Western Democracy: A Love Story

It seems that there is no universal agreement amongst people in regards to how they wish to be governed. However, it does seem that all people – regardless of political partisanship – demand two things from a ‘perfect state’: freedom and equality. Now, depending upon which side of the line you fall, interpretations of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ can become chalk and cheese.

The conservative view tends to see true freedom in a more ‘positive’ way: freedom is not the removal of obstacles to your desires but rather the utilisation of reasonable, informed decisions; made by reasonable, informed people. The liberal take on freedom is more ‘negative’ – people have different desires and there is no ‘one size fits all’ policy, therefore, the State should not tell me what is best for me, as I know better than they do.

It would seem that in recent times there has been a massive shift to the liberal definition in regards to freedom: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, the rise of the Arab Spring and now Hong Kong’s vie for democracy. Is this shift the next step in our global development or has this admiration of ‘negative liberty’ come about through a misguided contempt of authority?

If we go back a hundred or two hundred years, the sociopolitical landscape seems foreign to what we see today. There was faith in the system we found ourselves in as well as the people we were governed by. Monarchism, Despotism and Totalitarianism all seem like dirty words in todays language but all had their hay-day, being freely assented to at one time or another – all having periods of great success.

The British Empire flourished under Elizabeth I – a time in British history that some refer to as our ‘golden age’. People, for the most part, were happy and successful due to the wealth generated from the colonisation and trade of our expanding Empire. Furthermore, even though autocratic governments tend to be associated with extremist view-points (Nazi Germany for example), Elizabeth was noted as being very moderate politically – taking a more diplomatic approach when confronted with the Catholic-Protestant divide than her predecessors. Her fair approach was not always popular with her subjects – Puritanical Protestants were not happy with her ‘liberal’ attitude towards Catholicism but she maintained her decision. A good example of how an authoritarian model can, in fact, be very useful in allowing you to make decisions away from popular opinion and for the good of the State as a whole.

China is a single-party state. The people of China have no choice in who they are governed by. People in positions of political power are appointed, not elected. They still have the death-sentence, with China’s Communist Party (CCP) taking a zero-tolerance attitude to crime and disobedience. All of these things, in a western sense, scream out “oppression”. I have no doubt that some people reading this will generally feel uneasy about the fact that all traces of Democratic freedoms are non-existent in the Chinese situation, however, people still consent to this. China is the fastest growing economy in the world and is quickly becoming the largest exporter of industry-based commodities (steel, coal, iron ore etc.) With this growth comes prosperity – with prosperity comes contented civilians. Even more surprisingly, this economic growth has even led to the betterment of social tensions around China – wealth leading to more social mobility as well as a more cohesive social structure. Shopping malls, tourism, cultural exhibitions – traits of Western democracy found in an Eastern single-party state.

So, it may be hasty to reject the stability and prosperity that authoritarian regimes can achieve. China, in a very short period of time, has gone from a poverty-stricken combat-zone – dismembered by the Maoist regime – to a world leader; economically and culturally.

In the words of Plato: a democracy can only work when you have informed, intelligent people making the decisions – if you have people who are not really that well-informed making decisions then you may find yourself in a worse place than whence you started. If single-party states can make good concise decisions for the betterment of everybody and not the majority – then why is it so detested?

Is there not room for this style of government throughout the world once again?

In the words of Lord Acton: “No” – or more specifically: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton, a staunch conservative, agreed that freedom is what is good for everyone and not the individual but still felt that democracy was the only chance for the common good.

If there is only a few people at the top, regardless of how ‘benevolent’ they are as leaders, they will inevitably be corrupted by their own power and end up making decisions on their own self-interest.

It seems that the biggest problem with totalitarian governments is that it is risky. There is no scrutiny in a dictatorship, nor a means of removing somebody from power if they become too self-pleasing – in democracy, however, there is.

Margaret Thatcher, probably the most divisive Prime Minister in British history, was eventually removed by her own party as they felt she was not up to the mark to govern. She had taken on the Unions and won. She had taken on the Falklands dispute and won. She had taken on Communism with Reagan and the values of Democracy and civil liberties had won, but, she had become too ideological. As hard times hit people due to her endorsement of the free market which inevitably led to a crash, she did not let up – with her trying to introduce the Poll Tax throughout the UK. Too proud to back down from her decision there was protests throughout the UK (most notably Scotland) and in 1990, she was kicked out.

In Acton’s view, this is testament to the strengths of Democracy. Thatcher had achieved much in her time of office, but she had undoubtedly become too indulgent in her own ideology – blinded to what was good for the country as a whole. The scrutiny that Democracy allowed to be attributed to her led to her ejection – something that could never have been done, bar coup d’etat, in a fascist regime.

Furthermore, democracies grant people things unequivocally. In the US for example, it is written into their entrenched constitution that their civilians are guaranteed certain things. The right to free speech. Freedom of association. The right not to be subjected to cruel or unfair punishment. The list goes on. In the UK, on the other hand, we do not have an entrenched constitution but because of the nature of our democracy nothing can be permanent. If we don’t like something in the current administration we can change it – if we change our minds in the administration after that we can change it back. It allows flexibility. Choice is guaranteed in a functioning democracy.

In an autocratic government, none of these things are guaranteed – they are down to the whim of the ruler, and if all power corrupts then eventually the people will have less and less whilst the person at the top has more and more.

It would seem that Plato and Acton agree on the usefulness of democratic choice but are at loggerheads with who should be pulling the strings. Acton says it should be the people whilst Plato places responsibility with the intelligent in a more Burkean model of representation.

Nevertheless, democracy, from Acton to Plato, is valued for its versatility compared to an autocracy’s stagnant structure – as effective, in theory, it may be.

Is Western democracy the death of authoritarian government? Not likely – it is more efficient and stable than a Western democracy when done right. Is authoritarian/autocratic government a better model than democracy? Not really – democracy allows choice and guarantees freedoms when done right.

In conclusion, democracy is less risky but autocracy is more effective. It is all down to what system is executed better – in Acton’s view this can’t be done in a single-state model.

Is China a good rebuttal to Acton’s point? Or does it add justification to how a fair political system can never be achieved in a single-party state?

No More Page 3: Freedom of the Press vs. Feminism

Lucy-Anne Holmes, a feminist activist, has recently formed a pressure group in an attempt to combat female objectification in the media. The crime? Page 3. The culprit? Rupert Murdoch.

The campaigners of No More Page 3 are outraged by what they see as the sexualized portrayal of women in the media. The spearhead of this problem, in their opinion, are the topless women pictured on ‘page 3’ in newspapers – more specifically, the Sun. They have since clubbed together a petition which has gathered an impressive 200,000+ signatures and rising.

So, is this another step towards gender equality or simply a moralising snobbery?

The main point of the group, pointed out by organiser Yas Necati, is to ‘better represent’ and ‘protect’ women – not simply tackle a news-giants wrongdoings. Coming from a more liberal point of view, Necati feels that photos of this nature have a knock-on effect and undermine women in society as a whole.

Founder Lucy-Anne Holmes cited that every year in the UK there are around 300,000 reported cases of sexual assault and around 60,000 reported incidents of rape. She argues that even in spite of these worrying figures our society still perpetuates the notion that women are sexual objects, and not people. Pictures of this kind being the reason behind the ‘rape culture’ feminists tend to find us in today.

If No More Page 3 were to win their struggle and stop publication of topless photos in mainstream newspapers and then, in their eyes, women would be more free as well as more safe.

However, to make someone more safe you must take someone’s freedom and in this case it is freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Holmes’ thinking it a more than fair exchange.

The backlash against this has tended to come from the line of ‘If you don’t like it then don’t buy it.’ which, I admit, does have some merit. Why should everyone not enjoy something simply because a small minority wishes to get it banned? If it’s not directly hurting anyone and then why does it matter? People have the choice to go and eat 45 burgers consecutively from McDonald’s – it doesn’t harm anybody else so we shouldn’t intervene. The only person here that should be able to decide whether this gets published or not, or how many burgers they eat, are the girls who sign up or the man with the burgers.

Even though the thought of a middle-aged man ogling over a woman half his age is frowned upon, it doesn’t need to be ‘outlawed’ – it should simply be placed in the doldrums of our mind.

Holmes also needs to remember that people have to take individual responsibility for their actions and cannot simply blame others for their misdeeds. So much of the groups argument rests on the negative effect this type of material has on gender-discriminating crime figures, when I would argue that this is not what is tantamount to the issue. If people were as socially determined by their environment as they are suggesting and then whenever anybody was faced in court with a charge of sexual assault they could say that ‘the paper made them do it’ – which is, quite simply, farcical.

People should have choice, if it is abused then they should be punished.

I personally think that feminism, in this form, is misguided. Feminism is the belief that both sexes should be equal in society – which I unequivocally agree with, however, this is not the case here. As summed up by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, feminism is quickly becoming middle-class women trying to become middle-class men – when it should be women celebrating their womanhood.

If a woman wants to pose topless in a paper she should be allowed to – as a woman, she can behave how she wants. No More Page 3 unfortunately can’t have their cake and eat it. They can’t claim to empower women when they in fact are moralising on what is acceptable for a woman to do and what isn’t. It doesn’t add up.

So, in this particular instance, I feel that things should be left as they are, I mean – who are we to judge?

Far-Right Europe and Islam: Germans protest ‘Islamisation’

A wave of anti-immigration protests have started to sweep Germany, with thousands of German citizens unhappy with what they see as the ‘Islamisation’ of their traditional culture and values. The protests originated in the old East Berlin city of Dresden, but have now been popping up in cities such as Munich and Düsseldorf – so the question is: why, yet again, have far-right Europeans singled out Islam as a menace to their culture?

It seems that after the precedent for the scapegoating was set by the British and the French far-right it was only a matter of time before other countries jumped on the bandwagon. Demonstrators have adopted the old slogan used to protest the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, tarting up flyers and banners proclaiming: ‘Wir sind das Volk” or “We are the People”- in an attempt to galvanise ‘indigenous’ Germans together. They say that they are trying to conserve the Judeo-Christian culture of Germany and do not want this to dissipate under the introduction of foreigners.

The protests come just as Bavaria’s largest Christian Social Union (CSU) try to distance themselves from a proposal made at their most recent party conference – stating that people who live in Germany have an obligation to speak German not only in public, but in their homes as well. They have since rebranded their comment as a ‘guideline’ and not an ‘obligation’ but it seems that xenophobia is beginning to rear its ugly head in the German psyche, wider than just the Dresden Protests alone.

Germany, behind the US, is now the second most immigrated-to country in the World, with a considerable amount of Germans now becoming anxious over people ‘taking their jobs and their women’. Ironically, Angela Merkel has recently spoken out against PM David Cameron’s views on immigration, stating that she will ‘block any curtail of freedom of movement’ in the EU. Merkel is clearly trying to establish a public image of Germany as being a bastion of liberal policy in Europe.

However, in light of the protests that old phrase ‘you can lead a horse to water’ begins to emerge. Even though Merkel has tried to take a more liberal position this does not mean that all Germans will heed her. If “Wir sind das Volk” then by definition, they feel that Islamic people are not.

The movement, instigated by Lutz Bachmann, a charismatic ex-con with no background in politics, insists that the protests are peaceful and non-threatening. Even though they are bringing sentiments of rightist-nationalism and social strife straight into 21st century Europe Mr. Bachmann still thinks the only thing ‘threatening’ here are the immigrants.

This is not to say that Bachmann does not have a point, however. It is true that there is a vast amount of immigration from outside of Europe into Germany, bringing crime and costs to the State, which I can sympathise with. I agree that criminal immigration is a problem in the West and it does need tackling. I comprehend people’s fear of change – something inherent in human nature. But, what I can not condone is the rallying cry of nationalism and marches – something that consolidates social dissonance instead of resolving it.

The anti-Islam protests that took place in Cologne recently illustrate my point exactly. A supposedly ‘innocent protest’ descended into violence between the two sides, with this now being used to show ‘just how bad they are’ – giving oxygen to the flames of Islamic contempt in Germany.

Bachmann may be touching on a valid point, but, typical of how these movements tend to operate, his legitimacy has been undermined by his sympathisers and hijacked by racism.

Matters such as this need to be addressed democratically by a State and not by nationalist rhetoric spouted by an ignorant hysteria.

Charlie Richards.