The “Democratic Deficit”

Question: What is the most dysfunctional thing about American democracy? 

Noam Chomsky:  American democracy is what we call a "guided democracy" in countries that we don't like, like Iran.  So in Iran, elections are, putting aside questions of the credibility of elections, elections are—the candidates are vetted by the clerical leadership.  Guardian council decides who can run. 

We're pretty much the same.  Here candidates are vetted by corporate interests. The way it's done is, that unless you have huge corporate financing and support, you just can't run.  [Barack] Obama won over [John] McCain, primarily because the financial institutions liked him better, so poured money into his campaign much more than McCain.  And if you check funding and polls, you find that the advertising and so on, in fact carried him over the edge.

And that's true all the way along.  Elections are basically bought.

Congress, for example, has very low ranking among the population; it's in the teens sometimes.  Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of incumbents win.  What does that tell you?  It tells you people are voting for candidates that they don't like, because they don't have any choice.  These are fundamental defects in the democratic system.  It's a huge “democratic deficit,” as it's called and it shows up.  There's a very sharp division between public policy and public attitudes on a host of major issues.

In fact, both political parties are well to the right of the population on a great number of critical issues and the population feels they can't do anything about it.  So, for example, last polls I saw about this, about eighty percent of the population said the government doesn't work for the people—it works for a few big interests looking out for themselves.  Well, that's eighty percent of the population, but if you had asked the next question—they didn't do it—well, what are you going to do about it?  People probably would have said, well, I can't do anything.  There's no way to do anything about the fact that the government's in the pockets of the rich and a few big interests—corporate interests primarily.

That feeling of helplessness, impotence, everything is run by somebody else, I can't do anything about it—that reflects a democratic deficit.  These are enormous problems with the way the democratic system functions.  There's something similar in most places, but the United States is pretty extreme in this regard, among the industrial democracies.

Recorded on: Aug 18, 2009

Noam Chomsky explains why "that feeling of helplessness" and "impotence" is the natural response to American democracy.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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