Friday, February 11, 2005


In Praise of Rob Salkowitz

It pleases me to no end that I've been able to rub elbows with the likes of Dave Neiwert, Stefan Sharkanski, Micajah, Jackie Passey, Paul Andrews, and Rob Salkowitz. While I may not agree with everything these prolific and very intelligent authors have written, this diversity is a continuing education for me.

I was initially skeptical when reading Rob's article entitled Democracy and Self-Determination. But I came back to it several times to ponder his meaning. And the comments elicited a great conversation as well.

The following caused me heartburn at first:

Without trust, without national unity, without a citizenry and without laws, democracy is a hollow exercise: cynical at best, the prelude and pretext to hideous violence at worst. Foreign armies can set up polls, foreign officials can walk a nervous population through the gestures of marking ballots and counting returns. Favored candidates can declare victory and, under heavy guard, take office. This does not a democracy make.

Some people celebrate what just happened in Iraq. As a proud American with a deep love of freedom and democracy, I can honestly say that it sickens me and breaks my heart. Even the authors of our own Constitution recognized that democracy without the rule of law is simply tyranny of a different sort (“tyranny of the majority” was their memorable phrase). In their view, this was a far more terrifying sort than the authoritarianism of kings or generals, because it substituted to fickle passion of the mob for the stately, if self-serving, motives of the established order. The views of the founders are frequently invoked these days in the context of what’s going on in Iraq. I believe they’d shudder to think that such a perversion of their philosophy was being perpetrated by their descendents. Really, I wonder how simple and credulous we have become that we clamor to celebrate and congratulate ourselves for this sham and trample the real meaning of democracy in the dirt.

Jarring. I've become increasingly skeptical about those that try to divine the original meaning and intent of historical American colonial and revolutionary leaders. The writings are sometimes contradictory and, despite their prominence in history, were sometimes wrong. In any case, humanity has not been frozen in cultural, governmental, or societal time. Things change.

But Rob continues:

Those who celebrate forcing the hollow rituals of democracy on a violent and divided society where a bloody civil war is the likely outcome are either stupid, brutally cynical, or have sadly permitted whatever human morality they might have to be twisted around like a pretzel to accommodate an abused, maligned and increasingly misplaced patriotism.

Yes, it’s “democracy.” So what? Somehow, we’ve let ourselves believe that the act of casting ballots is an end unto itself, because that’s what’s it’s become here in America. In fact, history shows that many troubled societies are led to freedom, progress and prosperity through non-democratic means (internal, not imposed from without by conquest).


The point here isn’t suggest which systems are better or worse, but to point out that different systems – even undemocratic systems – can be better for particular societies at particular points in their history. What’s important is that the societies make their own decisions about these matters, using whatever methods constitute legitimacy inside their own borders.

Arab governments are famously dysfunctional – brutal, corrupt, oppressive. They also come in quite a range of constitutional styles, from absolute monarchies to military dictatorships, theocracies, and “elective dictatorships” (as in Egypt and Algeria). The oppressiveness does not come from the style of governance, but from the underlying social and cultural problems that arise from tribalism and clan loyalty, severe sexual repression, weak traditions of transparency and citizenship, and lack of separation between church and state.
Points to ponder. The entire article is recommended for consideration.

Maybe I've been listening to too many right-wing yahoos who see the election as the first step toward inevitable democracy of Iraq and probably the middle east. But I now find myself looking for other authors that explore the angle that Rob explored. From the comments, I've found Freedom House with a wealth of information to absorb.

So I keep looking. But right now I gotta get to work.

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