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The Winter of Images and the Fall of Thought: Looking Back on the American Presidential Election 2004-12-02
Farhang Erfani

By Farhang Erfani, Iranian-Americans political philosopher, Assistant Professor in Core Humanities, Villanova University, Philadelphia, USA

"Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between [people], and their beliefs -- in religion, literature, colleges and schools -- democracy in all public and private life." Walt Whitman

"Anyone who tries to affect the lives of our good citizens is evil." George W. Bush

 Today's election - or by now yesterday's election, as I write these words in the early hours of Wednesday morning - surprised me in a way. I know that most of my friends and colleagues are sad; so am I. They are sad because they thought Kerry could win; I did not. I am only surprised that it was this close, that Kerry almost had a chance. I am amazed that he carried so many states and that nearly half of the population voted for him. I never thought Kerry would win. Not for a second. War presidents do not lose. It is as simple as that.

I imagine how the rest of the world will wake up this Wednesday morning and curse us. People will wonder how this is possible. How could we reelect W? Those - and there seems to be lots of them - who think little of Americans will drink their coffee in the morning, convinced more than ever that we in America are naïve, that we are blind, and that we don't know what we do. Don't Americans know that the war in Iraq is a failure, people around the globe will wonder? Don't they know that there were no WMDs? Don't they know that America is isolated and allies no longer trust it? Did they not see the Abu Ghraib pictures? Didn't they see the largest organized protest in world history in February 2003? Were all those millions of people wrong? Do Americans believe that they alone are right? Don't they see that Al Qaeda is even more of a threat, with more recruits than before? Don't they see that the war has ruined them? Don't they see that the rest of the world adheres to international values and treaties that the president is proud to abandon? Don't they see that the Guantanomo legal limbo is an affront to everything that we have fought for, for decades if not centuries? Don't they see that the current Iraqi government is on path for dictatorship? Don't they know that "eye for an eye leaves the world blind," and that the war on terror is a never-ending, poorly defined, and thinly veiled excuse for abuse? Don't they see that this is a path to a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

With all due respect to the rest of the world - and many of us in America do respect the world - these are not the right questions. It seems that most Americans - Democrats AND Republicans - did know all of the above. Then the obvious question is: knowing all of that, why is W reelected (or elected for the first time)?

George Orwell once said "In time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary action." It is good to refer to Orwell since many call the Bush administration Orwellian…but, on this note, Orwell is wrong. The critics of democracy - all the way back to Plato - believe that democracy cannot grasp the truth; the champions of democracy, like Orwell, usually maintain that the problem is that people are not granted access to the truth. Democratic cheerleaders assume that if the masses were to know the truth, they would do the right thing, and that they would vote for the truth. This election fundamentally challenges this assumption. It should make us realize that this is at best an incomplete formula.

The rest of the world's democracies that mock the American one do not have a much better record. Is Chirac concerned about the truth? Is Berlusconi righteous? Is Blair devoted to getting it right? Does Sharon have a better sense of reality or justice? Is Mbeki dedicated to the people? In each democratic country, we find similar flaws. In each democratic country, intellectuals grumble and pout because the masses - to which they "obviously" don't belong - are fooled by political tricks. The people seem to like being lied to; they like a good show; they love the lowest common denominator; they don't read; they watch sports; they are impressed by TV; they go to the mall!!! (So do we - the intellectuals - by the way but we are not happy about it!) The people of these democracies are also discontent. Most people realize that they are betrayed and that their government does not work for them.

Let me make a suggestion: democracy is not essentially about voting. Even in Iran, Libya and Egypt people vote! We tend to quickly dismiss them but I believe that in some ways those pre-determined elections share some important features with ours that are supposedly free and authentic. The most common flaw in current democracies is that we reduce everything to the election. To be absolutely clear, let me say that I believe that elections matter. But if democracy was just that…then we are in trouble. Actually, it turns out, we are in trouble.

My wonderful wife and I voted. She volunteered for the Kerry campaign for most of her day and, at five o'clock when she was done, we went to the polls. We stood in line for almost half an hour. It took us about five seconds to vote. If this is democracy - five seconds every four years - then it is useless. If this is democracy, then we should not be surprised by the election's result. 

There is a reason I did not for a second believe Kerry could win. It is precisely because I knew that democracy has been limited to and defined by this small moment. For four years, most people turn democracy off their minds. They may follow politics, they may read the papers, but they are waiting for the next election. They do not behave democratically, since they think of democracy simply as voting. In a nutshell, Kerry could not win because, for the last three years, American politics has been frozen; it has been impossible to truly think politically. The frozen picture of 9/11 has halted all thoughts.


In the early hours of January 11th 2004, I was at the Luxembourg airport, kissing my parents goodbye, on my way back to the United States from a trip to France to visit them. The small airport was fuller than usual and we couldn't help but notice the remarkable number of other third-world travelers that morning. Without saying a word or making eye contact - for we all know better than that - we tried, like always, to get a good look at the other passengers, trying to guess their national origin, wondering about their final destination, and, most importantly, about the kind of passport they carry. Everyone knows the game and tries to guess how the others will fare at the security gates, at customs and at the immigration desk. Despite a total lack of guilt, we all nevertheless expect a level of scrutiny that would make any innocent person tremble and look suspicious. I know that other travelers undoubtedly engaging in the same activity of passport-peeking would envy my position in this unfortunate game. Compared to most, I am quite lucky. Carrying an American passport, married to an American, fluent in English, integrated in the culture, I am the predicted winner of a competition that makes losers of us all. Of course, I never breeze through security checkpoints - and I was in fact searched and questioned for fifteen minutes while my parents watched, and tried to hide the anxiety that comes from their own extensive experience - but all things considered, I have a better hand than so many others in this rotten deal. Once I finally passed security, I turned around, trying my very best to smile and look relaxed so that my parents could go home with a better last impression. In fact, I knew that I had about ten hours left to smile; a middle-eastern man with a smile on his face is far less alarming. In 1984, there is "face-crime".
 Like others of my ethnicity - I am Iranian by birth and was a refugee for many years - I am used to being the target of airport security. We always expect the worse and hope to be pleasantly surprised. I never thought - or even asked - that people of European descent would understand my position and I was often surprised that they asked me to understand theirs. The way a black man is supposed to honestly admit that he is nervous in the street in the company of another black that he does not know, I am often asked to admit that I too am nervous when I see a fellow young middle-eastern board on a flight.

Interestingly enough, this is no longer our special treatment - now everyone is suspect to some degree. The day before my flight, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben had published a brief essay - in the "point de vue" section of Le Monde  - denouncing America's new policy of fingerprinting and photographing most foreigners visiting the country. "I have no intention of submitting myself to such procedures," Agamben wrote, "and that is why I immediately canceled my course that I was supposed to teach in March at New York University." Agamben urges his European colleagues to follow suit and to refuse to submit to the "progressive animalization of mankind" that such "bio-political tattooing" involves. Agamben argues that we must oppose such a policy because "history teaches us that practices that were first reserved for foreigners are later applied to rest of the citizenry." In other words, this is the beginning of a slippery slope that could affect all citizens - not just me. In the same article, Agamben reminds us that he had elsewhere "written that the West's political paradigm was no longer the city state, but the concentration camp, and that we had passed from Athens to Auschwitz." Europe has its own specter of fascism - in France, Germany, Austria, and Agamben's own Italy!

 Our problem, despite Agamben's analogy, is different. Ultranationalism is our problem. Before pursuing this any further, I would like to add that thousands of third-world scholars and students have been denied visas or access to the United States for many years - even before 9/11. Even though I second Agamben's plea that we must resist these dangerous measures before they affect the "rest of the citizenry," I find it nevertheless unfortunate that it took an invasion of Europeans' rights before it became an issue.

How is this related to the original issue of the election? I suggested that democracy is not about voting - or that it cannot be reduced to voting - because an election should be the end-result of a long deliberative process, which usually does not take place.  In my view, this election was settled long ago because all forms of genuine questioning have been forbidden in America since 9/11. The logic of "you are either with us or against us," the diabolization of the Middle-East, the Patriot Act's invasion of privacy, the arrests of thousands of foreign-born citizens, the suspension of the rule of law and the clear contempt of the administration for rights - this supposedly outdated pre-9/11 ideal - froze the American political spectrum. Even worse, it reduced it.  

Let us not forget the president's own words, from his ranch in Texas on August 2002: the "spirit of courage and selflessness has shown the world why our nation is the greatest force for good in history." Can anyone - other than literally the devil's advocate - question the greatest good? After the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, the Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma expressed his "outrage at the worldwide outrage." He reminded us that these prisoners are "not there for traffic violations…they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents."  He added that many of these prisoners have probably "American blood on their hands." He of course did not address the fact that the Red Cross reported that seventy to ninety percent of these prisoners were "arrested by mistake," or that we simply don't - nor should not- do that even to murderers. 

This trend began right after the 9/11 attacks. Senator Trent Lott, who was then the US Senate Republican Leader, viciously attacked the Democratic Senator Tom Daschle who had asked very mild questions regarding the direction - and not even the legitimacy - of the planned war. Lott was quoted in the Washington Post: "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field"?  Daschle just lost his reelection bid. No one perhaps summed this all up better than the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee after 9/11: "to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists."

How can we expect the people to vote against the President after all this? How can we expect the people to vote for Kerry after the media treated the administration's claims like the Gospels? The conservative media juggernauts scared all. Only recently did the New York Times and the Washington Post publicly confess that they failed the public. They too were frozen by the image of 9/11.


An important distinction is needed. Many contemporary philosophers - such as Claude Lefort - distinguish between politics and the political. Politics is about the very institutions and the rules of the political machine. The political is the symbolic horizon within which political thought is possible. So when many of us decry the abusive practices of this administration, we are particularly concerned with the current frozen horizon of possibilities. In other words, this election was absolutely fair; it followed the rules; there were no major infractions; the candidates were given an almost similar treatment on television etc. In many countries, the very institution itself is flawed. Only some can vote; only some can be candidates; the elections are rigged. Here, the transparency of politics is deceiving. It does not reflect the narrowness of the political, which made John Kerry an impossible candidate. He essentially could not disagree with the president on most issues. The differences were on the surface. Kerry, after all, said that he believes in the doctrine of pre-emptive strike. The political horizon has been so reduced since 9/11 that it seems inconceivable to even argue against that!   

The constant narrowing of the political and the emphasis on voting - the legitimacy of politics - is not unique to America. We just experienced it to a greater degree. In all countries, the field of political alternatives and possibilities is reduced by the day and the status quo benefits from it everyday. It all looks legitimate. After all, the people have spoken!

What is to be done? Should we stop voting? Absolutely not! We should instead expand our political reach. In my view, democratic citizenship is a task, a job, or better yet, a labor. We have to be democratic everyday - not just every Election Day. I believe that democracy should be a character trait and that it ought to be continually exercised. If we instill these characters in our general communal practices, then we can expect more of our politicians. They lie to us and they manipulate us because they can and because we allow them to. They can misinform and mislead because we are not critical readers, thinkers, writers and participants. Unless we change the kind of people we are, every democracy around the globe will use the electoral process to advance anti-democratic agendas. The skills that we need for democratic citizenship - what I call the democratic character - cannot be turned on like an old car every four years.

What are such traits? This is not the place to expand on this idea too much but we can at least identify a few and they must be taken together. First, a democratic person - and not just a voter - is one who is dedicated to tolerance. Many citizens are unfortunately simply intolerant in most democracies. In fact they hope to express their intolerance through democracy. Second, a democratic person has to be dedicated to diversity. This applies to diversity of ideas as well as diversity of backgrounds and practices. Political Manichaeism of absolute good vs. evil won't do. Third, respect is required. In absolutely honesty, I respect and have respected all who have voted for Bush, even though I did not. I believe that they were mistaken and that they were harming Americans and other people in the long run. I always respectfully presented my perspectives. I teach in a fairly conservative campus and all my conservative students can testify to this respect. Without this respect, we cannot believe in democracy. Respect in America has eroded. Fourth, democratic people must always question themselves and their leaders; they have a duty to stay informed. This is much more difficult to implement given our media's tendency to pander, but we have access to a multiplicity of sources and we must use them. More importantly, we have to constantly question where we stand. Questioning the system is worthless without self-questioning. In this sense, I believe that our current pedagogical styles in universities cultivate this ideal. We ask our students to correctly analyze and understand difficult issues and to bring their own lives to it. The same skills must be exported beyond our campus walls. Fifth, we must accept uncertainty and open-endedness. The very structure of democracy reflects our incapacity to get it right once and for all. We have regular elections precisely because we are often wrong. Every few years, we get to say: "Sorry, we were mistaken; let's get those people out of office." Civil liberties also underline the same recognition. In democracies, the majority ties its own hands so that it does not violate itself and the minority's lives. This is often referred to as the Ulysses Strategy. There is no merit in respecting civil liberties and rights when everything goes well. It is in times of crisis that we must show to what extent we have learned from our own past and our tendency to make rash decisions. Adhering to civil liberties is a sign that one is truly democratic; after 9/11, we learned a thing or two about how democratic people really are and how quickly we dismissed rights.   

There are other features such as being reform-oriented, experimental and being willing to make constant adjustments. But there is another very important feature - which is particularly important for those of us on the left. We must accept that democratic politics is a losing battle. In general, no one can - nor should - influence it all. No one vision should prevail forever. That is the nature of democracy. Most of us cannot handle uncertainty in the very limited space of our private lives. We seek absolute certainty and we fault those who slightly disagree with us; we have no patience. If we cannot do that at home, how can we do it in the community?  

In the case of the progressives, we must accept that conservatives always win in the short run, and that we can perhaps win some battles in the long run. It is a frustrating life. Take it or leave it. We must be dedicated to the future and appreciate the weight of the status quo. When women protested in the 19th century for their right to vote, they knew they would not see it happen in their lifetime. Today even the most conservative politician in America would not dare question that right.

Many are terribly disappointed by the result of this election and I fear that they may abandon politics because we did not change American politics in one day. How could we have? Most of us have been silent for almost three years. It was an impossible expectation. We are up against a powerful conservative machine with no scruple. There is a good reason I referred to the labor of citizenship because I believe it is a difficult, long and painful task. If only elections mattered, then I too would give up on politics. But we know that voting is but a small part of the picture. The problem is that once we have voted, we withdraw from politics and wait. We become passive and then we wonder why elections turn out as they do. This is why I strongly disagree with Agamben's gesture. Deserting America is not the answer. All those who fought hard for Kerry and are now disappointed should not give up. We must continue the democratic fight everyday all the way to 2008 - and beyond - in order to have a different result.

To put this concretely, let me say a few final words about what I believe American progressives must do. Our main task is to open up the field of the political so that the election is no longer a scare tactic about terrorism and gay marriage. We cannot stop asking questions, we cannot disrespect the Republicans, we cannot become intolerant, and we cannot stop trying. We must exhibit those democratic characteristics everyday. I had mentioned that the frozen image of 9/11 has paralyzed the political spectrum. To overcome that, we must revive the political ideals of America that conservatives have asphyxiated. There is not one America. I love this country precisely because of its diversity, because of its dedication to trying different ways and different ideas. There is the America of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, John Ashcroft and the Bush dynasty that won the election. But there is also the America of Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tom Paine, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Dewey, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The conservatives have hijacked the American flag; but they do not own it. So if we are to expect to have a different election, we have to keep referring to this other side of America that is generous, committed to justice, pacifist and cosmopolitan. By enlarging the very meaning of America, we can also make alternative suggestions. Kerry could not have won because the conservatives turned every single one of his positions into an unpatriotic, un-American betrayal. The Democratic Party has lost because it is afraid of being called unpatriotic. I am ready to bet that for the sake of electoral success, they too will become hyper patriotic and conservative in the next few years. But the other side already occupies that position; no one likes squatters. Only the heartland seems to own America. But I too am a proud American and I refuse this monism. The very same way European Anti-Americanism is wrong to put us all in one small and over-simplified category, so are the conservatives.      

In these early hours of Wednesday morning, I take one last look at the television screen; the final electoral map is almost a carbon copy of 2000's. We really are frozen and paralyzed. There is work to do. I am about to leave for campus to teach. Today, I teach The Gospel according to Matthew (especially 15:38), Foucault and Sartre in different classes. It is early but I need to walk this night off. I need to breathe Pennsylvania's brisk Fall air and get ready. I am preparing for 2008; I am reading Walt Whitman.


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