opinion

The promise of democracy :The people shall rule

14 November 2018 - 263   - 0

The promise of democracy is that the people shall rule. Not the executive, not the legislature, not the judiciary. But democracy is an ideal, not a practical reality, and it depends on institutions to make it function. When those institutions are compromised or nullified, the democratic promise is at risk of being broken.

We are witnessing such a moment now. It is exposing just how rickety the institutions of that democracy may be. At the very least, it is showing the world the flexible limits of Parliamentary democracy.

But the actual problem is no satire. It’s pretty sure if cared, what one does; the “chaotic” management style that defenders still praise on the punditry pageants. There may be things in favour of chaos, but as a manner of governing, it is proving to be a dumpster fire.

Everyone is acting as if none of this matters. But then the question; what is this doing to the structural bulwarks of liberal democracy? Revered democratic institutions?

A huge part of the problem is routine ignorance. The Constitution is “the one thing that we’re all experts about, which is amazing because none of us have read it.” Now all of us want the Judges to read it for us.

History teaches us stark lessons about the fragility of liberal-democratic politics. There is no fool-proof guarantee against the stepwise anti-democratic subversion of political life.

This is no ordinary situation. There’s not much mental profit in arguing about the definition or applicability of terms such as “fascist” or “dictator.” This has been true over and over again, in fact, and likely more often than citizens have been right to trust the institutions of the state.

Angry discourse is the rule of the day, the self-justifying ritual of insulting dismissal that everywhere passes for moral righteousness. Here’s a note from everyone’s psychiatrist: Being pissed off doesn’t make you more right. The anger in discourse is the resort of last resort. Have an argument; make an argument – of course. Raising your voice adds no validity to your points and might even act to undercut them.

But let me make the point that many of us have been urging for decades. Civility, not unruliness, is the radical option in democratic politics. People say, “No change without rage.” I say, “No lasting change without respect and a willingness not to say all the things you could say.”

That engaging with the people here are like “an abusive relationship.” Of course it is. That kind of shadow discourse isn’t democracy or useful free speech. It’s just making everything easier for the people who have power. In this discourse the obvious casualty is the “Truth.”

The Truth, the essential unit of social cohesion whose merits were debated from ancient Athens to modern Twitter and Facebook, has been found dead. The quality of agreeing on a set of known facts was at least as old as human language, and had been assumed at one time to be immortal.

Truth achieved its first celebrity as a subject of debate among Greek philosophers. Perhaps, as a fundamental element of political debate, “Truth” in this land, in fact, died long ago. It flew out of the supreme forum of collective debating and disappeared once the terror of uneducated and undisciplined invaded the Parliament; the august assemble, spreading lawlessness and unruliness, disrupting its peace, cordiality and logical debate. It may be even suggested to keep a framed copy of the past debates on its wall, with the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident” surrounded by exclamation marks for the future generations to read.

Truth began to suffer, as reality was twisted in its name. Truth really became incensed when it learned that politicians and political propagandists had borrowed its name for their media circuses. If that’s “Truth,” what the golden ideal of democratic societies is?

Truth suffers when its essential nature called into doubt by academics and philosophers, professors, professionals and the so called learned. “Truth” was reported to have put its foot through a television when it heard somebody say, “It is what the masses want. Still, Truth can hold out in hope; that “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” said Abraham Lincoln.  

When Reason and Tolerance dropped by, Truth would begin to read from Origins of Totalitarianism: “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

The great blossoming of technology at the beginning of this seemed, at first, to be Truth’s salvation. Academics spread knowledge; oppressed peoples found each other and joined forces. Truth risked taking a break for five minutes to watch a video about an otter eating clams. When it looked up its optimism was crushed, for there on Twitter was an astrophysicist trying to convince a user that climate change was real. The artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that drive those social-media giants are designed not to provide people with informed debate or thoughtful answers, but rather to maximize engagement time – and that has dark results.

Truth’s malaise grew worse in the past few years, as the country’s politicians and leaders, who spewed lies around the country as a way of proving their power. As accustomed, the politicians paying lip service. By the time that scholars, and concerned citizens noticed that Truth was ready for hospice care, it was already too late.

Ailing Truth is only occasionally seen at public events, pulling an oxygen tank. Truth had become especially discouraged, though, and wandered away distracted by the arguments about constitutional issues. There is speculation that Truth unhooked its own oxygen tank, rather than listening any more to the politicians arguing over its relevance in the present discourse.

Alas, “Truth,” has been found dead. Truth is believed to have died of neglect. Many of Truth’s friends knew that it had struggled in recent years, but few of them had gone round to check on its health. “I’ve been super busy putting out fires of my own,” “Reason” said. “I just didn’t realize how bad things were.”

Knowing its end is near; Truth had asked friends if they might erect some small memorial in its memory, perhaps on the banks of Diyawnna Oya, overlooking the Parliament building which it cherished so much.

RAJA  WICKRAMASINGHE

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