Commentary & Opinion
12:20 pm
Fri August 30, 2013

Andrew Coates: On Democracy

My mother and my public school teachers taught me that the foundations of democracy were based upon centuries of struggle to protect personal dignity from the abuses of the state. 

We were taught that the everyday defense of democratic rights not only contributes to the common good, but elevates democracy to great common purpose, out of many, one: E pluribus unum.

The rights of people in the minority require protection in a democracy. We have all seen once-unpopular ideas become accepted wisdom -- and even the law of the land.

So the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington has provided a chance for sober reflection not only on how far we have come -- the revolutionary dimensions of the eradication of segregation -- but how also how, as the President pointed out in his speech this week, we remain so far from the goal of unalienable rights for each and all.

As a people African-Americans still suffer the systematic denial of basic rights, the legacy of slavery led not only to the systematic denial of civil rights but to the present disgrace of systematic imprisonment and new ways to deny basic civil rights. 

Thinking about recent current events from this view of democracy, the foundations of our republic appear to be in serious trouble.

Recent revelations about how the National Security Agency monitors all electronic communications -- and how whistleblowers (and their loved ones) are treated -- have revealed that the United States government has little use for the first and fourth amendments to the United States Constitution.

Holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for years without charge (and also for years after being cleared of any suspicion of wrongdoing) has been an ongoing repudiation of the fundamental democratic right of habeas corpus. Over one thousand years ago Anglo-Saxon common law established the right of protection from being "disappeared" -- imprisoned or exiled or captured by the state without charges before a judge.

International relationships can also be viewed through this lens. Following the mass atrocities of the Second World War the United States and its allies organized the International Military Tribunal known as the Nuremberg Trial. At Nuremberg it was established that unilateral military attack of one nation upon another was the supreme international crime. 

Nowadays military attacks by the United States upon other nations just seem to "drone" on. And now, on the eve of an attack on Syria, we hear the bizarre oxymoron of the need for "humanitarian war" from a White House ever more imperial, no matter who occupies it.

During the last three decades, with the spectacular accumulation of wealth by a few, and the accompanying immiseration of tens of millions of people, the United States has never been farther away from the equality of economic opportunity. 

The structure of our society promotes and defends not so much the wealthiest one percent, but the wealthiest one-ten-thousandth of one percent. Powerful interests, the great corporations and banks, maneuver our legislative and executive and judicial branches to their own ends. 

But a government that promotes and protects the property interests of the minority who happen to be the wealthiest in society is not what democracy looks like. The result is a dangerous time. We seem farther away from a discussion about the health and prosperity and personal dignity of each and all of us.

Defending the rights of the minority view is more important than ever. Voices and views that are unpopular to the mainstream today will save us all tomorrow.

Dr. Andrew Coates practices internal medicine in upstate New York. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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