By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema
When retrieving my mail these days, I’m dismayed by the sheer volume of right-wing solicitations I find invading my mailbox. The mailings come from organizations such as Make America Great Again, The Trump Coalition, The Heritage Foundation, Citizens United, and the NRA. Though I repeatedly request to be taken off their mailing lists, I’m receiving more unwanted mail than ever.
How did this happen? I haven’t voted Republican or made a donation to one of their causes. Has a neighbor become upset over the yard signs I’ve erected over the years in my front yard and in retaliation submitted my name to right-wing think-tanks? Am I targeted for harassment until the end of my days?
More likely it’s because I’m part of the GOP’s voter demographic – older, whiter, richer, retirement-age, and living in the North End of Virginia Beach. The mailings contain a never-ending cascade of fear-mongering, scapegoating, hate, ignorance, denial, and lies. Some of these right-wing agendas are concealed by their use of voter surveys with questions that are blatantly biased in their attacks on the liberal media, the Democrats, and overall democratic values in general.
Is this the best that democracy can offer? Or is this the sign of a failing American experiment that was never actually realized? The amount of big money that goes into the political parties to buy elections and pay off politicians would indicate that we now live in an oligarchy. Corporations and billionaires call the shots, and elections are just a useful facade of democracy to fool the electorate.
There are anti-democratic forces in America that actively oppose an inclusive democracy that includes all citizens. They know that if the American people were to organize and vote, Republicans would soon be removed from power. The party works through state legislatures to remove people of color from voter registration lists and to make it more difficult for poor people to vote. We can take some small comfort in the increased media coverage that voter suppression has received since the last election.
But the subversion of citizens’ democracy is not just the agenda of the political right. The ongoing tactics of both political parties along with the media is to keep Americans divided over issues like abortion, healthcare, sexuality, gender, skin color, immigration, corruption, Russian meddling, collusion, and sex scandals. This has reached a new toxic level in the age of Trump. Voters are distracted away from confronting real issues like climate change, corporate crime, and perpetual war. At least now some of the newly elected Democratic populist progressives are gaining attention in their battles for the Green New Deal and Medicare For All.
The word “democracy” is among the most contested terms in the political lexicon. All good students know that the Greek etymology means “rule by the people”. But ever since the time of ancient Athens, it’s been a matter of dispute – just who make up the people? In the early days of our republic it was only property owners and white males. It has been an ongoing struggle for women, the poor, workers, and people of color to gain voting rights – and to keep them.
Democracy means myriad things to different people: free elections, free markets, free speech, majority rule, the dictate of the majority, civil liberties, individual rights, freedom from government intervention, privacy rights, and due process in a court of law. The forms of democratic governments can vary widely: direct democracy, participatory, representative, liberal, socialist, capitalist, left, right, and center.
Democracy is a process – a continuing struggle throughout history by competing factions to rule and make laws. Many countries that may may call themselves democracies are no longer functioning as such. They maintain the pretense of elections as a useful fiction. While in practice, the special interests of the wealthy ruling class and powerful industries make the rules. Some democracies have been all but extinguished by various tyrants and authoritarians, many of them funded by the U.S. and the western powers.
Everywhere we look, democracy is in trouble. Democratic institutions are being undone by neoliberalism, an ideology that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms. Neoliberal true believers advocate for free markets, the deregulation of businesses and banking, reductions in funding for social welfare for the poor, the cutting of taxes for the rich and corporations, and the growth of global finance capitalism. Over the last fifty years we’ve seen the outsourcing of traditional public services to private contractors. The public commons has been handed over to big business – education, infrastructure, public lands, water rights, national surveillance, military, and prisons – all are being privatized.
And the results of neoliberal policies in Greece, Puerto Rico, and other EU nations? Austerity measures that reduce social programs and health benefits for the poor, while slashing pensions for retired government workers. It’s a Faustian deal made by political leaders with banks to restructure loans and pay back bond holders. The indebted masses pay dearly for the enrichment of the financial class – and at no fault of their own.
These topics are tackled in the fiercely inquisitive new documentary from filmmaker Astra Taylor, “What Is Democracy?” showing at the Naro on Wed, April 3 with discussion. There is no single answer to the movie’s titular question. But instead a multitude of responses from philosophers, activists, a poet, politicians, trauma surgeons, and refugees. This is a documentary essay in the guise of an investigation. We soon learn that democracy is never actualized; it’s always an ideal. Democracy is the power of the people. The measure of a successful society is the happiness of its people. Happiness is a function of justice and equality.
The film travels the world and we hear from teachers and philosophers: Wendy Brown, author of “Undoing The Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution,” and from Silvia Federici, an American-Italian social scientist, and from Cornell West, the firebrand author and activist who teaches at Harvard University. Cornell asserts, “Every democratic experiment we know has been shot through with structures of domination. Athens was a slave-based democracy. The United States? A slave-based democracy.” Despite overwhelming obstacles, West still believes in the pursuit of an enlightened, global democracy.
“What Is Democracy” takes the viewer back to the debates of Plato and Socrates. in the ancient agora in Athens. Taylor reminds us of Plato’s warning – that the rich want to keep getting richer, forcing the poor into debt, and splitting society into two. The neglected and oppressed working class will turn away from democratic ideals and embrace a demagogue’s promises, thereby dooming democracy to degenerate into tyranny. It’s happened before and is happening again. Unregulated corporatism goes hand in hand with the rise of fascism.
“What is Democracy?” opens up the conversation to examine our cherished American values. What is capitalism? What is the free market? What is freedom? And to question alternative forms of government. What is socialism? What is communism? The film makes it painfully obvious that most Americans don’t have an understanding of these systems of government and economics.
Throughout our lives we’ve been taught many beliefs about our country that we’ve accepted as gospel truth. ’The Myth of American Exceptionalism’ is based on the assertion that we are the oldest democracy in the world – and therefore we are the one true democracy. This belief has enabled the many egregious transgressions that our government has made around the world – and that have received the backing of Americans. The slogan of ‘spreading democracy’ has routinely justified the invasions of Vietnam, Iraq, the Middle East, Central America, the Carribean, and now maybe Iran and Venezuela. But what in truth is being spread is neoliberalism and multi-national corporatism in the quest for oil and resources.
And then we have The Myth of Liberalism,, based on the belief that freedom, human rights, democracy, and justice exist only in the European tradition handed down by John Locke and the enlightenment. These values are invaluable in growing a civil society. But when the myth is abused and made exclusionary by the ruling class, we see social pathologies arise in society – ethnic nationalism, patriarchal rule, Christian nationalism, colonialism, and white supremacy.
Liberalism is not to be confused with the label applied to the liberal politics of the left. In fact, the political traditions of both the left and the right have arose from the tradition of liberalism. The libertarian wing on the right believes in small government and unregulated capitalism. The concept of freedom is conflated with beliefs in the free market and free trade. Libertarian freedom is perceived as constraining government from intruding into our private lives. This is the belief in freedom from – to do what one wants in the pursuit of one’s self-interest. As the popular Virginia license plate promotes, “Don’t Tread On Me.”
In contrast, the liberal wing has placed importance on human rights, welfare, and social services for the poor. Liberals think of freedom for the pursuit of better social conditions for minorities through government programs of education, and more equitable distribution of wealth. Liberals believe that the capitalist economy must be regulated by government or it runs amuck. Various socialist programs have arisen out of the politics of the liberal left.
There is a constant struggle between these opposing factions within the country’s legislative bodies – between freedom from and freedom for. Over the last several decades in this country, the libertarian, free market proponents have gained power. The political art of self-interest now rules in America.
We can just look around us and see the results of our government policies – half of Americans in or near poverty, a frayed welfare net, the most expensive health care in the world and millions remaining uninsured, a lack of funding for education and social programs. The wealthiest in our country have preyed upon the poorest, robbing them of their freedoms, comforts, and happiness. If there is to be a future, then the more difficult path of our common interest must be pursued.
What would a citizens’ democracy look like in this country? Very much like the social democracies of Europe. To get there will first require strict campaign financing laws and programs that benefit people. We’d need a transition to renewable green power, universal healthcare for all, free childcare and daycare, paid maternity leave, free public higher education, a guaranteed living wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and the regulation of banking and big business. Similar programs have been successfully implemented in Europe under democratic socialism.
Of course, American democratic socialism would look different than the European social democracies; our institutions have evolved in different ways. Democracy is an ongoing struggle. We have been just started to confront racism, sexism, and classism in this country. These issues must now be expanded to tackle imperialism, militarism, perpetual war, climate change, and unbridled capitalism. There’s no time to lose.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY
While gathering material for a segment of the ‘David Letterman Late Show’, Steve Young stumbled onto a few vintage record albums that would change his life forever. Bizarre cast recordings – marked “internal use only” – revealed Broadway-style musical shows produced at corporate conventions for General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford, DuPont, and Xerox during the heyday of the Mad Men era. Shows Tuesday, March 19.
Although Goebbels infamously declared Berlin “free of Jews” in 1943, 1,500 managed to survive the war in the Nazi capital. This gripping docudrama traces the stories of four real-life survivors who learned to hide in plain sight. Moving between cinemas, cafés and safe houses, they dodged Nazi officials and a dense network of spies and informants. This is their amazing story. In German with subtitles. Shows Wed, March 20.
The legendary artist Pablo Picasso was prolific up until his death in 1973. Many films have dealt with these later years – the art, the affairs and the wide circle of friends. But where did this all begin? What made Picasso in the first place? The film production visits the Picasso Museums in his three early homes of Malaga, Barcelona and Paris – and explores the early influences on the artist.Presented with Chrysler Museum. Shows Tuesday, March 26.
BIRDS OF PASSAGE
From the Oscar-nominated team behind the genre-defying Embrace of the Serpent, comes an equally audacious saga centered on the Wayúu indigenous people during a crucial period in recent Colombian history. Torn between his desire to become a powerful man and his duty to uphold his culture’s values, Rapayet (José Acosta) enters the drug trafficking business in the 1970s and finds quick success despite his tribe’s matriarch Ursula’s disapproval. A sprawling epic about the erosion of tradition in pursuit of material wealth. In Spanish with subtitles. Shows Wed, March 27.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Zain, a gutsy streetwise child must flee his negligent parents, surviving on the streets of Beirut, Lebanon by his wits. He meets and mercifully takes care of Ethiopian refugee Rahil and her baby son. He is jailed for a petty crime, and finally, seeks justice in a courtroom. Filmmaker Nadine Labaki made Oscar history as the first Arab woman nominated for an Oscar. In Arabic with subtitles. Shows Tuesday, April 2.
WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
“In practice, everywhere you look, democracy is in trouble.” And yet if we want to live within a democracy, we must first ask what the word even means. This new doc features a diverse cast – including celebrated theorists, philosophers, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, and former prime ministers. This timely film connects the past and the present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, in order to provoke and inspire. Shows Wed, April 3.
This acclaimed new documentary reveals the untold stories of Nicaraguan women warriors and social revolutionaries who shattered barriers to lead combat and social reform during Nicaragua’s 1979 Sandinista Revolution, the ensuing US-backed Contra War, and documents their leadership in the continuing struggle for social justice in Nicaragua today.
Shows Tuesday, April 16.