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Via Media

4 Jul

I was once asked to comment on a paper called “How to Subvert Democracy: Montesinos in Peru” in law school.

Montesinos was the Head of Intelligence in Peru in the ‘90s, when Fujimori was in power. Via SIN (how’s that for evocative language?), he bribed his bosses’ way into power. He paid off parliament members, judges, newspapers, and news television channels – this last he paid the most money of all. The authors provide several  explanations:

  • Television channel owners are generally richer than the average politician. In an endemically corrupt system, they get box seats.
  • Channels  influence public perception more than individual judges and senators do.
  • He had to buy all the news channels in order for his control to be effective, while he just needed “enough” judges and politicians.

Finally, they argue the fourth estate — gagging the press amounts bypasses democratic institutions, and thus a democracy produced a dictator. All fine points that miss something basic. Fujimori wasn’t a dictator.  He was formally elected, and not by a banana republic margin, even if he did wrangle himself a third term in power.  Once Peruvians found out about the scandal, he obligingly ran away. Besides, tyrants don’t pussyfoot around buying off television channels. They kill offensive journalists.

The capture of the media isn’t something Montesinos dreamt up, and it isn’t a symptom of corruption. It is a symptom of governance in sufficiently “evolved” societies. It undermines democracy, but that’s only relevant if one separates the idea of democracy from the working of democracies. Fujimori wasn’t a dictator, he was Eco’s Man from Television, an early model Clegg or Obama.

This is a president intent on charming the pants off the gullible, and the tragedy is that so many of these people exist. Democracy was to free us of the personality cult and encourage debate on policy. So where did all the skeptics of the liberals’ fond imagination go? Where are all those American people who should be wondering right about now why their country has such mystifying foreign policy? Why aren’t there more? Cos they’re all watching Gossip Girl and Survivor: Tiny Island. What about all the Indians who should be wondering why our government puts people into ghettos? We, too, are watching Gossip Girl, but then we live within an empire, so ’tis to be expected.

For decades, people like Guy Debord have warned us of the difference between spectacle and symbol, of the inhumanity in being an audience to suffering. I won’t go into the whole capitalism-alienation-apathy argument here, but surely tis evident that the mass media isn’t geared for a thinking citizenry. If a thinking citizenry is what democracy demands, we doom ourselves to failure. This isn’t subversion of democracy, it is annihilation, and it happens everywhere.

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