Questionable Motives

December 31, 2011

Why is the call for democracy the wrong call?

We hear it all the time, calls for democracy to somehow fix political problems, calls to support pro-democracy groups, to aid pro-democracy movements, to accept democratic decisions, as if democracy alone is the essential foundation for legitimate policies.

I beg to differ, summed up by the typically accurate phrase: Meet the new boss… same as the old one.

This is what we see happening again and again: some democratic change followed by a continuation of the same problems that led to calls for democracy in the first place:

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta conveyed his “deep concern” to Egypt’s military ruler over police raids on pro-democracy groups, the Pentagon said, after a major clampdown this week drew a torrent of criticism. Some of the organisations targeted in Thursday’s swoops on 17 offices of local and international NGOs charged that the security force action ordered by Egypt’s military rulers was worse than that under the veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak whom they replaced in February. (source)

And in Russia,

Medvedev said in his state of the nation address that Russia “needs democracy, not chaos” and that the government would strongly resist foreign pressure. (source)

In Pakistan, president  Asif Ali Zardari,

told tens of thousands of people gathered at the Bhutto family shrine at Garhi Khuda Baksh in the southern Sindh province that the best way to pay tribute to his late wife, killed while campaigning in elections in 2007, was “to defend and protect democracy and democratic institutions in the country and foil all conspiracies against it. (source)

The call is ubiquitous when it comes to trying to end conflicts and to fix political problems, from Serbia to China-Taiwan relations, to Syria’s ongoing revolt, as if holding presidential elections in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq will help magically establish functioning and stable democratic countries. This is a pipe dream, doomed to failure.

Democracy is not the cure and neither is the lack of it the problem. Democracy – full, participatory, one person one vote democracy – is but a symptom of a healthy political structure built upon something else, something necessary, something that works, something that is practical and consistent, something enlightened, namely, the principle of reciprocity writ large: equal human rights recognized as the basis of law.

Without this cornerstone, democracy is nothing but mob rule susceptible to control by a strongman, ineffective and inefficient to create and sustain political and economic peace and prosperity. But with this cornerstone, democracy is the inevitable result, the final if temporary arbiter in political differences and directions for a set amount of time.

Without equal human rights recognized as the basis for authority of law, democracy and the rule that comes from it becomes nothing more than a tool to justify the tyranny of the majority, allowing abuses to be inflicted on minorities without care, redress,  or recourse. And this is exactly what we see happening where democracy is inserted on a population undeveloped in law respecting equal human rights. This is what we see in Tunisia and Libya as the leadership begins to  undermine equal human rights  with the imposition on all of Sharia. This is why the Arab Spring – to bring freedom and democracy to all – will fail to take root, fail to flourish, fail to address the real problems of inequality: their largely illiterate populations will democratically try to remain tyrannically democratic until a leader comes along who can reduce the accompanying violence from oppressed minorities and impose order, pockets of peace, and some small measure of prosperity for the favoured.

As long as the basis OF law is represented by something other than the willingness of those who are ruled to be treated fairly, honestly, and reciprocally IN law, democracy alone is an inadequate substitute FOR law.  Calling for it under this inadequacy is not a political solution or even an improvement but the wrong call altogether. It is a temporary diversion at best, a way to galvanize people to come together under a popular banner until old power is replaced. It is a false clarion, an empty promise, a tyrant in waiting. Pretending that democracy not built on the legal foundation of equal human rights is somehow a solution is like believing  a weather vane directs the wind; it is just another backwards belief.


  1. There can never be democracy until there is first the rule of law. Everyone must be equal before and under the law, and have equal access to and protection of the law. There is no point in having elections if they are not conducted under fair and just laws or if they can be overturned on a whim. Most countries emulate the West by conducting elections, but they don’t understand that there is a lot more to democracy than having a one person-one vote system, not the least of which is repecting the results of an election.

    Comment by Davey — January 1, 2012 @ 2:40 am | Reply

  2. It was kind of hard to know where to post my next reply in the complicated maze on “Can Religious Belief be Honest?” and since we were taking about democracy and human rights it seemed more appropriate to comment here rather than in the discussion about smoking.
    I basically agree with just about everything you said about whether or not America is a “Christian Nation.” Of you get a chance you might want to take a quick look at my own blogpost of Oct 20 (“Did the Founding Fathers Create a Christian Nation,” in which I critique the work of David Barton who is a leading advocate of the view that they did. I pointed to specific examples in the Constitution that run counter to Scripture, especially when dealing with the subject of slavery. It is fascinating to read Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention, especially the discussion that took place on Aug. 21 and 22, 1787, regarding the slave trade. Luther Martin of Maryland argued that the slave trade was “inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character,” to which John Rutledge of South Carolina replied “Religion and morality had nothing to do with the question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations.” Interestingly, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who really was a devout evangelical Christian, argued against interfering with the slave trade on the grounds of expediency! (He was afraid that the southern states wouldn’t ratify the Constitution if it abolished the slave trade.
    My point is that church and state each have their separate and proper spheres of influence. The role of the state is to maintain civil order in society, and the role of the church is to proclaim the gospel and win converts through PEACEFUL persuasion. There are areas, however, where the two spheres overlap. If my church wishes to put on an addition to its building, the civil authorities have every right to require us to meet local building codes. By the same token, some actions by the government are moral in nature, and the church has a duty to be the conscience of the nation. If the U.S. Government drops an atom bomb on a mixed military and civilian target, as it did on Hiroshima, the church should speak out.
    How should the church do this? Typically it has to bring pragmatic argument based on self-interest to bear, and convince people who very likely have no sympathy with evangelical Christianity that it is in their own best interest not to pursue a certain policy or course of action. This is the principle behind all political activism. But politics is the art of compromise, and the end result is never the Utopia we might desire. More often than not, however, the church has erred on the side of not speaking out when it should have. Southern churches did not speak out against slavery, they did not speak out against segregation, and German churches did not speak out against the Holocaust. History will probably never forgive us for such moral shortsightedness.

    Comment by Bob Wheeler — January 1, 2012 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

    • Fair enough. This is as good a place as any!

      You say a couple of very contentious things as if they were a given, such as church and state each have their separate and proper spheres of influence and the church has a duty to be the conscience of the nation.

      I disagree with both. In the first, the state has a proper sphere of influence as defined (and constrained) by the Constitution and subsequent additions (Bill of Rights) and any legislation that is not contrary to either. Your assumption that the church has something similar is simply a self-appointed role unfounded in law. Your identification of ‘the church’ as if it were one thing (when obviously it is not that) has been assigned a duty is again completely self-appointed. Yet both statements indeed identify how the religious justify their imposition of their private beliefs (represented by various denominational leaders backed by huge gobs of money to influence legislators) on individuals who do not share their religious beliefs. This imposition is immoral from where I sit as well as against the clear spirit of the Constitution.

      So my question to you is, on what reasonable basis do you back up what I think are your contentious statements?

      Comment by tildeb — January 1, 2012 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

      • My first point, if stated in secular terms, is freedom of conscience. The church is directly accountable to God do do what He has commanded us to do. This is why a state church is a perversion of Christianity. It becomes an instrument of state policy instead of a shining example of what Christ wants it to be.
        The second point is freedom of speech. In a free society every citizen has a right to speak his mind, to protest peacefully, and to vote. And when the government is faced with a moral or ethical choice, such as whether or not to drop an atom bomb on a civilian population, the church has just as much a right to speak out on the issue as anyone else.
        Justice is a moral requirement. Eliminate morality from government and you have a public policy guided by nothing but economic self-interest. The rich and powerful control the levers of government, and the masses suffer in silence. As a human being and a citizen, why wouldn’t I want the government to think in terms of what is right, as opposed to what will merely help the rich get richer?

        Comment by Bob Wheeler — January 5, 2012 @ 8:26 am

      • Bob, individuals have freedom of conscience. By claiming ‘the church’ is directly accountable to god, you are in fact and deed claiming any religious organization is accountable to no one. This is a problem when even diametrically opposed religious ideas both claim your kind of accountability… to no one other than god who apparently has great difficulty organizing believers into one cohesive camp. That’s why there are thousands of christian denominations… because no one is able to actually receive a cohesive message from this entity you believe exists. Doesn’t that give you a hint as to the reliability of your own beliefs?

        Of course everyone has the right to free speech, including members of religious denominations. By all means speak out but don’t pretend that your words are anything more than your own. Pretending that god has spoken through you is demonstrably false because, again, we see no cohesive religious idea of what is an is not moral beyond what the norms are across the population spectrum. In fact, in reality, we see a highly fragmented population ALL claiming divine inspiration through revelation of what is moral, many of which are incompatible. Bob, they can’t all be right but they can all be wrong. The probability that your beliefs are just right are very slim even among just the religious.

        Who said anything about ‘eliminating morality’ from government? It is you who equate religious belief with morality (at least, your own set of religious beliefs) without any evidence to back up and justify the claim. And let me say emphatically, you have no evidence to back this up and I have nothing but strong evidence that this is demonstrably false. Religious belief not only doesn’t grant us evidence that it aids in achieving justice but is the single most powerful predictor of support for inequity and anti-social behaviour. Reductions in religiosity correlate exactly with reductions in inequity and anti-social behaviours. But you won’t care about any of this because you don’t care about what’s true in fact; you only care about what you want to believe to be true and will dismiss strong evidence with a wave of your theological hand without accounting for it and continue making assertions about the goodness and righteousness of your faith because you believe it to be so even when it is not. And that’s why you’re comfortable with maintaining a pious dishonesty in service of your beliefs rather than in service of what’s true in reality.

        Comment by tildeb — January 5, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

      • I’m sorry, Tildeb, but evidence to the contrary abounds. The whole Soviet bloc saw a “reduction in religiosity” and the result was the Gulag. On the other hand Martin Luther King,Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement, and the result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the end of segregation in the South. Atheists have always brought up the subject of Crusades, Pogroms, and religious wars, and unfortunately it is all true. There are, however, two huge problems with the argument. First, there is no basis for such atrocities in anything that Jesus ever said or taught. You cannot derive a principle of religious persecution from the command “Turn the other cheek.” And secondly, the record of atheism is MUCH WORSE. Stalin probably killed more people in a single year than the Catholic Church did during its entire 2,000 year history. And the reason is this: Stalin’s atheism allowed him to act without moral restraint. The rest is history.

        Comment by Bob Wheeler — January 6, 2012 @ 7:32 am

      • That’s not evidence, Bob, unless you can show a ‘reduction in religiosity’ causes or at least correlates to an increase in immoral behaviours. The opposite is true in fact. The Soviet example is, to be blunt, ill-informed to say the least. Stalin was a seminary student, for crying out loud. This is a hint.

        You equate an authoritarian state with immorality and you’re quite right when we calculate the gross abuses done in its name. But you make a fundamental and highly typical mistake to assume this abuse derives from a lack of religious belief. It doesn’t.

        An authoritative state is identical to a theocratic one, based on the same hierarchical structure we see in organized religion. What should be obvious, yet strangely elusive to so many religious believers, is that the problem for abuse rests in hierarchy of authority where power is distributed from the top down rather than the secular and enlightened value of granting authority from the bottom up. Stalinist Russia – like all totalitarian regimes including many organized religions – does not respect this egalitarian value but acts contrary to it. This is why the death fatwa against Rushdie, for example, was not blamed solely and squarely on the theocratic tyrant of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, but on the writer who dared to blasphemy. Many people blamed Rushdie for his apostasy, his heresy, his willingness to insult privileged religious belief, to offend believers with legitimate and necessary criticism of their Iron age beliefs incompatible with western democratic secular values, Such notable church leaders as the the Pope, the Cardinal of New York, and the British Chief Rabbi joined in the condemnation not of the tyrant dealing out death but of the individual who questioned that authority. When cartoons were published making fun of islam and its propensity to cause violence in the name of this ‘religion of peace’, again the theocratic tyrants like the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury lined up to condemn not the rioters and bombers and murders who responded to their publication with typical violence but those who dared to publicly criticize through humour a fellow totalitarian religion. But they weren’t alone. Many people – especially on the political Left – favoured appeasement and toleration and faux respect for these totalitarian, god-soaked, misguided, anti-life, anti-enlightenment despots.

        Where are the morals you think are inherent in biblical scripture that canonizes such miscreants and monsters as Mother Teresa – the multimillionaire who distributed aspirin to cancer patients and explained that, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus.” Gee, thanks for promoting the affection! Where is the moral outrage against fellow theocratic tyrants who continue to do their level best to marginalize women and turn them into reproductive chattel, to single out and murder gays and lesbians in the name of expunging sin, to promote disease as superstitious nonsense about demonic possession and evil spirits, to promote prayer as an efficacious method magically compatible with modern medicine. The list of imposing ignorance through religious authority to harm real people in the here and now to honour god is not inherently moral at all, Bob. In fact and practice, religious authority is its antithesis… if we’re dealing with promoting the well-being of real people in this world.

        I ask you to show an example of a moral action or statement made because of religious belief that would not also be made by an atheist. Then think of an evil thing carried out explicitly because of religious belief. See what I mean? You struggle with the first but examples are plentiful for the second. This, too, is a hint. Religious belief is not inherently moral at all but its demand for acquiescence to god’s authority can be shown in countless examples to be immoral. Your attribution of some lack of morality to non belief in your god is without a doubt a complete and utter lie. There’s a commandment against that, by the way. And the hints just keep piling up. You really should start to pay attention to them.

        Comment by tildeb — January 6, 2012 @ 11:22 am

      • On the other hand Martin Luther King,Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement, and the result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the end of segregation in the South.

        To be fair, this is an excellent point.
        Segregation in the South was the brainchild of atheists. Those white people armed with shotguns and baseballs bats to beat up people on buses? Atheists.
        The riot police manning the water cannons and truncheons? Atheists.
        The politicians that fought Luther every inch of the way and still today do everything to undermine his work? Atheists.

        Atheists have always brought up the subject of Crusades, Pogroms, and religious wars, and unfortunately it is all true. There are, however, two huge problems with the argument. First, there is no basis for such atrocities in anything that Jesus ever said or taught.

        Further, none of those bad people ever ate porridge.

        No True Scotsman

        Comment by Cedric Katesby — January 6, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

    • “History will probably never forgive us for such moral shortsightedness.”

      So the church will be able to provide future moral guidance in some special way? Get real the Church has no more insight into moral guidance that anyone else.

      Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 4, 2012 @ 4:02 am | Reply

  3. This is a topic I’ve actually thought a bit about in the context of the internet and instant gratification. I came to similar conclusions. Instant Democracy, by that I mean the ability for a populace to vote on daily actions, would be an absolute disaster. The ability to take retaliatory action when tempers are high would inevitably lead to disaster.

    Imagine the action we might have taken a day or two after 9-11? We reacted as a nation poorly enough after trying to gather the supposed facts. I couldn’t imagine what we might have done if the masses simply reacted to the situation.

    Comment by Trick Brown — January 4, 2012 @ 10:35 am | Reply

  4. It is more than just law – it is ‘justice’ which is a method of measuring or rationalising fairness.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 4, 2012 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

    • Exactly, MUR, and this is why reciprocity is such a foundational notion for justice, a way for us to internalize what feels fair from both our own and the Other’s perspective. This feeling is very much biologically based and we rely on it all the time to learn… without having to directly experience. Justice is what law attempts to codify.

      Comment by tildeb — January 4, 2012 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  5. My first point, if stated in secular terms, is freedom of conscience. The church is directly accountable to God do do what He has commanded us to do. This is why a state church is a perversion of Christianity. It becomes an instrument of state policy instead of a shining example of what Christ wants it to be.

    My first point, if stated in secular terms, is freedom of conscience. The church is directly accountable to Santa do do what He has commanded us to do. This is why a state church is a perversion of Santaism. It becomes an instrument of state policy instead of a shining example of what Santa wants it to be.

    Sadly. Santa is not answering the phone at the moment. He used to but not so much nowadays. Luckily for us all, we have a specialized group of people who have pored over the commandments of Santa and they know exactly what Santa wants. So…it’s all good.

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — January 5, 2012 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

  6. “First, there is no basis for such atrocities in anything that Jesus ever said or taught.”

    Utter bollocks – the current church is based on the foundation of their historical atrocities – their filthy promotion of ignorance continues to this day; this is why stem cell doctors have to live in fear of their lives!

    The draconian methods of the public church and direct are only tapered by secular law, and secular values – i.e. the people who regard basic human rights as being more valuable than a belief in man that probably never existed.
    Stalin was an atheist – so what? Atheism says nothing about morals – it is a statement of non-belief in God.

    Are you seriously saying that your mind is so screwed up that if you do not live in the fear of burning in hell for eternity you will go out and rape, murder and thieve from people? If this is the case then your morals are utterly disgraceful and appalling. I need no such threats of vengeance to know what is right from wrong.

    Social morals have grown in spite of religion not because of it. We no longer trade in slaves, beat our women and children, send people to the trenches in their millions to die – the fundamental moral landscape is much healthier now than it ever has been on a social scale – and all this while religious practice is falling.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 6, 2012 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

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