America Ain’t Fifth-Century Athens

Autumn looms and presidential elections will soon roll around, like droppings pushed by dung beetles. We will be exhorted to vote. Better advice would be not to vote. The proper response toward what we occasionally imagine to be democracy, methinks, is to retain one’s self-respect by not participating in it.

Voting in particular is an embarrassment, being a public display of weak character and low intelligence. Let us face the truth: Democracy, like spitting in public or the Roman games, is the proper activity of the lower intellectual and moral classes. It amounts to collusion in one’s own suckering.

The United States of course is not a democracy but a wonderfully crafted pretense. We have separated the results of elections from the formulation of policy. It is a neat trick: Voting distracts the rabble without disturbing the government. You cannot possibly—can you?—believe that your vote will change anything of importance? That it will end the flood of semi-literate Mexican proletarians who join our own? Divert the schools from their ghettoish apotheosis of the mentally lame and halt? Cause governmental behavior to rely on merit instead of race, creed, color, sex, and national origin?

No. These things are determined remotely by lobbies, by criminals, and by forces that have no name. If you are lucky, you may be able to change parking regulations.

Given that democracy is pointless, and participation in it a sign of a weak mind, what is the wisest attitude toward the government?

That of a tick toward a cow. Nothing else makes sense. The central question of American government is not what mountebank shall be president or what eructations of mendacity he may devise. The question, almost the only question, is whether the government can get more from you than you can get from it. One picks pockets, or one’s pockets are picked.

The clever or well represented—the racial lobbies, defense industry, teachers unions, feminists, AIPAC, big pharma, oil, corporations—suck money from the government. In turn the government gnaws like a hagfish at the entrails of middle-class people moldering in cubicles. These spend their lives in jobs they hate to buy things they don’t want, such as half-million-dollar houses in the suburbs, so as to pay taxes. Elections give them a sense of having a stake in their flensing: The government is their hagfish.

Clearly taking part in this is unwise. What then do you do?

First, and most important, stop regarding yourself as part of government. Government doesn’t concern itself with you; why should you concern yourself with it? The change of attitude provides both relaxation and perspective.

Next, avoid governmental impositions. There are many. Military service is the worst of them. Don’t go. A little man in Washington, whom you have never met and wouldn’t talk to over a back fence, tells you to kill people who have done nothing to you in a foreign country you may never have heard of. Does this seem reasonable?

Finally, cultivate apathy, which is cheaper than Prozac and works better. You do not worry about what you do not care about. I do not propose a depressed scowl at life, but merely a wholesome indifference toward those forces malign and otherwise over which you can have no influence.

Better yet, enjoy the onrushing atrophy. Is the United States going to hell, western civilization being subverted, knaves scuttling like fetid crabs through the corridors of power and nitwits ravaging the schools in the manner of monkeys in a fruit store? (Yes, actually.) Relish it for the splendid historical theater that it is. A better spectacle there cannot be.

I say this seriously. If you regard yourself as audience rather than participant, the accelerating collapse becomes entertainment. You read each morning’s headlines with zest to see what new and preposterous clownishness erupts from Washington. It is high comedy. Just now Mr. Bush wants to tighten the embargo on Cuba because of its violations of human rights; meanwhile Mr. Bush is running a torture camp at Guantanamo. We have a war on poverty that perpetuates poverty, a war on drugs that guarantees availability by keeping prices up.

I doubt that Mark Twain could make such things up.

A huge gap separates those who, on the one hand, eat their souls up over things they can’t change, and those who, on the other, focus on their friends, family, children. You probably have a sense of what is right, wrong, moral, decent, and just. To these, I say, you owe allegiance. To nothing else.

A wholesome apathy does not mean giving up a love of music or travel or dogs or books or contemplation of starry skies should the pollution clear momentarily. Nor does it mean lack of concern for those around you. It does mean, or more correctly require, moral self-determination insofar as it is possible.

The wise recognize that they are insignificant atoms and set their course accordingly. Yes, in a small town enjoying sovereignty over its institutions, participation might make sense. You might expect to have an influence over matters material to you. If you wanted the high school to offer advanced classes in mathematics for your advanced child, you would stand a reasonable chance of persuading the school board, and finding a volunteer teacher if need be.

But today you are merely a minor source of taxes. It is reasonable therefore to regard governments not as enemies—they are larger than you are and will usually win—but as intricate puzzles. If the government won’t school your children, do you home-school? Move to France? Can you qualify for some form of welfare and have the government support you instead of you, it? Are laws more to your liking in Thailand?

To what, then, you might ask, does one owe allegiance? A better question might be: Why should one owe allegiance to any distant group beyond one’s influence? Yes, I know: The dog-pack instinct dominates human behavior. It is why we have wars and teen-age gangs and attach ourselves furiously to football teams. Patriotism, meaning an irrational attachment to whatever country we were born in, comes naturally. But does it come reasonably? To use the tired but effective example, should you be loyal to your country’s government if it begins operating torture camps in, say, Bergen-Belsen or Treblinka or, once more, Guantanamo?

Or should you do what you believe to be right, decline to be herded like cattle, and live decently in the interstices of things? These at least are choices not as humiliating as voting. Those who wash regularly should not stoop to democracy.

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