Ariella Atzmon – Facing Democracy

A Long Journey into a Nightmare.

“You can not hear God speaking to others; you can only hear Him when he speaks to you”

The relevance of this Wittgenstein remark (Zettlel sec:717), hints at the rhetorical language of propaganda employed by contemporary democracy and its links to illusions of sovereignty and freedom of choice.

Even though we are accustomed to praise democracy, to suggest that everything that happens in the course of democracy is right, and whatever is related to other regimes entirely evil, we all agree that propaganda plays a major part in each and every regime.

The distinctiveness of western propaganda is founded upon the fact that both liberalism and the scientific revolution came into the world arm-in-arm. The main characterization of western propaganda is a latent commitment to support pervasive statements by well-established, evidential proof. Actually, all those I-philosophies (from Descartes to Husserl) that stress that human rational ability can facilitate a close correspondence between the realm of abstract meanings and the realm of reality as perceived by the senses, have supported and protected liberal democracy ever since.

Taking the Heideggerian stance regarding the human subject as being shaped by language rather than by his mind and his personal experience, undermines the human self-image as an individual empowered with the capability of rational free choice. Since the concept of individuality is the cornerstone of liberal democracy, Heideggerian philosophy endangers the whole texture of the western rhetorical machine. Heidegger’s view of language as the ‘home of being’ affords us an innovative gaze into the route taken by propaganda for trapping peoples’ minds in the webs of the hegemonic discourse.

The language of propaganda reflects a fierce clandestine battle over meanings waged by all ranges of socio-political and cultural thought. Highly politically charged words such as ‘democracy’ or ‘terror’ are continuously changing their meanings. Hence, by getting lost in the ocean of echolalia, we become deaf to the kaleidoscopic nature of the meanings given to words. Words become materialized through the media in the form of narrated events and thus people are blunted to the trickeries of the text/context game. In other words, their competence for gestalt switching is mislaid.

Liberal democracy, launched with the vast belief in human rationality, critical reasoning and the freedom of choice, ends here and now with the conviction that it is an inherent machine, maintained by professional experts, supposed to convey us through the obstacles of life. As long they provide us with evidential reports, what is left for us to do, is to extrapolate and jump to the right conclusion.

I would argue that the more citizens are dependant upon professionals supposedly supplying digested information as a foundation for the ‘personal’ process of decision making, the more they lack a sense of self-responsibility for their own fate. Enlightened western citizens put their lives in the hands of medical doctors despite the fact that they lack an understanding of the kind of treatment they are getting. In the same negligent manner people relate to their bodies, they are led by the nose to fight nebulous enemies, and are asked to sacrifice their lives in unnecessary wars. Faith in clusters of data presented by professional experts leads to civic irresponsibility and alienation. I would say that despite the song of praise to ‘democracy’ we are withdrawing to the pre-democratic era!

Liberal democracy is epitomized by a principal malady – a constantly growing tension caused by individuals’ attempts to extend their freedom of action within the limits of the social order atives. Liberal democracy protects itself by establishing a consensual environment where citizens are totally dependent on the professionals’ analytical reports. Therefore, the more people are tied to the apron strings of the pundits’ expertise, the more they fail to interpret political, social, and economic revisions by themselves. The gloomy conclusion is that liberal democracy has failed to keep the promise of emancipation. The narrative of emancipation from ignorance and servitude through knowledge and egalitarianism turns into a reckless commitment, to keep in harmony with the democratic rule as an aim in itself.

I would argue that cynical politicians manage to achieve their goals because the ‘new believers’ have lost the capacity to criticize governmental decisions according to a coherent system of ideas. To put it bluntly, I would say that the majority of the population in a free democratic state is incompetent when it comes to developing a proper deductive inference. Apparently, this is the reason for holding most of the press conferences before and during the war against Iraq around the disclosure of evidential findings, air maps, and the pitiful farce of exhibiting discoveries of missiles and remains of chemical or biological material. Even the inspectors’ failure to prove, did not stop the political leaders from repeatedly pushing on in an endless attempt to trace those hidden treasures for mass destruction.

Those millions of people taking to the streets to demonstrate against the war felt defeated when G.W. Bush declared the end of the war. The question is whether the protests were against the actual operation of attacking Iraq, or were morality and ethics the matters at stake? If we assume that the reason for the huge mass marches all over western metropolises demonstrated disapproval of the arrogant crushing of ethical values, then we should ask: how did it happen that all those masses disappeared from the streets[1]?

It may be asserted that we are triggered to react to the concrete, actual events while remaining oblivious to the process of the keyword formation. Following Heidegger I would contend that the maladies of democracy stem from obliviousness to the abuse of language. In the essay “The Way to Language” Heidegger asserts that human beings are not in a position to commandeer language but simply respond to it
[2]. Responding blindly to rhetorical devices manifests peoples’ ignorance of being ‘spoken’ rather than autonomous speaking subjects.

By taking Heidegger’s path, we may say that post-structuralism inverts the traditional Marxist model about base and superstructure so that what we used to think of as superstructure, namely culture, language and political institutions, actually takes precedence over what we used to think of as basic. Contrary to the Marxist view that culture and language, including its coordinates, are reflected by the economic system, it is stressed that language authorizes reality. Using the notion of ‘superstructuralism’ for the ‘post-structuralist’ overview (Herland (1987), language is seen as the basic ground for marketing and pricing. We shall reveal that the invisible battle on the signification of the linguistic sign determines, at the end of the day, the exchange value of the oil barrel. The semantic notion imposed on a verbal sign triggers the power relations in economics and politics. The meaning we impose on a word is the departure point from which rhetorical dribbling gains its momentum.

‘Terrorist words’ according to Roland Barthes are not words such as ‘fascism’, ‘dictatorship’ or ‘despotism,’ that trigger instant aversion, but rather, words such as ‘autonomy’ ‘democracy,’ ‘emancipation’ or ‘liberation,’ which are currently enjoying a positive aura. In this way their elusive-subversive character is veiled. Those words which by their appealing connotation pre-determine peoples’ attitude to distributed messages, are in fact the main tool for blurring our awareness to the subversive power of rhetoric.

As we have seen in the two gulf wars, imposing a positive or negative connotation on a word predestines the value of consumer goods. It specifies who is going to trade in these goods and who is excluded from the game. The connotation given to the word ‘terror’ entails embargos, which are followed almost simultaneously with a reward to the ‘liberators’ in the form of contracts and access to the best of the third worlds’ natural resources. The connotation given to the word terror makes my argument clear. Taking account of the complicated, tricky relationship between words and facts calls into question some moral, ethical and legal aspects of the meaning of terror and its vicissitudes.

The word ‘terror,’ which means the use of fear to intimidate people, especially for political reasons, was coined by the ruling Jacobins, dominated by Robespierre (1793-1794) in order to overthrow the old regime in the name of ‘Fraternitè and Libertè’ for all people. The Jacobins enforced the age of terror, ruthlessly by executing anyone considered a threat to their regime. The word terrorist was originally applied to those who advocated violence in pursuit of democracy and equality. They titled themselves as terrorists without any pejorative connotation[3].

Do some current western leaders, who openly declare their attempts to democratize people in other parts of the globe by means of violence and aggression, consider themselves terrorists as well? The meaning of the word ‘terror’ has been changed to and fro during the years. It has altered ambiguously from the coercive act of putting people in terror in order to achieve political aims, to the notion of counter-terror, where those who are terrorized try to rebel against their oppressors in a violent struggle. Thus, a rigorous analysis of the terminology of terror and counter-terror, is needed. ‘Liberation terrorism,’ for instance, should be defined as peoples’ acts of resistance directed against those who violate basic human rights (visibly or invisibly), in order to maintain beliefs, traditions and lifestyles in their homeland. A people’s violent struggle to achieve freedom and power in its homeland can be viewed as counter-terror. This should be seen as legitimate resistance, and morally justified in terms of violation of the law.

To facilitate the argument about the substantial role of language in disguise, I shall refer to some expressions which have become so rampant that people have stopped being aware of the cynical, rhetorical game that these expressions signify. Before, during and after the last gulf war the expressions ‘war against terror’ and the ‘axis of evil’ were our daily bread. Such statements should raise a philosophical query regarding the correspondence between a theoretical term and its observable attributes. For example, how can the old enigmatic word ‘evil,’ as an object of an idea, be depicted as a concrete axis, laid between two points in the frame of a two dimensional map?

Hence, The word ‘terror’ reflects a bitter struggle waged over the canonic meaning given to a word in the political lexicon. The obscure meaning bestowed on the word terror determines the political struggle over economic power. The word ‘terror’ which is extremely politically charged, acquires its meaning in accord with the contemporary hegemony of power. The meaning under the Bush administration is kidnapped twice. First it obscures the distinctions between terror, counter-terror and liberation terrorism, and then it enables the demonization of Palestinian resistance, including it in the ‘axis of evil.’

Reading Kant after Heidegger, triggers some insights into the moral and legal aspects of ethical judgment. It is the role of writers and philosophers because of their linguistic sensitivity, to raise public awareness to the polyphony of meanings in propaganda maneuvering. In seeking the legitimization of its rule, the liberal paradigm, turned to the legal system as the main source of stabilization. The fact that any society is comprised of a variety of interests and communal ethoses, necessitates the foundation of a social apparatus that will be accepted by all. Hence, secular ideology established the civic legal system as an all-inclusive means for the resolution of conflicts.

In the course of liberalism, rhetoric turned from being engaged in politics as related to ethics, into exercising an acrobatic, instrumental pursuit of how to contain politics in accordance with the law, and vice versa. According to this utilitarian approach ethics are pushed into being interpreted in calculative terms for the assessment of harm caused and wrong done to the ‘other.’ By this argument I contend that liberal democracy, supported by representational rhetoric, put up a barrier between morality and ethics on the one side of the division, and legality on the other.

In the praising of democracy, the way that determines that whatever is related to terror is entirely evil, leads to the rhetorical, prevailing language of propaganda reflecting a distortion of some other words as well. An example is the notion of the word ‘innocence’ as linked to ethics vs. legality. We acknowledge that Israeli ‘democratic’ children who are killed (murdered) by martyrs are considered by official Israeli spokesmen as more innocent than Palestinian children killed or murdered by Israeli helicopters, bulldozers or by mere bombardment (always by mistake!).

It is suggested that citizens of the democratic free world should start becoming more engaged in ideas and less in searching for proof, more in analyzing terms such as weapons of mass destruction than in searching for their location. If we are more attentive to what is meant by terms such as ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ as related to the terminology of terror, counter-terror, resistance, liberation terrorism, we shall find that the weapons of mass destruction are easily pinpointed. We may discover them located in some very well known sites on the western front of the middle east.

In the glorification of philosophy, we are reminded of Kant’s saying that there is relief in the act of philosophizing “even though one is not a philosopher.” It is a kind of agitation of the mind that means to undertake the role of an insomniac night watchman, a vigilant sentinel who defends himself against the torpor of doctrines by the practice of criticism.

Ethics, just as Aesthetics, have no rules for justification. There is no simple viable route for a moral or ethical proof. Even if there are rules for what should be described as moral consideration, they are inaccessible by their ethical nature. Since legality belongs to a calculative culture, it needs proofs, supported by factual evidence. Legality has to do with the complications of statutes and regulation of the law. But there are no proofs for morality. Liberal democracy’s obsession with legal assessments and evidential proof in order to validate statements ends with a disregard of the ethical judgment. Contrary to the doctrines of legality, ethical judgment can not be learned at school by imitating the scientific method. The ethical judgment reflects the eternal war between the rule and the case, the doctrine and the exceptional, where the case must be found for the rule, or the rule for the case, and that is something that cannot be learned, neither can it be taught. The ethical judgment must be exercised, “for more we judge the better we judge”.

In the name of Lyotard I will say that to be confronted with the exceptional case that necessitates the ethical judgment, is a kind of spasm, a salutary insomniac illness because it shakes us out of doctrinal torpor. If “Doctrines weave a spell that prefigures death, then insomnia prevents us from the very rest of forgetfulness.” In the Kantian sense, the ethical and the aesthetic experience is not an experience, but the effect of experience which is not empirical. We may conclude that to bring democracy forward by recommending that the ordinary citizen play the role of an insomniac night watchman means to stop being trapped by the rhetoric of the referent. But…to stop being persuaded by proofs, involves misery, agitation, and insomnia.

Spurning the proofs provided by ‘smoking guns’ in favor of insomnia is the turning point at which we start becoming restless, insomniac night watchmen – who stay alert to the vicious abuse of language. Just at the moment when our illusion concerning freedom of choice conditioned upon findings and proofs collapses, contemporary forms of liberal democracy will give way, in favor of insomnia. The gloomy conclusion is that liberal democracy by its nature keeps us in a permanent dream, providing us with endless observable referents. This is why positivism, phenomenology and constructivism are the leading philosophies in liberal democracies. These philosophies were invented to prevent us from being insomniacs. While totalitarian regimes invented prisons and guillotines for agitated, restless people, democracies discovered more ingenious means for narcoticizing its citizens.

Hence, if after all this we choose to escape the rhetorical disguise and take the hermeneutical path regarding meanings, are we ready for that long journey into the night?

[1] People are demonstrating in the name of political lobbies .
[2] Heidegger’s writings thematize the topic of language in a unique manner. Other great thinkers like as Wittgenstein, Carnap, Russel and Austin also stressed the same subject of language.
[3] L.M.Palmer (2002) Philosopy and Terrorism, a paper submitted to the IMISE Conference (Univ of Delaware, USA)


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