Sunday, 4 October 2009

Is this democracy?

“Democracy”, says Charles Crawford, ‘the world’s first diplomatic blogoir’, “once was the quintessence of civilisation, based on sophisticated philosophical ideas of responsibility and honesty.” Yet the same Charles Crawford defends – on pragmatic grounds – the use by the USA and UK of intelligence obtained by torture. He doesn’t seem to find any inconsistency in this.

So is democracy really reduced to a moral cesspit in which its professional diplomats labour to assure us that all is for the best in the worst of all possible worlds?

I remember, as an eleven-year-old boy, listening to Neville Chamberlain’s sombre broadcast on 3rd September 1939, when he announced that we were at war with Germany. He concluded by saying:

“It is evil things that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them I am certain that right will prevail.”

It did – but only after a grim struggle in which many terrible things were done by ourselves and our allies, as well as by our enemies.

The wars we are involved in today are of a very different kind. Their essence is an ideological struggle between irreconcilable social systems, one of which – that of our adversaries – is far more deeply rooted in religious beliefs than was Hitler’s war. The motivating force of religious belief is a conviction that one’s thoughts and actions are inspired by a supernatural being. This gives great strength, even to those who are physically weaker than their enemy. Whether the supernatural being really exists is irrelevant: devout belief is all that is required to inspire people to extreme action. Such a belief is nowadays largely lacking in Western democracies and – much more seriously – so is informed belief in, and adherence to, the humane values which distinguish democracy from its critics.

What are these values? First and foremost, freedom of speech and expression. This is the bedrock of democracy, underpinning all other freedoms and rights, because it is only through freedom to speak our minds freely that we can win or defend all our other liberties. Secondly, personal privacy – the right to shape and lead our own lives as we wish, provided that we don’t impinge upon the equivalent rights of others, and to do so without being snooped and spied upon by the State or anyone else. Thirdly, toleration of all views, opinions, and lifestyles which don’t deny equal toleration to others: tolerance is not a one-way street. Fourthly, adherence to rational discourse, as opposed to dogmatically imposed beliefs grounded in uncritical adherence to dogma. Fifthly, commitment to scientific method and experimentation in enlarging our knowledge of how things work and in devising new technologies essential for the future health and wellbeing of humankind. Sixthly, academic integrity and a willingness to follow the argument wherever it leads.

Doubtless there are many other components of democratic thought and practice which can be added to this list. But I hope it is sufficient to demonstrate that democracy cannot exist without open-mindedness. And open-mindedness is the fundamental quality which is largely and ever more rapidly being eroded today. We are living through an era of ‘political correctness’, when the range of acceptable viewpoints is shrinking because they are frowned upon by authority; and legal curbs on free speech have been imposed in the last few years which would have been unthinkable only a couple of decades ago. Even worse, this policy is largely driven by fear of violent reactions by those living amongst us who don’t share our traditional notions of democracy but wish to replace it with alien concepts originating from other parts of the world. Britain is still an open society – just – but we have enemies in our midst.

Our political discourse, and our political debate, is correspondingly debased. There has always been an element of school playground “yah boo sucks” rhetoric in party politics. But when Charles Crawford laments that “we are now reduced to whose imaginary ex-cat stinks the most”, he might ask himself why. My answer is cowardice.


zola a social thing said...

As a simple man who loves to walk I have always thought about this grand tour that was upon me.


If I had ever tried to live too long with a sophisicated footfall I would have ended up working for French Telecom companies or worse.

anticant said...

Is that a postmodern response to a serious post?

Really, Zola, sometimes you out-Nero Nero.

Jose said...

Although it can easily be inferred on reading the values you say, I'd clearly add to those an incontrovertible right to be told the truth by our politicians of everything that affects our way of living.

We are nowadays living in a world of lies. It seems our politicians are trained to tell them in a plausible manner. And I believe in more cases than it is advisable those lies lead us into hatred and conflicts with those whom our politicians deem should have our hatred and be conflicted with.

If the ancient Greeks who coined the original word meaning "Democracy" had known into what it was going to be changed, they might have thought it more than twice.

Because in reality we have no democracy. We can say or think whatever we wish, but beware lest you are imprisoned, not for saying it but for other reasons the Authorities will seek to the effect.

Examples thereof exist galore.

anticant said...

A deeper problem is that as often as not our politicians don't realise they are telling lies - they simply repeat the misinformation they are brainwashed with.

They can thus go on believing in their own non-existent honesty.

Merkin said...

French telephone companies, no less.

Zola is obviously 'post-modem'.

zola a social thing said...

Jesus wept : Our Anticant is getting into the realms of the "unconcious but consciousness" state of being a Freudian in torment.

We should all have a meeting in Paris sometime.

anticant said...

Yes, if you will pay for a suite at the Ritz.

Then I will tell you my postFreudian story (one for the Burrow, methinks).

anticant said...

No sooner said than done:

Merkin said...

Happy Birthday, Anti.

Many Happy returns.

I am pretty damn sure you will well outlast The Merkin.

Bodwyn Wook said...

Chirrup, You Devils, THIS malarkey is just the thing on our Aunty's birthday:

"M Heart Beats For...FOO!"

Bodwyn Wook said...


"Democracy" and torture beyond a point are not incompatible; when states lapse under the guise of hystericised and rigged elections from patriotism to nationalism, then there break out the orchestrated yelps to "protect the people!" Whether this is undertaken to "give" them "free" health care or run out Jews, it is much the same thing.

anticant said...

What's your objection to State provided or subsidised health care? That it isn't "free" because someone actually has to pay for it? That it isn't necessary? That those at whom it is aimed don't want it? That the better off who have to pay for it through their taxes don't want it? That it's less efficient than privately provided health care which is priced beyond the reach to the poor?

I really do think that you are going rather OTT when you compare Obama's attempts to reform the US health care system with running out the Jews!

Bodwyn Wook said...

No, Aunty, I am only drawing a rhetorical point, namely that in addition to the economic and corporate forces that buffet individual citizens, nationalism appears to propose a solution whilst at the same time empowering the ranks of the careerists. Then, not so much 'if' as /when/, these types are available to whomever connives their way into power. And, History shows that the moral integrity of the professional and administrative classes is most charitably to be described as derisory and adventitious, episodic merely in its manifestation at best. Some of these as a statistical matter /are/ dionysian sociopaths with peculiar enrtetainment needs expressed as credentialled demands. The great problem thus is to secure the benefits, if any there truly be, of nationalism without the guilty deficits or pandering to the morally botched in the civil service. Needless to say, in terms of the well-known evasive wiliness of the shadow, I for one am not sanguine. Running out Jews was viewed as 'hygienic' by entirely too many of the same medical and public-health crew as had all over the West, even before Nazism, been yelping for eugenics legislation. This was both before and after the well-known euthanasia of the German defectives, and Mr Crawford now seeks merely some sort of realistic (sic) modus viviendi with this same democratic shadow element.

Whether or not one considers this to be a slippery slope indeed, these things for good or ill also are part of the story of democracy in the fullest sense of the term.