Saturday, 29 September 2007

In War on Democracy, John Pilger demonstrates a stale dialectic. It's a new song sung to an old tune. It's a revival of the old methods: demonise one side to buttress the other. In the case of Venezuela, the word 'buttress' is used here deliberately.

Pilger's white hair is styled with care to denote 'elder statesman' but his message is hackneyed. He spoke at the screening tonight, and obviously enjoys talking to admiring crowds. The cinema was almost full. In the film, he interviews Hugo Chavez, the slightly-barmy president of a tin-pot economy. Here he is dressed in a white suit with a read-and-white tie. The black shirt and jeans of his Web site dinkus are gone.

He's demonstrating 'respect'. Sadly, the kind of respect Venezuelans desire, as do people throughout South America, is of the same quaint cast as that desired by Aboriginal Australians. Pilger at one point asks Chavez why, despite his reforms, and given the enormous wealth flowing into the country in oil revenues, the people don't get richer. Chavez says "we don't want enormous wealth like the Americans, that's stupid".

What Pilger fails to ask is why a guy like Chavez, who says idiotic things like this, while his constituents live in dilapidated slums sprawling across the endless hills about Caracas, even got elected. Pilger fails to draw a comparison between Chavez and the kind of odd-ball demagogues who came to power during the French revolution.

He fails to do this because he doesn't ask the question that needs asking: why are these people so ignorant and lacking in the basic habits of democracy? Let's forget 'rights', please. Those comes later.

These issues troubled the Romantic poets, following Napoleon's rise. They even troubled people like John Stuart Mill, because he knew that the average working-class dude didn't have the education to make an informed choice. Mill was against secret ballots for this reason. Wordsworth shuddered at the potential for mayhem if the common people were given the vote.

Of course, in England it didn't happen because the franchise was restricted (by how much income tax was paid annually) for a sufficient period of time to allow the education system to catch up with the trend to democratise. In Venezuela, no such period of transition happened and the result is Chavez.

There are many stories in the film, and unfortunately the trailer and Web site don't detail them. It would be nice to remove all the oracular trimming from the film and just show these clips of ordinary people faced with an extraordinary task: how to turn a pre-industrial economy into a post-industrial one. It just won't happen.

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