Friday, April 19, 2024
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Do we deserve democracy?


FOR some time now, supporters of the two main US political parties have seemed to hate each other with an almost theological hatred – I’ve joked that Americans believe half of them are the sons and daughters of Satan’ – they just can’t agree which half.

It’s also a violent hatred. ‘On 20 January [2017], Richard Spencer, a prominent figure in the “alt-right” movement, was punched in the face while giving an interview in Washington. The punch spawned a number of “punch a Nazi” memes,’ said Tauriq Moosa in the Guardian newspaper a few days later, going on, perhaps naturally for that Left-leaning publication, to defend the use of violence (‘A punch may be uncivil, but racism is worse’).

I first came across the meme he mentions, on Facebook, that wing of Bedlam, though I think ‘How To Punch A Nazi’ first spread as a series of tweets, another wing of barminess. Since Nazi is not defined, it is easily interpreted as ‘Someone who thinks differently from you? Punch; expertly, with possibly neck-breaking force.’ How this doesn’t qualify for arrest on a charge of incitement to violence, I’m not sure.

Fox News is what Americans call a ‘conservative’ TV channel, though I think my British friends may not understand the American political spectrum – the British Conservative Party would be more at home in the US Democratic Party, possibly even in the left side of it. Be that as it may, some of America cheers Fox while some gibbers in fury at it. Now, allegedly, and most dangerously in these times of political riot, property destruction, looting, assault and murder, one of Fox’s presenters, Tucker Carlson (popular with his audience and therefore a bête noire of the Left) has been threatened by a major US newspaper with the publication of his family’s home address:

In the clip above Carlson doesn’t actually say the New York Times published his address last time, rather that it was a ‘left-wing journalist’; and in response to his on-air accusation the NYT has said that it ‘has no plans’ to do so. However, this rebuttal could be read as a kind of Watergate ‘non-denial denial’, in that the paper has not said that it had not previously intended to do so, before Carlson made a public issue of it.

Cartoonist Scott Adams, a Republican supporter who identified Trump as a likely winning Presidential candidate long before other commentators, says that this ‘setting the dogs on’ political opponents crosses a line and could even prove counterproductive – a potential ‘extinction event’ for the NYT. This personally focused, mob-directing approach could get very nasty, he says. You can listen to his podcast from 13:20 on.

This raises a fundamental issue: can America work as a democracy? Is it any longer capable of rational discussion, of a liberal suspension of judgment, of agreeing to disagree?

J S Mill addresses this early on in his Essay on Liberty (1859) [page 19 here]:

‘Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.’

Democracy depends on a rational (reasonable and responsible) well-informed demos and a meta-rule that (apart from protecting the rights of minorities) says the settled will of the majority shall prevail, and the minority shall concede and cooperate. See for example how political and social reform Britain turned from a slave-trading nation to one that, despite the opposition of powerful interests, not only ceased its involvement in slavery but worked hard to eradicate the trade.

Today, instead of genuinely progressing towards an ever more enlightened society through the democratic process, modern culture and media is obsessed with managing opinion (politicians following whichever way the wind is blowing), filtering and biasing our perceptions of reality and of each other, and fanning the flames of emotion, while some work to negate democratic decisions and even collude with national rivals and potential enemies.

We in the UK have a choice, too: between democracy, Parliament and the rule of law; or the anarchy of ignorant, overheated mobs and, ultimately, the half-hidden rule of the new culture czars – the powers behind the throne, Swift’s bladder-flappers. Our mid-nineteenth century confidence in the free exchange of ideas is melting away; the system can be smashed, as excitable students used to advocate. ‘It can’t happen here,’ sang Zappa’s Mothers of Invention; but it can.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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