Ersatz Democracy

The surge in Iraq is working, we’re told. There is less violence; there is an elected government. Never mind that the Iraqi police include thugs, torturers, and murderers. The United States’ FBI is working on it, helping train a special unit to fight corruption and to develop respect for the rule of law. Good luck.

Democracy isn’t about election booths and the rule of law — though of course these are ultimately necessary. It is about finding ways for people to rule themselves, creating spaces for collective self-reflection and civic relationships among people with different views and backgrounds. As Randa Slim has noted in discussing “democratization” in Iraq, the voting booth can increase partisan division. Emerging democracies (as well as established ones) need spaces for people of different orientations to build relationships.

One of the leaders of the Iranian Revolution, now a dissident intellectual, is Ibrahim Yazdi. Today’s New York Times ran a feature on him and his views about democracy, which echo William James’s pluralism as well as John Dewey’s call to focus on democracy and not just the mechanisms of government:

Unexpectedly, Mr. Yazdi finds himself today aligned with some of those hostage takers, like Abbas Abdi, who, like Mr. Yazdi, now want to reform the system, and, like Mr. Yazdi, have been marginalized for their views.

“We thought we knew a lot of things back then,” Mr. Abdi said. “Everything was simplified. We thought, if only the shah goes, everything will be solved and finished. But the revolution was right, there was no alternative, no solution.”

Mr. Yazdi says he is a fundamentalist, but what he means is that he is a Muslim intellectual, traditional in his adherence to ritual and teachings. But he is a staunch democrat who defines democracy not by the mechanics of governance, not by elections and institutions, but by ideas.

“We recognize tolerance as a basic component of democracy,” he said. “God has not created all of us alike — we are different — human society is a pluralistic society. In the Koran, God is telling us that man is created to be free. So we are free to think, and think different. So the aim of democracy is to recognize the pluralistic nature of human society. The second item is tolerance, I have to tolerate my opponent. With tolerance comes compromise; without compromise democracy doesn’t exist.”

So, real democracy involves space for engaging ideas, other people, and other views and it involves creating bridges and not just electoral enclaves. These are lessons community organizers—from the back of the yards in Chicago to the jirgas in Pakistan—have long known. It would be nice if our own elected leaders, present and future, learned them as well.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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