The Myth of Democracy As Perfection?

So it’s time for the Singapore General Elections 2015. Nomination Day was 1 September 2015 and since then, posters, illegal stickers, billboards, Facebook posts have be sprouting like mould on a wet book in the tropical humidity.

Heading home one day, I came upon a sizeable crowd heading to a Hougang field. A Workers’ Party rally was on:

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in HougangIt doesn’t take long to observe how the concept of “democracy” is thrown around freely, without any attempt to define what it means.

To my shame, I’ve never really thought much about politics, much less democracy, until returning to Singapore. If someone’d asked what form of government I thought to be the best, I would have unequivocally replied “democractic”. Clumpy thinking on my part – democracy = human rights = freedom = civilised = good.

So thought I’d better have a read around to see what it was all about. Going to very messily dump thoughts here:

(1) definition of democracy

(2) use of democratic over the course of human history (akan datang)

(3) touted benefits of democracy as system of government of a people (akan datang)

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang

(1) Definition of Democracy

This actually a hard one! Other than the lowest common denominator of voting in the government, Roger Osborne says in Of the People By the People – A New History of Democracy:

  • “when we try to pin down exactly what democracy is, we find ourselves chasing rainbows. The problem is that everytime we get near to a definition, or compile a list of conditions that any democracy must fulfil, we find examples of fully functioning democracies that do not comply, or of societies that are not regarded as democratic but nevertheless fulfil some of the criteria” [Comment: wait, but then by what criteria is a society defined as “fully functioning democracy” and “not regarded as democratic”?]
  • “Our story shows that democracies exist at different times, but democracy does not necessarily improve over time.”
  • “However imperfectly, democracy attempts to solve the great dilemma of human life: how to flourish as an individual while existing as part of a community?”

Singapore General Elections 2015

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process
Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book mentions the need for (i) minds that can read well, that have their analytical and critical powers developed; (ii) people who can communicate and discuss matters intelligently, who aim to persuade by reason rather than by force:
“One of his motives in starting the Honors course was to revive college life as an intellectual community. If a group of students read the same books and met weekly for two years to discuss them, they might find a new sort of fellowship. The great books would not only initiate them into the world of ideas but would provide the frame of reference for further communication among them. They would know how to talk intelligently and intelligibly to one another, not only about the books, but through the books about all the problems which engage men’s thought and action.

In such a community, Erskine said, democracy would be safe, for democracy requires intelligent communication about and common participation in the solution of human problems. That was before anyone thought that democracy would ever again be threatened. As I remember, we did not pay much attention to Erskine’s insight at the time. But he was right. I am sure of it now. I am sure that a liberal education is democracy’s strongest bulwark.”

“The mind which is trained to read well has its analytical and critical powers developed.”

“The mind which is trained to discuss well has them further sharpened. One acquires a tolerance for arguments through dealing with them patiently and sympathetically. The animal impulse to impose our opinions upon others is thus checked. We learn that the only authority is reason itself—the only arbiters in any dispute are the reasons and evidences. We do not try to gain ascendancy by a show of force or by counting the noses of those who agree with us. Genuine issues cannot be decided by the mere weight of opinion. We must appeal to reason, not depend on pressure groups.”

“We all want to learn to think straight. A great book may help us by the examples it affords of penetrating insight and cogent analysis. A good discussion may give further support by catching us when we are thinking crooked. If our friends do not let us get away with it, we may soon learn that sloppy thinking, like murder, will always out. Embarrassment may reduce us to making an effort we had never supposed was within our power. Unless reading and discussion enforce these demands for straight and clear thinking, most of us go through life with an amazingly false confidence in our perceptions and judgments. We think badly most of the time and, what is worse, we do not know it because we are seldom found out.

Those who can read well, listen and talk well, have disciplined minds. Discipline is indispensable for a free use of our powers. The man who has not the knack of doing something gets tied up in knots when he tries to perform. The discipline which comes from skill is necessary for facility. How far can you go in discussing a book with someone who does not know how to read or talk about it? How far can you get in your own reading without a trained ability?

Discipline, as I have said before, is a source of freedom. Only a trained intelligence can think freely. And where there is no freedom in thinking, there can be no freedom of thought. Without free minds, we cannot long remain free men.”

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang“They have experienced the pleasure of talking about serious problems intelligently. They do not exchange opinions as they would the time of day. Discussion has become responsible. A man must support what he says. Ideas have connections with one another and with the world of everyday affairs. They have learned to judge propositions and arguments by their intelligibility and relevance.

Where men lack the arts of communication, intelligent discussion must languish. Where there is no mastery of the medium for exchanging ideas, ideas cease to play a part in human life. When that happens, men are little better than the brutes they dominate by force or cunning, and they will soon try to dominate each other in the same way.

The loss of freedom follows. When men cannot live together as friends, when a whole society is not built on a real community of understanding, freedom cannot flourish. We can live freely only with our friends. With all others, we are constantly oppressed by every sort of dread, and checked in every movement by suspicion.

Preserving freedom, for ourselves and our posterity, is one of our major concerns today. A proper respect for liberty is the heart of sound liberalism. But I cannot help wondering whether our liberalism is sound. We do not seem to know the origins of liberty or its ends. We cry out for all sorts of liberty—freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly—but we do not seem to realize that freedom of thought is the basis for all these others. Without it, freedom of speech is an empty privilege, and a free conscience nothing but a private prejudice. Without it, our civil liberties can be exercised only in a pro forma way, and we are unlikely to retain them long if we do not know how to use them well.”

“…in his recent commentary on American democracy, called Of Human Fredom, Jacques Barzun cautions us not to be misled by the boast that we have the most literate population in the world. “Literacy in this sense is not education; it is not even ‘knowing how to read’ in the sense of taking in quickly and correctly the message of the printed page, to say nothing of exercising a critical judgement upon it.”

Techniques of communication, which make for literacy, are our first obligation, and more so in a democracy than in any other kind of society, because it depends on a literate electorate.

Slighting the three R’s in the beginning, and neglecting the liberal arts almost entirely at the end, our present education is essentially illiberal. It indoctrinates rather than disciplines and educates. Our students are indoctrinated with all sorts of local prejudices and predigested pap. They have been fattened and made flabby for the demagogues to prey upon. Their resistance to specious authority, which is nothing but pressure of opinion, has been lowered. They will even swallow the insidious propaganda in the headlines of some local newspapers.

Even when the doctrines they impose are sound democratic ones, the schools fails to cultivate free judgement because they have forsaken discipline. They leave their students open to opposite indoctrination by more powerful orators or, what is worse, to the sway of their own worst passions.

Ours is a demagogic rather than a democratic education. The student who has not learned to think critically, who has not come to respect reason as they only arbiter of truth in human generalizations, who has not been lifted out of the blind alleys of local jargons and shibboleths, will not be saved by the orator of the classroom from later succumbing to the orator of the platform and the press.

To be saved, we must follow the precept of the Book Common Prayer: “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”


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