Letters from Green Island

Feb 4 08

Democracy begins at home....

Dear HRW, toronto@hrw.org hrwnyc@hrw.org hrwuk@hrw.org
Re West 'embraces sham democracies':

Normally you at HRW do quite useful work, but this is somewhat the opposite - you yourselves are actually doing what you accuse others of - '...HRW said established democracies such as the US and members of the European Union were increasingly tolerating autocrats 'claiming the mantle of democracy'..' -

- but it is my opinion (and I am not alone by a long shot) that over the last 30 or so years, this is pretty much what western 'democracies' such as the US, GB, Australia and Canada have become - plutocracies (ruled by behind-the-scenes autocrats) 'claiming the mantle of democracy'.

You say that '...too many governments .. acted as if simply holding a vote is enough to prove a nation 'democratic', and Washington, Brussels and European capitals played along...' - but I would submit that now and for many years past this is exactly what the modern western 'democracies' are doing themselves - holding elections and thus calling themselves 'democratic', but with none of the realities concerning citizen rights and powers one would expect to be part of a real and functioning democracy.

You note, correctly, that '...key human rights issues .... make democracy function - a free press, peaceful assembly, and a functioning civil society that can really challenge power....'

1. Peaceful assembly? - Need I send you pictures of the rather endless list of instances in your accepted 'democracies' of the reaction of their governments to peaceful assembly for the last 20 years or so? When a government meets peaceful protest expressing the views of many citizens, quite possibly a majority although many decline the chance to come for their share of the beating, with batons, pepper spray, beatings, and prison - are you really comfortable calling that 'democracy'? Esp when the end result of such protests does not result in any change to the protested policy? From London to many places in both Canada and the US, peaceful protest has been met with inflammatory action and violence on the part of the police.

2. 'Free' press not meaningful anymore - You emphasise the importance of a 'free press', and historically that has been important, and still is of course - but I would like to suggest to you that in the modern era of widespread media concentration, we need to start considering (seriously) press responsibility - that is, to what extent does the press actually cover ALL aspects of the news that a normal citizen would need to be aware of to make intelligent decisions in a democracy, and to what extent is the press speaking with more or less one voice, and hiding various things from its citizens, and, again with one voice, spinning certain things in a way that is desirable for the ruling autocrats (who own the media these days) but very much not so good for democracy?

I cannot speak for other countries, as I am Canadian and primarily follow the Canadian press, but from what I gather from occasional readings, and the alternative media available, these things are true elsewhere.

For instance, in the Canadian consolidated media, there is almost universal boosterism for the Afghanistan invasion that Canada participated in (ostensibly under NATO auspices although few serious commentators bother pretending it is anything but a US-led mission), even though there were nothing more than sham 'debates' prior to the original invasion and the subsequent escalation with the 'new' Harper government - and a solid majority of Canadians are either opposed outright to this invasion, or unhappy with it. A decent press would have insisted on a fuller debate prior to the invasion, with fuller disclosure of relevant information, and carried a lot more commentary from people who questioned and continue to question it - but still today, 90+% of the coverage is simply boosterism of this very questionable activity of the autocrats running the Canadian government.

The Canadian media, again pretty much en masse, have become almost totally controlled by large corporations, and thus push the corporate agenda - 'free' trade, lower taxes, privatisation, globalisation, and etc - even though a strong majority of Canadians are in favor of much more 'social-democratic' policies - just as one example of many, for instance, most Canadians strongly desire that their single-payer universal health care program be maintained and strengthened - while the media speak virtually with one voice saying 'you cannot afford this, we must privatise sections and go to a two-tier mininal-service program etc and etc' - now that may be their right as a 'free' press to push for certain programs - but where is their responsibility to the Canadian people? Who is speaking for most Canadians who do NOT want their health care system gutted, or many of the other right-wing-neocon changes that have been carried out in the country over the last 20+ years, by and large against the wishes of most Canadians? Is it the job of the press to herd the citizens of a country around like cattle being told what the masters want - or do they have some kind of responsibility to speak for the people, and challenge corporate power?

I don't know exactly how such a free AND responsible press would be arranged, since a newspaper or tv station is very expensive to operate these days, but I would suggest that simply a 'free' press, one which pushes for a certain policy framework which most citizens do not really want, is not sufficient in today's capitalist 'democracies', and would suggest that you need to expand your definition to at least recognize the idea that we do need a RESPONSIBLE press which would speak, as they did a much better job of in years gone by, FOR the people, and against entrenched, elite interests. (I might note that letters like this, questioning what the Canadian press are doing, are NEVER printed in any of their 'letters and comments etc' sections - their freedom again, of course - but not very 'responsible', I would think - at least to 'we the people'.)

3. Elections but no power - And the third thing you note is 'a functioning civil society that can really challenge power....' - this could be interpreted in various ways, but what I think this should actually mean is something like a government that actually does what the people want, after they elect it - and on those terms, there is little that could be called 'democratic' in Canada, at least, again, 'these days', since, really, the ascendency of the neocons in Canada as elsewhere during the 1980s. I have already mentioned the Afghanistan invasion, never voted on, never approved by a majority of Canadians, and still opposed by more and more - yet the government's basic reaction (I could find a quote for this if I had time - here's a story in today's Toronto Star - Afghan mission tough PR sell) is that they need to do a better selling job of what they are doing - god forbid they consider following the wishes of the people and just getting out! Or another example might be, for instance, the government position on marijuana - I don't think you could ever find a poll indicating that most Canadians want people who use or sell small amounts of pot charged with anything or jailed, yet year after year tens of thousands of people are dragged through court and forced to pay large fines or thrown in jail for this activity most Canadians do not consider criminal, yet no government will change the policy to follow the wishes of Canadians. And I can't find anyone who will try to defend this as 'democracy at work'. I could list many other examples of governments not doing what obvious and strong majorities wanted - highly undemocratic.

Well, I'll not go on, I'm sure you're busy, and have more important things to do watching other places even less democratic than these countries of the west - yet this is, to me, very important, as I do NOT consider Canada much of a 'democracy' these days at all, for these and many other reasons (I've written a short book about it if you are interested - They're Building a Box - and You're In It - ). It is all well and good to be looking at countries around the world - true democracy is indeed very important for all of us, and to point out the great hypocricy of the US and other countries in their attitude to 'democracy' elsewhere is important as we try to help other countries overcome even worse situations than we are in here.

But there is some old saying about don't get so involved with putting out the neighbor's fire that your own house burns to the ground from neglect - and I fear that the slow but sure compromise of our own once-leading democracies is taking place right out in the open, while few people actually see what is happening - and they will wake up one day to find them gone, and won't be able to understand how or why it happened.

And at that time they will be much, much harder to try to take back, than they would be to save, now, while we still have a chance.

Good luck to us all.

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