The Glory of Democracy

December 16, 2017


Image result for the fall of the berlin wall

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.

Then it all went bad. Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies, especially in our own country. The Congress barely functions. We have a president who ignores facts and violates basic decency. On college campuses, according to a Brookings/UCLA survey, 50 percent of students believe that “offensive” speech should be shouted down and 20 percent believe it should be violently crushed.

In short, we used to have a certain framework of decency within which we held our debates, and somehow we’ve lost our framework. We took our liberal democratic values for granted for so long, we’ve forgotten how to defend them. We have become democrats by habit and no longer defend our system with a fervent faith.

So over the next few months I’m going to use this column, from time to time, to go back to first principles, to go over the canon of liberal democracy — the thinkers who explained our system and why it is great.

Image result for Thomas Mann on Democracy

I’m going to start with Thomas Mann’s “The Coming Victory of Democracy.” Mann, possibly the greatest novelist of his era, fled the Nazis and came to America. In 1938, he gave a series of lectures against fascism, Communism and the America Firsters

Democracy begins with one great truth, he argued: the infinite dignity of individual men and women. Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — Mann had just escaped the Nazis — but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth. This trinity “is a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force.”

“Man is nature’s fall from grace, only it is not a fall, but just as positively an elevation as conscience is higher than innocence,” he writes. Original sin “is the deep feeling of man as a spiritual being for his natural infirmities and limitations, above which he raises himself through spirit.”

Democracy, Mann continues, is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth. It would be a great error to think of and teach democracy as a procedural or political system, or as the principle of majority rule.

It is a “spiritual and moral possession.” It is not just rules; it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbor to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth.

Monarchies produce great paintings, but democracy teaches citizens to put their art into action, to take their creative impulses and build a world around them. “Democracy is thought; but it is thought related to life and action.” Democratic citizens are not just dreaming; they are thinkers who sit on the town council. He quotes the philosopher Bergson’s dictum: “Act as men of thought, think as men of action.”

In his day, as in ours, democracy had enemies and the prospects could look grim. Mann argued that the enemies of democracy aren’t just fascists with guns. They are anybody who willfully degrades the public square — the propagandists and demagogues. “They despise the masses … while they make themselves the mouthpiece of vulgar opinion.” They offer bread and circuses, tweets and insults, but have nothing but a “rabbit horizon” — all they see is the grubby striving for money and power and attention.

Image result for Thomas Mann’s “The Coming Victory of Democracy.

The authoritarians and the demagogues subjugate action through bullying and they subjugate thought by arousing mob psychology. “This is the contempt of pure reason, the denial and violation of truth in favor of power and the interests of the state, the appeal to the lower instincts, to so-called ‘feeling,’ the release of stupidity and evil from the discipline of reason and intelligence.”

They possess the “kind of contempt which strives with all its might to degrade and corrupt humanity in order to force the people to do its will.”

Mann has confidence in democracy’s ultimate victory because he has confidence in democracy’s ability to renew itself, to “put aside the habit of taking itself for granted.”

Renewal means reform. He calls for economic and political reform that, quoting a French deputy, “will create a true hierarchy of values, put money in the service of production, production in the service of humanity, and humanity itself in the service of an ideal which gives meaning to life.”

Mann’s great contribution is to remind us that democracy is not just about politics; it’s about the individual’s daily struggle to be better and nobler and to resist the cheap and the superficial. Democrats like Mann hold up a lofty image of human flourishing. They inspire a great yearning to live up to it.

9 thoughts on “The Glory of Democracy

  1. In a speech to graduates of the FBI Academy, Donald Trump thinks immigrants are trash. Not just unauthorized immigrants. Legal immigrants – specifically, those who come to the US on “diversity visas,” after being selected in a lottery for residents of countries that are underrepresented in the US immigration system as a whole, calling them “the worst of the worst.” (I know quite a few Malaysians in the Bay Area who came on these “diversity visa”, also known as “lottery visa”.) Trump talked about calling on Congress to end “chain migration” and “visa lottery”.

    “You think the countries givin’ us their best people? No. What kind of system is that? They come in by a lottery. They give us their worst people. They put ’em in a bin…really the worst of the worst. ‘Congratulations, you’re going to the United States.’ What a system,” he said in part of his speech.

    It’s not surprising that Trump is wrong on the facts, usually deliberately. People selected in the visa lottery go through exactly as much screening as any other would-be immigrant to the US, and the governments of their countries are not deliberately “picking” their “worst people” to immigrate.

    Whenever things are looking bad for his administration or agenda, Trump returns to his favorite theme: Immigrants are bad people not to be trusted. Not just unauthorized immigrants. Immigrants, period. And his ass is now on fire – lighted by Special Counselor Robert Mueller. How he hates to hear the name of Robert Mueller!

    Sure, Trump would occasionally throw a line into speeches about how “we love legal immigrants,” or promise to put a big beautiful door in his big beautiful wall. But when it came down to specifics, it turned out Trump had very little to say in the way of praise for any group of legal immigrants – and something disparaging to say about pretty much all of them. Refugees and asylum-seekers were a potential invading force, a “Trojan horse” who were taking government resources away from helping Americans; immigrant families were refusing to assimilate; people on work visas – even the “high-skilled” immigrants – were taking jobs from Americans thanks to the rapacity of tech billionaires….

    Shiou, did you come on a diversity visa? You’re the worst of the worst. Do you think Donald Trump really cares how you kiss his ass?

  2. Trump is well-known for his admiration for dictators, his disdain toward the press, and seemingly nonexistent understanding of what the concept of a democracy is. Trump has stepped up his authoritarian game, this time restricting the language the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can use in documents the agency is preparing for the 2019 budget. Included in the list of forbidden terms were the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based,” as well as five words: “transgender,” “fetus,” diversity,” “vulnerable,” and “entitlement.” This is not only Trump’s latest attack on democracy, but also on science.

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blasted the Trump administration on Twitter for their attacks on the CDC’s language. “DANGER!” she wrote. “Trump Admin is going further down a dangerous and un-American path of word and thought control.”

    Shiou, tell me again how Donald Trump respects the Constitution and democracy. How did you like him calling you “the worst of the worst”?

  3. Asia has seen many tyrants wearing democracy hats – the malevolent and the lesser ones noted for fixing opponents, sometimes not even giving them breathing space. Lee Kuan Yew was one and Mahathir another, though lesser so. How did they manage to bat that long as they did merits some research study. The remarkable thing about the two is that they chose to step down on their own even though they were riding high then. Careful leadership grooming is in the blood stream of political stake holders running Singapore. Malaysia too should emulate the Republic in this respect.

    • Lee Kuan Yew did not worship democracy in words or deeds. He even ridiculed those Chinese High School educated people for wearing the hat of democracy in an unrealistic and lunatic way. When asked what were the most important things for running a country, he simply said they are integrity, meritocracy, and treat everyone fairly. Democracy is not one of the three top ingredients for Singapore’s “success”. For me and vast majority of Americans, democracy is not ranked the highest in value in running a country. It is important for getting things done when there are many people involved for common cause.

      However, for those people who are instinctively inclined for collectivism and suffering excessively from authoritarian urge to control, they need democracy for relief, just like smokers need nicotine.

  4. David Brooks, through the above article, shows another example of nerdy book worm expounding pie in the sky – democracy is so glorious that he worships democracy. His admiration of democracy is a mere regurgitating of work of Thomas Mann, who reflectively fell in love in democracy as a knee-jerk reaction from being tortured by and escaping from authoritarian Nazi. This is like a child deprived of mother’s love grew up to worship mother’s love as if it is the only thing that holds the world together, but in reality the child just swings from one extreme to another.

    Americans are more even-keeled in their view of the world. Most Americans think democracy as a means to achieve the ideals in the US Constitution which has not mentioned “democracy” word even once, but democracy is not something to be worshiped and praised to the high heaven. I think democracy is worshiped by only these three types of people:

    a) Old world’s people who are suffered from the depravity of authoritarian rules,
    b) Americans including immigrants who have lost their faith in both their traditions and constitutional order, and
    c) Book worms who regurgitates the above two types.

    Incidentally, I think Mr LaMoy meets the types b and c. What do you think?

    World and human nature are complex. I think if we are humble enough, we would have given more respect to result of what is working: American’s Trinity in liberty, In God/Truth We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one). What Thomas Mann theorized about democracy’s trinity on “a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force” is a convoluted word salad, a sign of book worm chewing on pages in the books.

    • Hold on please, Shiou, as I go to my toilet to throw up, puke, regurgitate. … Your hallucinogens are too strong. LOL

  5. So Shiou is an end user license agreement (EULA) christian of Prager U, a follower of Dennis Prager’s cult. His cult leader is an extremely conservative radio host and commentator who presents laughably simple answers to immeasurably complex questions. Whatever your politics, it should be fairly clear that he’s of a certain mold that tends to see political opponent boogeymen around every corner, hiding under his bed, and defiling his breakfast cereal. Anyone confused about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should check out his take – a factual incorrect definition of conservative ideas and loads of factual incorrect statements about history and religion.

    Prager’s extremism doesn’t lie far beneath the surface. When Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, announced in 2006 that he would take his oath of office on the Koran rather than the Bible, Prager threw a conniption, ginning up a wholly imaginary standard in which the Bible is the only suitable book upon which to take the oath: “What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book,” he wrote; “all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book…. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”

    In a column for the National Review last year, Prager identified “leftism” as a “terminal cancer in the American bloodstream and soul…. We therefore see voting for Donald Trump as political chemotherapy needed to prevent our demise.” When reminded on the air that the terminology of a diseased “bloodstream” and the need for “political chemotherapy” was not neutral, but rather a racialized metaphor for extermination, he countered: “I don’t think that it’s important for me to say that ‘bloodstream’ didn’t mean ‘race,’ and ‘chemotherapy’ was not a call for chemical genocide.”

    Prager’s American Trinity – E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust, Liberty – is mere disguise to advance his viewpoints that America would be healthier, more pure and more civilized if his targets – gays, Muslims, feminists, the left – would only acknowledge that they’re outliers and assimilate into a society that is Judeo-Christian at heart. What more can one say about Prager when he is censored by Google and You Tube?

  6. Pingback: Populism endangering democracy | Marcus Ampe's Space

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