April 04, 2006

Even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day.

Similarly, even the notoriously reactionary editorial page of the Wall Street Journal can include an intelligent article now and then.

The current case in point is Friday's piece by Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen, in which he argues against cultural stereotyping and determinism, and points out that democracy isn't 'Western.'

When it is asked whether Western countries can "impose" democracy on the non-Western world, even the language reflects a confusion centering on the idea of "imposition," since it implies a proprietary belief that democracy "belongs" to the West, taking it to be a quintessentially "Western" idea which has originated and flourished exclusively in the West. This is a thoroughly misleading way of understanding the history and the contemporary prospects of democracy....

The belief in the allegedly "Western" nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. In this way of looking at civilizational categories, no great difficulty is seen in considering the descendants of, say, Goths and Visigoths as proper inheritors of the Greek tradition ("they are all Europeans," we are told). But there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela describes how influenced he was, as a boy, by seeing the democratic nature of the proceedings of the meetings that were held in his home town: "Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer." Mr. Mandela could combine his modern ideas about democracy with emphasizing the supportive part of the native tradition, in a way that Gandhi had done in India, and that is the way cultures adapt and develop to respond to modernity. Mr. Mandela's quest for democracy and freedom did not emerge from any Western "imposition."

Sen also knocks down a common argument that the lack of economic development in many African countries is because their cultures are unsuitable for an advanced society. That alone makes the article worth reading. So go to it.

Via Arts and Letters Daily.

Posted by Magpie at April 4, 2006 02:39 AM | International | Technorati links |

It is certainly possible for a democratically-elected government to decide that apostates deserve death. That does not invalidate democracy, but actually supports it.

Posted by: Ontario Emperor at April 4, 2006 05:47 PM