Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who Can Trust the Government?

Walking down the street this evening in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I saw a T-Shirt that said,
Sure you can trust the government? Ask an Indian!
And it struck me that this message exactly misinterprets what the American government -- or almost any democratic government, for that matter -- is about.

Yes, the US government betrayed the American Indians a thousand times over. From the perspective of Indians, the US government has been entirely untrustworthy. It has been pretty unpleasant to lots of other people, too -- African American slaves, striking coal miners, Nicaraguan peasants, the relatives and neighbors of Taliban supporters in northwest Pakistan, and so on.

In general, though, the US government has been very good to its white, middle-class and wealthy citizens. In fact, the US government generally does exactly what its white, middle-class and wealthy citizens want it to do. That is because in a democracy, the mass of politically active citizens controls the government -- they elect the leaders, and they can vote them out.

Why, you ask, was the US government so treacherous to the Indians? Because that is what the mass of the people wanted. This was not always true in detail, and sometimes small groups of well-connected speculators were able to manipulate the government into dispossessing Indians that most Americans would have been happy to leave alone. But on the whole, what happened was white Americans wanted Indian land, so the government stole it for them. The government betrayed Indians because the voters did not give a damn about Indian rights.

The situation is entirely different for the majority. We can trust the government, because the government IS US. We elect it, and it responds to what we want. To say that middle class white people should not trust the government because Indians could not is to forget that the US government really is a democracy. This is exactly what the government's angriest critics always seem to forget, and really ought to be reminded of. If you are an American, especially a white, middle-class suburbanite, the government is you, and when you attack it you are criticizing yourself.

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