Published 29 July 2010 · Main Posts Thinking about democracy Jacinda Woodhead It is odd, how we think of democracy these days – as something ordinary, inherent to the West, something to strive for yet something taken for granted, also. It is a concept that has plagued the politically vexed mind since time immemorial, well, at least since our ancient forebears. Aristotle envisioned it, Plato feared it (‘Democracy passes into despotism’), as did Mill, and Machiavelli idealised it, believing that the majority would preclude oppression, which was preferable to the tyranny of the few, who would always look to subjugation to maintain control and order. It used to be a radical concept: tyrannical or feudal systems didn’t benefit the majority and were subject to the whims and natures of the privileged minority. If we were to ask a passerby in the street, ‘How do you define democracy?’ it’s impossible to predict, based on recent observations of democracy in action in Australia, in the Unites States, in Israel, in the outbreak of democracy across the free world, what their definition would look like. George Orwell alluded to this when he wrote, ‘It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.’ At its most rudimentary level, democracy means government by the people. It’s a theory of governance in which the state’s power is vested in the citizens, or their elected representatives. Democracy is supposed to ensure equal rights for all, behaviours and actions in accordance with the rule of law, and governance subject to public scrutiny – and accountability. These days, you would be hard-pressed to find much resembling democracy in those regions that not only holler its merits from the rooftops, but also force-feed other nations its diet. What has happened to our notions of democracy? Did we squander them on compulsions to overthrow governments, control resources and reclaim territories? Israel is a nation commonly hailed as a beacon of democracy in an enslaved Middle East. Last week, Gideon Levy, who continues to churn out heartbreaking masterpieces as he watches his democracy collapse into the sea, wrote: [For Israeli nationalists], democracy means only an election every few years, tyranny of the majority and the crushing of the minority, lockstep thinking, the state above all else, Judaism before democracy, a coopted media and clapped-out control mechanisms, an academia under supervision and citizens subject to a loyalty oath – and to hell with all the fundamental values, which are being trampled before our very eyes. We could be forgiven, in this Australian democracy, for not knowing about the laws currently being read in the Knesset that will make it illegal to boycott Israel or Israeli goods, that will work retroactively and will be used against Palestinians and Israeli activists and will ban international BDS supporters from entering the region for 10 years. For not knowing of the plight of Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, who participated in the Freedom Flotilla and as a result was stripped of parliamentary privileges, was given a mock passport during parliamentary proceedings and told ‘contact Ahmadinejad and ask him to give you an Iranian diplomatic passport … because your Israeli passport will be revoked this evening.’ For not knowing of Netanyahu’s proposed immigration law adopting Avigdor Lieberman’s favoured slogan ‘Citizenship depends on loyalty’ – a loyalty, that is, to ‘Jewish democracy’, which forces new citizens to recognise and remain loyal to Zionism and Judaism. Considering that more than 20% of Israel’s population is Arab, how is this democracy? As Ishai Menuchin, the executive director of the Public Committee against Torture in Israel observed, ‘Democracy is far more than majority rule … For Israel to be truly democratic, civil society organisations are needed to challenge the government and legislature through the media and courts, and in public protests.’ Israeli principal Ram Cohen, who is opposed to the rewriting of history textbooks, and IDF recruitment in high schools, phrased it like this: A principal must have, for example, something to say about the deportation of the children of migrant workers, trafficking in women, the separation fence, the withdrawal from Gaza, minimum wage law, settlers attacking Palestinian villagers to exact a ‘price tag’, the removal of Arabs from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the siege on Gaza, corruption in government, or the relations of religion and state. Take the United States, as another example, where an administration was elected on a platform of hope, change, equality and a retreat from US imperial misadventure. This is a democracy with an administration that, despite electoral promises to the contrary, keeps open Guantanamo bay, home to detainees who have been imprisoned for 8 and half years without trial. Out of 779 prisoners, only 3 have been convicted, including David Hicks. In a country that can’t afford universal health care, post-9/11 Guantanamo has cost US taxpayers $2 billion. More than 20 million Americans are, or near, unemployed. The US has 4.7 millionaires and 39 million people who barely manage to find food. Meanwhile, the US has 865 foreign bases in more than 175 countries and the US ‘spends almost as much on military spending as the entire rest of the world combined’ – which is 50% of their GDP. They’ve recently discovered their democracy is overseen by a Secret Government that has 854,000 employees with top security clearances who monitor the ‘1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications’ of US citizens daily. WikiLeaks’ 92,000 documents granting ‘an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan … more grim than the official portrayal,’ verify what many already grasped: the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and the US COIN mission, absurd: At the meeting, an old Afghan man spoke scornfully of democracy, which he saw as little more than a guarantee of an equal right to bribe. In response, the reconstruction team’s first recommendation was to: DO an Information Operation campaign explaining [to] the Afghan people: What DEMOCRACY is? How a democratic systems works? What they can do to report wrong doing? (The last only if there will be real consequences to the wrong doing, if not the confidents/narrators will be squash[ed] by the system). On the same day WikiLeaks released their data, the Age reported: The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans a staggering $US1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $US4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents. There is now doubt as to when America plans to withdraw from Iraq, the 2011 timeline fading into political rhetoric, so the interminability of war seems assured. Since the US bombardment of Fallujah in 2004, there have been ‘dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia’ that ‘exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.’ Hardly facts to holler from our democratic rooftops. Orwell, who could have written this passage just this morning, said: When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. In Australia, we have a democratic two-party system that doesn’t allow people to directly elect a head of state, nor the head of government. Which doesn’t give people a lot of choice, yet we have to make a choice – it’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. And it has reached a crisis point where we expect our representatives to lie, and we suspect our votes are worthless. A majority of the Australian population has a much more progressive view on climate policy and war – 61% want to see an end to the conflict in Afghanistan – than our government, who have dismissed our opinions on the subject: ‘so long as the bipartisanship holds in Canberra … [public opposition to the war] is not a critical electoral factor,’ boasted former Labor senator, Stephen Loosely. The Age advised that our representatives view ‘bipartisan support for all of Australia’s overseas deployments’ as a ‘measure of a mature democracy.’ Given the war ‘coverage’ in this democratic nation, we could be forgiven for forgetting that we’re still at war – still at several wars, in fact. The platforms our politicians choose to run on are all about political popularity, as opposed to policy that affects us. While they may pretend they’re kowtowing to racists in Sydney’s West, these politicians are the ones controlling the political discourse, constructed around topics of their choosing. It’s not about what’s popular with the people; it’s about avoiding topics like defence spending by focusing on the illusory ‘border security’. ‘No politician can or should defy the wishes of the electorate,’ said Tony Abbott, who clearly has a memory that doesn’t extend beyond the headlines of that day. Our democracy is so stunted in Australia in 2010 that it is not a critical factor in this election that the majority of Australians are against the war; it does not matter that our leaders were caught lying about Iraq, about Afghanistan, about refugees. It does not matter that are leaders are never held accountable under the rule of law. How is this democracy? If Israel can get away with an attack on a humanitarian flotilla in broad daylight, if the US can get away with never-ending war, and Australia can get away with obfuscating responsibility, then what can’t these democratic nations get away with under the banner of progress? One vote every four years is not participatory politics and it is not the way to a functioning, progressive and ‘mature’ democracy. We need to stop with the democracy delusion; it’s time for democracy with a pulse. Jacinda Woodhead Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student. More by Jacinda Woodhead › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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