is most revealing. There are heavily armed police carrying automatic weapons in most every major train station, allegedly to make us ‘feel safer.’  I do not feel ‘secure’ knowing I could be the next innocent person who is ‘accidentally shot’ due to ‘suspicious behavior.’  Due process has been ruled illegal.  For the first time since the English Civil War, it is now legal for the government to detain you, without charge, for 90 days.  Big Brother is everywhere.  The average Londoner is now photographed an average of 600 times per day by hidden cameras.  The newest ones include loudspeakers [that say things like] ‘please dismount your bike.’  Orwell was prescient.”

Now more than ever, and especially during this election year here in the U.S., we need to wake up to the reality of a potentially disastrous erosion of democracy and civil liberties.  We need to take with the utmost seriousness an increasingly censored and propagandized press, encroaching fundamentalism, and declining participation in public discourse.  

George Bernard Shaw once said that “democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.”  I worry now that he may have got it wrong.  I think we are being governed by the incompetent few who corrupt many of us with a script that is scary and based on anything but democratic ideals.