let’s get unbalanced

          It is that stalwart of American Democracy, John Stuart Mill whom we should be thinking about today, don’t you think? I mean, he was the guy who said that only if votes were public could people be trusted to vote for the public good over their own interest. And it is today that an expected record number of Americans are casting their secret ballots; presumably for their own good- and why not?-  since we are all a long way removed from the great JSM’s understanding. Who doesn’t look after their own good – oh, I mean besides people from Kansas. And Jesuits. Oh, and of course, the visionaries of democracy like JSM, who never, not even once, succumbed to a sound bite. And that just might be why he argued that free speech is necessary for intellectual and social progress.  We can never be sure, he contends, if a silenced opinion has some Continue reading

It could happen.

          Is democracy a process or a purpose?  As a process, democracy is simply a set of rules by which decisions are made.  A traffic code of sorts which places no value on the outcome of its code: of where the traffic winds up. If the majority votes to ban flag-burning or gay marriage, so be it. Unless, of course, banning those activities proves to be unconstitutional (which has been the case so far, by the way).  As a purpose, democracy is a different animal. It assumes that there is moral capital on which it relies, and to ignore the essential rightness or wrongness of an issue – say, freedom of speech –  is to submit to the Tyranny of the Majority. The majority can vote that saying “poo-poo head” is to be prohibited, except that we’ve already established that saying whatever you want, even if it’s stupid or offensive is a moral imperative. So even if the majority wants it, we’ve already decided that they don’t know what’s good for them.

          Jeffersonian democracy had two advantages over the kind of “democracy” (I mean “plutocracy”, but I’m too polite to point that Continue reading

While you were out…

          While my interest in Pipelinistan  remains strong – what with all the shifting alliances and the emerging importances of Iran, Russia, an enlarging Europe and generally who likes whom today – it’s not my only interest. It is – of all places – Qatar which is becoming interesting, as it is steady as a rock and smack dab in the center of all the Middle-East-y, oil-y and shifting international political hubub. Qatar is friends with everyone’s enemies, and deeply in everyone’s pockets. It hosts one of the US’s largest military bases, while being best buddies with Syria both diplomatically and economically, and at the same time maintaining economic ties with Israel and Iran. The only country Qatar doesn’t get along with is its enormous and nosy neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The pint-sized gulf state might suffer from a perplexing lack of the letter U, but that’s about all it lacks, with 15% of the world’s gas deposits and having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.

          Not only that, but its current head of state, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has been busily liberalizing and democratizing the country since he ousted his dad in 1995. Sons usurping fathers is not so uncommon in emirates and monarchies, but Sheikh Hamad didn’t exile him or have him killed, he took his dad to court to try to get back some of the public money reportedly stolen during the father’s reign. That is certainly un-emir-ish enough to make one sit up and take notice. Giving women the vote and allowing them to serve in public office, removing restrictions on the media, providing a total welfare-state, with free health care and education along with a slew of other liberal-sounding moves may sound pretty promising (if you like democracies, which I’m not saying are necessarily required for progress), but we can’t ignore that all that stuff only applies to Qatar’s 800,000 or so citizens, who are outnumbered by foreign workers. As I understand it those stories about Philippine nannies being kept as slaves and thoughtless laborers being beheaded for supposedly casting aspersions on Islam are at least somewhat true. Lest we get too starry-eyed here.

          Without most of us every really noticing it, Qatar is, all of a sudden Important rather than just the oddly iconic land of black-clad, anonymous women staving off boredom in glitzy malls and white-clad, distant-father types with bulging wallets. If you think about it, though, you’ll realize that the capitol Doha pops up in a wide variety of news reports, from the World Trade Organization’s Doha round, to the Asian Games, the home of Al Jazeera, and last week’s Doha agreement which un-assundered Lebanon. And speaking of black and white, it is Doha which is “moving the region away from the black and white dichotomies of the higher Bush years,” according to Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. And he should know. Whether the black-and-white thing is oxymoron or a conundrum is a matter for linguists and not news-botters, Qatar’s move toward center stage of world politics is something to watch.