Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Liberal Democracy

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The New York Times, at the eve of the Egyptian military coup, wrote that it was an odd juxtaposition of liberalism versus democracy – implying, of course, that such go hand in hand. In the words of Samer Shehata,

“Egypt has a dilemma: its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.”

The thing is, it’s not really about liberals. Yes, there were 17 million people who had taken to the streets to protest Morsi’s rule and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they can, in a way, be called liberals. But the relationship they have with the military is more an alliance of convenience. The one common aim isn’t democracy but secularism. This is secularism versus religion.

When I read that article for the first time, I tussled with the idea that liberalism and democracy could find themselves at odds, and started probing US history for examples. The most obvious example I could think of would be States’ Rights advocates complaining that federal mandates – such as the Voter Rights Act – were hurting their own democratically elected representatives’ policies. In fact, any actions by the federal government in the name of Reconstruction would be along those lines, and indeed ever since the Republican party started exploiting its Southern Strategy, States’ Rights and the Silent Majority have been dogwhistle terms to exclude minorities, the irreligious, and, well, liberals altogether.

More locally, there was also the need for the FBI to look into corruption charges concerning, among other things, an orthodox Jewish community’s effective use of their voting bloc to have an undue influence on East Ramapo, New York’s local politics and public school board, including cutting funding to public schools, siphoning money off for private religious schools, and selling off public school buildings to private yeshivas for less than market value. East Ramapo is in Rockland County, which is mostly a bedroom community for New York City so most residents aren’t available during regular polling hours, nor are they necessarily as organized as that small religious community. As such, the orthodox community dominates local politics and critics are dismissed as anti-democratic. Quote Board Vice-President Yehuda Weissmandl,

“We’ve been elected, fair and square.”

But in neither case is democracy really the goal, nor are they necessarily standing up for democracy. In the former case, the topic is, of course, the right to suppress or negate opposition votes – through ID laws and gerrymandering, as Texas did mere hours after Provision 4 was struck down – so as to maintain a political hegemony. In the latter case, a voting bloc with outsize power does not want the rules changed so it can maintain a political hegemony. In either case, their interest in democracy is that it’s good so long as it works in their favor.

In that sense, the democratic process is corrupted, and the rights of the minority (in the former case) and wishes of the majority (in the latter case) are subverted. I tend to suspect this has parallels in Egypt as well – the sheer scope of the protests indicates as much – for indeed there’s not much leeway in a political party whose adherents claim to be “willing to die for their religion.” In fact, such bluster makes the military coup and the subsequent violent suppression look like a common goal, as if the generals were willing to humor them.

Furthermore, it’s not just corruption but a specific kind of corruption that parallels: Either the evangelical Baptists dragging their feet on the “sanctity of marriage” by any means possible (last year it was miscegenation, now it’s gay marriage) or the folks attempting to set up Sharia law, there’s a clear division that a religious subset is not willing to compromise on matters dictated by their faith, no matter what form of governance is around them. A successful democracy is one of pluralism, not a dictatorship by the victor. As such, religious blocs are at best ademocratic because of their inability to peacefully coreign: Try being a Muslim president (or even an atheist President) in Christian America.

In that sense, the military had a point when it made its ultimatum: A democracy under the Muslim Brotherhood (or any religiously-affiliated party) is not a democracy. That the military is itself not a democracy – after all, this is the same military that was run while under Mubarak, and those are American Vietnam-era APCs shooting American tear gas canisters at protesters – is itself an important but separate point.

Freedom of Religion

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is not dictated by popular vote.

The strongest point of our democracy is not that it reflects the will of the majority, but that it protects the rights of the minority. We are not governed by mob rule.

Ulterior Motives

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This. A thousand times this.

‘Course, I believe the missionaries should be brought to trial, convicted, lined up against a wall and shot, but then I have a long-standing vendetta against missionaries in general and especially their “ministrations” among people darker than them.

Locke was Post-Christian

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Or at least his points about constitutional democracy were, so says an article on Salon. So says one quote in reference to George Washington’s farewell address – “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports,”

The idea that religion is important because it educates democratic citizens in morality is actually quite demeaning to religion. It imposes a political test on religion, as it were — religions are not true or false, but merely useful or dangerous, when it comes to encouraging the civic virtues that are desirable in citizens of a constitutional, democratic republic.

and then goes on to make the point that religion is not complementary to democracy because of its moral system or even “civic virtues,” but because it produces a convenient voting bloc. Indeed, the Salon article argues that America isn’t a Christian nation so much as its leaders pay lip service to a Christian majority to remain in power – quoting Eisenhower and McCain on the concept.

What, then, was the point of the article? As a refutation to conservatives when Obama let slip that America wasn’t a Christian nation, the conclusion seemed only to highlight that if it wasn’t a de jure plurality, it was a de facto one. That the article also made the argument, however, that long-term democracies in Europe and Asia have become less religious overall seems to come very close to positing that religion as a power structure is working in counter to that of a secular state, and that the state’s continued existence in its present form relies on a manipulation of its adversary – or vice versa.

Well, duh, but then which one is happening? George Washington’s farewell address can be taken as probably the most tongue-in-cheek digs at political hegemony possible, at least from a 20th century perspective, but he probably meant it in earnest, and in America now, evangelism is on the rise. The solace granted, at least in my perspective, is that the party of the Moral Majority or the Religious Right isn’t in power now, but that’s anything but a permanent prospect.

I always had a problem with religion. Well, not religion per se, but monotheistic religions that require proselytization – active conscription. In a government ostensibly founded on mutual tolerance, how can it wrap around the paradox of having to tolerate intolerance?

It doesn’t, that’s how.

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