Another topic that bears re-consideration this time of year is democracy – not so much whether it is a valid concept, about which there is a great amount of historical and ongoing debate, but about – whether valid or not – it can be described as a universal, yearning desire of all peoples. This notion – that democracy is what everyone really wants – is, of course, one of the pillars of our foreign policy, and therefore of our military strategy, and therefore of our “defense” budget, and so on... the notion being that the more like us the rest of the world becomes, the safer we will be... which is an amusing concept considering that our defense budget is equal to those of all other countries combined. If everyone else spent as much on defense as we do, the vast bulk of the world's populace would have to relocate to another planet, because Earth would be entirely covered with military bases.
In any case, because it constitutes such a vested interest, the question of the universal applicability of democracy is unlikely to ever come up in any discussions among those in charge. Of _course_ everyone wants democracy, and of _course_ we have to give it to them, by hook or crook, because if we don't, who will? That is the premise, and a driving force in our foreign policy, and the primary raison d'etre of the State Department. Without it, we might have to withdraw to within our own borders, and start minding our own business instead of everyone else's – and surely we can't have that! So you will never hear a sound argument in a public forum – like Congress, for example – regarding the question of the universal applicability of democracy; it's simply accepted as a fact, and as an article of (secular) faith.
But our zeal for spreading democracy does not depend only on it as a free-standing idea, that has somehow won the war of ideas and been declared the victor. It is also tied to the whole notion of American exceptionalism – a complex of ideas, memes, and historical facts and interpretations that add up to the notion that we are not just another place on the map, or another place with a flag. And there is a grain of validity to the notion, as I've discussed previously, that one's homeland ought to be – and, in most cases, is – considered to be exceptional, special, and unique in some way. It's true that everybody's homeland is exceptional, special, and unique – for them, at least. There is nothing wrong with this idea as long as we understand it in the anthropological sense, and it's ironic that one of the most avid “patriot” contingents in this country, namely the neoconservatives, shows little interest in, or respect for, local and regional loyalties. For what is loyalty to a nation, after all, than an extension – conceptual and emotional – of loyalty to “place” -- to one house, one farmstead, one village... but also to one race, one religion, one ethnic group? Ah, but there's the rub – Americans are expected to be loyal to ideas, and to ideas alone – not to anything tangible, not to anything that might tie us down and dampen our willingness to make sacrifices. So “democracy” is expected to trump all other considerations – the problem being that there are as many definitions of “democracy” as there are textbook writers, college professors, and politicians. Does “democracy”, for example, necessarily include affirmative action – an abomination that is still very much with us? Does it require any question of importance to be submitted to the direct vote of the populace? Or does it allow for a many-layered and highly-corruptible representational system? And what of minority rights? We tend to forget that the downside of democracy in the strict sense is that, in theory, the majority can do anything it pleases. And this, as much as anything, is democracy's fatal flaw – often overlooked in, again, the zeal for founding society on ideas alone rather than tempering them with what we know (or should, if “common sense” were more common) about human nature.
So the question becomes -- can, and should, one judge the validity of a person's dedication to “democracy” based on his equal regard for minority rights? Does one necessarily imply the other? I think one would have to look back at the ancient origins of the concept of democracy in order to come up with an answer. What I suspect is that, in most cases historically, the question of minority rights seldom came up because, within a political unit that might have entertained democratic notions, the culture was fairly uniform. In other words, if everyone is the same race, religion, ethnic group... add sexual tendency if you like... there is no “minority rights” problem because there are no minorities. On the other hand, even in a monarchy like pre-revolutionary Russia, there were energetic controversies having to do with minority issues – as there are today in China, for instance. (But it can also be argued that most of those problems can be traced to the unnaturally large size of those countries.) Our own attitudes toward minorities have evolved from minimal tolerance through acceptance to affirmative action and “celebrating diversity”. American intolerance these days is not directed at racial, religious, or ethnic groups so much as political minorities, first and foremost being paleoconservatives and libertarians... although it must be said that the mainstream media have an animus toward the Catholic Church that recalls the Know Nothings of old, and people have developed a new-found suspicion of Moslems in the wake of 9/11.
Aside from definitional problems, we ought to explore the motivational issue – why do people desire, or prefer, democracy (of whatever variety) over the alternatives? It is a matter of principle? Our leadership, in their endless bloviations and propaganda wars, like to pretend that it is – yesterday, today, tomorrow, and always. But pardon me if I adopt an attitude of skepticism. All one has to do is see what happens in other parts of the world as the result of “free elections” -- even ones given the Jimmy Carter Seal of Approval. Too often, the long knives come out, and the former ruling group, now in the minority, is dealt a bit of due diligence. Or, a minority that was powerless before, and is still powerless, suddenly winds up in the crosshairs since they are no longer under the protection of an autocrat. So “democracy” is more likely to be seen as an opportunity for vengeance, payback, and settling scores than for erecting a principled foundation. What difference is there, in principle, between a ruling elite that can do anything it wants and a ruling majority that can do the same – and probably will?
All I'm saying is that if you take all the “fans” of democracy – world-wide – and put them to the test, you will find that in most cases it has nothing to do with principle, but with either personal gain or the perceived good of one's own racial/ethnic/religious/tribal group. In other words, it reverts to the much older, more organic, more “natural” array of motivations that determine the behavior of people in groups – and more valid ones, I might add... ones more suited to the way people are really made up, psychologically and perceptually. There are very few people in the world who can follow an idea, or abstraction, for long. They will follow it – or pretend to – as long as it's in their interests, but after an initial shakedown period there will be a reversion to the old values. I suppose in a sense that the U.S. probably holds the world's record for clinging to the same (secular political) idea for the longest time – longer than communism, fascism, or Nazism... and certainly longer than the French clung to “liberte, egalite, fraternite”.
Religious ideas – articles of faith – are another story, obviously. They may seem abstract and other-worldly at times, but they are actually more rooted in the realities of everyday life than political ideas are – add to which, they appeal to the human consciousness on many more levels. University eggheads, philosophers, and the rare politician can cling to a pure, unsullied idea for a long time – a lifetime, even. (They share this trait with those who are certified as insane; just thought I'd toss that in for what it's worth.) But the man on the street doth not live by ideas alone... and in fact, most doth not live by ideas at all, only by needs, desires, and impulses for which the ideas are a convenient excuse and an acceptable cover. You will find the biggest blockheads mouthing words like “defending our freedoms” and “spreading democracy” on a regular basis – but five minutes of questioning will reveal that the person has only the vaguest idea of what those terms imply, and an even vaguer idea of how his actions, or the actions he favors, support them. I mean, if the president of the U.S. can't explain it to anyone's satisfaction, how can an ordinary citizen? And yet we spend our resources, and give up our lives, in pursuit of what amounts to a will-o-the-wisp. And not even on our own behalf, for which there might be some excuse – but on behalf of others, who couldn't care less, and who are, more often than not, hostile to the whole idea.
You see, the idea that eludes people who grow up in a ideational culture, where it's best not to be too openly religious, or to show ethnic pride, or to show racial pride (unless you're in a certified victim group), or to show gender pride (ditto), is that, for most people on the globe, these are not only still important factors in their self-awareness and important drivers of behavior... they are, in many cases, the only significant factors. Try separating an Afghan from the “tribal areas” from his religion, race, ethnic group, tribe, village, family – impossible! Yet Americans put up with the same treatment all the time – from the government and the media. In fact, most Americans don't know what it's like growing up in a unified, organic culture – they have been “diversified” out of existence, partly simply because of where they were born and grew up, but partly because deracination has been official government policy since the beginning – with the public schools being on the cutting edge. Immigrate to the U.S. and you agree to cooperate in your own cultural genocide; that's the price one pays for being allowed to step upon these shores. And as I've pointed out, even the racial and cultural manifestations that are tolerated under the umbrella of “diversity” are sanitized for public consumption... rendered sterile, artificial, and an obvious put-on. (Can you say, or spell, “Kwanzaa”, class?) The point is that – human psychology being what it is, for good or ill – identification with one's race tends to make one prejudiced against other races, AKA “racism”. Identification with one's ethnic group tends to make one skeptical as to the value and validity of other ethnic groups. And so on. (And let's not even get into self-identification when it comes to sexual preference!) These are all perfectly understandable things, but the deracination process, AKA democracy run amok, sets as its primary goal their eradication. We have, in this country, the equivalent of the “New Soviet Man”, and that is the person with no racial, ethnic, or gender consciousness (unless certified as OK by the government) – which means no pride... which means nothing to stand in the way of him becoming a blank slate – a mindless, compliant citizen of the Servile State. And what is this, after all, but the prime goal of any government program that has to do with social policy? What is it, for that matter, but the prime goal of the public education system? You think their Job One is education? Well, it is in a way, but it's not what most people think of as education; it's more like brainwashing, and neutralization of any atavistic, troublesome tendencies... especially ones children might have picked up from their parents. The ideal is to have a nation of compliant slaves, marching blank-faced in a long, gray line like in “Metropolis” -- good workers, good citizens, good cannon fodder... and good voters! Because voting will still be alive and well as a ritual, and “democracy” still alive and well as an idea, long after the noble impulses from which it grew – flawed as they may have been – are long extinct.
And there is another psychological factor that mitigates against the notion of democracy, aside from the obvious stumbling blocks of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender – and that is that, at heart, people rarely yearn for complete freedom. Yes, they might want freedom, or at least options, within a certain limited scope, but complete liberty frightens them to death – as witness the reactions to libertarian arguments in our country. (The only thing more scary is the idea of letting other people be not like us.) There is a broad spectrum of response to this dilemma, which also correlates with political persuasion, as one might expect. People who want to be their own boss, and who want to let other people be their own boss – an important caveat! -- tend to be libertarian. People who want to be their own boss while sharply defining the restrictions placed on the behavior (if not the thinking) of others tend to be mainstream conservatives. And people who want to be their own boss, and boss everyone else as well, tend to be liberals. But the problem is that both conservatives and liberals suffer from a lack of self-confidence – liberals in particular. They aren't sure they're strong enough, or smart enough, to create their ideal world on their own, so they crave a Strong Man – someone much stronger and smarter than they – to do it for them. In the conservative mind, this strong man would be a benign, laissez-faire ruler on the domestic front when it comes to economics... a stern parent when it comes to social and moral issues... and something like Genghis Khan when it comes to foreign policy. In the liberal mind, this strong man would be a collectivist dictator when it comes to economics... a whorehouse madam when it comes to social and moral issues... and something like Jimmy Carter when it comes to foreign policy – unless we're talking about a Democratic “war president”, of course, in which case anything goes.
So with this in mind, let's think about what happens even when a country is founded as a democracy by people who are principled and sincere. Before long, abuses will creep in – the tyranny of the majority, wheeling and dealing, corruption, an ever-growing non-elected sector of government... and the people's thinking will degenerate to the point where they are pursuing the same old self-centered goals, and only mouthing words when it comes to principles. This is where we are today, and the situation is aggravated by the deracination process I described above. For this process has been, by and large, successful – so we have, basically, a nation of lost sheep, and the only person they are capable of seeing as the shepherd is the president, who tends to be himself deracinated, not to mention opportunistic, venal, and amoral. In other words, we have nothing to fall back on as a people. We have traded our birthright as members of the human race for a mess of “democratic” pottage – and discovered that it provides nourishment to neither mind nor spirit. And what's even more interesting is that people who still "cling" to notions like race, ethnicity, religion, and clearly-defined gender roles turn out to have a sort of strength that we no longer have -- a "home field advantage" because they are, in many ways, more "natural" people than we have become. And I number among these those people we refer to as "terrorists".
When a small and traditionally-minded group can fight a deracinated (and therefore demoralized) people with overwhelming firepower to a draw, it makes one seriously think about the long-term survival value of ideas... including that of "democracy".