Salim Vohra
Democracies, health and countries in transition
Posted on July 15th, 2011

I wrote this in July 2006 on a Squarespace blog which I abandoned. Again this is worth re-publishing as it still resonates with me and fits with what has happened and is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. However, it is by no means a perfect piece as there are elements I would like to tweak but I have resisted the temptation.

"We all know instinctively that freedom is good for us and yet...and yet looking back at history it's actually a very recent phenomenon, women got the vote in the early 20th century in Europe, Europe and Australasia, segregation only ended in the US in the 1960's and Apartheid in South Africa in the 1990's.

What we mean by democracy has changed radically over time. In ancient Greece, as throughout much of the intervening millennia, democracy and being free was for men, not for women and slaves.

Democracy, in terms of being being free to choose our lives and having some control over the people who come to represent us, is good for health and wellbeing. Absolutely! people in open, free and democratic societies, however you see those three very big concepts, tend to be more healthy than those who don't.

But what happens when you have democracy and unstable government, governments who cannot provide law and order or deliver the basic essentials of life - water, food and shelter. After the fall of the Soviet Union, people in some respects became freer but their health and wellbeing deteriorated alarmingly, part of this was the sense of cultural shock that something that seemed so permanent and monolithic had turned to rubble, but for the most part it was because social systems and economic infrastructure began to deteriorate and in some cases collapse as the political system and the social structures radiating from it disintegrated.

Yet, this was a case of internal collapse, with pressure from outside, but arguably the internal dynamics which showed the rigidity and failure of the political system and the inability to ameliorate the flaws and cracks was the more important catalyst. How much more difficult and complex when change is imposed from outside. Does democracy justify the loss and giving up of lives by people who do not do so willingly? ... I have to say, I don't think so.

When we look at wars of freedom - revolutionary wars and civil wars - the ones that succeeded were those where people chose to fight for their beliefs. "Give me liberty or give me death!" That clarion call still gives me shivers, because I believe in it and it makes me want to stand up and be counted. And that's the point, I will chose to stand up or choose not and both have consequences that I, alone, must live with. Hence, I've always been a roundhead and never a cavalier, Cromwell and the puritans may have been a dull and worthy lot, often officious and joy-stomping in later years, but they had right on their side. The more you look at these the more you see how difficult morally, spiritually and intellectually these fights over ideas (and land and money and power) were.

That's why I think we can't ever plant democracy; it must be homegrown. One of my most abiding memories was of BBC reports of South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released and the first post-apartheid free and fair elections. Reporters from around the world thought that there would be a bloodbath with Black South Africans murdering White Africaaners. White ex-pat Brits were fleeing back to the UK fearing the worst. It never happened. What we got instead were long queues of people, having walked miles and standing all day and into the night, patiently waiting to cast their vote with a smile and an excitement that certainly made me feel a warm glow.

I vote every chance I get. For me, voting is a sacred trust and a bond between me, the people who fought so hard to get me this right, my fellow citizens and the society in which I live. The act of voting is a symbol of the permanent power and potency of the people over the temporary power we give to those who would represent us and act on our behalf. "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Given that in countries and societies in transition - moving from one political or social model to another - the health and wellbeing of their citizens tends to decline, is it better for those outside the society to leave a dictator or authoritarian regime in place or to work to remove them by force? For me, again, the answer is a clear no to the use of force.

I'm being disingenuous with the question posed because there is a middle way which is to tolerate but not support such undemocratic structures and wherever and whenever possible to support internal calls for democracy as well as use diplomatic and trade relationships to highlight the value of moving to a democratic state. Sadly, that call in itself is utopian given that many democratic countries have in the past supported and continue to support authoritarian and non-democratic individuals and political systems.

But, while I agree with pushing, cajoling and persuading nations to become more democratic (as long as there are no indirect negative impacts on its citizens, such as those that tend to follow the use of sanctions). I think what we have missed is creating a social and cultural ambience, an atmosphere, a milieu which embodies that nation's, that society's, deep-seated sense of what freedom means to them.

All democracies have foundational myths, legends and cultural writings and artefacts from the 'stars and stripes' to the 'union jack' from constitutional monarchies to written constitutions. While these mostly happen during or after the events they also have a much deeper setting within a society's past. Every society has their Robin Hood, their legend and myth about fighting for freedom and the Right. Every community has their Mayflower and the flight from oppression to a land of freedom and opportunity. The trick is to be humble, to understand that all cultures and communities yearn for freedom and democracy and to harness that understanding and the social and cultural fabric that already exists in these communities' past stories, legends and myths. These narratives can be religious or secular, historical or mythical, but what they can do is to get people thinking about and articulating what freedom and democracy means to them, their families and friends and their communities and societies.

More importantly, this is not just about past writings but the art and culture of the modern day and how they can be tapped to generate greater democracy, and yes, I do believe in generating (not spreading) democracy because I believe that everyone wants to be free, to have the freedom to choose and to live in an open society. How individuals and communities picture that freedom, that choice, that democracy is something no one can know beforehand but only they can create and envision it for themselves. More scarily that freedom and democracy may be very different from what I and the citizens of my community think freedom and democracy are.

I haven't researched any countries deep foundational myths but I do have a literary metaphor to share. For those of you who have read David Brin's Uplift series you will know that his fictional universe is based on the premise that no species in the universe has achieved sentience and full intelligence without the support of a higher (more sentient and intelligent) race. Unfortunately, this is not an altruistic act as the uplifted species are mentored and in a dependent relationship with the species that uplifted them. Does this sound familiar?

The major twist of the series is that humans are an anomaly in that they were not uplifted but gained sentience entirely by their own efforts. This causes considerable awe, fear and conflict as this human evolution goes the most important foundational myth that other alien cultures believed in. I think David Brin and the Uplift series may have something useful to teach us. It highlights the great paradox about freedom and democracy. That the 'Made in...' stamp of all democracies is "Made here with local tools and local blood, sweat and tears and only a very little help from outside."

So what I want to do is keep my eyes and ears and heart open to those stories of freedom from countries whose people have yet to have their Orange Revolution. Here's to you, I wish you all the luck and look forward to hearing your stories and seeing how you make your way (one that I hope won't have too much of a negative impact on your health and wellbeing)."

Posted in not categorized    Tagged with building democracy, foundational myths, democracy and health


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