Culture » September 3, 2003
Don’t Be an Idiot!
The Greek word “idiotes” referred to people who were so self-involved they focused on their own life and were ignorant and uncaring about the common good.
By “idiots,” I’m referring to more than the constant charge that we’re all a bunch of dummies. That’s just manufactured media fluff. Far from being a nation of numbskulls, people (and especially young folks) are smarter than ever. But to what end?
The original Greek word “idiotes” referred to people who might have had a high IQ, but were so self-involved that they focused exclusively on their own life and were both ignorant of and uncaring about public concerns and the common good.
Such people were the exact opposite of the Athenian democratic ideal of an active citizenry fully involved in the civic process, with everyone accepting their responsibilities to each other and all of humankind. This is the ideal that Jefferson and Madison built into our nation’s founding documents, the ideal that Lincoln embraced when he spoke of striving for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” the ideal that Justice Louis Brandeis was expressing when he wrote that “The most important office” in our land is “that of a private citizen.”
Be an involved citizen? Forget about it, Jake. Don’t waste your time. Get a job, keep your head down, play the lottery, don’t be different, take a pill, watch “reality TV,” buy things, play it safe, live vicariously, don’t make waves, pre-pay your funeral. Oh, and on those big questions—such as economic fairness, going to war, “rebalancing” that liberty/security equation, and the shrinking of democracy itself—don’t hurt your little gray cells by focusing on them, for there’s not a lot you can do about them, we know more than you do, and don’t worry … we’ll take care of you. Go about your business—be a good idiot.
Come on, America, that’s not us! Don’t let BushCo and the Kleptocrats steal our country and trivialize We The People as being nothing more substantial than passive consumers who can even be made to cower in duct-taped “safe rooms” whenever the governing authorities shout “Code Orange!” out their windows. (How pathetic is that?)
America wasn’t built by conformists, but by mutineers—we’re a big, brawling, boisterous, bucking people, and now is our time!
Our democracy is being dismantled right in front of our eyes—not by crazed foreign terrorists, but by our own ruling elites. This is a crucial moment when America desperately needs you and me to stand as full citizens, asserting the bold and proud radicalism of America’s democratic ideals.
You think democracy asks a lot of us—too many meetings, too much risk of getting your name on Ashcroft’s database, too much confrontation with authority? Try walking a few miles in the shoes of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma’s military thugs would love to kill her, and the threat of this is a constant reality in her life, but for now they know that they could not withstand the popular explosion that would follow such a murder, for she’s the symbol of the people’s suppressed democratic yearnings. Instead, they held her under house arrest for seven-and-a-half years, and, though she was officially released last year, she is hounded, harassed, monitored, and followed everywhere she goes in an effort to intimidate her and Burma’s other democracy activists. They wish she would leave, but she wouldn’t even go to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991, because she feared she would not be allowed to re-enter her country.
“Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?” –Old Irish sayingBe my guest. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of fights to join these days. Fortunately, however, we’re a country of democracy fighters, and you can join one or more wherever you are—or start your own! I don’t mean to fight for fighting’s sake, but fight to take our country back.
Join Global Trade Watch to stop the latest sovereignty-choking glob of global greed called Free Trade Area of the Americas, which “frees” corporations to privatize everything from schools to postal services in your city or anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, whether we want it or not (www.tradewatch.org).
Join the millions of people working in cities all across our country to stop Ashcroft and Ridge from getting local police to assist in federal surveillances, interrogations, and other autocratic actions that violate our civil liberties and constitutional rights (www.bordc.org).
Join a growing number of grassroots organizations daring to confront the very heart of corporate power by challenging the absurd notion that a corporation is a “person”—a fiction that, ironically, gives these paper structures more power than a real person has, or, as we’ve seen, more power than an entire nation of actual living, breathing persons (www.reclaimdemocracy.org).
Join the fight for living wages in your city, the fight to reclaim our public airwaves, the fight to make public schools work again, the fight to stop redlining and predatory lending, the fight to let patients and doctors decide about medical marijuana without the police intruding, the fight for public funding of your local and state elections, the fight to [FILL IN YOUR FAVORITE HERE]:
Don’t wait on “heroes” or national leaders. Be your own hero—everyone can do something, everyone makes a contribution. Everyone who does any heavy lifting in the democratic cause is a hero. As writer Elbert Hubbard noted a century ago, “God will not look you over for medals, degrees, or diplomas, but for scars.”
The important thing to know is that you are wanted. You are needed. You are important. You are not only what democracy counts on, you are what democracy is.
Thomas Paine saw in America something breathtaking, which he expressed as the opportunity to “start the world over again.” Paine and others got America off on the right foot, but our leaders have stumbled badly of late. That’s why we have to step in now. You and I have the chance to bring our great country back to the ideals that launched it, ideals that remain gently nestled in our hearts.
Live your ideals.
Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to In These Times magazine, or make a tax-deductible donation to fund this reporting.
Jim Hightower is the author of six books, including Thieves in High Places (Viking 2003). A well-known populist and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, he currently writes a nationally-syndicated column carried by 75 publications. He also writes a monthly newsletter titled The Hightower Lowdown, and contributes to the Progressive Populist.