The fictional arc of democracy

“Why do they hate us?” is the plaintive cry when Western countries are attacked by ostensible terrorists. The simple answer is that we invaded Iran and Afghanistan and made a bad situation worse; reduced a stable, tribal, primitive, though brutal, country to the ashes from which ISIS could rise.


The more complex answer, and the one hardest to accept, is that not everyone in the world believes in the values of liberal democracies. That’s hard to accept because we see the arc of enlightened societies leading towards the things we hold dear: freedom of speech and assembly, constitutional rights enforced by the rule of law, protection of minorities, equality of women, the right of all children to attend school.

In our chauvinistic view, our enlightened civilization has evolved to the pinnacle of societies and it’s our wish, no, our duty, to spread our values to the dark and backward corners of the globe.

Our assumption that democracy and liberal values are intertwined is somewhat naïve says author John Gray in Harper’s magazine. Gray points to earlier generations of liberal thinkers who saw no necessary connection between the two. Indeed, they envisioned democratic societies that were hostile to liberal values.

One of those thinkers was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s and his principle of “general will.” Paraphrasing from the Wikipedia article, general will is the common expression of an identifiable group as conveyed through their customs, laws, and practices. The goal of general will is harmony, not liberal values, or even democracy. As such, “general will can be found In the principles of prescribed law of all civilized nations, in the social practices of savage and barbarous peoples; in the tacit agreements obtaining amongst the enemies of mankind,” according to one interpreter of Rousseau.

Although we are reluctant to admit it, the principle of general will is illustrated by we conduct our daily lives without much thought of liberal values. “Freedom” is trotted out on occasions like Remembrance Day as something veterans fought for. Gray puts it this way:

“Most human beings, most of the time, care about other things more than they care about being free. Many will vote readily for an illiberal government if it promises security against violence or hardship, protects a way of life to which they are attached, and denies freedom to people they hate.”

This being a federal election year, Conservative campaigning illustrates the appeal of general will: good economic management not affordable education for all; laws that allow government spying not civil rights; protection against perceived jihadists in Canada (despite scant evidence) not freedom of speech.

Do they hate use because we don’t live up to our liberal values that we trot out on special occasions but otherwise keep in a tightly-sealed jar on the shelf?

No, they hate us for their own hermetically-sealed values, such as the corrupting force that music and fashion have on women in decadent Western societies.

We misunderstand the principles of their societies almost a much as we are blind to ours. That said, I am a shameless chauvinist. We must rise above the basic government that general will prescribes.



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