From Liberty Street: Lincoln's Promise
We need, now and again, to revisit Mr. Lincoln's assurances about fooling the people to see how well his wisdom holds up under current conditions. Though it's still true that you can't fool all the people all the time, I don't think Lincoln said so merely as a truism. He meant it as a provision that the portion of the people who weren't fooled would over time inform a majority about what was really going on and thus restore the body politic to relatively good health.
It's the ability of the unfooled to speak to the fooled that seems to have declined since Lincoln's time. There are multiple reasons for the withering of productive discussion but clearly the most potent factor is the methodology available now to those who are trying to keep people in a state of deception. Not only are the manipulators in command of sophisticated communications technology. They can also employ modern psychology to reconstruct personal self-image. We are approaching a condition in which many people have no sense of who they are other than what's handed to them by the forces seeking their compliance. In such a situation it becomes difficult to know what democracy actually is.
George Bush, for example, in carefully scripted messages, regularly tells the people that democracy and freedom are synonymous with corporate oligarchy. It's impossible to know what portion of the electorate have an alternative version to put in place of the president's skewed projection. Even if they find Mr. Bush's definition bothersome, they may not be able to conceive of one more to their liking. We must acknowledge that the average American is not a creative political philosopher. Perhaps the people don't want to be fooled, but they may not at the moment have strong enough mental resources to seize control of their own minds.
The most hopeful sign lately that the portion not fooled can become a majority has been public response to the new Medicare drug benefit. It seems clear that most people view the law as a give away to drug and insurance companies, carrying with it only enough public advantage to provide a semblance of cover. Even so, it's unclear whether blatant public gouging of this order will change many votes. Many people are so cynical as to believe that any party in power would be as bad as the Republicans are now. To escape being fooled in this manner has the same effect as being gulled absolutely. In either case, the citizen is left impotent. Until the public realizes that whoever votes for such a law, whatever his or her motive, should be turned out of office, legislation of this stripe will continue to roll out of Congress.
If we want to re-empower Lincoln's promise about what a non-fooled minority can accomplish we must have a new model of public service which will demand that any government action has to benefit people who truly need the service provided -- whether or not they make up a majority -- and must not severely harm any other portion of the population.
We'll have to make allowance for varying judgments about the meaning of "harm" and "benefit." There will never be perfect agreement about them. But there's ample possibility for disagreement which can still credit the opposition with reasonable sense and honorable motive.
Some boundaries, however, do have to be established. There are actions either so stupid or so corrupt they cannot be forgiven.
The obvious example from recent history is support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Any national legislator who went along with it was impossibly gullible, or miserably weak or dishonest about his intentions. And any one of these faults deserves loss of the public's confidence. In a matter so serious that tens of thousands of lives are destroyed being wrong cannot be offset by being right on other issues. There is no adequate excuse for having failed this test.
That seems to be the message being delivered to Joseph Lieberman by the voters of Connecticut. The same message ought to be delivered by voters all across the nation to every candidate who might influence our country's relations with other nations.
Part of refusing to be fooled is getting rid of the notion that anyone has the right to public office. Honorable service in the past deserves gratitude for that service, and nothing else. It cannot excuse bad service in the present.
The argument will be made that if a legislator actually tried to do nothing other than support the public good he would quickly be turned out of office. He would lose the backing of vested interests and thereby lose the ability to do good upon occasion. That's how the system works we are told, over and again. But that's just the problem. It is how the system works. And the system needs to be changed. It is a system that has been cranking out terrible decisions, and a people who decide not to be fooled any longer would stand up and put another in its place.
Samuel Johnson once said that "if a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree they will rise and cut off his head." The existing system has been our sovereign for too long. It is oppressing us. And if we wish not to be fools, it's time to rise against it.
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