Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Democracy And Coke

A common myth holds that when Coca-Cola was first invented, the recipe included not only caffeine but also another stimulant called cocaine. This ingredient is what gave the drink its name, and it’s the reason why today the two products are both known as “coke” (or “Coke,” depending on whether you’re referring to the illegal or the legal substance).

Like a surprising number of myths, this one happens to be quite true. Cocaine was legally available in the 1880s, when Coca-Cola was introduced, and the soft drink originally contained a significant dose. It still contains coca flavoring extracted from the same leaves that yield the drug, but except for trace amounts that may linger in the flavor extract, the name on the can is all that remains of the original ingredient. This doesn’t stop us from referring to Coke Classic as the original Coke, which is understandable enough. Cocaine was removed from the recipe in the early 1900s. Coke Classic is the “original” as opposed to New Coke, which was introduced about 100 years after the real original.

Coca-Cola is perhaps the supreme corporate symbol of free markets and the American way of life. Only McDonald’s arguably stands ahead of it. When a smiling Arab or African or Latin American child holds a can of Coke and poses for a photograph, the image says all that needs to be said about America’s relationship with the world. We export joy and vitality, and deep down, everyone wants to buy.

Of course many cannot afford to emulate our lifestyle. Luckily, we have the formula for prosperity as well as refreshment. That formula is, of course, democracy. It’s the type of government that has made us what we are, and it’s primarily the lack of democratic values and institutions that mires the Third World in violence and poverty. So serious is this lack that it is in our vital interest, as well as everyone else’s, to liberate those people who don’t yet have democracy. Coke, McDonald’s, Apple, and the like are all symbols of our mission. Where they go freedom follows, and indeed, it already has a foothold.

As a physical substance, Coke is relatively easy to define, although as we’ve seen even that definition is somewhat complicated. Not surprisingly, the idea of democracy turns out to be even more problematic. It’s generally understood as a type of government in which the people choose leaders to represent their interests and limit the state’s power through laws and a constitution. It stands in opposition to dictatorship, for example, in which an executive holds power indefinitely, or the police state, in which there is no due process.

One would expect the history of American involvement in the Third World to show a pattern of support for democracy and opposition to dictatorships and police states. Interestingly, the actual pattern is somewhat the opposite. Since at least 1953, when we helped the British overthrow the government of Iran, the United States has tended to oppose rather than support democratic movements. The pattern has continued even through the occupation of Iraq, as we found ourselves attacking elements of the elected parliament that refused to vote our way on the question of oil interests. Our arch-enemy, Al Qaeda, has its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical organization formerly nurtured by Western powers as a counter to emerging nationalist (read democratic) trends. Hamas was nurtured in the same way for the same reasons, until we and Israel decided they had become too powerful and suddenly threw our support to their nationalist rivals. It remains to be seen how long that support will last if Fatah threatens to make any significant gains on behalf of its constituency.

While claiming to promote democracy, mostly by military conquest, the US seems to work tirelessly against actual populist movements and in favor of despots who cater to our interests. Nor can this be explained on the grounds that the populists are radical Islamic fundamentalists; in fact we’ve shown that we’ll even support the fundamentalists rather than risk ceding our influence to the popular will.

What then is the relationship between the kind of democracy we export and our signature brand, the red and white Coke can? A few parallels come to mind. Both are aggressively “marketed.” Neither contains what its name suggests. And in both cases the substance advertised is not only not being offered, it’s being actively suppressed, largely because it’s considered too dangerous in the hands of non-whites. “Democracy” still functions as a brand name, its associated good will providing a sense of continuity with the best of our civic values. But the content of the brand has changed. Instead of representative government, liberty, or the rule of law, it now means simply this—compliance with American wishes. Call it New Democracy, or if you’re a bit more savvy and audacious, perhaps Democracy Classic. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t get caught peddling any unapproved substitutes.

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