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Friday, January 27, 2006

Dreams of Democracy

"The whole of the international community has the responsibility to accept the outcome of any fair and democratic election," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "But in this case Hamas has a clear responsibility to understand that with democracy goes a rejection of violence."

"Television is the most perfect democracy," Aaron Brown, former CNN 'Newsnight' anchor said. "You sit there with your remote control and vote."

The delicious juxtaposition of those quotes is irresistible. What if the population of a country wants violence? What if they specifically elect men or women because those men and women promise to bring violence to their neighbors or to those groups perceived as the enemy?

Now this is not meant as a defense of Hamas. Regular readers know that my love for the redundancy that is “militant Islam” is virtually non-existent. Still, there is a certain irony in the fact that Islam’s democracies are not necessarily superior to Islam’s dictatorships. For Muslims, as for the rest of us, we get the leaders and the culture we want. We always have.

This is a point that too many simply ignore, even when it is brought forcibly forward, as with the recent Palestinian elections. I remember being in one graduate sociology class in which the professor and the students seemed quite oblivious to the fact. During the course of the class, both professor and students lamented the draconian measures undertaken by some medieval towns in order to avoid plague and similar illnesses, and spoke at great length on the degradation of the citizenry.

When I pointed out that the citizens must have found the measures acceptable, else they would have rose up in rebellion, the room responded with shocked silence. No one had ever considered the fact that no leader is stronger than the vision he successfully imbues in the people he leads. Even the strongest man can be overcome by four or five other men who decide they have had enough. More than one Caesar has discovered that his Praetorian guard could also be his executioners. The members of the sociology class never considered that many townspeople were willing to pay quite a high price to avoid the painful deaths of themselves or their families from (microbial) agents they believed were bent on their destruction.

This week, George Bush and Jack Straw both have the look of a sociology professor facing a new idea.

Americans may not commit suicide by blowing themselves up at bus stops, but as Americans, we must remember this country was founded on the ideas of ancient Rome. And Cicero, one of Rome’s most celebrated orators, ended every speech with the same phrase, “Carthage must be destroyed!” The party line was successful – Carthage was so thoroughly destroyed that today we don’t even know what language they spoke.

Hitler did not gain power through a putsch. His party was voted into office as part of a coalition government. Enough Germans wanted him. The same can be said of Bill Clinton, FDR, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. Democracy or dictatorship, the people always get the government we want.

As long as the leader has a vision which enough people subscribe to – and “enough” doesn’t have to be a majority – that vision will be enacted.

That’s why our visions are more important than our realities. That’s why the war over culture matters as much or more than the war fought with bullets. The Palestinian people don't need democracy. They need a new vision. If all they have is Islam, there will never be peace.


Jamie said...

Carthago delenda est = Cato, not Cicero :-)

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Bummer - I knew it started with a "C"