06 October 2012

Democracy Is a Culture

As a country we have been singularly unsuccessful at creating democracy in countries we have occupied. The exceptions were Germany, Japan and South Korea, which had enjoyed a vigorous culture of democracy before being taken over by extremist ideologies. After the respective wars, they had that culture to draw on.

The story is very different elsewhere. Whether it was Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic or, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy has been fragile or nonexistent. Everywhere we have encouraged the right kind of institutions (legislatures, elections, courts, etc.), but problems, from instability to dictatorship have been endemic. We scratch our heads and wonder why.

The answer lies in the centuries of history of each country and the resultant culture. Let us take the US as an example. The first British colony, Virginia, was a publicly traded corporation whose purpose was to make money for its investors by growing cash crops and selling them. At first the colony was governed by directors elected by a periodic meeting of the Shareholders' Assembly, which also established policies. Each share in the company commanded one vote. The second colony, Massachusetts, was also a corporation, in which the settlers owned the controlling shares. Both colonies became accustomed to governing themselves, sharing a common commercial (and in the case of Massachusetts also a religious) purpose. In the latter colony local governance of towns by a meeting of all the adult males was dominant, while in Virginia it became the House of Burgesses, a legislature which grew out of the Shareholders' Assembly. The colony also gave land and some shares to all the indentured servants once they had served their seven years of work for the company.

The natural result was that voting was connected to land ownership, representative government at the state level was firmly established, and local governance was especially connected with religion in the north. (We have been like that ever since.) The colonies were so successful economically that the British Crown understandably established taxes on the activities across the ocean. The colonists responded with rage.

That response lies, again, was due to a long history which created a culture, in the sense of commonly held values and ways of doing things. One of the effects of the Magna Charta, signed in the fourteenth century between King John and the nobles, was that no new taxes could be levied without the consent of the latter, as represented in Parliament. With time this principle applied to all British citizens: one could not be taxed without the consent of Parliament and all the men got to vote for their representative in the House of Commons.

The residents of the, by then thirteen, colonies had no representation in Parliament. That is why they responded to new taxation with rebellion. By the way, the famous Tea Party was a protest against a tax established without representation, not a protest against any and all takes. We are now all represented on the bodies that tax us.

Once independent, the governance of the colonies drew on these experiences and also on the values of the time, that is, of the Enlightenment: equality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. It took all that and more to create our culture of democracy, which subsequently was forced to deal with the grave inequality created by the slavery system and by 20th-century discriminatory laws.

Iraq and Afghanistan share none of this history. They have their own (much longer) history, which in turn creates their cultures, vastly different from ours. Those cultures will not be ignored. If you try to go against them, they will block your way. This is why we can set up the institution we consider democratic (a congress, courts, and an executive) but democracy does not happen. That is not to say that they cannot become democratic with time. It is to say that we are not equipped to tell them how to accomplish it and we should not even try.

One last thought. Cultures change slowly, but their constructive aspects can collapse rapidly, leaving primarily the negative side of the culture. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by our worst impulses. We have chosen not to educate our people except for the children of the most privileged classes. We have turned our noses up at history and opted for bread (consumerism) and circuses (entertainment). As Ernesto Sabato said, it has "the whiff of decadence." We had better wake up. As for voting, I hold little hope that anyone in either party has any idea of where we are headed. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to try to discern which party is more likely to learn what is needed and vote accordingly.

I invite any of you who enjoy youth literature to read my Angela 1: Starting Over in which the young protagonists are discovering some of what I discuss above and grappling with what it may mean to them. You can check it out, if you wish, at www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html

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