Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations


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Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa

The claims of democracy as a universal value have to take note of this diversity of considerations. A proper understanding of what economic needs are—their content and their force—may require discussion and exchange. Political and civil rights, especially those related to the guaranteeing of open discussion, debate, criticism, and dissent, are central to the process of generating informed and considered choices.

These processes are crucial to the formation of values and priorities, and we cannot, in general, take preferences as given independently of public discussion, that is, irrespective of whether open interchange and debate are permitted or not. In fact, the reach and effectiveness of open dialogue are often underestimated in assessing social and political problems. For example, [End Page 10] public discussion has an important role to play in reducing the high rates of fertility that characterize many developing countries. If the view has emerged in, say, the Indian state of Kerala or of Tamil Nadu that a happy family in the modern age is a small family, much discussion and debate have gone into the formation of these perspectives.

Kerala now has a fertility rate of 1. Miseries and deprivations can be of various kinds, some more amenable to social remedies than others. We could even want immortality, as Maitreyee, that remarkable inquiring mind in the Upanishads, famously did in her year old conversation with Yajnvalkya.

Our conception of needs relates to our ideas of the preventable nature of some deprivations and to our understanding of what can be done about them.

1st Edition

In the formation of understandings and beliefs about feasibility particularly, social feasibility , public discussions play a crucial role. Political rights, including freedom of expression and discussion, are not only pivotal in inducing social responses to economic needs, they are also central to the conceptualization of economic needs themselves.

There is a plurality of virtues here, including, first, the intrinsic importance of political participation and freedom in human life; second, the instrumental importance of political incentives in keeping governments responsible and accountable; and third, the constructive role of democracy in the formation of values and in the understanding of needs, rights, and duties. In the light of this diagnosis, we may now address the motivating question of this essay, namely the case for seeing democracy as a universal value. In disputing this claim, it is sometimes argued that not everyone agrees on the decisive importance of democracy, particularly when it competes with other desirable things for our attention and loyalty.

This is indeed so, and there is no unanimity here. This lack of unanimity is seen by some as sufficient evidence that democracy is not a universal value. Clearly, we must begin by dealing with a methodological question: What is a universal value? For a value to be considered universal, must it have the consent of everyone?

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If that were indeed necessary, then the category of universal values might well be empty. I know of no value—not even motherhood I think of Mommie Dearest —to which no one has ever objected. I would argue that universal consent is not required for something to be a universal value.

Rather, the claim of a universal value is that people anywhere may have reason to see it as valuable. When Mahatma Gandhi argued for the universal value of non-violence, he was not arguing that people everywhere already acted according to this value, but rather that they had good reason to see it as valuable. All claims to universal value—not just that of democracy—have this implicit presumption.

I would argue that it is with regard to this often implicit presumption that the biggest attitudinal shift toward democracy has occurred in the twentieth century. In considering democracy for a country that does not have it and where many people may not yet have had the opportunity to consider it for actual practice, it is now presumed that the people involved would approve of it once it becomes a reality in their lives. It must also be noted that this change is, to a great extent, based on observing the history of the twentieth century. As democracy has spread, its adherents have grown, not shrunk.

Starting off from Europe and America, democracy as a system has reached very many distant shores, where it has been met with willing participation and acceptance. Moreover, when an existing democracy has been overthrown, there have been widespread protests, even though these protests have often been brutally suppressed. Many people have been willing to risk their lives in the fight to bring back democracy.

Some who dispute the status of democracy as a universal value base their argument not on the absence of unanimity, but on the presence of regional contrasts. These alleged contrasts are sometimes related to the poverty of some nations. According to this argument, poor people are interested, and have reason to be interested, in bread, not in democracy. This oft-repeated argument is fallacious at two different levels. First, as discussed above, the protective role of democracy may be particularly important for the poor.

This obviously applies to potential famine victims who face starvation. It also applies to the destitute thrown off the economic ladder in a financial crisis.

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People in economic need also need a political voice. Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity.

The return of history

Second, there is very little evidence that poor people, given the choice, prefer to reject democracy. In that fateful election, fought largely on this one overriding theme, the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected, and the Indian electorate—one of the poorest in the world—showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than on complaining about economic deprivation.

To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that the poor do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim. Similar points can be made by observing the struggle for democratic freedoms in South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia. Similarly, while political freedom is widely denied in Africa, there have been movements and protests against such repression whenever circumstances have permitted them. There is also another argument in defense of an allegedly fundamental regional contrast, one related not to economic circumstances but to cultural differences.

It is very hard to find any real basis for this intellectual claim in the history of Asian cultures, especially if we look at the classical [End Page 13] traditions of India, the Middle East, Iran, and other parts of Asia. For example, one of the earliest and most emphatic statements advocating the tolerance of pluralism and the duty of the state to protect minorities can be found in the inscriptions of the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century B.

Even East Asia itself, however, is remarkably diverse, with many variations to be found not only among Japan, China, Korea, and other countries of the region, but also within each country. Confucius is the standard author quoted in interpreting Asian values, but he is not the only intellectual influence in these countries in Japan, China, and Korea for example, there are very old and very widespread Buddhist traditions, powerful for over a millennium and a half, and there are also other influences, including a considerable Christian presence.


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There is no homogeneous worship of order over freedom in any of these cultures. Furthermore, Confucius himself did not recommend blind allegiance to the state.


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  • When the state has lost the way, act boldly and speak softly. Indeed, Confucius provides a clear pointer to the fact that the two pillars of the imagined edifice of Asian values, loyalty to family and obedience to the state, can be in severe conflict with each other. The monolithic interpretation of Asian values as hostile to democracy and political rights does not bear critical scrutiny.

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    Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations - Google книги

    I should not, I suppose, be too critical of the lack of scholarship supporting these beliefs, since those who have made these claims are not scholars but political leaders, often official or unofficial spokesmen for authoritarian governments. It is, however, interesting to see that while we academics can be impractical about practical politics, practical politicians can, in turn, be rather impractical about scholarship. It is not hard, of course, to find authoritarian writings within the Asian traditions. But neither is it hard to find them in Western classics: One has only to reflect on the writings of Plato or Aquinas to see that devotion to discipline is not a special Asian taste.

    To dismiss the plausibility of democracy as a universal value because of the presence of some Asian writings on discipline and order would be similar to rejecting the plausibility of democracy as a natural form of government in Europe or America today on the basis of the writings of Plato or Aquinas not to mention the substantial medieval literature in support of the Inquisitions. Due to the experience of contemporary political battles, especially in the Middle East, Islam is often portrayed as fundamentally intolerant of and hostile to individual freedom.

    But the presence of diversity and variety within a tradition applies very much to Islam as well.

    Introduction

    In India, Akbar and most of the other Moghul emperors with the notable exception of Aurangzeb provide good examples of both the theory and practice of political and religious tolerance. The Turkish emperors were often more tolerant than their European contemporaries. Abundant examples can also be found among rulers in Cairo and Baghdad. Indeed, in the twelfth century, the great Jewish scholar Maimonides had to run away from an intolerant Europe where he was born , and from its persecution of Jews, to the security of a tolerant and urbane Cairo and the patronage of Sultan Saladin.

    Diversity is a feature of most cultures in the world. Western civilization is no exception.

    Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations
    Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations
    Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations
    Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations
    Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations Participation and Democracy East and West: Comparisons and Interpretations

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