About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Hail democracy in the Middle East, but not that way!

George W. is still defending his efforts to “spread democracy” in the Middle East, a centerpiece of his foreign policy ever since the 9/11 attacks (before that, he was adamantly opposed to “nation building,” and in fact openly ridiculed the notion during a presidential debate). The problem, as Churchill famously put it, is that democracy is the worst form of government (except for all the others), and it often leads to unexpected and unpleasant outcomes.

And so it did with the recent elections in Egypt, which the Bush team hailed as one important step in their overall plan. Too bad the leader of the opposition party was promptly arrested by the government after the elections, to minimize the dangerous (to the establishment) effects of a real alternative party playing the field. Or take the Iraqi elections, were religious nuts and ethnic intolerants of all stripes are now poised to “guide” the country. And finally, of course, consider the stunning (to Bush and his cronies, not to anybody who was actually paying attention) victory of Hamas in Palestine. George W. doesn't like the irony of a terrorist organization legally and fairly winning political power, which I suppose is why he had to do it illegally in 2000.

Look, I'm not a huge fan of democracy either (again, in the Churchill sense). For example, I certainly don't like that Bush got elected in 2004, despite the obvious failings of his policies during the first term. Ironically, his numbers in the polls began to nose-dive just a few weeks after the election, proving once again that Americans are not stupid, they are just distracted. Want another example? Judge Alito has been democratically confirmed for a life tenure at the Supreme Court (largely because of the perennial lack of spines, or balls, or whatever other part of the anatomy, by the Democrats). During his tenure he will likely contribute to revoke the right to abortion based on the famous Roe vs. Wade decision, thereby making life miserable for countless fellow human beings. But, hey, this is democracy in action. You don't see me asking for cutting the salary of Supreme Court justices, or calling for air strikes against their august building. Instead, I'm simply getting ready to support as much as I can whoever will run against the Republicans next year and in 2008 (hoping, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it will be somebody loaded with the metaphorical balls mentioned above).

Now, don't get me wrong, I do think that we would have a (marginally) better world if all of its inhabitants were able to freely elect their leaders at the ballot – or at least exercise the choice to watch "American Idol" instead. But democracy is like personal maturity of character: it cannot be imposed from the outside, it has to come from within. And the process cannot be accomplished in weeks or months, it takes decades or centuries (alas, way beyond the political horizon of a re-election campaign). Supporters of the idea of democracy at all costs – including George W. -- claim that one of the major benefits is that democratic countries do not go to war (against each other). This is sort of true, but it applies to established and stable democracies; just consider the bloody history of many African sovereign governments during the past several decades. It is both foolish and extremely arrogant to think that we can solve by military force, and the export of a few McDonald's, a situation as complex as the one that has characterized the Middle East for so long. And such arrogance is costing lives and lost real opportunities every single day that Bush is in power. Shouldn't we (democratically) ask him to please step down?


  1. Well, it is an election year. We may not be able to alot about our esteemed president now, but maybe we can do something about removing some of his support in Congress. I can tell you right now that I won't be voting for anyone with an (R) by their name for a loong time.


  2. I heard a related story a while back - Apparently Bush was upset that Turkey decided - democratically - to not support the Bush regime military attack on Iraq. Bush (or his people) stated, on the record, that they wished the military of Turkey would have ignored its leaders/people's wishes and joined in with the US.

    Democracy is OK in Bush's eyes only when it agrees with his agenda.

  3. During the recent Canadian election campaign, the US ambassador to Canada warned the (ex) Prime Minister, Paul Martin about making anti-American comments. (As did Condoleeza Rice, but this was in the run-up to the campaign.)

    Of course, in any Canadian election, it is likely that issues regarding US-Canada relations might come to the fore. Morever,
    in the heat of an election, politicians tend to exercise a good deal of license in what they say.

    In any case it seems improper for a US ambassador to comment on anything that is part of an election campaign in a neighbour's well-established democracy. It just could influence the results! If the other political party wants to make an issue of it, that's another matter.

    Martin lost the election (for other reasons), but the episode smacked of bullying.

  4. Morever,
    Oops! A badly formed thought. I said "...in the heat of an election, politicians tend to exercise a good deal of license in what they say."
    What I meant was that politicians should be allowed a good deal of license during an election. What may draw comment at other times, should not draw comment during an election.

    In actual fact, no intemperate comments were made by Martin, but a position was taken on some money owed from improperly collected duties (found improper by US Courts, and by dispute-resolving tribunals).

  5. This reminded me of a text I read a few weeks ago, by a Brazilian comical writer in the biggest newspaper there. He was commenting on a cartoon published elsewhere. It was like this:

    I loved Henrique's cartoon showing Bush thinking (Bush thinking is already part of the joke): "Latin America: a blue collar in Brazil, a communist in Venezuela, a native in Bolivia and a woman in Chile. This democracy thing is going too far."

    And now they could add something about Palestine, no doubt. Jokes asides, today at lunch we were talking exactly about this in the lab. The democracy paradox, let's call it. Sure, it is hypocritical of the "free world" to demand democracy and then threaten people when they choose something uncomfortable to the status quo. If a nation decides to vote itself into chaos, what can one do? If they decided to elect communists/ terrorists/ evangelicals/ social democrats/ nazis/ islamic radicals/ whatever, then would it be legitimate to "cancel democracy" until things get "normalized" to the way whomever has the power likes them?

    One interesting side of this also is that a country can (or should be able to?) democratically choose to stop being democratic (at least indirectly, by putting there a group that will do that kind of thing). But the side effect is that it then cannot change it's "collective mind" later, after the worst damage is done and a dictatorship is in power... In cases like that, where the consequence of democracy would threaten democracy itself, would it be legitimate to attach strings to the system and make it conditional? Isn't it already like that? Is the communist party still illegal in the US (has it ever been or is this a legend?), while neonazism is "free speech"?


  6. nice site


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