Democracy Lite

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

By Robert Koehler

(The column was written in October 2002)

Looks almost like the real thing, this processed governance product for the new millennium — “democracy lite,” you might call it. Comes with elected representatives, a mass media, bunting, hoopla and the same soaring ideals as the Lincolnesque version.

Caution: Democracy lite has nothing to do with the nation’s actual decision-making process; that occurs separately.

Thus we move ever closer to a $200 billion war — the invasion of an impoverished country of 23 million people and the reckless risking of regional if not global chaos — without debate, without self-doubt or internal discord. With democracy lite, we’re relieved of the burden of having a voice in the future of the planet, war and peace, the sanity of the species. Whatever is done in our name, rest assured, the details will remain vague.

In lieu of having a say about the real world, we get reality TV, among myriad other diversions, and a thriving pop culture, which recently spawned a video game called “Conflict: Desert Storm.” Show your patriotic spirit; play war at home while the real one rages. Here, for $49.99, is a chance (at last!) to assassinate Saddam Hussein. The game gives you crosshairs, virtual blood and a tough-guy slogan with the crackle of current headlines: “No diplomats. No negotiation. No surrender.” (Congressional approval pending.)

Oh Lord, the heart breaks. Reality blurs, the sense of citizenship atrophies. Under the democracy lite diet, you die a slow death of discouragement. Where are the leaders with the courage to stand up to the empire builders, the Axis of Oil? And then one day you figure it out. “We the people …”

“If the United States sends combat troops, invades by proxy, or otherwise significantly escalates its intervention in Iraq, I pledge to join with others to engage in acts of civil disobedience at U.S. federal facilities, congressional offices, military installations or other appropriate places. I pledge to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in order to prevent or halt the death and destruction such U.S. military action causes the people of Iraq.”

This is the Pledge of Resistance (, and no, I haven’t signed it, but I salute it: democracy by other means. Civil disobedience has a long and venerable tradition in our society — where would we be today without the sit-ins and lie-ins and sheer refusals to move that propelled the civil rights movement? — but it’s scary to contemplate no matter which side you’re on.

If you’re against the cause in question, you’ll groan at the messiness and inconvenience it may create or avert your eyes in embarrassment at the spectacle of people acting out of unfashionably deep beliefs.

But if you’re for the cause, or merely suspect that you are, believe me, the thought of civil disobedience is far more troubling, because it challenges you to draw a line: Yeah, sure, I’m against us going over there and all, but I’m not sure if I’m that against it. No, I don’t want to see innocent people bombed and don’t think we should set a bad example about preemption for, you know, India or Pakistan, but isn’t just feeling that way good enough? I’m against starting World War III, but I’d hate to risk a $50 fine over it.

We live in a time when citizenship, belief and deep commitment have the cracked-leather feel of archaic terminology; there is only a narrow bandwidth of acceptable behavior thus motivated, beyond which the label “fanatic” is too easily applied.

Even the middle-aged woman standing outside the movie theater the other night, merely gathering signatures on a petition against the war, seemed discordant and borderline fanatic, dropping the war smack into everyone’s night out. What a contrast: the chattering, giggling crowds of people on their way to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the lone voice intoning, “Stop the war with Iraq!”

Reality is troubling; you hesitate to give it eye contact. But it’s coming to a theater near you.