Last night I was reading last week's New Yorker article on the protests in Pakistan, where the military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, recently sacked the country's Chief Justice without cause. Thousands of lawyers, students, and other pro-democracy protesters took to the streets, and the judge was eventually reinstated.
At some point my mind wandered to issues of democracy and dictatorship more generally, and I had the startling thought that here in the U.S. - where the President has just fallen short of crowning himself, and declaring the world his fiefdom - perhaps some of deepest-held principles of our democracy have abetted the kings and king-makers.
Here's the radical thought: free speech anesthetizes our outrage. Our ability to say whatever we want, and to have a multitude of platforms in which to do it, has instilled in us a feeling of power. If only we pry deep enough, and shout loud enough, we will be heard! Our newspapers will uncover corruption, and the popular upswell against it will carry the traitors to justice. It's a romantic notion, and the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights.
Meanwhile, those that actually have power spend much effort carefully building an array of defenses. They've coddled their special interests and hidden behind a rabid, reactionary "base." They've hired sycophants and pocketed the right politicians.
So now, scream as we might, it does no good: The money still flows through the proper channels, the required votes in Congress are still there at roll call, and the President gets told he's doing a good job.
Case in point: Bush pardons Libby, a collective roar goes up, and a week later fades to nothing.
Contrast this to a place where free speech is not a given, a place like the Soviet Union or China or Pakistan (esp. pre-Musharraf Pakistan), so that when someone does vocalize his/her condemnation of power, at great personal danger, it ripples like a shockwave. An attack on authority still carries meaning. Here it's par for the course, and authority has learned to emasculate it.
Kishore Mahbubani said something similar in an essay. "The U.S. press has been second to none in exposing the follies of the U.S. government," he wrote. "But have all their exposures served as opiates, creating the illusion that something is being done when really nothing is being done?"
The alternative certainly isn't attractive - government repression is rarely fun. But it would be nice for words to mean something again.