Aasof on Democracy!

This week on Facebook: Following my reading of the articles in Bloomberg’s Weekend Edition (This Week was China Week), it’s apparent that we are committed to ideologies, politicians in particular — in my view — being particularly committed to the authoritarian ideology of China’s master plan, which I posted this month. However, in whatever form they may come in, the adherence to a particular ideology produces its own zealots. Comments on the social media confirm this view, but what about the many more who do not involve themselves in ideological discussions!

Reading many articles on democracy convinces me that it comes in many idealogical forms that are mostly pluralistic and which rarely represents a significant proportion of the demos¹. While the demos may rarely voice the opinions of a significant majority in a demos they do appear to represent a vociferous minority who, in a liberal democracy, succeed in new laws being imposed on a silent majority. My reading, far from leading me to a wholly satisfactory definition of democracy, merely recognised that freedom of expression (speech) is fundamental to a truly democratic system. Nothing in my reading has changed my mind regarding my views of democracy, other than perhaps the (declining) access to freedom of expression in notional liberal democracies.

In 1938 Mencken wrote: ‘Thanks very much for your letter of June 11th , which reaches me on my return from Europe. I needn’t say that I agree with you thoroughly that the most valuable political invention of the past few centuries is the idea of the limitation of government.  Unfortunately, it seems to be going downhill throughout the world.  Here in the United States it is caught in the wreck of the rest of democracy.  The government is reaching out for more and more powers every day, and some of its pretensions are really almost unbelievable.’ H. L. Mencken

So is the key element of a truly democratic society in most countries the will of the demos and if so what proportion of it? Is freedom of expression, especially the freedom to criticise (in whatever form) the practices of any State and its public administration democrac²?  If it is the latter then this ‘freedom to criticise’ is increasingly being suppressed in notionally democratic countries who curtail freedom of expression (speech).

The Lord Chancellor’s 1927 ruling in response to a petition by certain British subjects, made under the Bill of Rights, and referred by the Crown to the Privy Council (written by A. P. Herbert it parodies much that is true about British democracy). This was a petition to the Crown by certain members of a political party who were convicted of holding a public meeting in Trafalgar Square contrary to the orders of the Home Secretary and police. They were prosecuted and fined, and sought a gracious declaration from the Throne that these proceedings were in violation of the liberties of the subject as secured by the Bill of Rights, and in particular of the rights, or alleged rights, of Public Meeting and Free Speech.

The Lord Chancellor ruled that there are, in fact, few things, and those rapidly diminishing, which it is lawful to do in a public place, or anywhere else. But if he is not allowed to do what he likes, how much less likely is it that the subject will be permitted to say what he likes! For it is generally agreed that speech is by many degrees inferior to action, and therefore, we should suppose, must be more rigidly discouraged. Our language is full of sayings to that effect. ‘Speech is silver‘, we say, and ‘Silence is golden‘; ‘Deeds—not words’; ‘Least said—soonest mended‘; ‘Keep well thy tongue and keep thy friend* (Chaucer); ‘For words divide and rend,’ said Swinburne, ‘but silence is most noble till the end‘; ‘ “Say well’ is good, but ‘Do well” is better; and so on.

There never can have been a nation which had so wholesome a contempt for the arts of speech; and it is curious to find so deeply rooted in the same nation this theoretical idea of freedom and unfettered utterance, coupled with a vague belief that this ideal is somewhere embodied in the laws of our country. No charge was made in this case of seditious, blasphemous, or defamatory language, and in the absence of those the petitioners claim some divine inherent right to pour forth unchecked in speech the swollen contents of their minds. A Briton, they would say, is entitled to speak as freely as he breathes. I can find no authority or precedent for this opinion. There is no reference to Free Speech in Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights.

Engheim, Muckovitch, Kettelburg, Weinbaum, and Oski v. R.

Is the consent of the Demos democracy? Matthew Pariss obviously didn’t think so when he wrote:

Democracy, I believe, should always be invited to the table but rarely left to dine alone. I mistrust the quivering, awe-struck deference to Demos as though to some sacred text or divine and inviolable authority. The popular will is one factor – one of many – that it may be wise to take into account. The trouble with democracy is that you just can’ t trust it

Clearly T. E. Utley believed that a democracy can only function under the rule of law — writing in a 1968:

It has to be decided whether any law made can be enforced, or enforced with enough impartiality and constancy to stop its becoming an intolerable affront to the principle of legal equality. Failing this, the presence of an unenforceable law on the statute book should at least have a favourable effect on human behaviour — that it will perform the func­tions of a sermon rather than a threat. If the law is to be made, it must also be established that the cost of enforcing it in terms of human happiness and virtue is not so great as to offset the merits of enforcing it. Who Decides?

This piece originally appeared in the Notes and Comment section of the July 3, 1943, issue of The New Yorker:

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is. E. B. White on “The Meaning of Democracy”

Hardly Mencken’s last words, but they reflect the humour that freedom of expression allows in a democracy like those of E. B. White and A. P. Herbert.

I have alluded somewhat vaguely to the merits of democracy. One of them is quite obvious: it is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism. Last Words by H. L. Mencken (1926)

So to end on a serious note, perhaps the definition of democracy that I — mostly — agreed with:

Democracy is the name given to a number of forms of government and procedures which have legitimacy because they have the consent of the people they govern. The two main criteria for a democracy are, firstly that the officials exercising power have legitimate authority because they have been elected, as opposed to inheriting that authority or holding it by force; and secondly, the mechanism for changing the government is through peaceful and regular elections, as opposed to revolts, coups, or civil war. New World Encyclopaedia

Stop the Manipulation of Democracy Online: Russian efforts to influence the American election are part of a larger, profound challenge to democracy worldwide. Online manipulation tactics played an important role in at least 17 other elections over the past year. From the Philippines and Ecuador to Turkey and Kenya, governing parties used paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda outlets to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves.

Internet Democracy Is Great … In Theory. Just Ask The FCC: The promise of digital democracy goes something like this: In the early days of the United States, few people could travel to the capital to voice their opinions on the issues of the day. Mail took weeks to deliver. That necessitated representatives who could come together and work full-time in a single location. But in the digital age, communications travel nearly instantly, removing or at least dramatically lowering the barriers to participation. Representative democracy still has many qualities to recommend it as a form of government, but logistical necessity is not one of them. Want to debate just about anyone, on any issue, from just about anywhere? Welcome to Twitter.

Liberal Democracy Is Under Attack: The upshot is that global politics are currently dominated by a handful of men — and only men — who have nothing but contempt for liberal democracy and who aspire to absolute control of politics, of the economy, of the judiciary and of the media. They are the predominant figures of the present — and the decisions they make will go a long way toward shaping the future ahead. The globalised, high-tech, constantly informed and enlightened world of the 21st century finds itself in the middle of a slide back into the age of authoritarianism.

Everyone loses in the clash between liberalism and democracy: Reform in 1960s Britain, with the abolition of the death penalty, anti-racist legislation and the legalisation of homosexuality, all came from above and almost certainly lacked popular support. There has always been a gap between the “liberal elite”, to use that cliché, and the more conservative masses, even if radicals have always theoretically supported “the popular will”, or at least paid lip service to it.

The populist challenge to liberal democracy: Liberal democracy faces multiple external challenges—from ethnonational autocracies, from regimes claiming to be based on God’s word rather than the will of the people, from the success of strong-handed meritocracy in places such as Singapore, and, not least, from the astonishing economic accomplishments of China’s market-Leninist system.

Referenced Articles & Books: A book or pdf (usually free), or simply a url that may sometimes link to a download that is also usually free. Sometimes a link to JSTOR is used, this lets you set up a free account allowing you to have 6 (interchangeable) books stored that you can read online.

¹Demos (definition): The following definition is given in a dictionary that I frequently use as being,The populace of a democracy as a political unit. To which I would add my own use of the word Demos as being, that political viewpoint held by the perceived consensus of the general population (not necessarily just those enfranchised) and as interpreted by the State and its public administration.

‘Democracy is one of the six classical forms of government described by Aristotle, denoting government by the demos, or populace at large, as opposed to government by a few, or by a single ruler.’

‘This is a serious threat to democracy as it does not reflect power flowing from ‘demos’ (populace).’

²Digital dystopia: democracy in the age of the internet (podcast): Is the internet broken? Has the utopian 1990s net been replaced by digital feudalism, where a few powerful entities wield control over all of us digital serfs? In this series, Jordan Erica Webber looks at internet-enabled dystopia, and how even the technology designed to do good can end up causing harm.

4 responses to “Aasof on Democracy!

  1. Pingback: Letter from an anarchist! | Aasof’s Reflections

  2. Pingback: We the People | Aasof’s Reflections

  3. Pingback: A Golden Shield and A Great Cannon | Aasof’s Reflections

  4. Pingback: Political Systems & Democracy? | Aasof’s Reflections

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