The American paradox: More freedom, less democracy

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · October, 2002

[A version of this article appeared in the journal Global Dialogue, 4:2 (Spring 2002), pp. 47-58.]

Since September 11, I have been speaking freely in the United States, a nation whose institutions have many democratic features. My free speech, which has been harshly critical of the leaders of the United States and their policies, has been disseminated widely through print publications, web sites, email, radio, and television. Most of the exposure has been in the alternative media, but I also have appeared in a few mainstream channels as well. Extrapolating from the approximately 4,000 email messages, letters, and phone calls I received in the three months after September 11 as a result of this free speech, it is reasonable to assume that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people heard my ideas.

So, while it is true that as a political dissident I have no chance at the access to mainstream channels that “reputable” commentators can expect when they repeat the conventional wisdom, my voice did get amplified by the combination of: new technologies that are relatively open and have not been completely commercialized; a limited but active and committed alternative press; marginal openings in the commercial-corporate media for dissidents who have some claim to “credibility” and can provide the appearance of balance; and the ease with which foreign publications and web sites could pick up my work (I am aware of translations of my work after 9/11 into Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Polish, and Swahili). I have been writing in public as a journalist or scholar since my junior year in high school, and in the last three months of 2001 my work may well have reached more people than the total of the preceding 27 years. This suggests a society that takes seriously the concept of free speech.

Yet after this experience, it has never seemed clearer to me that free speech is fragile and democracy is in danger of disappearing in the United States. This claim rests on two assertions:

1. Meaningful free speech is about more than the guarantee of a legal right to speak freely and the absence of governmental repression.

2. Meaningful democracy is about more than the existence of institutions that have democratic features.

To talk about the state of intellectual and political culture in the United States after September 11, I want to go back to the early 20th century and the life of one of my favorite radical Americans, Scott Nearing.

A radically good life

Nearing contended that three principles guided his life as a teacher, writer, and political activist: the quest “to learn the truth, to teach the truth, and to help build the truth into the life of the community.” Nearing began his teaching career in 1906 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he was a popular teacher, author of widely used economic textbooks, and well-known speaker on the lecture circuit. He was on his way to what looked like a successful academic career, if not for one problem. He took seriously those three principles, and from them he formulated a simple guide to action: “If there was exploitation and corruption in the society I should speak out against it.”[1]

That’s when the trouble started.

By 1915 Nearing had been fired by the Penn trustees. They gave no reason publicly, but there’s little doubt that his socialist views and participation in the movement to end child labor played a role. Many faculty members, including some who disagreed sharply with his politics, rallied to his defense, but to no avail. Rumors of a demand made by legislators of the university’s trustees — fire Nearing or lose a key appropriation — were never definitively proved but whatever the trustees’ reasons, arguments about academic freedom made by faculty did not save Nearing’s job. So Nearing moved on to the University of Toledo, a public university with a broader sense of its social mission. There he quickly became an integral part of the university and community — until 1917, when he was again fired, this time for his antiwar activity.

Nearing lost his job but not his voice, and he continued his writing and political activity, including an antiwar pamphlet titled, “The Great Madness: A Victory for American Plutocracy.” That landed him in federal court, one of the hundreds of political dissidents tried in the World War I era under the draconian Espionage Act. Charged in 1918 with attempting to cause insubordination and mutiny and obstructing recruiting, Nearing went to trial in February 1919 expecting to be convicted and ready to go to prison; sentences of five or 10 years were common at the time. But he was determined to use his trial as a platform to explain his antiwar and socialist views, which he did with his usual clarity and bluntness (often, by his account, frustrating his own attorney’s objections to inappropriate questions by prosecutors). His arguments from the witness stand apparently affected the jury; Nearing was found not guilty for writing the pamphlet, although the Rand School was convicted for publishing it and fined $3,000. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld what Nearing called a “unique decision.”[2]

Nearing remained a popular lecturer, filling halls as large as Madison Square Garden for solo lectures and debates with Clarence Darrow and other well-known political figures, until promoters would no longer book radical speakers. When shut out of lecture halls, Nearing moved to smaller venues, down to and including the living rooms of other radicals. He continued to write books and pamphlets, many based on his extensive travels around the world, focusing on both the corrupt nature of capitalism and imperialism, and the possibilities for a socialist future. In 1932 he turned his back on the modern economy and began a half-century of successful homesteading with his wife, Helen, first in Vermont and then in Maine.

After 1917 Nearing never held a university position and was blacklisted by mainstream publishers. But he continued his writing, speaking, and activism until he died at the age of 100 in 1983. He went to his grave unwavering in his commitment to his three principles and clear that his adherence to those principles had allowed him to live what he called simply “a good life.”[3]

The expansion of free speech and the contraction of democracy

I tell Nearing’s story in short form here for comparison to the contemporary political landscape. It is vital to understand both the ways in which formal guarantees of freedom of speech and inquiry have expanded in this culture in the 20th century and, at the same time, the ways in which American democracy has atrophied. Since Nearing was fired and hauled into court, legal protections for freedom of expression have expanded and the culture’s commitment to free speech has become more entrenched, which is all to the good. But at the same time, the United States today is a far less vibrant political culture than it was then. This is the paradox to come to terms with: How is it that as formal freedoms that allow democratic participation have expanded, the range and importance of debate and discussion that is essential to democracy has contracted? How is it that in the United States we have arguably the most expansive free speech rights in the industrial world and at the same time an incredibly degraded political culture? How did political freedom produce such a depoliticized culture?

First, the expansion of formal freedoms. On this front, the progress is clear. During World War I, Nearing was only one of about 2,000 people prosecuted under the Espionage act of 1917, which was amended with even harsher provisions in 1918 by what came to be known as the Sedition Act. Hundreds went to prison. The war-related suppression of expression also was merely one component of a wave of repression — which included not only prison terms but also harassment, deportation, and both state and private violence — that smashed the American labor movement and crushed radical politics. At that point in U.S. history it is fair to say that freedom of speech literally did not exist. There was no guarantee of public use of public space (such as streets or parks) for expression, and criticism of the government was routinely punished. In one of the most famous, and outrageous, cases of Nearing’s time, labor leader and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs was forced to run his fifth and final campaign for president from a federal prison cell after he was sentenced to 10 years under the Espionage Act. His crime was giving a speech which pointed out, among other things, that rich men start wars and poor men fight them.[4]

The struggle to expand the scope of freedom of expression progressed through the century, although not without setbacks. Similar harshly repressive reactions surfaced again after World War II in the 20th century’s second major Red Scare. The Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of political discourse in what became known as the Communist conspiracy cases prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940.[5] The law made it a crime to discuss the “duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government,” an odd statute in a country created by a revolution against the legal government of that day. It was not until 1957 that the Supreme Court reversed the trend in those cases, overturning convictions under the Act.[6] The 1960s and ’70s brought more cases that continued to make more tangible the promise of the First Amendment, including landmark decisions that made it virtually impossible for public officials to use civil libel law to punish sedition[7] and established that government could not punish incendiary speech unless it rose to the level of “incitement to imminent lawless action.”[8]

This history leaves the people of the United States much more free to speak critically of government action. For example, since September 11 many people critical of U.S. foreign and military policy have written and spoken in ways that would have without question landed us in jail in previous eras. A sampling of the titles of pieces I wrote, alone and with my political colleague Rahul Mahajan, gives a flavor of the nature of our dissent: “Why I will not rally around the president,” “U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts,” “War of lies,” “Saying goodbye to patriotism.”[9] In public speaking and in print, I have argued that the U.S. war on terrorism is a disastrous policy that has more to do with the maintenance of imperial credibility and the extension of U.S. dominance in Central Asia and the Middle East than battling terrorism. I have denounced patriotism as an intellectually and morally bankrupt concept.

I wrote all this as a faculty member of a public university in a politically conservative state. Although there was a letter-writing campaign aimed at getting me fired and I was publicly condemned as a “fountain of undiluted foolishness” by the president of my university, there has been no serious suggestion (that I know of) by anyone in the university that I should be fired. No law enforcement agents have knocked on my door. No judge or jury has passed judgment on me. While many readers who objected to my views have called for my firing, just as many of my critics have said they defend my right to speak even if they find what I say stupid or offensive. I have been called a lot of names, but no formal sanctions have been applied. And, more important, I have never seriously expected formal sanctions for these activities.

It is important to note here that I am white and American-born, with a “normal” sounding American name (meaning, one with European roots). The hostility toward some faculty members has not stayed within such civil boundaries, most notably Sami Al-Arian, the tenured Palestinian computer science professor at the University of South Florida who was vilified in the mass media and fired in December 2001 for his political views. It likely that not only my tenured status — I can’t be fired without cause, protection that few people in this economy have — but my white skin helped protect me.

In short: I live in a society that is more tolerant of dissidents, legally and culturally, than the one in which Scott Nearing lived. For this, I am grateful. We must always remember that those expansions of our freedom to speak were not gifts from enlightened politicians and judges, but a legacy of the struggles of popular movements — socialists, labor leaders, civil-rights organizers, and antiwar demonstrators.[10] The freedom of speech we enjoy today was won by people who were despised and denigrated in their time. History has vindicated them, but in their own time they suffered greatly.

So, in many ways I am better off than Scott Nearing; it is nice to know one has a steady job and won’t be hauled into court. But even though Nearing’s speech was more constrained than mine, in some ways I envy him. That may seem odd, given that in formal terms the United States of 1919 was in many ways a much less democratic nation — not only was free speech not guaranteed but the majority of the population (women and most non-white citizens) were denied the right to vote. Perhaps we shouldn’t call a nation a democracy when it refuses to allow the majority of adults to vote and the ultimate guardians of freedom (the Supreme Court justices) see nothing wrong with jailing a leading intellectual and president candidate for daring to question the judgment of his opponent.

But in another sense, the United States was a far more democratic society when Nearing took the witness stand in 1918. Many commentators have pointed out that democracy is more than simply the presence of certain political institutions and rules. The degree to which a society is democratic also can be judged by how extensive and active is the participation of citizens in the formation of public policy. Even though marginalized and oppressed people had more restrictions on them in 1919, they were in many ways more active participants in democracy, engaging in political discussion and attempting to assert their rights in public.

What does democracy look like?

To make sense of all this requires a definition of democracy. Here I want to discuss not simply the structure of the system but the role that people see themselves as having. One thing that always strikes me as I read accounts of the early part of the 20th century is the vibrancy of political life then compared with today. Far more people — ordinary people, not the chattering classes — saw politics as their birthright, not as an activity limited to politicians and intellectuals. Nearing describes boisterous meetings of thousands of people who came to hear speakers and argue politics in the first decades of the century. The Red Scare of the 19-teens and ’20s was designed to shut down that kind of political engagement, which was inconsistent with power’s conception of democracy. One of the clearest articulations of that conception came from Walter Lippmann, a leading journalist and intellectual of the first half of the 20th century. In a complex society, Lippmann asserted that people did not have the capacity to understand public affairs well enough to have an active role in policy formation:

“The individual man does not have opinions on all public affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. I cannot imagine how he could know, and there is not the least reason for thinking, as mystical democrats have thought, that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses of people can produce a continuous directing force in public affairs.”[11]

In such elitist conceptions of democracy, the role of citizens is basically to vote — to select which group of politicians and their allied experts they would like to run the country — not to be directly involved in the formation of public policy. In Lippmann’s words, “The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.”[12]

Unfortunately, the herd is not only bewildered but unruly, and it keeps jumping the fence; the spirit of participatory democracy doesn’t die easily. Another Red Scare was necessary in the late 1940s and ’50s. Those renewed challenges to power were beaten down by the end of the 1950s, though it turned out the politically quiescent times weren’t permanent, as an expanded notion of democracy re-emerged in the civil rights, women’s rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and ’70s. These popular struggles produced what those in power saw not as a democratic renewal but as a “crisis of democracy.”

Samuel Huntington, a political scientist with solid establishment credentials, warned that the problems of governance in the United States stemmed from what he called “an excess of democracy” and the solution could be found in “a greater degree of moderation in democracy.”[13] Citing universities and armies, he pointed out that not all institutions benefit from democratic structures and went on to explain that “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” Acknowledging that this “marginality” for some groups is “inherently antidemocratic,” Huntington still warned against “overloading the political system with demands which extends its functions and undermine its authority.” The answer is, “Less marginality on the part of some groups thus needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups.”[14]

In the real world, it usually turns out that restraint is expected from the “special interests” (defined as organized labor, students, women, minority groups, farmers — in other words, the bulk of the population) to make sure there are no restraints on the “national interest” (corporate shareholders, the managerial class, defense contractors, the generals). One might reasonably ask how this promotes democracy, but from the point of view of elites Huntington’s assessment is correct. If one is concerned about “governability,” defined as the ability of elites to make decisions unimpeded by the people, then the excesses of democracy that come with strong popular movements are indeed the heart of the crisis.

But, of course, there are other conceptions of the role of people in democracy. Political scientist C. Douglas Lummis suggests that “there is democracy where the people have the power.” But how to understand what is meant by “the people” and “the power”? For Lummis:

“[D]emocracy is not the name of any particular arrangement of political or economic institutions. Rather, it is a situation that political or economic institutions may or may not help to bring about. It describes an ideal, not a method for achieving it. It is not a kind of government, but an end of government; not a historically existing institution, but a historical project.”[15]

If that is true, then one would not speak of living in a democracy, but instead speak of the degree to which different features and processes of a society are democratic. That includes an assessment of the democratic character not only of governmental institutions but all institutions, private and public. It is in this sense that I talk of Nearing living in a more democratic America. By that, I mean simply that even though they faced more governmental impediments to exercising power, average people of that time were more actively engaged in political dialogue, in political life.

September 11

Here, I want to turn to the events after September 11 to talk about the state of political debate and discussion in the culture, using my experiences in the public sphere, not out of self-indulgence but because I think they shed some light on these issues.

I wrote my first pieces about terrorism and war the evening of September 11. Like most folks, I had spent most of the day watching the television coverage. Barely a few hours had passed before the talk of war was everywhere. Still trying to cope with the emotion of seeing the towers collapse, I had to cope with a second feeling — the realization that more innocents were going to die if the mad rush to war were not derailed. I have talked to many other progressive people who felt the same thing, an experience of dual anguish about what had just happened and what we feared was to come — a war we knew we likely would protest against, but one we knew would not easily be stopped.

That moment, for me, came at 11:43 a.m. central time on September 11, when I marked in my notes a comment by ABC’s Peter Jennings, ironically the least hawkish of the network anchors. “The response is going to have to be massive,” he said. I was monitoring the news on a television in my office, moving between the TV screen and my computer. I typed those words and stared at them on the screen. It was barely three hours after the planes had crashed into the towers. I stared at the word “massive.” There was no way to know what was coming, how the United States would respond. Yet it was impossible not to know, not to fear the coming of war. I remember burying my head in my hands and sobbing for several minutes before turning back to the television to watch the war unfold.

For the rest of the day I not only monitored television and the web, but spent time on the phone with fellow antiwar activists and left/progressive political colleagues and friends. The voices on the television — mostly government and military official, active and retired, and the pundits — talked of a war to show the world what was being called America’s “resolve.” My friends talked of their fear of a war that would show the world who was boss, to re-establish imperial credibility (that is, the ability to destroy at will). So late in the day I sat down to try to write. I had no expectation that what I wrote would show up in commercial newspapers; I was writing for the left/progressive web sites, where people like me would be looking for analysis. That piece was on the Common Dreams website[16] the next morning, but two days later it also ran in the Houston Chronicle, where the op/ed-page editors have an unusually strong commitment to airing a wide range of views. In that piece I tried to articulate how for many the grief over the attacks was mixed with a fear of American militarism, how the deaths of innocents in the United States sparked a fear for the deaths of innocents abroad. Many people told me the piece echoed their own feelings. Others were outraged, especially my assertion that the attacks of September 11 were “no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism — the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes — that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.”[17]

I believe that sentence is accurate. I believe it is an honest assessment of history. And since September 11, I have continued to write and speak about that history and those truths, just as I did before September 11.

That writing found wide distribution through a number of web sites and email lists. I also wrote some pieces specifically for mainstream media outlets, though it was difficult to break into those pages. Because of the efforts of two progressive media projects that work to get critical analysis on the air (Mainstream Media Project[18] and the Institute for Public Accuracy[19]), I also appeared on about 80 radio shows — everything from a Canadian Broadcasting Company debate with a pro-war conservative, to interviews with DJs at commercial stations who weren’t quite sure how to make sense of me, to sympathetic discussions with progressive hosts on community radio stations.

So, my concern is not that I was not heard, or that the people who heard me had no reaction; many people told me how much they appreciated what Rahul Mahajan and I were doing. The problem was that I was writing, speaking, and being heard in a context for political action that was much different than in Nearing’s time. While it was possible for more people to hear me, being heard had far more limited effects, not only on the immediate question of the war but more generally on the political culture. When Scott Nearing spoke, he spoke to audiences in which a high percentage of people believed that political activity by people organized into mass movements could make a difference. Much of this was no doubt rooted in an understanding of the class divisions that structured American society, and the relationship of that structure to questions of war and imperialism.

I am not suggesting no one in the United States today is interested in building a mass movement around these issues. I am arguing, however, that many people — even many left/progressive people — do not believe there is any meaningful channel for action. Based on thousands of conversations and correspondences with such folks, it is my experience that many, perhaps most, do not belong to political organizations or are not active in political organizations. Given that social change in the history of this country has been largely the result of popular movements putting pressure on elites to enact progressive policies, the absence of such collective action is troubling. It does not mean there are no other possible avenues for social change apart from mass movements, though I can’t imagine what they might be and we should not be optimistic about alternatives without evidence. I have yet to hear any strategy for change that leads me to believe that mass movements are now irrelevant.

American propaganda

This state of affairs is not accidental. As the late sociologist Alex Carey puts it, “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”[20] I would add to that the development of propaganda to protect state power, which is tightly interwoven with corporate power. Carey’s point is that people with power have been engaged in the process of pacifying the population through propaganda to make sure that the expansion of formal democracy — through greater expression and organizing rights, and an expanded franchise — does not result in a real democratization of the society, especially the economy.

Edward Bernays, often described as the father of the public relations industry, explained — from a celebratory point of view — how propaganda is “the executive arm of the invisible government.”[21] Who are those “invisible governors”? Those with “qualities of natural leadership” who “supply needed ideas” and hold “a key position in the social structure.”[22] The opening lines of his 1928 book Propaganda make clear how the system works:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds our molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.”[23]

Bernays acknowledged that some aspects of the propaganda process — “the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses” — are often criticized and can be misused. “But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.”[24]

From a more critical view, Carey described this same propaganda project as “a 75-year-long multi-billion dollar project in social engineering on a national scale.” Carey’s study of the propaganda campaign suggests that starting in the 1930s American business leaders realized that they could not keep labor subjugated indefinitely through brute force. So, they turned to “a competition for public opinion via the mass media.”[25] Carey’s account of the operations of such groups as the National Association of Manufacturers shows how corporate leaders used advertising, public relations, media relations, and their influence on the educational system to deal with threats to their power.

In addition to campaigns for specific policies, there have been two key underlying messages to this propaganda in the past half-century. First, not only is capitalism the natural economic system and the only one compatible with democracy, but unions and other vehicles for popular organizing somehow disrupt what would be an otherwise harmonious system in which benevolent owners and hard-working managers labor selflessly to provide for customers and workers. Second, the United States is unique among world governments, past and present, in its pursuit of democracy and freedom in the world. While other nations act out of self-interest, the United States — that shining city on the hill — goes forward with a different mission; we are the world’s first benevolent empire.

The system that propagates these fictions is happy to concede that sometimes corporations do unpleasant things and sometimes politicians make mistakes, usually the result of the bad behavior of individuals. If the problems seem to go beyond individuals, we are assured that the miraculous workings of the market and democracy have corrected the problems and produced a change of course for the institutions involved. Unlike more totalitarian systems, this arrangement is flexible and better able to adapt to public pressure: absorbing and co-opting dissent when possible, coercing through relatively subtle methods when necessary, resorting to force and violence only when other methods have failed.

The effects of this relentless propaganda are clear. Many people accept the mythology, even when it is directly contradicted by their own experience. But more important, many of those who reject the mythology do not contest the naturalizing of the underlying system of domination, or can’t imagine how to contest it. After public talks about corporate domination or American imperialism, I get two common responses. One is a judgment rooted in the condescension of the comfortable: “Well, you are right, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it — people don’t want to change.” The other is a question framed by despair and isolation: “Is there anything I can do?”

My answer to the first is simple: There is nothing in human history that leads to the conclusion that people inherently crave subordination or cannot find ways to resist subordination. The response to the second is equally simple: Organize, become part of a movement. There is always something that can be done, but it must be done through collective action. The details of what to do are not quite so easy to work out, but it is clear they must be worked out with other people, not on one’s own. Those two questions sum up my point about the more democratic spirit of Scott Nearing’s times. People in Nearing’s audiences did not need to be told that humans were capable of independent thought and action. People did not have to be told that resisting concentrations of power required organizing. The political climate of the time took those as givens. By that I don’t mean that every single person believed in the power or wisdom of participatory democracy and mass movements, but simply that there was a more hospitable context for people to act. Nearing’s words were spoken to a more politically engaged culture. The words of contemporary antiwar activists after September 11 were spoken to a world in which none of those things could be taken for granted.

Given the contingencies of history and the difficulty in predicting the course of politics, definitive judgments are difficult to make. But based on my experience, I believe that even though my work may be read and heard by more people than Scott Nearing’s, it has far less impact. In a society in which free speech is in some sense irrelevant, public political life is little more than a sideshow. And if public political life is a sideshow, what do we say about the state of our democracy?

Beyond parody

I think our current situation constitutes a “crisis of democracy,” understood not in Huntington’s terms but in the sense used by legal scholar David Kairys in this summary of U.S. political life:

“[D]espite all the rhetoric about free speech and our democratic political process, a very large proportion of us — perhaps most — feel silenced and disenfranchised. There is a widespread recognition across the political spectrum that the American people lack the effective means to be heard or to translate their wishes into reality through the political process. There is, and has been for some time, a crisis of democracy and freedom that has been ignored by public officials and the media.”[26]

My only dispute with Kairys’ claim is the last sentence; I am not so sure this crisis has been ignored by public officials or the media. Rather, I think it is a state of affairs with which most public officials and the media are perfectly content because, no matter what the rhetoric, those centers of power either believe Lippmann was right or, in the case of the more crass, know Lippmann was wrong but find his conception of democracy useful in taming the “bewildered herd.” But if Kairys means there is a deeper crisis that even the officials don’t understand, a crisis of legitimacy, he may be right.

A few years ago I would have argued that the struggle for the soul of the nation was between radical democrats such as Lummis, who believe that the role of citizens in democracy should be as full participants, and elitist theorists of democracy such as Lippmann, who believe that such participatory ideals are not feasible and that citizens’ job is to ratify the decisions of experts and professional politicians through regular voting.

Today, we may be moving to a society in which even Lippmann’s impoverished notion of democracy seems idealistic, as we move ever deeper into a sense of democracy that treats policy proposals not as topics for discussion by the people but products to be sold to the people. How else to describe a situation in which the Bush administration can appoint an advertising executive to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, charged with the task of “selling” U.S. policy to the Muslim world? Charlotte Beers’ fitness for the job can be seen in her previous successes — Uncle Ben’s rice (“Perfect every time”), Head and Shoulders shampoo (“Helps bring you closer”) and American Express (“Don’t leave home without it”).[27] Of course politicians and policies have been sold like products for some time. But this was not only done without shame out in the open, but with some pride, to indicate how forward-thinking the administration was to realize it must win the hearts and minds in the world of Islam.

Such a state of affairs is beyond parody. But it is not beyond hope.

There is no reason to think that a revitalization of radical democracy is impossible. There is no reason to think that we are on the other side of some fault line in human history that makes collective action no longer relevant. Certain institutions in our society — some aspects of representative government, a media not controlled directly by the state, and vestiges of liberal education — have democratic features that can be used to fight concentrations of illegitimate authority. Other institutions — most notably corporate capitalism and the Pentagon — seem to me to be so fundamentally flawed that they will have to be swept away.

The hope that will make possible those changes is what Lummis called “public hope,” which he contrasted with “private hope.” Many Americans have private hope; they believe that they will continue to enjoy a comfortable standard of living in a reasonably predictable world. But they also have no expectation that the political system can or will change to become more open or fair. By contrast, Lummis described the state of public hope and the atmosphere of freedom that was in the air everywhere in the Philippines in 1985, before the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. There, a state of public despair was reversed:

“People begin to believe that public action can succeed. It doesn’t matter why they believe it — it could be for the wrong reason. When hope is shared by many, it becomes its own reason. Public hope is itself grounds for hope. When many people, filled with hope, take part in public action, hope is transformed from near-groundless faith (which it was in the state of public despair) to plain common sense.”[28]

Perhaps in the end, all politics is about where one chooses to put one’s faith. Prior to September 11, many Americans thought they could live comfortably by using the world’s resources without having to be part of the world or accountable to the rest of the world. Many Americans felt beyond the reach of the pain of the rest of the world. After September 11, such self-indulgence is no longer possible; we now know how vulnerable we all are. If in the past we were not moved by moral arguments about how our comfort required so much of the rest of the world to suffer, now there is a heightened measure of self-interest to be considered. It is difficult to ignore the fact that U.S. economic, military, and foreign policy must change. Our choices are fairly stark.

Shall we put our faith in advertising executives’ ability to sell to the rest of the world a story about why vast disparities of wealth exist, why the resources of the Third World should benefit primarily people in the West, and why we must on occasion unleash the bombers to maintain this system?

Or shall we put our faith in each other to find a different way, to stop living on top of the world and start living as part of the world?

[1] Scott Nearing, The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000), p. 56.

[2] Ibid., p. 117.

[3] Helen Nearing and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life (New York: Schocken Books, 1970).

[4] Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919).

[5] Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951).

[6] Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957).

[7] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

[8] Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

[9] Available online at or

[10] David Kairys, “Freedom of Speech,” in Kairys, ed., The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1998), pp. 190-215.

[11] Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public (New York: Macmillan, 1927), p. 39.

[12] Ibid., p. 155.

[13] Samuel P. Huntington, “The United States,” in Michel Crozier, et al., The Crisis of Democracy (New York: New York University Press, 1975), p. 113.

[14] Ibid., p. 114. [15] C. Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 22.


[17] ROBERT JENSEN, “U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts,” Houston Chronicle, September 14, 2001, p. A-33.



[20] Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), p. 18.

[21] Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda (New York: Horace Liverright, 1928), p. 20.

[22] Ibid., p. 9.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 12.

[25] Carey, p. 20.

[26] Kairys, p. 11.

[27] Martin Fletcher, “Publicity queen sells America to the Muslims,” The Times of London, October 16, 2001, p. 3.

[28] Lummis, p. 156.