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The decisive moment: John Berger interviewed

John Berger
26 October 2004

openDemocracy: Why do you think that the current presidential election in America is so significant that it demands people turn out and vote?

John Berger: I can count a good number of American friends, men and women, most in Europe it’s true but not all; who, not because they are unpolitical but for various reasons, have rarely or never voted. All of them now are determined to vote. I hope this is reflected in the turnout. It is not for you or I to tell Americans what to do. But it seems to me that as a non-American we can say why this election is unlike any presidential election we have seen in our lifetimes.

We’re talking for your web publication which is called openDemocracy. It seems to me that the choice in America is between keeping democracy open or closing it.

Let’s go back to the last election, in 2000, when only just over half the possible voters voted and Bush won very dubiously. Maybe he didn’t win. Anyway there is grave doubt about it. Already the democratic process was being in some way tampered with. If Bush wins again, instead of this being democratically checked and controlled, it will be confirmed.

What so defines the last four years of the Bush administration is that it has operated in a vacuum. This is why they make so many mistakes. They never look at the real human consequences of their actions. They only seek the consequences that they have imagined. They then defend these: usually by lying about them.

When you have decisions taken in a vacuum by the most powerful nation in the world, this undermines and makes a mockery of the notion of democracy which is so strong in America. One can say many things about America but its openness is real. Why is it so important for people to vote next week? Because the choice may be between continuing an open society or entering a closed one.

openDemocracy: Some Americans won’t vote because they feel the candidates are just two extremely wealthy Americans who are merely arguing about how America should dominate the world and there is not much to choose between them.

John Berger: If Bush wins on 2 November the United States will find itself isolated in the entire world, and obliged to take more and more unilateral decisions across the world. At the moment, countless millions of people around the world make a real distinction between the United States with its enormously varied multitudes who live, think, wish, hope and sometimes despair within it, and the government that they now have. If Bush is voted back into the White House, the United States will begin to be seen as a tyrannical state. A tyranny. The exact opposite of what Dvořák celebrated in his New World Symphony.

I can put myself into the minds of those who think of voting for Bush. Bush appeals to two kinds of people. He doesn’t talk down to people, and he has a kind of bonhomie. He slaps you on the back, grasps your hand, and you actually think it’s not totally an empty gesture. Then, for others, he speaks using words from the New Testament. If you are a believer it’s quite something to hear those words being uttered by the leader of the most powerful nation on the earth! In both cases, however, the impression Bush gives is false.

He uses the words of the evangelists but his own conversion occurred because of the whole dynasty of the family and all that was around him – when he was already incredibly protected. He doesn’t really know what things are like. People who use those words sincerely use them for themselves because life is very hard, and in these words there is a kind of hope or at least a partial lifting of affliction. This is very different from the way that Bush uses them. They are hollow when he uses them. And the same is true with his “We’re all folks together”. He pretends to a folksy, open style then he will say “I will ignore the resolutions of the United Nations, I will listen to no ally unless they totally agree with me.” The words of the Bible are fine. And, who wants to listen to rich politicians who have been to all the right universities and can talk their way around a donkey? Why not vote for a man of God who talks straight? His God is not yours and he’s a trickster.

openDemocracy: When you say that there is this threat of tyranny do you mean fascism?

John Berger: I think to use the word fascism is a kind of intellectual laziness. And, in a strange way, a little cosy because familiar. We have to find a new urgent name for the new tyranny which threatens us and which we have to resist. Millions of people in America are protesting more strongly than anywhere else in the world. Such opposition comes from a deep and very unrhetorical love of that thing which survives, survives, and survives which we are calling American openness. The new tyranny threatens that openness. Not in the narrow sense. Saddam Hussein ran a tyranny in the classic sense of a dictatorship where, overwhelmingly, the population didn’t want him in power. The new tyranny begins with the degree to which its spokesmen or spokeswomen lie. All politicians avoid the truth quite often. All sometimes use half-truths. But the Bush record of lies is exceptional.

Also by John Berger in openDemocracy: “Michael Moore, artist and patriot” (August 2004)

The outcome of the first vote for Bush was a lie. The claim that the poor will become wealthy by giving great tax breaks to the rich is a lie. The announcement that there was an axis of evil between Iraq, Iran, and North Korea was a lie. The claim that America went to war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction is a lie. There is a truth that al-Qaida attacked and massacred the workers in the World Trade Towers. This has been used to give credence to three years of lies.

I understand why young people especially don’t want another politician. But the difference between an America in dialogue with reality at home and the rest of the world, and one that is not, should call people to the polls. President Bush is closed to the world. America should not be.

Vote against the blind pretending to lead! The tyranny they envisage is to blind us all!

More informed argument and analysis about the United States election and its implications for the world in openDemocracy:

  • “Election 2004”, with contributions from Todd Gitlin, John Hulsman, and the Harvard Business School’s Louis Wells
  • “My America: Letters to Americans”, where Chinese dissidents, Somali journalists, Bolivian organisers, and French civic leaders discuss the election with individual Americans
  • “Israel & Palestine: old roads, new maps”, where Emanuele Ottolenghi and Anatol Lieven debate whether the alliance between the United States and Israel is based on essential security-making or chauvinist nationalism

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