Uncivil Liberty: The labor of democracy never ends

Lewis Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly:

Released in the two-hundredth-anniversary year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Paddy Chayefsky’s script for the 1976 film Network finds the outraged television news anchor Howard Beale urging his viewers to rise up in revolutionary protest against a world in which “there is no America, no democracy,” only the vast and inhumane “dominion of dollars.” Beale names the twentieth century’s colossal capitalist cash machine as the equivalent of the eighteenth-century British Empire dominating a world in which the man or woman who would be free must stand and say, “I’m a human being, goddamn it. My life has value.” The home viewers have been slow in getting to their feet, but as this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly goes to the printer two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, they’re up from their chairs and out in the streets, mad as hell, insisting that their lives—black, white, and brown; young, old, and yet to be born; male, female, transgender, or none of the above—matter. The long-delayed uprising was provoked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, unarmed black man, age forty-six, arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill in a Minneapolis convenience store. A passerby took note of the incident with a cell-phone camera that sees Floyd in handcuffs lying facedown on the pavement. A police officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck holds the position for eight minutes and forty-six seconds; Floyd struggles to breathe until he loses all trace of a pulse.

The video is horrifying because the officer’s face lacks all trace of human feeling or expression. He seems neither to know nor care to know what he’s doing, which is violence being processed into mindless bureaucratic routine. He might as well be stamping an envelope or closing a box in an Amazon warehouse. Survivors of the Holocaust mention similarly empty faces of the Sonderkommando loading Jews into an oven. The video’s appearance on Facebook prompted the gathering of an angry crowd at the Minneapolis Cup Foods, smashing its windows, setting fire to nearby buildings and automobiles. By nightfall the video had gone viral, and within a matter of hours, revolutionary protests were springing up everywhere in the country, angry syllables of the great word democracy issuing from ten thousand pens, tongues, television screens, and social-media portals.

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