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Attention Deficit Democracy, by James Bovard

Electoral politics is an ugly, messy business by all accounts; it is one that I wish to avoid as much as possible. So how to account for my eager anticipation of James Bovard's latest book, Attention Deficit Democracy? Two simple reasons: first, Bovard, like Vin Suprynowicz, is one of very few journalists who are both pro-freedom and willing to dig to get to what's behind the pretty scenery that's propped up for show -- which is what most of the mainstream media are content to report on; and two, it helps to know what those who want to throttle you are up to.

Attention Deficit Democracy, unlike previous books by Bovard, examines American citizens' behavior as much as it does the politicians who foist their wills upon the citizenry. And, it must be acknowledged, politicians succeed in doing that far more than we pro-freedom individuals care to admit. Bovard bares the crux of the matter in one of the strongest chapters of this twelve-chapter book, Lying and Legitimacy:

If a businessman knowingly made false claims for a product and the resulting carnage killed over a thousand people who purchased his goods, the clamor for stringing him up would be near universal. Yet, when a politician does the same thing, millions of Americans hail the malefactor as a strong leader.

Why do people fail to draw adverse inferences from the lies of their rulers? This is one of the biggest mysteries in contemporary democracy. A politician can be caught lying time and again. Yet because they are presumed benevolent, their lies are treated as if they were benign. (p. 104)

The answer's given away in the book's title, although some will probably refuse to see that. In the vernacular popularized during the Clinton presidency, It's the democracy, stupid! The process is what has allowed this grand experiment in liberty go so horribly awry. That's not a comfortable truth to admit; indeed, many pro-freedom individuals cannot admit to it, instead preferring to think that their brand of leashitarianism will be better than the others. And of course, anyone who's plugged in to the system hears reassurances of the sort Bovard presents in unvarnished form in chapter two, Ignorance and the Mirage of Informed Consent: democracy is easy and effortless; the cream magically rises to the top, just as in the dairy business. Unfortunately, the simile of sausage-making is much more apt for the electoral political process. Bovard knows that and shows it throughout Attention Deficit Democracy.

While a scathing examination of the Bushnev presidency, Bovard knows full well that the left and right are wings on the same bird of prey, and when the context calls for it, spreads his birdshot widely in Attention Deficit Democracy. An especially effective example is his challenging of the popular myth that democracies are more peaceful than other forms of coercive government; on page 193, Bovard lists in chronological order the countries America has attacked or invaded since World War II. Not content to knock Rummel's oft-cited assertion, Bovard returns to the subject in Democracy vs. Liberty:

Surprisingly, Bush's bastardizing of freedom has stirred no controversy. Instead, people who should know better have embraced his Orwellian distortions. R.J. Rummel, professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, is the most vocal proponenet of the democratic peace. In early 2005, Rummel urged the destruction of American freedom to prevent any loss of support for Bush's military crusade to spread democracy. .... Rummel hectored that we cannot afford to have the media freely providing aid and comfort to the enemy. The stakes are too high. Rummel justified censorship because, if the media did not cease undermining Bush's war, terrorists would launch an attack on U.S. cities and survivors will violently attack reporters, commentators, and the offices of the media they believe to be partly responsible.[] Censorship thus becomes necessary to save democracy, which will save freedom, except for the censorship. (pp. 238-239)

That bit of dry wit is vintage Bovard, and is plentiful throughout Attention Deficit Democracy. Such Menckenesque touches are much appreciated, particularly when considering some of the pieces Bovard puts together for his readers, such as Dick Cheney's execrable falsehood regarding the first time he ever met Senator John Edwards (pp. 89-91). Indeed, Bovard's sprinkling of humor is often the only thing that's kept me from putting his books down in disgust at what he's revealing. He's an amazingly durable messenger for what is uniformly thoroughly depressing news. Keep an eye on his subheads for memetic, amusing gems including: Voting levers as bogus kevlar; Degrading liberty in the name of democracy; and The right to lie for 72 hours, which another way of thinking about the "reset button" American politicians seem to be able to press with frequencies approaching those by rats with electrodes placed in their brains' pleasure centers -- and with just as little enduring consequence.

Focusing as it does on documenting a problem in the American political process, it's a sure bet Attention Deficit Democracy will be criticized for failing to offer solutions. I'd counter that first, this isn't an activist book, it's a journalistic book; and second, a close reading of the concluding chapter does provide such information, in a broad sense. To wit:

George Orwell observed in 1944, The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onward is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian.[] Similarly, the sin of most political activists today is that they want to be anti-conservative or anti-liberal, anti-Republican or anti-Democratic, without being anti-Leviathan. But it will take more than changing the names and party affiliations of the people violating the Constitution to revive American liberty. It will take more than denouncing and demonizing opponents to restore the Bill of Rights. (p. 250)

You know, there's a third reason why I enjoy Bovard's books: he typically kicks statist ass like nobody's business and I'm always happy to be privy to that. He delivers a fine one here, as usual. Even better, it's an equal-opportunity whupping that's well-suited to sharing with non-libertarians. Despite my strong rhetoric above, Bovard's presentation is not generally threatening to a mainstream person who's genuinely interested in gaining greater insight into the political problems America faces, at home and abroad. Pro-freedom readers won't be surprised at Bovard's theses and documentation, but they might get an uncomfortable jolt or two along the way. Consider that Bovard's attempt to help achieve the "eternal vigilance" that's vital to liberty, and so widely lacking today.

 

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