Posts tagged with: democracy

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
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Bilal Sambur, Ph.D., is assistant professor on the faculty of divinity at Suleyman Demirel University in Isparta, Turkey. He is a guest scholar this summer at the Acton Institute.

Islam, Democracy and Turkey

By Bilal Sambur

The inauguration of Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s new president has provoked a great deal of discussion — and anxiety — about the rise to power of a man who is an observant Muslim with a background in Islamic politics. Instead of anxiety, the world should be celebrating Gul’s election as the greatest breakthrough in the history of Turkish democracy and a sign of hope for Muslim nations all over the world.

In July elections, Gul’s Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkey) won 47 percent of the popular vote and came to power without having to form a coalition. But the main message to the military and secular elites who have run Turkey for so long was not about religion. It was about reforming Turkey’s government.

Today, the biggest problem in the Muslim world is the absence of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, with the exception of Turkey, there is no true democratic rule in the Muslim world at the present time. Most Muslim countries are ruled by militarist dictatorships, kings, monarchs and totalitarian regimes. Under these anti-democratic and illiberal regimes, Muslim people have no opportunity to participate in the political life of their countries.

After the collapse of Soviet Union, a number of former communist countries established democracy rapidly and successfully. Although some former communist regimes have been transformed into democracies, the Muslim world has not been influenced by this new wave of democracy. The anti-democratic regimes of the Muslim world have successfully isolated themselves from this third wave of democracy. And everything seems to be the same as it used to be in Muslim world.

Liberal democracy has taken root in many places outside its birthplace in Europe and the United States. India is the best example of that. Although India has Hindu culture, it is the most populous democratic country in the world now. Having a liberal democratic rule or a totalitarian/autocratic regime is a matter of choice. But Muslim societies have not, for the most part, been given an opportunity to choose between a liberal democratic rule and anti-democratic regime. Recent developments in Turkey show that Muslim people choose democracy when they have a chance to choose it. (more…)

In his review of Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) in the Claremont Review of Books, Randy Barnett highlights some of the same features of the US political structure as particularly unique that Lord Acton emphasized. In conclusion Barnett writes of our Constitution:

It is counter-majoritarian by design. Precisely because the founders feared majoritarian fecklessness and abuse, they inserted the veto points to which Levinson objects. Most people today—whether left, right, or libertarian—still fear majoritarian rule. They believe they have more to fear from their political opponents gaining power than they have to gain from putting their friends in office. Indeed, many Americans revere the Constitution precisely because of its counter-majoritarianism—the checks and balances adopted by the founders.

Or in the words of Lord Acton, “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”

Here are some other relevant observations from Lord Acton on democracy, federalism, and the Constitution:

For it is a most striking thing that the views of pure democracy…were almost entirely unrepresented in [the American] convention.

Democracy generally monopolizes and concentrates power.

Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.

Federalism: The only barrier to Democracy.

Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.

The great novelty of the American Constitution was that it imposed checks on the representatives of the people.

The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.

Barnett notes too the resistance to advocating the American form of federalist democracy for other nations.

“While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret,” he writes.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, March 12, 2007
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As promised I saw ‘300’ on Saturday night. The IMAX was sold out, so I saw it in “digital cinema presentation,” which was of noticeably higher quality than a regular showing.

I really liked the film (Anthony Bradley gives it a ‘B’). The visuals are quite striking and impressive. The action sequences alone are well worth the price of admission. Gerard Butler gives a powerful performance as King Leonidas, and his wife, Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey), does more than hold her own. When an emissary from Xerxes arrives in Sparta, he is taken aback that a woman dare speak in the counsel of men. Gorgo responds that only Spartan women are capable of birthing “proper men.”

In the strength of her performance, however, Headey stands above the rest of the cast, which are constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer forcefulness of Butler’s portrayal. In particular the portrayal of Delios, the narrator and witness to the events of ‘300’, by David Wenham (who also played Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) suffers notably in comparison to Butler’s Leonidas.

There is a fair bit of titillation, from the sensuality of an “drunk adolescent” oracle to the lurid temptations faced by the Ephialtes, and once the violence starts it is quite graphic. This film certainly won’t get the Dove Foundation’s approval.

The grim gallows humor of the dialogue lends itself to numerous memorable one-liners, mostly from the mouth of Leonidas. He tells the self-proclaimed god-man Xerxes, for instance, that he cannot kneel in submission because his legs are cramped from killing Persians all day. At other times the dialogue seems a bit uneven, perhaps because of the notable difference in verbal requirements between a graphic novel and a screenplay.

The film has received mixed reviews, in large part due to the facile comparisons that could be made between Leonidas and George W. Bush. A leitmotif of the film is the battle between the free citizen warriors of Sparta and the slaves under the tyrannical domination of Xerxes. Thus, says Leonidas, “A new age has come, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.”

Particularly suited to contemporary comparison is the scene in which the other Greeks abandon Leonidas and his Spartans to their death at the hands of Xerxes’ forces. It is almost impossible at that point not to think of the splintering of the coalition forces in Iraq. Of course there are many reasons that the movie shouldn’t be taken as an allegory for the modern situation, but the ease with which parts of the film can be interpreted in this way no doubt explains much of the media’s ambivalence toward the film.

It’s worth noting what Lord Acton observed about the character of freedom and democracy in particular after the united Greeks were victorious in the Persian wars. This ushered in a period where Athens dominated the confederation of city-states, and whose abuse of power (from the perspective of the Spartans) led to the Peloponnesian War.

Acton writes of Athens and their democracy, “But the lesson of their experience endures for all times, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.”

We can see this danger in the film itself, as the commitment of the warrior-state of Sparta to the purity and strength of bloodline leads to the practice of eugenics and infanticide. This practice comes home to roost in an ironic fashion indeed, playing a direct role in the demise of Leonidas himself. And so perhaps there are some contemporary lessons to be learned from ‘300’ after all beyond the obvious ones about the value of bravery, fortitude, and commitment.


This review has been cross-posted to Blogcritics.org.

Blog author: jarmstrong
Friday, February 9, 2007
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Our religious and political rights are uniquely bound up together. Most young Americans, and far too many older native born American citizens, have little or no idea how important this truth really is.

The central idea behind this unique relationship in American political understanding is limited government. This is really what classical liberalism understood and fervently practiced. Modern liberalism has little or nothing to do with this understanding, preferring to stress ideologies that are neither truly liberal nor limited.

The founding fathers fervently believed that we were all created equal, with inherent rights to life and liberty given to us by God. This belief was rooted in both Judeo-Christian beliefs and some elements of Enlightenment philosophy. The securing of these rights was the very basis for a limited government. And a limited government was based upon the understanding that true power arose from the governed who were willing to consent to a just government.

There were some very big differences of opinion among our founding fathers, such as two very different views of America’s future as represented by Jefferson and Hamilton. In some ways these two distinct views clashed in the Civil War, as North and South came to represent these two differing positions. But regardless of these early differences what clearly united the founders was a deep respect for individual rights and for limited government. (more…)

Though millions of Americans will go to the polls today to vote, midterm elections generally draw only 30 percent of eligible voters to the polls. (Presidential races draw around 50 percent.) These numbers put the U.S. in 139th place among 194 nations in a ranking of voter turnouts. Numerous reasons are offered for this low number. One may be the partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts that mean most House seats are “safe.” Political scientist Michael McDonald says “Just as sports fans tend to turn off the game when it’s a blowout voters who already know the results of their local races have little reason to tune in. They believe their votes don’t count, and basically they’re right.”

Numerous Christians have argued, for some years now, that it is a sin to not vote in elections. I seriously doubt the logic of this conclusion. On what specific ethical basis do you argue this case? Surely not Romans 13:1-8, which is the most extensive biblical teaching we have on a Christian’s duty to their governing authorities. I suppose you can make a case for responsible citizenship requiring people to vote but then some people are not adequately informed to vote. I actually include myself in this observation.

For example, in Illinois I am asked to vote for judges. I almost never know know if these judges are competent at all. In the past I have simply voted to “retain” the names listed on the ballot unless I knew otherwise. I refuse to do that now since I realize I know nothing about the person or their service. (Yes, there is the rare case where a very bad judge can be removed because word gets out!) I would suggest that you not vote for a person, or proposition, that you know nothing about or on an issue you do not understand. I agree that an uninformed democracy is not generally a healthy democracy. But an electorate that is ignorant of the issues, and/or the candidates, is not obligated to vote just because it is perceived as a Christian duty by some.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

I am presently reading Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), by Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas E. Ricks. Any one who knows of a critical review of this best-selling book would help me by suggesting where I can find said review. The book is, to my mind at this moment, a powerful and fair-minded critique of much that has gone wrong in our Iraq military adventure. According to Ricks blame for our multiple failures, if we are to assign primary blame, lies with the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. This begins with Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has called most of the shots in this war, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con genius who has been a principal architect of the philosophical thinking that led us into this conflict.

The question I would like to pose about the philosophy that is behind this war is quite simple. President Bush and his advisors have consistently argued (since 9/11) that democracy is an inherent desire that lies in the heart of people. By this argument the Iraqi people deeply desire to live under some form of democracy and we are there to build a nation that allows this desire to be expressed politically. This argument is based upon several intellectual arguments that have been presented by influential thinkers in and out of this administration.

My question: Is the desire for political freedom a value or an instinct? Bush and his advisors argue that it is an instinct. (And on this basis they are seeking to build a democratic nation in Iraq that will become a beacon of hope to other peoples in the Middle East.) I think the desire for political freedom is clearly a value. And it is a value that took us centuries to develop. We value democracy in the West only because of the influences that have come into our way of thinking through both Christian social thought and Enlightenment insights, neither of which is an influence on Iraq at all. Even in the West it took us a long time to come to our present understanding and commitment to democratic values; e.g., we fought a Civil War to define these values less than a hundred and fifty years ago. I do not see a biblical or philosophical basis for arguing that a desire for democracy is instinctive to the human heart. If this is true then how do you explain the people of God under the Old Covenant? And how do you explain the ancients who settled, except for a limited experiment in Greece, for something less? And what about the Middle Ages? There just seems to be little evidence for this argument thus I think it should be challenged in the court of public debate. This challenge does not constitute a capitulation to the far left. Many social and political conservatives have made it before me.

Let it be noted that I personally believe in democracy. I believe it is the best system of government that we know for a people like ourselves, a people with our values and influences. What I question here is the assumption that it is the right, or best, system for all other people. I also seriously question how a Muslim country can truly understand and embrace democracy. Certainly the democracy that we have already introduced is extremely limited given the religious expressions in the Iraqi Constitution.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 13, 2006
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Here’s an abstract of some recent NBER research:

“Why Does Democracy Need Education?,” by Edward Glaeser, Giacomo Ponzetto, Andrei Shleifer

“Across countries, education and democracy are highly correlated. We motivate empirically and then model a causal mechanism explaining this correlation. In our model, schooling teaches people to interact with others and raises the benefits of civic participation, including voting and organizing. In the battle between democracy and dictatorship, democracy has a wide potential base of support but offers weak incentives to its defenders. Dictatorship provides stronger incentives to a narrower base. As education raises the benefits of civic participation, it raises the support for more democratic regimes relative to dictatorships. This increases the likelihood of democratic revolutions against dictatorships, and reduces that of successful anti-democratic coups.”

But here’s a follow-up question: Does a top-down, dictatorial model of eduation undermine education’s tendency to support democracy? If so, then it seems the best model for education in a democracy would be the vigorous and free schooling provided by the private sector.

A past commentary of mine was featured in a recent book, Democracy: Opposing Viewpoints, published earlier this year by Greenhaven Press, an imprint of Thomson Gale.

My contribution appears as part of Chapter 2: What Should Be the Relationship Between Religion and Democracy? Following a pair of items by Clark Moeller and Bill O’Reilly arguing that democracy is based on secular and religious foundations respectively, I take the affirmative side of my issue in a section titled, “Politicians Should Voice Their Religious Convictions.” The text is based on an earlier Acton Commentary, “Private Faith and Public Politics.”

I argue that “moral considerations of some sort come into play in every policy decision,” and politicians should be up front about their religious views which validate and underlie their moral reasoning.

Taking the negative side, “Politicians Should Not Voice Their Religious Convictions,” Cathy Young, a columnist for the Boston Globe, writes in part, “The idea that politicians should keep their religious faith private may seem outrageously intolerant. But is it not equally outrageous that, on today’s political scene, a secularist figure cannot express his views honestly without committing career suicide?” Her contribution is from an article in Reason magazine.

The democracy and religion chapter concludes with items arguing whether Islam and democracy are compatible, by Fawaz A. Gerges and Amir Taheri respectively. In the periodical bibliography for further reading on this chapter, the book also highlights a piece by George Cardinal Pell, “Is There Only Secular Democracy?” The text of the commentary is extracted from Pell’s 2004 Acton Annual Dinner address, and a longer form with footnotes is published in the Journal of Markets & Morality.

The Opposing Viewpoints series has “more than 90 volumes covering nearly every controversial contemporary topic,” and “is the leading source for libraries and classrooms in need of current-issue materials.”

Blog author: jballor
Friday, January 27, 2006
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A number of bloggers have expressed grave concerns over Google’s decision to accomodate the demands of the communist government in its web search offerings in China.

David Mills at Mere Comments writes that Google is “serving a brutal government and helping it oppress its people, even if its service will prove only partially effective.” He complains that Google’s motives are purely pecuniary, and that the company is only acceding to the government’s wishes because “If it didn’t help the Chinese government oppress its people, it wouldn’t make much money in China.” Mills notes that Google is following Microsoft and Yahoo search engines in making these concessions

It seems a pretty easy judgment to make: Google is selling out. My first instinct is to agree and throw my lot in with those condemning Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Google executives have described it as a “difficult decision.” But Mills writes, “There is no ethical dilemma, because they do not have to do business in China at all.”

But this is the point at which such judgments themselves are rather simplistic and superficial. First of all, Google does have a responsibility to its shareholders to seek out new areas of profitability, and the most populous nation on the planet can hardly be overlooked.

The fact is that the people of mainland China are living under a repressive regime. The lack of such fundamental rights as free expression and speech are completely alien to us in the West, and so we react strongly when we hear about censorship and denial of human rights abroad.

But the question then becomes, “What is the best way to move China toward economic, political, and religious freedom?” It has long been assumed by proponents of liberal democracies that these three aspects of freedom are inextricably linked. If you truly have one, then you truly have all three. That position is being put to the test in China and other countries, which are seeking to liberalize elements of the economic and business sectors without substantially altering their hold on religious and political freedoms.
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Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
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After decades of civil unrest, the African nation of Liberia has elected the first female head of state in the history of the continent. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist and veteran of international affairs, was sworn in yesterday in the capital city of Monrovia. Founded in 1822, Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic, and the result of the work of the “American Colonization Society to settle freed American slaves in West Africa. The society contended that the immigration of blacks to Africa was an answer to the problem of slavery as well as to what it felt was the incompatibility of the races.”

Liberia’s recent history has been dominated by civil strife and regional conflict. But US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has hailed the election of Johnson-Sirleaf, nicknamed the “Iron Lady,” as signs of reform and progress in the West African nation. When asked about the prospects for debt relief, Rice responded: “The first key to debt relief is to have sound economic policies in place, policies that show that there will be budget discipline, that money will be well spent. We have a great deal of confidence in your new President, who understands these economic matters very well, who has dealt with the world community, the World Bank; and I’m sure that she will embark on an economic reform program and all Liberians should support that economic reform program.” Rice continued, “It won’t be easy at the beginning. No economic reform is easy. But Liberia has resources. Liberia has people who can be well educated. And I’m quite sure that if the right economic policies are followed, that the world will look at debt relief, will look at further assistance, because everybody wants Liberia to succeed.”

“Everybody” apparently includes mainland China, which pledged greater positive engagement with Liberia following the inauguration. Economic ties with other global nations will be key for Liberia’s future development. As Secretary Rice indicated, Liberia’s natural resources and human capital can be a valuable component of the world market.

Kofi Annan also noted the UN’s approval of the election of Johnson-Sirleaf, especially as it was the result of free and fair elections. Annan congratulated the Liberian people, who, he said “through a peaceful and transparent electoral process, have given Johnson Sirleaf an historic mandate to lead the nation towards a future of lasting peace and stability.”

A huge part of Johnson-Sirleaf’s platform was an emphasis on the elmination of government corruption, which blossomed under the previously-elected Charles Taylor, and a return to the rule of law. In a speech before the African Development Forum in 2004, Johnson-Sirleaf said, “The respect for and promotion of human rights as one of the principles of good governance can be defined simply as the promotion of human dignity through the exercise of basic human freedoms. In other words, respect for human rights requires respect for the sanctity of life; respect for the right to speak freely with responsibility; respect for the right to choose one’s religion and one’s friends; respect and confidence in the assurance that the rule of law protects an individual from the violation of their rights, particularly by the state.”

Roughly 40% of Liberia’s population of nearly 3.5 million people are identified as Christian, and we can hope and pray that the new administration ushers in an era of peace and prosperity for all of Liberia’s citizens.