Saving democracy

The ruling groups in the U.S. have given “democracy” a bad name, much the same way as the Communists in power for so long in Russia and elsewhere spoiled the meaning of “communism.” The Republicans have also deformed the meaning of res publica, the thing belonging to the people. They appear to believe that the people belong to things, specifically, to privately-owned corporations designed to enrich their owners. But of all these corruptions of language, the debasement of “democracy” is the most immediate concern. Whether in Florida, Iraq or Ohio, or in the demands our ambassadors make of Venezuela, “democracy” for the Republicans does not mean rule by the demos, the general citizenry. Rather, it is a system for assuring the demos’ acquiescence in corporate rule. Any part of the demos that is not likely to acquiesce – rebellious Sunnis in Iraq, blacks in Florida, scruffy slum-dwellers in Caracas – must be excluded from elections, which will be considered legitimate only if they guarantee no surprising shifts in power.

This is a terrible shame, because it encourages cynicism about democracy everywhere in the world, and real democracy – where there can be surprising shifts in power, and the weak can become more powerful – is the only thing that can save our planet in the short run. Regardless of our philosophical views about it, democracy is necessary for purely pragmatic reasons.

It is the only effective form of government for confronting ecological or meteorological crisis. The undemocratic states of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where the most affected areas were under military rule or in combat, have failed miserably in rescue efforts after the tsunami. India, an imperfect democracy but an increasingly effective one, has not only managed its crisis much, much better, but has also been able to give assistance to neighboring Sri Lanka.

Democracy is good for people’s health, as demonstrated in a world-wide study by three Spanish epidemiologists. (El País, martes 4 de enero de 2005). “After statistical adjustment of the variables that can affect the study, the epidemiologists concluded that the existence of a democratic regime determines by itself 13% of the life expectancy of the population, 11% of infant mortality and 6% of maternal mortality,...” and so on.

And it’s also very good for people’s mental health, in Spain (where I am watching the effects of the great democratic upheaval of last March, when an increasingly undemocratic conservative party was finally thrown out of power) and everywhere. It gives us a sense of control, and a measure of real control, over our lives.

What Bush & co. are pursuing in Iraq is not real democracy. Rather what they want is a satrapy, with a screen of pseudo-elections where all the choices are pre-selected by the foreign power. And that is not going to bring about any of benefits of democracy.

In case you haven’t had a chance to read it, here is my synopsis of an important book on the matter:

Sen, Amartya (1999). Development as Freedom. New York, Anchor Books.
Development is "a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy." (p. 3) GNP growth, industrialization or technological progress are not in themselves development, but means toward the expansion of freedoms which is "thoroughly dependent on the free agency of people." 4 Thus freedom cannot wait for development; development is impossible without freedom, which is not only the highest aim in itself, it is also instrumental in more efficient economic growth. (This is the debatable part of the argument, but Sen has data, incl. the absence of famine in any democratic country, no matter how poor as in India, v. its greater frequency in relatively more developed China.) Includes a useful review of debates about freedom, utility & economics, from Jeremy Bentham through Sen's favorite, John Rawls.

Recent reading
Butler, Robert Olen. (1994). They Whisper. New York, Henry Holt & Company.
All the vaginas that Ira Holloway has ever kissed, caressed, entered or desired have always whispered to him, whether in America, Vietnam or Switzerland. But his wife’s falls silent when she becomes a hysterical Roman Catholic to purge her shame about childhood sex with daddy. Of course Ira is really whispering to himself, in a comic and sweet ventriloquism. These vaginas lack the sass and irony of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” where real vaginas speak for themselves through the voices of their owners and not their visitors. However, Butler has done a wonderful job of conveying how a man experiences them, and he also makes vivid the encounters with another culture, in particular Viet Nam, its vaginas included. 2005-1-12