Friday, 16 April 2010

Democratic Dictatorships and Speaking Truth to Power

Western parliamentary-style democracy is only one of several options that different societies find appropriate. 'Democracy' means something different in the UK from what it means in America and the different European countries. We whose histories include rotten boroughs and beer-for-votes rallies should not be surprised at how difficult it is to stage one-person-one-vote elections in many parts of the world today. Fewer people voted in the last UK election than in the 'Big Brother' TV series. We are not in a wonderful position from which to offer the rest of the world a permanent political solution. (N.T. Wright)

"To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true." Bayard Rustin

In last week's "Doctor Who", entitled "The Beast Beneath", we were given a very sharp satire of voting. The inhabitants of Star Ship UK were given a complete understanding of what made the Star Ship run every five years, and then they could register a protest against that, or select the choice to have their memory wiped for another five years.

Voting is good, because it does allow the electorate to change government without bloodshed. But it has come to be seen as a universal panacea. And it most decidedly is not. Here are a few of the problems with voting:

In African countries, where tribal loyalties determine voting allegiance, we have seen a dominant tribal majority impose its rule upon minority tribal groups. This was seen as long ago as the 1970s by Christopher Booker, who commented that:

Despite all the lessons of the past twenty years, we still see Dr Owen cavorting about under the impression that `one man, one vote' means something other than just the fact that, sooner or later, there will only be one man left in the country whose vote carries any weight - the tyrant. When Dr Owen uses that phrase `majority rule', meaning a `black majority', he is still of course thinking of `majority' as it is defined in the liberal-democratic phase of the Platonic cycle - a preponderance of free, autonomous citizens. In practice, however, in Africa just as in many other parts of the world, it all too often comes to mean simply that tyranny of the `People', the demos, over the mass of actual people - a deadly abstraction which may be used to cloak and to sanctify every kind of atrocity and `civil wrong' practised by a part against the whole (and in many parts of Africa this has been given a new twist, as the members of one tribe have, in the name of the `whole', been able to tyrannize over the rest, through their control of the party or state apparatus). (1)

In Iraq, the grouping is along the religious divide, with the majority Sunni taking control of the country. The danger is that a group in power, voted in a democratic election, will privilege its own members to the detriment of the minority groups.

This has been observed for some time. Alexis de Tocqueville first coined the phrase "tyranny of the majority" in the 1835 "Democracy in America", and it was taken up strongly by John Stuart Mill. Mill wrote that "there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own".

But this can also occur with subtler divides. The more prosperous members of society can also act as a group, without deliberate intent, simply by voting for those politicians who largely support their own self-interest; in this way, the owning class, and the middle classes can effectively exclude the working class and poorer members of society.

A sure sign that there are problems with voting patterns within the electorate is low turnout. One of the main reasons for a low turnout is a disillusionment with those being elected. People don't turn out to vote because they don't think it will make any difference. They believe that whoever gets in will simply ignore their own wishes, and go their own way. And they usually have some grounds for that.

Some politicians -for example Deputy Anne Dupre of St Clement - came out with a manifesto in which exemptions were needed for GST, and within about a month or so of being elected had a Damascus road conversion and instantly voted against exemptions. Other politicians (such as Alan Maclean) so fudged the issue that no one knew precisely how they might vote, because they had said they would have voted for exemptions provided that other financial matters were resolved to their satisfaction. There were some, like Ian Le Marquand, who gave a clear commitment to exceptions, and voted for exemptions, but not every politician was as honest or straightforward. Now I'm not saying that voting for exemptions was good or bad, simply that politicians made a promise to the electorate, and then promptly changed their mind.

This makes something of a nonsense of the idea that voting is the whole story. Bishop Tom Wright, who is a also historian of the ancient word, makes this comment:

The greatest democracies of the ancient world, those of Greece and Rome, had well-developed procedures for assessing their rulers once their term of office was over if not before, and if necessary for putting them on trial. Simply not being reelected (the main threat to politicians in today's democracies) was nowhere near good enough. When Kofi Annan retired as general secretary of the United Nations, one of the key points he made was that we urgently need to develop ways of holding governments to account. In our idolization of modern secular democracy we have imagined that, provided our leaders attain power by a popular vote, that's all that matters, and that the only possible critique is to vote them out again next time round. The early Christians, and their Jewish contemporaries, weren't particularly concerned with how people in power came to be in power; they were extremely concerned with speaking the truth to power, with calling the principalities and powers to account and reminding them that they hold power as a trust from the God who made the world and before whom they must stand to explain themselves. (2)

Last Sunday's episode of "Foyle's War" showed something of that. An elected government had decided - secretly - to repatriate any White Russians captured (and their dependents) to Russia, following Stalin's demands. This was dramatised exceedingly well:

Many of the Russian prisoners were transported to Britain and were held in training camps originally used for British troops. Of politics, most of these men knew nothing. All their lives they had been harried hither and thither in the name of confused ideologies by commanders whose languages more often than not they could not understand... Common to all of them was an absolute dread of returning to the Soviet Union. They were certain that they would be killed or, at the very least, sentenced to the unspeakable horrors of the labor camps. (3)

But at a Cabinet Meeting, Anthony Eden was able to convince Churchill that all Russian POWs must be repatriated, forcibly if necessary. Foyle takes up the case of a missing Russian, and a Russian who had committed suicide rather than be captured again by the British Army - again something that was happening frequently. The reason for the spate of suicides was that news had reached Britain of the first soldiers to be "repatriated", and how they were massacred. Foyle cannot halt the process of events completely, but he can speak out and secure safety for the missing Russian, because he can holds the official perpetrating this particular part of the official policy to account.

It is this holding governments to account, and speaking out, that is just as important as voting. As with the case of the Russian prisoners, a government in power assumes a mandate to decide what to do, and may forge ahead regardless. Sometimes, as in the case of the Russians, or in the case locally of "in camera" secret States debates, or the Privileges and Procedures Committee meeting to discipline States members in secret sessions, there is a blindness to the need to be accountable. It is assumed that voting provides all the accountability that is needed.

But in 1954, the Quaker community in the United States published a pamphlet entitled ""Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.". The title, and much of the text is thought to be the work of Bayard Rustin.

This is not just about challenging the status quo, but it is about calling to account, when needed, how a government is behaving, and wherever there is seen to be injustice, persecution, or tyranny. Here a a few extracts from this paper

There is a politics of time, but there is also a politics of eternity that man would ignore, but cannot. He plays with the politics of time, sees it, manipulates it, imagines it is of himself alone; but both the politics of time and of eternity are of God. Only the eye of faith perceives the relationship, for it alone glimpses the dimension of eternity. Man sees but dimly, yet enough to know the overarching Power that moves in the affairs of men. Because we are first men of faith, and only secondarily political analysts, we would speak now, finally, of the politics of eternity which has undergirded the whole.

This is not "reasonable": the politics of eternity is not ruled by reason alone, but by reason ennobled by right. Indeed "faith is reason grown courageous." Reason alone may dictate destroying an enemy who would destroy liberty, but conscience balks, and conscience must be heeded, for nothing in our reading of history, or in our experience of religion, persuades us that at this point conscience is wrong.

To risk all may be to gain all. We do not fear death, but we want to live and we want our children to live and fulfill their lives. Men have ventured all and cheerfully risked death and starvation for many causes. There can hardly be a greater cause than the release of man from the terror and hate that now enslave him. Each man has the source of freedom within himself. He can say "No" whenever he sees himself compromised. We call on all men to say "No" to the war machine and to immoral claims of power wherever they exist and whatever the consequences may be. We call on all men to say "Yes" to courageous non-violence, which alone can overcome injustice, persecution, and tyranny.

(1) Christopher Booker, The Seventies
(2) N.T. Wright, God and Caesar

1 comment:

Boatyboy said...

I enjoyed reading that Tony, good work. I see you have been posting on anti Syvret sites like PJ.

Maybe we are getting to the make or break place that poor Government has backed us into.

The internet and the information it offers ( for Jersey read Syvret )is getting stronger by the day because normal people are reading and becoming empowered and informed.

Lets hope enough people think and say enough is enough, and turn up at the airport when, a real Senator ( Bob hill and Crowcroft are gearing up and doing well ) offers sheer honesty of his views, wrong footing many by his forthright honesty and evidenced offerings.

I shall be there and I bet Warcups police will also be there with video cameras. A free society they tell us, a great democratic place to live.

To many of us christians that do not go to church. How many of you Mr Warcup and friends in high places called ivory towers ?