ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “democracy”

The death of democracy as we know it?

Rarely do I post about other things than history, but for once I’m going to go a bit political on you. Bear with me – and if you don’t, welcome back in 2017 when one of my first posts will be about a medieval Spanish king and his passionate love for a woman who probably never existed. 

In the very distant past, the Ancient Greeks pioneered an innovative approach to ruling their world. In the city state of Athens, all citizens (and we need not complicate things by discussing who were and who weren’t citizens) had an equal say in who should lead their city. Political campaigns were run to collect votes for this or that candidate, and on many issues the citizens voted directly – as is still done in the Swiss cantons.

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Such democracy requires that a) the people with the right to vote exercise this right b) that the voters inform themselves as to the alternatives. It also requires an element of altruism, in that those that have need to recognise that in a democracy they might be required to share their wealth. After all, if you offer universal suffrage, somewhere along the line the impoverished voters will feel entitled to tax to their benefit, i.e. higher taxes on those that can afford it to pay for—as an example—public schooling. Which in turn leads to higher level of education, more wealth, more political interaction. Welcome to the welfare state, people!

If we’re going to be really, really drastic, we could argue that democracy in itself is a precursor to a milder form of socialism, creating a society in which the downtrodden can aspire to better lives than their parents, a society in which the gap between the minority very-very-rich and the majority not-at-all-rich is not quite as huge as it presently is in various democratic countries. Obviously, those who belong to the very-very-rich don’t always embrace this development. Therefore, the very-very-rich (and the closely related “establishment”) don’t always have a vested interest in pushing people to exercise their voting rights—rather the reverse, actually. And seeing as the poor and weak are often too poor and weak to fight for their own rights, you end up in situations where a substantial minority of all voters don’t vote. It’s too much of an effort to register, it takes too much time, thereby denting income.

Once the voter has claimed the right to exercise the right to vote, it is time to inform oneself. I imagine in Ancient Athens this was a question of going to debates, of listening and asking questions of the various candidates. In our modern democratic world, information was until recently gathered through reading newspapers. These days, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to read lengthy articles debating various sides of complex issues. No, today voters are happily misinformed by going for the simplified social media versions—of everything.

The problem with such information is that it is rarely complete. Or true. From the perspective of a future democratic world, 2016 has not been a good year. It is a year in which flagrant untruths have been blatantly used to garner votes – and even worse, the voters have swallowed these falsehoods. Why? Because they haven’t done their homework – or they don’t care. They have allowed themselves to be misinformed and are thereby not taking their duties as voters seriously.

Take, for example, the debate preceding Brexit in the UK. Those who represented the leave side happily spouted lie after lie – starting with the huge lie re how much money they were going to channel to the NHS (The UK National Health System) once the UK was freed of the chains of slavery binding it to the EU. When people objected to these lies, they were waved off as “experts” – and who on earth wanted to listen to an expert? Er…

It is symptomatic of just how uninformed the UK voters were that on the day AFTER the election – i.e. when it was already too late – the single most googled term in the UK was “what is the European Union”? Bravo, dear voters: you really did your homework, didn’t you?

Whether or not leaving the EU will be good or bad for the UK remains to be seen. And maybe the result would have been the same even if the voters had read up on the facts beforehand. What worries me is how the debate was run, just how blatantly some of the so-called leaders lied – and how gullibly the voters sucked it all up. If voters can’t be bothered to truly inform themselves about something as important as leaving a union which has as its prime purpose to safeguard peace and democracy in Europe, it doesn’t bode well for the future. If voters decide to ignore the “experts” in favour of the populists, then the voters are not living up to their side of the bargain, which is to exercise their vote AFTER they’ve informed themselves. Not the other way around.

After Brexit came the presidential election in the US. Yet another example of one lie atop another, with one of the candidates making sweeping (and untrue) statements about everything from crime rates among immigrants to President Obama’s citizenship. One long, endless string of lies, and most of them were easy to fact-check—but the voters chose not to. Instead, the voters elected Mr Trump, who had he been a wooden doll would have had a nose long enough to scratch at the moon.

In both the Brexit election and the US Presidential election, truth was clearly unimportant. People, it seemed, didn’t care about the lies. Some of these lies went on to become “truths” simply by being repeated so often. Some UK citizens seemed to truly believe the EU ran their country. It doesn’t. The UK is governed by its government and its Parliament. Always has been. In Mr Trump’s case, it became a truth that 17 million illegal immigrants had to be deported, seeing as they were more or less single-handedly responsible for crime in the US. Er…It was also a truth that Ms Clinton was going to jail should Mr Trump win. Er…Plus, of course, it is a “truth” that Mr Trump won an unprecedented victory. He didn’t. Ms Clinton won the popular vote with close to 3 million votes.

Even worse, both the US election and the Brexit debate quickly degenerated into a “we vs them” discussion. “We” were the group presently being addressed – “them” all the others. “We” were the victims, “them” the perpetrators of everything from globalisation to increased violence. Often, “them” were Muslims. Or immigrants. Defining immigrants as “them” in a country like the US is preposterous, as ALL Americans, bar the Native Americans, are per definition immigrants. That is what has made the US into the strong, vibrant country it is. Embracing diversity is what makes a country great, people. And yes, welcoming immigrants and refugees comes with huge challenges, but blaming them for everything that is wrong is not exactly the way to handle it, is it?

The truly worrying thing about the “we and them” debate is that it can be tailored infinitely. In one discussion, the “them” are Muslims – all of whom are potential terrorists and should therefore be deported back to where they came from, no matter that they were born and bred in Leicester. In another, “them” are the LGTBQ community – after all, they’re not like the wholesome heterosexual “we” are they? Next step, “them” are the immoral little sluts who opt for an abortion rather than giving birth to an unwanted child. Scary stuff, people, especially when the voters no longer bother about informing themselves, thereby taking the statements made about “them” at face value.

So how could populists like Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump carry the day? Have voters become lazy? Stupid? Don’t they care about democracy anymore?

A democracy only works if it is built on an element of trust. I elect you to represent me and my interests – and if you don’t do that, I’ll not elect you next time. However, over time people have lost faith in their representatives – nor does there seem to be much difference between one party or the other. Which is why, I assume, only 50% of the US voters bother to vote.

In the US, Mr Trump picked up considerable votes among the white, formerly middle-class, voters who have seen their relative wealth eroded over the last few years and had little reason to believe the “establishment” would do anything to help them. After all, the establishment rarely does. Ironically, Mr Trump is a member of the privileged elite which rarely shows any inclination to share, so I’m not exactly holding my breath…

Maybe 2016 should be a wake-up call to all those who profess to believe in democracy – despite its inherent weaknesses. Maybe it is time to face up to the fact that in the perception of the voters, the politicians no longer serve the voters’ interests: they serve their own. Fertile ground for populists who exploit the disgruntled…

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Maybe it is time to remember that our forebears fought for the right to vote. To them, the principle of governing themselves was so important they were willing to risk imprisonment—even death—to defend it. In non-democratic countries throughout the world, people still fight for their right to make their voice heard, but we, the blasé citizens of the western world, we can’t really be bothered, can we? After all, being a responsible citizen in a democratic country requires more than surfing the internet and liking the odd post. Much, much more. Like getting off our backsides and going to vote – after we’ve informed ourselves. Mon Dieu, as the French would say. Let’s hope they say more than that next year, thereby relegating Marine le Pen and her non-inclusive, divisive politics to the margins of history.

Gloria al bravo pueblo

Bolívar_2 Ha! I can see you reading the title, a small crease between your brows. Spanish? Now what is she on about? Those among you who hail from Venezuela, will of course recognise the line as being from the National Anthem, glorifying the people and its leader who broke the yoke of colonialism, back in the early 19th century.

The leader at the time was Simón Bolívar, wealthy scion of one of the pure-blood criollo families in Venezuela. A criollo is a person who has undiluted Spanish – or at least European – blood in his/her veins. And for all that he led a revolution, Bolívar was no democrat in the modern sense – he wasn’t out to empower everyone to vote, after all women and other such weak-minded creatures were best kept at a fair distance from any influence on government. Don’t get me wrong; Bolívar liked – loved – women, but preferably in a horizontal position and definitely nowhere close to the offices of power. In particular, Bolívar loved Manuela Saenz – quite ironic as this particular lady was a most active participant in the revolution against Spain. Not that it helped; in Venezuela, women won the right to vote as late as 1946…

As we speak, the people of Venezuela have yet again risen against oppression. Ironically, the vociferous students, the opposition lead by Henrique Capriles, are protesting against “La Revolución Bolivariana”, which is how Hugo Chavez chose to label his democratic dictatorship, built on a flagrant populism liberally dosed with home-made socialism and quite the pinch of personal idolatry. Hugo Chavez had no problem with women voting – as long as they voted for him. He encouraged the disenfranchised to speak up for themselves (must be applauded), he spoke of education for everyone (yet again; applause) and along the way he strong-armed the Venezuelan constitution into extending the number of terms he could serve as president (bad, bad behaviour), he used his presidential powers to gag the opposition (tsk, tsk) and he eliminated all potential threats to his own power, thereby creating a following of sycophants with few original ideas of their own, and even fewer convictions.

So of course, when Chavez died, Venezuela was left in the hands of a less than competent government – that still went on talking about “La Revolución Bolivariana“. Let me tell you, dear old Simón must be spinning like a top in his grave at hearing his name so misused… There; done with the very abbreviated version of the background to the present situation in Venezuela. Let us instead return to that glorious leader, El Libertador, Simón Bolivar.

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Caracas in the early 19th century

Simón Bolívar was a patrician, a well-educated rich young man who fell under the influence of the liberal ideas that flourished in the late 18th – early 19th century. Inspired by what had been done in the U.S., more and more of the South American criollos began thinking about breaking away from Spain, at the time a rather sick empire.

The Bolívar family was filthy rich. Seriously, seriously rich, with sugar plantations and gold mines, and more plantations, even more mines. The family empire depended on slave labour – as did most colonial enterprises at the time. The family could also count itself among Venezuela’s ancient families, having been in situ since the 16th century.

Little Simón, burdened with the full name of Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco, was born in 1783, in Caracas. Quite a mouthful, those names; when I was/am very angry with my children, I call them by all their names. If Simón’s poor mother had tried the same, she’d have sprained her tongue – sadly, this was not going to be an issue for long, as she died when Simón was nine, thereby leaving the little boy an orphan. Simón’s father had died six years earlier.

Growing up, Simón only had one constant in his life, the slave Hipolita. After the death of his mother, a series of tutors were engaged to ensure he was properly schooled. One of these tutors, Simón Rodríquez, was to have a profound impact on his pupil, inculcating a fervent desire for freedom, for independence from under the Spanish yoke, in his young adept. So vociferous a proponent of revolution was Rodríguez that he was forced to flee Venezuela in 1797, and our adolescent hero was therefore enrolled in a military academy – probably in the vain hope of steering the misguided young man away from ideas of subversion and revolution. Didn’t work. But the years at the military academy gave Bolívar a strong grounding in military strategy, which was to come in useful in his later life.

Bolívar,_1800It wasn’t only the rich English aristocrats who did the Grand Tour back then. As a matter of course, Simón was dispatched to Europe somewhere in his late teens, and spent a number of heady years travelling the European continent. This was at the peak of  Napoleon’s career, and a wide-eyed Bolívar watched Napoleon’s coronation as emperor in Notredame. Did he dream of similar glories for himself? Probably.

In 1810, Venezuela took advantage of the political upheaval in Spain (Napoleon again. That man knew how to stir things up) and declared itself an independent country. Bolívar was sent off to England to request aid against an aggravated Spain – and to entice Francisco de Miranda to return to Venezuela as its first President. Not a very successful republic, this first attempt, and by 1813 Miranda was out of the picture, rather callously betrayed by Bolívar. Oops: I see some of my readers frown, not liking my depiction of their hero. Tough. Bolívar was a man who set himself goals and set out to achieve them. Such men always leave casualties along the way.

With Miranda in the hands of the Spanish, the Venezuelan republic teetered on the brink of extinction. Well, if we’re going to be correct, the republic was as dead as a door-nail, with Spain in control of all major cities and ports. And yet the fight went on. On the Spanish side, leaders such as Boves terrorised the opposition by murders, rape and pillage. So effective was this terror that in 1813 Bolívar  felt obliged to issued his decree of “War to Death”. Not at all a nice document, as it allowed for anyone of Spanish birth to be summarily killed unless he could prove he was collaborating with the rebels. Nice; now BOTH sides were using indiscriminate violence to intimidate the civilian population. But then, as Abimael Guzmán, leader of Sendero Luminoso, once said “A revoultion requires rivers of blood”. Or not, depending on your inclination… (Sendero Luminos was a marxist guerilla group that wreaked havoc in Perú during the 1980’s)

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Bolívar in the foreground

It would take until 1821 for Bolívar to rid his native land of its colonial oppressors. He won, he lost, he fled, he returned, he won again, and again. At the Battle of Boyacá, present day Colombia was liberated. At the battles of Carabobo and Pichincha, Ecuador and Venezuela were similarily liberated, and a new republic, Gran Colombia was formed, comprising all these states (Which is why, even today, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela have the same tricolor flags).

Bolívar was hailed, glory was heaped upon him, and he was accorded the title El Libertador (the liberator). He also became president of Gran Colombia, was active in supporting the freedom fighters further south on the continent, drafted the constitution of the country named after him, and in general was quite the busy bee. But, as we all know, popular opinion is a fickle thing, and the once so adored liberator was suddenly a much less admired president, accused of being far too power-hungry.

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Manuela- intrepid mistress

Gran Colombia was an unstable construction. So unstable, in fact, that Bolívar saw no option but to make himself dictator. Not a popular move, and had it not been for fair Manuela Saenz, who saved her lover in the nick of time, Bolívar would probably have been assassinated. As it was, he became disenchanted with all these ungrateful louts who demanded influence and power now, but who had not as much as lifted a finger to help during the revolutionary wars. In 1830 he resigned and prepared to leave for Europe. He was sick of strife, of “ploughing the seas” as he bitterly described his revolutionary efforts. Maybe he was hoping for some years of intellectual pursuits in civilised company, far from the heaving cauldron of passion and conflict that was his native land. If so,  he was to be disappointed. In December of 1830, Bolívar died of tuberculosis in Santa Marta, a rather nondescript village in northern Colombia.

Years later, his bodily remains were moved to Caracas. Centuries later, the remains of Manuela Saenz were interred beside his, a belated recognition to all those women who risked their lives together with their men in the revolutionary wars.

To end where I began, I believe Bolívar would, had he been alive today, been very upset at having his name linked with Hugo Chavez’ “revolution”. Neither President Maduro nor Hugo Chavez would have met with his approval, being far too uneducated, too unsophisticated for a man of Bolívar’s intellect (Yes, he was a snob – or a product of his age). And as to present day Venezuela, well, I think Bolívar might have sighed, wondering why on earth he bothered.

Gloria al bravo pueblo que el yugo lanzó, la ley respetando, la virtud y el honor.
May Venezuela, this country of so much beauty, so many natural riches, one day realise all its potential. May the people of Venezuela one day have the leaders they deserve and need, leaders who step away from opportunistic populism and settle down to create a country that lives up to that first line in the National Anthem, a country that respects law, virtue and honor. One can always hope.

That fragile thing called democracy

Over the recent weeks, I have watched the present development in Turkey with a substantial element of sadness. Up and to a month or so ago, I would have argued that Mr Erdogan had succeeded in bringing financial stability to a country seething with potential, and I guess the majority of Turks would have agreed with me. Mr Erdogan is a democratically elected leader – on his third round – for a young vibrant nation – a nation that for years lived under a quasi democracy with the military hovering in the wings. Mr Erdogan represents a party many modern Turks view with some distrust – after almost a century as a secular state it is difficult to accept a party with strong religious roots. He is also the beneficiary of a splintered opposition, thereby allowing him – and his party – to rule as if they had far more than the approximately 50% of the votes they have.

The important thing about democracy is that having the majority does NOT mean smashing the minority. A true democratic leader attempts to include as large a share of the electorate as possible when drawing up strategies and plans – if nothing else to retain a general overall popularity. A true democratic leader encourages the media to criticise, a true democratic leader does not move to legislate against the social media (as Erdogan proposes to do). In fact, a true democratic leader LISTENS to public opinion and takes this into consideration – after all, who better than the people to decide how the people want to be governed? Okay, so very often one can argue that the people don’t know their own good – that’s what communist dictators do, that’s what right-wing dictators do, that’s what democratically elected leaders do (in private, preferably). Ultimately, democracy rests on the assumption that the people do, in fact, know what’s best for them – however imperfect the end result might be.

In Turkey, it seems as if Mr Erdogan has won the first round, this by brutal reprisals of young demonstrators. they’ve been tear gased, they’ve been water bombed, they’ve been arrested and thrown into jail  and quite a few have disappeared. World media presents things as they are and Erdogan fumes that these foreigners don’t know what they’re talking about – to be expected from a man who attempted to put the lid on a recent bombing in southern Turkey. I hope that the second round will be far more devastating to Mr Erdogan – if nothing else to keep democracy alive in Turkey.

What the demonstrators in Istanbul and other Turkish cities are highlighting is the fact that democracy needs to be defended and sustained. A quibble over a few trees has blossomed into a loud protest at how their country is being run, and there is a passion to their voices, an anger in their movements that indicate that this fight is far from over. Good. Some things are worth defending, right? In this particular case, it is easy to see that it needs defending, but there is a far more insidious threat to democracies today, and that is that of indifference.

The Western world takes it for granted that we live in free countries. We’ve grown up hearing all that stuff about “all power from the people” and most of us take that as a truism. We also forget that democracy is a relatively new form of government – well, with the exception of Greece and its ancient traditions – and that democracy depends on its citizens caring enough to vote. It is the duty of every person living in a democracy to rise out of the sofa and make their way to the closest ballot come election day. But how many do? In the US, approximately 60% of all voters do their thing. That’s a lot of people remaining on the sofa, isn’t it? Less than 70% of UK voters exercise their right to vote, in France it’s below 60% and in Poland it’s under 50%. Even worse, very many people express that they don’t care one way or the other, so why bother making the effort to vote?

Unless we exercise our rights and nurture this rather tender reed that is democracy, it will wilt and die. Once we, the people, stop caring, why should anyone else care? If we, the people, have no opinions and prefer being led like blind sheep from one point to the other, so be it. But we’re not blind sheep, are we? No, we’re the people – and let us make sure we don’t forget that! In Turkey, Mr Erdogan has had his first confrontation with the people – his people. It behoves him – and all democratically elected leaders – to listen when the people roars. It behoves us, the people, to roar when needed.

Why idiotic tracts have to be conserved for the future

I guess (assume, HOPE – take your pick) that most of us believe in freedom of speech. Many of us do so by rote, i.e. it’s a knee-jerk reaction rather than a rational conclusion – we’ve been brought up believing in democratic rights and it’s necessary appendage, freedom of speech. Now and then I think it would be wise if we actually took the time to consider what freedom of speech (and democracy) actually means:

To be allowed to express your opinion is a failsafe in a democratic society. Without anyone crying “wolf, wolf” now and then, the wolves will come crawling out of the closets or whatever other dark space they might be inhabiting and take over. Make no mistake; the wolves are still out there, they’re just licking their chops and waiting for that precise moment in time when the citizens in a democracy no longer care enough and that’s when WHAM they’ll swoop in and become the top dogs. No fun, if you happen not to like wolves, right? Even worse if you’re the sheep…

So; freedom of speech is a must, it is the building block for critical journalism, for media coverage, for Joe Everyman going out into the street and shaking his placard when he doesn’t agree with something. And yes, sometimes what’s written on that placard is absolutely appalling, but that’s neither here nor there – the right to say whatever you think is sacrosanct. It would, of course, be nice if people applied some JUDGEMENT when exercising their rights of freedom of speech, but let’s face it, my judgement is not your judgement, and while I may believe certain cartoons/films neither enrich nor enlighten the world at large, someone else will disagree. And that’s okay; disagreeing is yet another foundation for democracy. Different people hold different opinions, vote for different parties/candidates and hopefully the end result will be a representative government. (Well, in theory at least)

Recently there’s been quite a hullabaloo up here in our Northern corner of the world regarding freedom of speech contra rasism/misogynism/discrimination in general. It all started with a rather energetic person stating that it was time someone cleared up the Children’s Books in a library and cleansed the shelves of such racist literature as Tintin. Eh, what? Oh yes, the Tintin albums are awash with stereotypes such as carpet flying Arabs, sinister Soviets and rather naively depicted Congolese people. Therefore they had to go; out, out and away with these terrible, terrible stories that might imprint on our tender children such awful misconceptions.

Setting aside the fact that most children aren’t idiots and therefore are perfectly capable of differentiating between make believe and reality, this poses the question as to how far we should go. Here in Sweden we obviously would have to throw our beloved Pippi Longstocking on the bookpile, as there is a recurring mention of the “n” word in these books. Oh, and bye, bye Babar, and Enid Blyton’s Five books would go the same way – her villains are sadly stereotyped. Come to think of it neither Hornblower nor Biggles would make the cut – in one there’s a lot of denigrating comments about the French, while the other is awash with racial comments. That would be a major pity as I love both these series.

While we’re at it, maybe we should cleanse the world’s libraries of offensive adult literature as well. Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe (I mean, Friday… come on!), and Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice would definitely end up on the bonfire as would most of the writing by the early Christian academics. And all we would be left with would be a bland, unrepresentative literary heritage. Gone would be the angry rants against women in other roles than that of mother and wife, gone would be all those texts that are testaments to the fact that once upon a time white man DID believe they were better than the rest. Gone all the antisemitic texts, all the misrepresented Muslims, no more “savages” living in Borneo, no more thieving tinkers, no more Esmeraldas, no sensuous Carmens, no Gone with the Wind. God how boring. And how WRONG! If we are to understand our past and how our societies have developed to what they are today, we have to conserve the written works of times long past (and not so long ago) How to understand the machinations of Nazism without reading Mein Kampf (not that it fully helps)? How will we comprehend the bravery of the abolitionists if we cannot place them into context by reading books/articles from their times?

Freedom of speech, remember? Many of the authors cited above were dust in the wind by the time the concept was codified in our modern democracies. That doesn’t matter; what they wrote, what they thought,must be safeguarded, analysed, reacted to. Not hidden away or destroyed in an attempt to whitewash our past. Let’s face it; Tintin is a product of his times. Hergé lived in a day and age when colonialism was perfectly okay, part of the accepted way of organising society. How can we retroactively blame him for that?

Fortunately, the powers that be interceded, and where on the Monday the Tintin albums were carted outside, on the Friday they were back again. Instead of reading a lot of political commentary into these albums why not enjoy them for what they are, namely fantastically detailed and quite exciting adventures that even today succeed in transporting our children to other times, other places. I say well done Hergé, well done to all the authors whose work survives the wear and tear of time as well as Tintin does.

I believe in democracy. I am a firm adherent of freedom of speech. At times this makes me clap my hand to my forehead and moan at the sheer stupidity of fellow man. I guess there are a number of occasions when someone else is thinking the same about me, but that doesn’t stop me from expressing my opinion. In silence lies the roots of oppression and manipulation, in loud and heated argument lie the beginnings of a better world.

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