This Is What Democracy Looks Like

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When protesters obstructed my path to the Libertarian/Green debate Tuesday night, I eventually gave up my cab and joined the scraggly unauthorized procession up 8th Avenue, the street being half-literately chalked in the photo above. It could have been any Hundred-Man March on any college campus, except for one chant that was new to me (and, thankfully, didn't include the words "hey hey, ho ho"): "This is what democracy looks like/This is what democracy looks like!" (Imagine a catchy, impatient rhythm of "BAP bap bap, ba-bap ba-bap bap bap.")

The sentiment, too, struck me as apt, and not necessarily in the way that the demonstrators intended. To my Californian eyes, New York City this week has been a teeming marvel of humanity in all its random glory and variety. When you haven't been to the Lower East Side since murderous shitbags massacred 2,762 people while aiming for 27,620 more, and when your most recent convention memory was of a city that sleeps (or at least closes bars) at 1:30 a.m., witnessing a Benetton-style parade of furious Bush-haters march past skeptical and funny cops while 15,000 Karl Rove and Jenna Bush look-a-likes line up for "Liberty Buses" even though Bangladeshi CB operators are ready to cab them across town … well, it can seem like a big, brawling beautiful mess, and a rousing advertisement for our democracy. Even the usually loathsome Mayor Bloomberg showed flashes of brilliance, saying of a nude protest over the weekend: "This is New York. Of course we had seven naked people on Eighth Avenue before. What's the question?" This wild, fabricated island—almost unrecognizable from the fear pit I remember from my first encounter in the Zodiac Killer summer of 1990—has rebounded from its injuries in way that inspires pure awe.

I was buzzing along with these thoughts & with that catchy "Democracy" chant in my head on the way home after Tuesday night, when an earnest, lone, Seattle-looking kid stopped me on the street. He was resting on one of the city's roughly 3,000 street barricades, several blocks from Madison Square Garden, holding a sign that read something along the lines of "This is what a police state looks like."

"What do you think of this sign, and the sentiment behind it?" he asked quietly.

I hemmed and hawed about sorta seeing where he was coming from, but thinking that this whole week had been kinda cool from all points of view, and that one of the best parts was how the protesters and cops and delegates and non-participating natives all seemed to be treating each other with as much respect as New Yorkers can be expected to muster, etc.

"But look around you," he said, pointing to a street a half-mile from the Garden, totally closed off and guarded by dozens of uniformed and plain-clothes police and dogs at 2 in the morning. "In an ideal world, we could have democracy without all this stuff."

In an ideal world, of course, Islamicist hijackers wouldn't have tried to earn their virgins by blowing us and themselves up. Instead, we live in the tense, heavily (and properly) disputed aftermath. How we respond to that fact, hunt down them that blew us up, and prevent future attacks, is the only political debate that matters, and it's not remotely a binary, black-and-white issue, no matter how many times that goo-goo notion was trotted out in the last week. "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," Rudolph Giuliani approvingly recited President Bush's famous quote Monday, in his firecracker of a speech.

We can only assume, since Rudy's God-given president has said so repeatedly, that Saudi Arabia belongs to the "with us" category. That would be the same totalitarian shit-hole of a country whose own Prince Al-Walid presented Giuliani a check for $10 million in October 2001, but only with the warning that the U.S. "should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause."

Back in those days, standing up to the routinely anti-Semitic calumnies and terrorism-spawning policies of the House of Saud was not high on Michael Moore's things-to-do list; it was more the concern of anti-"Arabists," right-wingers, and those that rail against "moral equivalence," including and especially America's Mayor, who rightly refused Al-Walid's dirty check, saying:

To suggest that there's a justification for [the terrorist attacks] only invites this happening in the future. It is highly irresponsible and very, very dangerous.

And one of the reasons I think this happened is because people were engaged in moral equivalency in not understanding the difference between liberal democracies like the United States, like Israel, and terrorist states and those who condone terrorism.

It's worth recalling that the Saudi press—which ranks among the least 10 free in a world not short on contenders, according to Freedom House—responded by saying

The words of [Prince Al-Walid] did not, of course, please the Jewish lobby in the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. Because the governor of the Big Apple is a Jew, he refused and caused a storm.

By Allah, I am amazed at your act, you Jew; everything Prince Al-Walid said was true…

What happened proves beyond any doubt the public insolence, the open hatred, and the collapse of American democratic theory. If democracy means a governor who is a homosexual in a city in which dance clubs, prostitution, homosexuality, and stripping proliferate – the U.S. can keep its democracy.

I guess someone has to make Rick Santorum look good. At any rate, the point of dredging up all this recent but seemingly ancient history is that the positive-sounding and attractive (to me, at least) Republican foreign policy vision of global freedom and democracy and toughness, articulated very well tonight by President Bush, nonetheless lacks five crucial elements: 1) Any sense at all of what this means next, for countries like Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia; 2) free acknowledgement of error; 3) a stark assessment of how we can actually afford to fight the next round of wars, given the current military stretching and utter lack of willingness of the rest of the world to provide significant money and manpower; 4) an "adult" admission that fighting even necessary wars forces a state to make expedient alliances with countries that are not only steadfastly opposed to any Middle East democracy project, but whose appalling misgovernance feeds tangibly to the global pool of terrorist manpower and financing; and 5) any shred of concern that supporting an ever-greater American role will, among other possibly beneficial things, increase the target on our backs.

I didn't expect George Bush to address these issues tonight; conventions are about winning elections, not pleasing Matt Welch. And, as much as I detested the two previous Democrat nomination speeches I covered, I think his was the least worst, and even came with some detail (I was pleasantly surprised that he even mentioned Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, though we are still in the uncomfortable position of taking his word for it that our influence in those two countries is producing better results than if we demanded of them the same democratic reforms that we rightfully urge of the Palestinian Authority).

And there's a missing No. 6 in that list above, which comes back to the original point of our earnest protest kid, and also to Zell Miller's obnoxious speech—what kind of country is Bush and the Republicans truly advocating that we become in order to win this war? In literally hundreds of articles and columns since Sept. 11, Reason magazine has attempted to illustrate how excessive secrecy, regulation in the name of security, and the expansion of the government's power to arrest and detain its own citizens is not only illiberal, but counter-productive to the very War on Terror that the measures were aimed to abet.

The Republican Convention reduced all of these issues to "we're the party with the spine, they're the party with the Camembert," as if the declaration of strength and resolve itself was enough to overcome and even render insignificant any problems with implementation. This may prove electorally effective, but it gives me no particular confidence.

All that said, at least Bush and his party-mates repeatedly addressed—even if by caricature—the only war that matters, not some transparently "I'm tough, too!" glory-days nonsense from back when I was six months old. Seems obvious to me that, from both a strategic and specificity perspective, the Republicans kicked the Democrats square in the tail. But I've been wrong before.

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