In this blog I’d like to salute the protestors currently staging a brave campaign in the streets of Hong Kong for a democratically elected government for their city. These demonstrators are risking their lives, facing a well-armed police force and right behind them the world’s largest army. But the protestors refuse to give in, despite the odds against them. May they and their allies be the future of China.
|Protestors for democracy in Hong Kong|
To honor Hong Kong’s demonstrators for free elections, I’d like to talk about a few favorite quotes on democracy. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Politics, “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” Sharing in government “to the utmost.” Isn’t that the heart of democracy? To the greatest extent possible, people must make the decisions that affect their lives. And aren’t liberty and equality the true aims of democracy? The freedom to do what one pleases, provided that does not impinge on one’s neighbors, and the right to stand and be treated as the equal of anyone.
I don’t say that democracy is a perfect system, or that the United States of America, where I live, has a monopoly on ideas about how to organize a democratic government. I think that democracy is a flawed system, often soured by the influence of money in politics. But Democracy is less flawed than any other system of government. As Elwyn Brooks White described it, “Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.” I love his use of the word “suspicion.” Politics is never a sure bet. The democratic process doesn’t work in every instance. But it works more consistently than any other process.
This is particularly true in the case of corruption. Political systems, no matter how idealistic or noble their beginnings, deteriorate into machines for the personal gains of the leaders without the corrective of democratic elections. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary,” said Reinhold Niebuhr.
Is it true, as Jean Jacques Rousseau said, that “In the strict sense of the term, a true democracy has never existed, and never will exist.” I believe that the digital revolution and the Internet provide both a possibility for the invasion of privacy, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and an opportunity for grassroots democracy, the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Which opportunity will triumph?
Maybe the democracy that protestors are enacting right now in the streets of Hong Kong are the start of a new kind of politics that will go deeper than citizens just showing up once every few years to cast a ballot, a democracy that will give direct voice to the people, not just through representatives.
“We have frequently printed the word Democracy,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman. “Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”
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