The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Real Democratic Force in the Arab World

It is apparent, given the revolutionary upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, along with the accompanying protests in Jordan, Yemen, and other places in the Arab world, that neither the United States nor Israel are the proponents of democracy. In fact, Israel's devout support for the corrupt Mubarak regime, alongside the United States' billions of dollars of yearly military aid for the corrupt state apparatus, shows that far from being progenitors of democracy, these states have shown themselves to be stalwart defends of oppression and exploitation.

Although the following post will not relate directly to Egypt (for a live stream, please visit Al Jazeera), it will deal with Morocco, another U.S. client state with a highly undemocratic regime that presents a facade of popular government. I wrote this reflection after having to attend a discussion on a civics program called Civitas. Some Moroccan government officials, as participants in the program alongside the U.S., were present. It is obvious, in my opinion, that the program is largely a front to propagandize the participants in the United States and, even more so, in Morocco, to buy into very superficial conceptions of democracy. In honor of the Tunisian revolution, and the valiant struggles of the Egyptian people still ongoing, I post this piece.

We can only imagine the prospects of these struggles for the future. Perhaps, the people of Morocco and the Western Sahara will be next.

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The notion of how to students, and teachers, involved in civic education at a grassroots level is an intriguing and well-pursued area of study. It is vital for students to understand both the forms of civic participation narrowly confined under the legal and political scope of “public policy,” alongside the more broad and participatory forms of civic engagement which extend beyond the traditional institutions imposed from above. In other words, while students ought to be educated about the legal channels through which small-scale change may occur, it should never, for the sake of democracy, displace the emphasis on the form of activism that pushes the legal limits and, in many cases, fundamentally challenges the dominant structures of our society.

My experience with the Center of Civic Education representatives, along with the delegation from Morocco, has lead me to the conclusion that the Civitas program, headed by the Center for Civic Education, is not entirely conducive to the goal of democratizing society as I understand it. Instead, aside from the benevolent-sounding rhetoric, Civitas seems aimed primarily at enervating popular movements and forcing them to be subsumed into the current political system, rather than encouraging them to fundamentally alter what are, essentially, unjust social relations.

Furthermore, by completely ignoring the economic system, which is inherently undemocratic when organized under the auspices of capitalism, political democracy is little more than a sham. To paraphrase what John Dewey proclaimed a century ago, until we free ourselves from industrial feudalism, politics will remain the shadow cast over society by big business. Power in society will, as James Madison so exuberantly effused was the correct order of things, remain with the “minority of the opulent.” My largest complaint with Civitas, then, is that its understanding of “democracy” is limited to the most basic and low levels of democratic participation which, in large part, are the most unimportant and non-participatory forms of civic engagement that currently exist. It is narrow in scope and serves not as a gateway to more progressive forms of democratic participation, but as an ideological weapon to prove that the “system works” because students are able to get rid of plastic lunch trays or get a few truant classmates back into school (worthy goals, no doubt, but out on the periphery). In other words, while in its mission statement it claims to be “nonpartisan,” it is definitely not “non-ideological,” it is inextricably linked to a conception of democracy tied to capitalism as an economic system, and insofar as this is true, its commitment to democracy proves nothing more than rhetoric.

The next complaint is that, while it aims to show that “democracy works,” it is funded by a government, namely, the United States, which simply does NOT take democracy seriously around the world. In Vietnam it staged a brutal occupation and war to avoid democratic elections in which it feared Communists would win. In 1973, the United States materially supported the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Chile because it challenged corporate interests in the region and upset the hyper-exploitation of the people there. In the 1980’s it backed the vicious and brutal terrorist organization named the Contras in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas, who garnered mass popular support, in their overthrow of a U.S. backed dictator. There are various more instances that could be cited here. The U.S. supported the apartheid regime of South Africa until the very end against the democratic will of the majority black population there. When Huge Chavez won the democratic election in 1999, the U.S. leaders panicked and, in 2002, with the help of the CIA, supported a military coup against him. When Hamas was democratically elected by the people of Palestine, the U.S. placed them on the terrorist watch list and would not negotiate with them, despite being internationally observed as a free and fair election. Just last year, when President Zelaya of Honduras was overthrown in a military coup, the U.S. backed the military government that brutally repressed civil dissent in the country. In other words, democracy is fine as long as the U.S. backed candidate is elected. Democracy is a threat, however, when it challenges U.S. corporate interests and the larger ideological capitalist hegemony. How then, can one of the most anti-democratic governments in the world construct and implement a program that claims to support democracy? Simply put, it cannot.

For instance, one of the countries in which the program takes place, Morocco, and also where the representatives in our meeting were from, is one of the most highly undemocratic, in fact, anti-democratic nations in the world. Morocco, a constitutional monarchy, has always been a pawn of the U.S., both as an anti-Communist buffer in North Africa and, more recently, as an “anti-terrorist” state who happily signed on with the U.S. wars of aggression to placate its own colonial holding in Western Sahara. While Morocco has a democratically elected parliament, the only democratically elected body, only 37% of the population actually voted in the last election, meaning that far less than half the population was represented. Furthermore, real power lies with the Moroccan monarch, who wields an enormous amount of executive power, enough to even disband parliament at will. The country hosts a brutal occupation of the Western Sahara, which it took over after Spain withdrew in the 1970’s. Since then, there has been a popular, grassroots movement in the Western Sahara for independence and democracy. Ironically, the Western Sahara, which is 99% Arab and Berber, has a female spokeswomen as the head of the democratic movement there, which is what the U.S. claims it wants to see in the Arab world in regards to womens’ rights and so on. Instead, it supports Morocco in its colonial exploits over the region, and as permanent member of the Security Council, has blocked United Nations resolutions promoting Western Saharan independence. We are to believe, then, that these two highly anti-democratic governments have formed a partnership through Civitas in which they are mutually exploring democracy. Orwell must be rolling in his grave.

When I attempted to engage the Moroccan delegation, who were, basically, government spokesmen, not educators, on their occupation of the Western Sahara, the English-speaking representative misleadingly attempted to sway the audience by claiming that the occupation was, essentially, just a “media misunderstanding” because one Spanish outlet had put a picture of Gaza up when talking about the Western Sahara. Then, I was instructed that I was not qualified to speak on Morocco, or its political institutions, because I was not from there nor had I been there, and “reading about Morocco is different than being there.” I suppose that reading about the enormous power that the Moroccan leader has, or listening to ground reports and first-person accounts of the Western Saharan occupation, or having read and listened to the foremost author of the Western Saharan occupation, means absolutely nothing to the Moroccan government officials. Indeed, this is what, presumably, passed for democratic discourse in Moroccan society. No wonder the United States leaders are pursuing such close ties, the ideological unanimity among the Moroccan rulers must inspire them.

Perhaps the most telling comment came from the big screen, where Civitas directors from another part of Ohio were trying to explain their program through the superb technological capabilities available at the University of Toledo. At one point, and this is when I truly understood for the first time the core component of what Civitas was, the male representative explained that the program was designed to get people to try and change public policy through the most basic channels and to get them to work without “protests, holding signs, or street demonstrations.” Those words were the most lucid, clearest articulation of what the program actually was meant to do. After I engaged that comment, some of the representatives backed off that claim, and attempted to back-peddle. One man, in particular, the gentleman I had a conversation with afterward, was open to dialogue, which I found refreshing concerning the ideological dogma manifested by the rest of the Civitas representatives.

Despite this, it remained apparent that Civitas was, primarily, a program meant to inculcate teachers and students with the idea that social change was best pursued through the lowest legal channels available, and that civic participation beyond that ought to be questioned and, sometimes, even ridiculed for ineffectiveness and, as they basically implied, its “non-democratic” nature. Regardless of the purported aims, it was clear to me upon leaving that meeting that Civitas is something that is meant to funnel our disgust with the inequality in society into safe channels, into outlets that make us feel good about doing something small but do not cultivate an idea or organizing for greater societal change. Civitas, for instance, would not support the work of WikiLeaks, an organization truly fighting for democracy and transparency, or the British students fighting back against budget cuts and austerity. The day that Civitas gets students to protest their schools for slashing their budgets, raising tuition, or cutting teachers, that is the day that I will get Civitas a second glance. Until then, I understand the program is little more than, despite the benevolent intentions of some individuals involved, a government-sponsored propaganda program meant to install what are, essentially, undemocratic values under the guise of democratic participation.
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This blog is a personal blog written and edited by me. For questions about this blog, please contact Derek Ide (ruminyauee@hotmail.com). Anything on this blog may be used, circulated, disseminated, by readers in any setting except where profit it to be made from it. Feel free to use the work presented here in educational settings, activist work, etc. All I ask is that the blog be cited. I write for my own purposes. This writings presented here will be influenced by my background, occupation, and political affiliation or other experiences.

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Derek Ide 2011

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