In an attempt to make the naturalization exam more “meaningful,” the US Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services recently announced that it was revising the testing content so that it dealt more specifically with an applicant’s understanding of democracy rather than trivia.
Citizenship candidates used to face occasional “gimme” questions like “What is the color of the President’s house?” Now it sounds like they’ll be expected to have a working knowledge of the most ambiguous tenet of American politics: how our democracy actually works.
The term democracy suggests a government by the people. “By the people” obviously implies governance determined by the majority of the people. This makes sense, but it doesn’t describe our government, because most of us voted for Al Gore in 2000. Our democracy isn’t always helmed by officials elected by a majority.
If you paid attention in school you may recall something a bespectacled instructor mumbled about “representative” democracy, but this concept is suspect as well. The idea of a representative democracy is predicated on equal or fair representation, and we know this is a farce because women are scarcely represented in our government, not to mention minorities, who, though they may be better represented than women, still don’t command political clout commensurate to their numbers. If we’re honest, we have to concede that the United States has never seriously flirted with the concept of true democracy, much less a legitimate version of representative democracy.
To get real representation in Washington these days, you must pay for it. We’re a “remunerative” democracy. That’s what President Bush meant when he addressed his $1,000-a-plate campaign dinner guests as the “haves and the have-mores.” His favor was bought and paid for. Corporate conglomerates like Halliburton and Exxon-Mobile paid a mint to make sure their financial interests and policy concerns were served and protected. And they were -- to the tune of obscene profit margins. Under our 21st century “remunerative” democracy, then, wealthy folks and corporations are the only fully “represented” citizens and the rest of us are lucky if we’re 1/100th or 1/1000th of a “represented” citizen.
It brings to mind another hazy recollection of American history. Under the 18th century 3/5 Compromise to the US Constitution, slaves were designated 3/5 of a human being for taxation purposes. The American slaves weren’t allowed to vote and the horror of their plight is obviously dissimilar, but an analogy between American slaves and the contemporary American middle and lower classes is not absurd. We have better living quarters and more rights, but we do most of the work, our economic standing is similarly limited, we receive a fraction of representation compared to that of our wealthy corporate masters and, ultimately, our votes don’t really count.
We may not be slaves, but we are enslaved. By materialism, debt and fear. And like slaves, our existence and the governance thereof are sold to the highest bidders come every national election. In fact, it’s no stretch to say that in our remunerative democracy our so-called elections are simply auctions.
Perhaps the Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services is on to something. If citizenship candidates understood that the American way is now largely just a cushy form of state-sanctioned slavery, they might think twice about migrating here.
E. R. Bills is a writer from Ft. Worth, Texas. His recent works have appeared in Dissident Voice, Fort Worth Weekly and Flashquake.
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