It's been a disturbing week for anyone who cares about the potential of democracy to have a positive impact on the world, who tries to believe that democratic ideals might one day dominate human interactions and rid the world of at least some of its shameful inequities and hideous stupidities. This week, three news items seem to triangulate, pointing toward an inescapable conclusion: that democracy doesn't, never has, and probably never will rule the world – or even any significant portion of it.
First, there is the growing realization that nothing will come of the imminent Copenhagen climate talks, which are ostensibly intended to produce a new agreement to take the place of the failed Kyoto Accord. Not only is Canada not a leader in these talks, we are actually viewed as an active obstacle to their success. Sir David King, the UK's former chief science adviser, for example has stated that our country “oppose[s] demands for stringent emission reduction targets at the behest of powerful business lobby groups, such as the energy companies' push to exploit Canada's oil sands.” Quite a blow to our view of ourselves as one of the world's 'good guy' nations.
In related news, the Harper government also said this week that it won't bother coming up with new emissions reduction targets until a new international agreement is in place—which won't be for a few more years (and more likely never). This is nothing new for Canada, a country that, under the Cretien Liberals, never made any serious effort to meet its obligations under Kyoto.
Meanwhile, down in the United States, president Barack Obama continues to push through his milquetoast health care reforms. During the 2008 election, he spoke of two 'extremes': those who wanted a 'one payer' system (like Canada's) on the left and those who wanted each individual to pay for their own care on the right. His government, he promised, would take the middle path. Unfortunately, Obama's middle path involves the maintaining of a status quo where private insurers continue to rake in massive profits at the expense of the citizenry. The health insurance market in America is anti-competitive, with two insurers typically setting the prices in any given 'market'.
Once more, money trumps justice and democracy. Want proof? Where, a couple of years ago, the medical and pharmaceutical industries financially backed the Republicans (as the enemies of reform), they now back the Obama Democrats. Want more proof? How about the fact that Obama could solve the Palestinian problem with one phone call to Israel threatening withdrawal of US support if Israel doesn't sign off on a workable deal within twelve months? Instead he stands on the sidelines and pantomimes outrage as Israel expands its presence in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, back up north, allegations surfaced this week of a conspiracy to bury allegations of the torture of Afghan detainees, a conspiracy that may reach the very highest levels of the Harper government. According to Richard Colvin, the former number two man in the Canadian embassy in Kabul, “we detained, and handed over for severe torture, a lot of innocent people.” Colvin claims that diplomats were instructed by top members of the foreign affairs department not to keep written records of torture allegations. He also claims that his own warnings about this issue were repeatedly ignored. Clearly, Canada's obligations to its oil-hungry southern neighbour trump its commitment to human rights.
In each of these three examples, the good of the people and their planet is subverted and thwarted by 'democratically-elected' leaders. In each case there is one common denominator: money. Money dictates health care, climate, and human rights policies (and if you don't see how Canada's alleged actions in Afghanistan would be prompted by moneyed interests, I won't bother to explain).
Some determined optimists would argue that there are hopeful signs. These people would claim, for example, that, on the local level, democracy sometimes works. Maybe, but if so it's likely only because there's not that much at stake. Human rights and global disaster aren't determined at the local level. Local groups and governments can push for canvas bags and community gardens, town councils can declare themselves against nuclear power or pesticides, but none of that will stop the exploitation of the tar sands or get a Copenhagen Accord implemented. None of that will save us.
In a way, the relative workability of the local acts as a kind of buffer between individuals and the behemoth of the state. It distracts us; it keeps us feeling faint hope; it stops us from getting too angry; it's a placebo.
And while all this is going on, Sarah Palin prepares to release the hounds in her new 'autobiography' to be published this coming Tuesday. As America begins to devour the still-warm corpse of failing saint Barack Obama (approval rate 48% and dropping), Palin will be back on our virtual horizons, slavering, preening, and trying to position herself as the next saviour when, in truth, nobody with any real power is thinking about saving anything. Meanwhile, Michael Ignatieff will stand in front of his mirror, practicing the sort of smile that he prays will make him look like a Kennedy-esque idealist even as our own prime minister smoothly deflects questions about Afghanistan torture and oil sands planet-icide.
And you or I? What are we to do in the face of all this? It's an interesting question. Attempting to support Obama was the last gasp of my own idealism. I now stand with my eyes wide open, under no illusion that anyone other than ourselves can save us.
Clearly, voting in national elections doesn't, in and of itself, result in anything that can rationally be called a 'democracy' insofar as producing a government whose primary mandate is the well-being of the populace is concerned. Clearly, being a good citizen won't stop torture or save the planet.
So what now? More next week.